RideLondon’17 Roadside: A Front Seat View!
RideLondon Roadside: If you ever get the chance of a seat in a team car, never turn it down. Sam Larner had that very offer from the Israel Cycling Academy team for the newly ranked WorldTour race, the RideLondon Classic last Sunday. Here is how his adventure played out.
There are two things that can be guaranteed when you watch a race from a team car, one; you’re unlikely to see anything, two; you will be desperate to use the toilet when you get out. The first is fairly straightforward, you’re at the back of the race so any action at the front will only be relayed to you via the radio. The second comes from drinking water non-stop and spending five hours in a car with no real option to stop. Regardless, of the possible cons, spending time in a team car is fantastic experience which all fans should try and have at least once. Although you see less of the front of the race, you see what the cameras so rarely pick out, the back of the race where riders suffer and hopes of good performances are crushed. It’s a part of the circus that nobody wants to end up in, but with the relentless climbs and narrow roads of the RideLondon Classic, it’s a part the majority of riders ended up in.
I was in the Israel Cycling Academy team for the newly ranked WorldTour race with DS Oscar Guerrero and mechanic Veiko Lopman. Guerrero is a hugely experienced sporting director, he started coaching junior riders around the Basque country before moving on to Kaiku, Fuerteventura Canarias, Contempolis-AMPO and Euskaltel-Euskadi before linking up with the Israel Cycling Academy. For someone with more than 20 years of experience, it’s unsurprising that Guerrero has some tales from his time in the professional peloton, and we dived into these as the riders headed out towards the countryside. Oscar estimated that he’d coached more than 200 riders in his career, unsurprisingly, given his success, he said that Samuel Sanchez was the most professional of all his charges.
Sanchez has gone on to amazing success but Egoi Martinez and Iker Flores were two names who popped up, both had won the Tour de l’Avenir in the early 2000s. Although they had spent years at the very top of the cycling tree, neither had achieved the kind of worldwide fame that people they’d beaten during the French race of the future, the likes of Philippe Gilbert, David Moncoutie, Floyd Landis or Pierrick Fedrigo. On the other side of the coin, Mikel Nieve had spent five years in the Euskaltel-Euskadi system. Guerrero knew he was a decent rider, but he couldn’t predict his recent rise up through the ranks which has seen him get five top tens in GC at Grand Tours and three stage wins across the Giro and Vuelta.
I could have happily talked to Oscar about this all race, the era that he was with Euskaltel coincided with my mid-teens when my cycling fandom became an obsession. Hearing the names of that time, some long since forgotten, was a wonderful leap back to that period. However, as the race started, so did the action in the team car. The plan for the day was two-fold, firstly they wanted to get into the break, and secondly, they wanted to get young sprinter, Jason Lowndes, to the finish line so he could grab a top ten. After virtually an hour, the break went without an Israel Cycling Academy team rider in it. Shortly after, road captain Zak Dempster came back to visit the car. The Australian had lived in Spain for a few years and, with the vagaries of team radio communication, he regularly spoke to Oscar in Spanish. Luckily Oscar translated for me and said that Zak had confirmed that the guys had been trying to get into the break but just hadn’t had the legs when it had finally gone.
It looked like it was all going to settle down, but the race was about to hit the climbs and the gap was falling. Roy Goldstein had crashed just two days before the race and had taken the skin off his hands and wrists. He was wearing gloves and arm warmers to try and minimize discomfort but it was clear that he was having trouble gripping the bars. He was the first of the team to fall out the back on the early climbs. The pace was unrelenting and Goldstein was soon joined by the team’s protected rider, Jason Lowndes and Guy Sagiv as the climbs kept coming. Another rider to exit early was Filippo Pozzato, the Italian had been struggling on the first climb of Ranmore Common and when the race had passed through again, the summit functioned as the feed zone, he was leaning against his bike with a team mate. Ready to jump in a car for the journey back to London.
The race settled down for the Israel Cycling Academy team soon after, there was only the climb of Box Hill to go. The team started the climb with four riders still in the lead group but that was soon reduced to three. Ben Perry had called for a bottle in the run up to the climb but it had taken a while to get to him with the narrow roads, as he dropped back, the pace of the group had increased and he’d started the climb too far from the front. Oscar had encouraged him on the climb but the race had really exploded and he couldn’t get back in touch, that left just two men in front for the team, after Jose Manuel Diaz had faded on an earlier climb.
It was now serious for the team, Zak had informed Oscar over the radio that he wanted to sprint, but he had only Krists Neilands to help him. There were barely 50 riders in the peloton, a top ten was a definite possibility, but only if Neilands could help Zak stay in the middle of the pack. Then disaster struck, Zak came on to the radio and revealed he’d picked up a flat. It wasn’t clear exactly which wheel the flat was on so mechanic Veiko took a pair with him as Oscar confirmed that it was a rear wheel issue as soon as he could see Zak ahead. What happened next was a blur, Veiko was out before the car had even stopped and the wheel was off and changed in what seemed to be less than ten seconds. So quick that Zak was immediately in amongst the cars, and taken on some last minute gels and bottles from Oscar. When the team’s captain was within sight of the rear of the peloton, Krists was sent back to haul him over the final section and up through the peloton.
The finale passed without incident, Oscar was giving constant updates on distance but the radio was silent as Krists and Zak both conserved energy in the middle of the pack and waited for the final sprint on the Mall. As the sprint began, the teams who had a vested interest pulled their cars to one side to watch it on TV where they’d get a better signal. We carried on which meant that although we could just about make out the sprint, there was a nervous wait before Twitter confirmed that Zak had managed a top ten, in seventh place.
I caught up with Zak and Krists after the race, Zak was the first to arrive, congratulating Veiko for the unbelievable wheel change and commenting on the race; “It was like Flanders out there, there’s obviously no cobbles and not as many climbs but as soon as you hit the climbs you’re always just like thrown in the washing machine. It was all about positioning and just a constant effort to be up near the front. Box Hill hurt a lot but I think everyone was just gassed by then just because of the constant effort. In the finish there was only two of us so it would’ve been a mistake to go into the wind too early so I just had to rely on experience and craft to get up towards the front.”
Krists arrived very shortly afterwards in his beautiful Latvian national champion’s jersey, clearly proud of the work he’d done; “It was a really hard race, I don’t remember when I did such a hard race before. I tried everything that I could in the final 30km, the problem was we missed an extra team mate and it’s hard when you have teams who have seven riders up there and we have two. I did my best I think.”
The race hadn’t gone exactly how Oscar, or the team, had planned but they had come away with the all important top ten. Zak’s performance had been one of an assured veteran, calmly stepping into the limelight as the furious pace and constant attacking tore up the day’s plan. The ride of Krists was equally special however, he hadn’t been back to the team car once, he’d taken on bottles at the feed and had one ferried up to him as Zak made it back into the peloton from his puncture. The Latvian had also only been on the radio once, to confirm that Oscar wanted him to drop back and pace Zak back in after his puncture. He’d ridden with his head down all day, making sure he was there for his leader when it mattered.
Thank you to Oscar Guerrero and Veiko Lopman for having me in their car for the day, and for the excellent – and large – sandwich. Thank you also to the entire team; Zak, Krists, Jason, Ben, Guy, Roy and Jose Manuel for letting me hitch a ride on their race.