How cycling works: the teams

A team is more than just its riders

The Tour de France is an exciting time in the cycling world, but for someone who is just discovering cycling, it can be a bit overwhelming. While cycling seems simple enough (they’re just riding their bikes down the road, for crying out loud!), it’s actually quite a complex sport. While the Tour can be enjoyed at any level, it helps to understand the basics of cycling and how racing works. For the next few days, I’ll be posting some “primers” to help those new to the Tour understand what’s going on!

First up, the essence of cycling: the teams. Cycling is a strange mix of team and individual sport. Only one racer wins the stage/race, but that one racer cannot win without the support of a team. Teams are usually built around a few “stars,” who usually gets the most attention/stage wins/press. But those “stars” wouldn’t be able to win any races if they didn’t have a team around them. A team usually has 20-30 some riders (at least the ones with a nice budget do!), so a team will have various riders at various races at any time. The B teams often to the “lesser” races, while the A teams are usually sent to the higher profile races. This was something I definitely did not understand when I started watching. When I watched the Eneco Tour after the Tour, I couldn’t understand why Andy et al, weren’t riding for Saxo Bank! At each race, within a squad of 6-9 riders (depending on the size of the race), a team leader is usually designated who the other riders support. These domestiques (French for servants) do things like shepherd things back and forth to the team car (including water, cold/warm weather gear, instructions, etc.), take pulls on the front of the peloton to chase down breaks, draft the leaders back to the peloton if they get dropped for some reason, or even give up a bike or wheel if the situation calls for it. The domestiques rarely win, often riding hard until they pop, then limping to the finish line. All of this is done to help preserve the strength and legs of team leaders- keeping them out of the wind, towards the front of the peloton to try and avoid the crashes that often happen in the bunch. There are exceptions, such as when Garmin-Cervelo super domestique Johan Van Summeren won Paris-Roubaix this year, but they are the exception and not the rule. However, just because you’re domestique doesn’t mean you’re not famous- Jens Voigt being a perfect example. He’s one of the hardest working and best liked domestiques of the peloton. He got a love letter from me.

Of course the teams aren’t just the riders. Other important members include soigneurs, the mechanics, the cooks, the directeur sportifs (DS), etc. Soigneurs (French for “care givers”) do a variety of jobs, from doing laundry, clean up, driving team cars, organizing team cars, restocking supplies, etc- anything and everything that might be required to run a team. Sometimes soigneurs will also be masseurs, an important job in helping riders recover. I’ve heard it compared to being a roadie for a rock band- lots of work, little pay, late nights, etc. Only the passionate need apply!

Mechanics, of course self explanatory- they’re the guys that keep the bikes running! Often a mechanic will ride in the team cars, to help with wheel and bike changes, and help with any bike repairs that need to happen on the go. Again, late nights, as after each race, they must get the bikes ready for the next day- washing and cleaning the bike, making sure all the parts are working like they should, etc. And that’s not just the bikes the 9 riders use, but all the spare bikes as well.

Most teams have cooks there to make sure the riders are getting the right food in the right amounts. Some of the bigger teams have their own “kitchen” bus, but the smaller teams often cook out of the hotel kitchens.

The DS is probably the most important member of the team, when it comes to racing and tactics. They’re usually sitting in the cars, “coaching” the riders. If the race has radios, they’ll give breakaway updates, crash updates, road updates through the radio, as well as give guidance on when to attack or chase. If the race has no radios, they’ll wait for riders to come back to the car for instructions or updates. Most DSs are former riders.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten some vital member of the team, and I’m sure I’ve not gotten every thing right, so be sure to leave me a comment! Next post: jerseys!

Tour de France: A Feelings Index

This a modified version of an article I wrote for US Pro Cycling News.

Disclaimer: If you use this list to predict who will do well at the Tour, you will probably lose.

It’s so weird to think that the Tour de France is going to be starting TOMORROW! It seems like only yesterday that I turned on the TV, one bored summer afternoon and, without knowing how it would change my life, started watching the Tour de France. Little did I know that watching this race was the start of a long, sordid affair with the cycling world. If I known that watching this race would result in my eating, drinking, and breathing cycling, would I have turned on that TV? Who knows. The only thing I do know is watching that race marked a changing point in my life.

