Prior to the Tour de France the team rode the cobbled roads we would race over on the stage to Arenberg. Knowing the cobbles and the lead-up to the sectors makes a significant difference to our performance as we pick landmarks as reference points, note the dodgy bits of road and preview the aspects of the course that could change the outcome of the race. For some riders in the team the training session was also a learning experience as they had never ridden the rougher cobbles and asked for pointers from Juan-Antonio Flecha and the veterans. The inexperienced tend to tense up while the others let their bikes float beneath their bodies absorbing some of the shock while also limiting blisters and muscle pain. When the bike floats the chance of punctures is also decreased. A tense rider is more likely to crash as his reactions are brusque and he fails to see the flow of the race.
The Tour stage turned into a chaotic mess as soon as we were within 20 km of the cobbles as the peloton grew nervous, riders began crashing in their push toward the front of the group while others crashed because they jammed on their brakes. In the end, the stage made for some great bike racing and the best were at the front in the finale.
The video is of our training session three days prior to the start of the Tour. It gives a bit of a perspective of the roads and countryside. While training, whenever we hit the cobbled sections the team would split up as some riders– notably Wiggins and Flecha– attacked the stones with vigour while others rode over them apprehensively. The camera was placed on the hood of the teamcar.
The team of eight riders singled into a line in front of me as we entered the cobbles. As the surface changed from smooth tarmac to uneven stone with patches of grass growing in the gaps, our bikes shuddered and our bodies shook.
In that moment we lifted our speed like a driver might suddenly accelerate on a sinuous mountain road as he feels the thrill and anticipation of a challenge. In racing and training, we are constantly pushing ourselves both mentally and physically to not only improve and win, but also because we are thrilled by the challenge and love to ride.
Prior to the Tour de France, the nine riders who would be competing in the race pre-rode the cobbled sectors we will race over on the third stage. Rural cobblestone roads punish a cyclist leaving him with blistered hands and sore muscles. Despite the discomfort, the team was inspired as we bounced over the stones. Like the mountains we will climb, the ancient roads are monuments in the sport of cycling. The great champions who have ridden, suffered and won on the roads have created the history, which inspires nearly every cyclist whether professional or a tourist.
Cycling’s rich history
Cycling is not only about the victory but also about the journey. The more challenging the journey is, the more fulfilling the achievement. With an understanding of the sport’s rich history that sense of achievement becomes more profound. After riding, the second sector of cobblestones, Bradley Wiggins, our team leader, looked over to me as we rode along and said: “I forgot how much I love riding the cobbles. It is a fantastic feeling.”
Bradley hadn’t ridden the cobblestones since the spring of 2009 when he rode the one-day Classic Paris Roubaix. We chatted for a few minutes about what the cobbles mean to cycling and how few Tour de France contenders now ride the early season Classics for fear of crashing. Decades ago, the sport’s icons rode all the major Classics and won. It was evident he wanted to be among them.
Brad has an encyclopedic memory for cycling history. Like me, he has absorbed everything relating to cycling he could since he was a young boy. Not only is he a Tour de France star but he is also a fervent fan. Amongst a generation of young riders who disregard the history of the sport his passion is unique. He understands that we are all a part of something greater.
Flecha leads the way
Over the cobbles Juan Antonio Flecha led the team, with Bradley tucked tight in his draft. Flecha is a Classics star. Yet his story is exceptional as he is one of the few Spaniards to ever shine on the cobblestones. His childhood dream was to race among the protagonists in the Classics and despite coming from a nation, which produces climbers who perform in the heat, he persisted with his goal and is now one of the top Classics riders. Despite spending his adolescence south of Barcelona, he floats on the Belgian and French cobblestones and attacks when a cold wind blows off the North Sea. Like Brad he knows that in every major pro race, he is part of something richer and greater than just a sporting event.
Our team is full of individuals who have that same passion. Dave Brailsford, our manager, raced in France as an amateur as did our coach Rod Ellingworth. Each of our directeur sportifs has raced professionally. The team has combined that passion for the sport with Formula One technology and resources to build an environment, which is not only nurturing and understanding, but and also well organized and structured.
As we begin the Tour de France there is an electric ambiance within the team. We are prepared, committed to our goals and relaxed but we are also excited as we appreciate and understand what the Tour means. Cycling is our profession but we are also living a dream.