So as the 2011 edition of the TdF draws near, it is custom for everyone and their mom, their dog and their grandparents to make predictions on what they think different riders’ chances are at the podium, the different jersey’s, a top 10 finish, etc. I find prediction, and making them, to be rather useless, as form and fitness are only one tiny (albeit important) part of the overall equation in winning any race. You can’t predict bad luck, bad weather, or what others might do on the road. Oh yeah, and I suck at them. However, this will not stop me from throwing my hat into the predictions ring. However, this will be no ordinary predictions list. Mainly because I suck at prediction and am still not familiar enough with the riders to really know their chances. In fact, it won’t be a predictions list at all. This will be a feelings list, as I talk about my feelings towards those riding the TdF this year.

Anna’s 2011 Tour de France Feelings Index Ratings

Andy Schleck

If you’ve ever read any of my blog, you know exactly how I feel about Andy. He’s the rider that got me into cycling in the first place, as my schoolgirl crush on him kept me watching the Tour until the very end and motivated me to continue after it had ended. So he will always rate high on the Feelings Index. I’m very nervous about his form coming into the Tour- he has not had a very impressive season so far. I don’t think his lack of results means too much, but I wasn’t very impressed with his climbing during the Tour of California or the Tour de Suisse. I’m also concerned with the growing pains his team seems to be experiencing. I don’t know if I can point to a specific incident, but overall I wonder the stress and expectations of starting a new team built around him is a bit much. Now, I wasn’t around last year when Sky was starting its inaugural year, but based on reports, expectations were sky high (see what I did there?) and there wasn’t much delivery. This year, they’ve mellowed out, reevaluated their goals and had a much better year. I’m seeing a bit of repeat with Leopard-Trek- expectations are high but there hasn’t been much delivery. My fingers are crossed that this whole season has been a big bluff and Andy’s gonna shred it up those mountains and make Bertie wish he’d never ridden the Giro.

Feelings Index rating: 10/10

Alberto Contador

If you had asked me last year where Bertie fell on my feelings index, I would’ve said right at the bottom. He was Andy’s sworn enemy! But after watching him climb in the Giro this year, he’s also climbed up my Feelings Index as well. I’m trying not to think too much about the whole doping issue. While it drives me crazy to think that his wins might get stripped, denying another deserving rider a chance at the podium, I can’t really blame him for this, as it is the UCI/CSA that seems to be dragging their feet in deciding the final verdict. So, I’m going to put that out of my head and enjoy watching him ride. He’s clearly a man who loves to race and ride his bike and dang has he got some skill! I don’t care what others said; I loved watching him dominate this year’s Giro. Normally I’d never say this, but you never knew when he was just going up and leave the peloton in his dust, and that was so exciting to watch. Now, do I want him to do that at the Tour? Not really. I’d like the competition to be a little closer!  However, if he can hold over his form from the Giro, I feel he’ll be hard to beat. But, riding the Giro like it was his last race on Earth might have sapped precious strength and prevent him from being at his best. Not to mention that pretty much his entire support squad rode the Giro as well, and I can’t imagine they’re all ready to ride the Tour at top form.

Feelings Index rating: 7/10

Chris Horner

I will admit. Horner does not rank high on my Feelings Index, despite the fact that he is an American rider that everyone seems to love. In fact, I really don’t love him. I do not know why this is. Maybe because everyone else does? Maybe because I don’t love RadioShack? I’m not sure. While I know he is a nice guy that everyone loves, and he doesn’t seem to have a mean bone in his body (even his pain face is surprisingly pleasant), I cannot get excited about him. In fact, once he got the leaders jersey in California, I stopped caring about the race and how it would end. However, I cannot deny he’s been having a great season and seems to have the legs and the form for a great Tour.

Feelings Index rating: 3/10

Cadel Evans

I would say I’m indifferent towards Cadel. He seems to have a lot of intense fans, but I’m still not sure what the fuss is all about. I do follow a lot of Australians on twitter and they are loyal to Cadel to the death, which might be why it seems to me that everyone loves him. When I ask people why they love Cadel, most cite his defense of the rainbow jersey last year and his performance at the 2010 Giro. As I was not watching cycling last year, I did not get to witness his panache-filled performances of last year and even though there have flashes panache this year, it hasn’t been much to make an impression on me. Plus, he’s a very strange looking man. I get so distracted about how strange looking he is when I see him, that I often can’t concentrate on anything else.

Feelings Index rating: 5/10

Thor Hushovd

Poor Thor has been getting some flack this season. Many people feel he isn’t defending the world champs jersey as he should, but I’m not really sure what that means. I mean, sure, it seems that Cadel really became a different racer when he was wearing the jersey, but I’m not sure that means everyone needs to. He was doing what he was doing before- riding and winning when he could. It seems to me that Hushovd is very good on a very specific type of course and then is just middling on anything else. He’s got speed and he’s got power, but not enough speed to beat the fastest on the flattest courses, and not enough power to beat the best climbers. So, he wins on the courses he’s suited for- like last year’s worlds course! Anyway, I think he’s a classy rider and a classy guy (even though his teeth drive me crazy). I think maybe he could win a stage, but that’s about it. (Oh and I also love him because of this.)

Feelings Index rating: 7/10

Tyler Farrar

Speaking of Garmin-Cervelo and their awesome Tour argyle, there’s also Tyler Farrar. I’ve always felt a little bad for Tyler. It’s “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” with him. Or more accurately, “always the slightly late wedding guest who misses the important bits, never a bride.” He just can’t quite seem to keep up with the fastest guys and their lead out trains. Or his lead out train keeps getting jostled out of position by the other sprinter’s lead out trains. Either way. While he’s usually a top 5 finisher of the sprint stages, even if he’s got a good position going into the sprint, something always happens and he’s boxed out. But I still like him. He seems like a super chill guy, he’s American, he’s a ginger- all wins! I’d love for him to get a stage win, although I’m not holding my breath.

Feelings Index rating: 8/10

Mark Cavendish

And now speaking of sprinters! I. love. Cav. Love him. Yes, he’s brash. Yes, he’s obnoxious. Yes, he thinks very highly of himself as a sprinter. But he looooves his job and he loooves his teammates. And he’s very emotional- he wears his heart on his sleeve and I like that. He’s not afraid to speak his mind, even if it makes him sound a bit stupid sometimes. My first memory of him is him crying after he won his first stage at the TdF last year. I didn’t understand it, but I loved it even then. And let’s not forgot about the fact that he’s a fabulous tweeter

Feelings Index rating: 9/10

Ivan Basso

I mainly like Basso because he tweets awesome pictures of himself getting massages and such. I really have no opinion of him as a rider, as I’ve yet to see him race. Although, I was watching highlights of last year’s Giro on Versus awhile ago and the little I saw of him was impressive. So, between his awesome tweets and the fact that he’s pretty cute, he gets a higher ranking on my Feelings Index.

Feelings Index rating: 7/10

Philippe Gilbert

When the season started, I didn’t have an opinion on Gilbert. And even as the season progressed and he started winning a lot, I was still pretty indifferent towards him. I saw that everyone loved him, but didn’t really understand why. I also found him to be pretty unattractive (yes, I’m shallow). But then he was winning, winning, winning. And he started bringing his little baby on the podium with him. And he had awesome helmet hair. And he seemed genuinely excited about winning. And he was FUN to watch! After he won the Belgian championships and you could feel his excitement, I was sold. He’s such a strong, silent rider that is capable of animating a race to the fullest extent. There’s a lot of talk about “panache” in the peloton, and I think he’s got it. He attacks, he’s not afraid of racing hard, he knows where his strengths are and he’s not afraid to use them. It would be fun to see him win a TdF stage!

Feelings Index rating: 8/10

Alexandre Vinokourov

I don’t like him. He creeps me out with his eyebrow-less face and his seemingly emotionless face. I hope he doesn’t win anything.

Feelings Index rating: 1/10

Photo: Fitzalan Gorman

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