The Secret Rider is a new monthly column from an unnamed WorldTour rider. Its aim is to bring you inside the world of a professional cyclist to let you know what they talk about, what’s important to them, and what the word is on the street. Take it for what it is …
Before I begin, let me spare a thought for Gino Mäder. It doesn’t feel right not to. It’s a tragic reminder that our wonderful sport doesn’t come without grave risks. RIP Gino. You’ll be missed.
So what’s been going on in my world lately? Well, like many of you I just finished watching the Tour de France Netflix docu-series, Unchained.
I thought it was pretty good. I think they did a good job of making racing more dramatic than it really is. I’ve received comments from people saying they didn’t realize there was so much politics involved within the teams. It gets people thinking and creates the perception of more conflict than there actually is. The series also portrays the riders as more stressed than they probably are, especially with the DSs. I guess they needed to show conflict within Team Jumbo-Visma since they won the Tour.
I can understand why Wout van Aert isn’t thrilled about the way the series portrayed him. I get that it was all for dramatic effect, but it also was completely fabricated. He’s just a normal guy like the rest of us. He’s definitely not someone who’s aggressive in the bunch or comes across like he did in the series. Generally speaking, in most races you’ll find the top couple of teams who are riding for GC bunched together in the top 20 (which Jumbo-Visma usually is), so there’s not much need for aggression. Of course, when it’s stressful, you have to be assertive and push people out of the way, that’s just how it goes in the bunch. But overall, he’s very a respectful guy.
I think everyone in the peloton is pretty keen for non-racing fans to see Unchained. We all hope it can help cycling like it did for Formula 1. Many people don’t understand the sport and just see random guys on bikes racing around France without knowing how it works as a team sport. The series simplifies it and shows how riders work together. It’s good for people who wonder why everyone is in one line or why someone doesn’t attack now.
Most teams were interested in taking part, but as you would have noticed not all teams agreed to be in the series. Bora was part of it initially but then pulled out at the last minute. Maybe due to conflicting with sponsors or other reasons, I don’t know for sure. From what I understand, Netflix provided the teams with $50,000 to participate, which isn’t much incentive considering team budgets these days.
The film crews were allowed almost everywhere except for the rider hotel rooms (minus a couple exceptions). They were in the team buses, at the dinner and breakfast tables with big fluffy microphones hanging right above us while we were just trying to be ourselves and have a laugh about the day and stuff like that. It was a lot more of a stressful Tour than typically, and the Tour is pretty damn stressful on its own.
The teams had some say what was off-limits for filming. For example, teams like Jumbo-Visma didn’t allow the filming of their proper team briefings. They wouldn’t want to show their specific tactical meetings on how they construct their race plan, which is understandable. As for filming other locations, it seemed like they had the freedom go wherever they wanted.
Teams got to preview the series a few days before it got released to the public, but didn’t have editorial control to make changes or exclusions. You could understand why that was a deal-breaker for some teams.
The financial incentive wasn’t significant to the teams, but the tradeoff is that it could bring good publicity to the team and sport. However, one wrong word about some equipment could cost the team a sponsor, which is an enormous risk. So teams were probably cautious, especially for the first season. They had to test the waters and see how the series would portray them.
I’ve already started seeing the crews filming season 2, but there are still some teams not taking part.
Like I said above, we sometimes like complaining about our equipment. Everyone knows that Lotto has been dissatisfied with their TT bikes (they got new ones at Suisse), and GreenEdge even bought out their contract early with Bianchi a couple years ago because their bikes were ‘slow.’
But bikes have improved a lot. They’re all pretty good now, but it’s a big enough item such that a rider may pass up a contract with a team and go elsewhere if the bike wasn’t up to scratch and the money was equal. It’s the little things that you never think about when you’re going to a new team that end up mattering.
I’ve learned that tires are a big deal. Teams sponsored by Vittoria or Continental are ahead of the game. Everyone wants those. So if you ride on Maxxis or another tier-2 road brand, it’s generally OK most of the time. But in the Classics or on cobbled roads, when it rains, it’s like people are riding on ice. You can really see the difference in tires between the teams. There are lots of riders out there racing on tires with logos blacked out.
Tour de France – stress like no other
It’s that time of year again and making the Tour team is almost every rider’s ultimate season objective. This is the week that most riders find out if they made the selection or not, so it’s a stressful week for a rider.
If you’re sometimes confused about why a rider who is absolutely flying at the moment wasn’t selected for their Tour squad, it often comes down to their loyalty and teamwork coming into question because management knows they’re switching teams at the end of the season. You’ll see a few examples of that this week.
If you watch closely you can see different behaviors from riders over the past couple weeks in races like the Dauphiné or Suisse. In most races at other times of the year, after a rider has done his job for his leader or even if they’ve been dropped, he’ll sit up and take it easy, thinking of tomorrow. This is especially true on mountain stages or hilltop finishes. But in races like Dauphiné and Suisse, this close to TdF selection, after riders get dropped they’ll still push hard so they’re not too far behind on the clock. In some teams, it can even become a race within a race because they want to appear stronger than other riders they are competing with for a spot in the Tour squad.
After the team selection has been made, that’s only the beginning. The media attention causes a lot of stress, and also the energy in the peloton is unlike any other race. In the beginning, it’s chaotic until the second week when things start to calm down a bit and there’s more order. But the tension in the bunch is why there are so many crashes. Many riders are desperate to stay with their team and be at the front. It’s difficult to get and hold that position because everyone behind you wants to get to the front. People start making desperate moves at the Tour because they feel they have to be there.
You might think this comes from the wildcard teams. They’re actually amongst the best teams because they’re not there for the GC. It’s the bigger teams that are focused on GC, and every second counts for them. So, it’s everyone, not just the experienced riders or the newcomers. Even me, and I’m no spring chicken.
The other stress factor comes from the DSs. They’re under a lot of pressure for the team to perform, and if a rider doesn’t go well it makes them look bad. Therefore they put a lot of pressure on the riders, especially on the race radio. Which doesn’t help, because we all know what we’re doing, where the critical sections are, and we want to perform too!
Sometimes after guys make the Tour squad, there are a lot of them who say, “I don’t really want to do that ever again because it was horrible.” It’s a stress like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. You need to be able to handle that to be able to enjoy it, because it is such an amazing race. But it comes with a lot of downsides as well. You either love it or you hate it. I love it.
My top five picks for the Tour de France?
It’s difficult to narrow down to the top five, but I think it’s obvious that Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogačar will be on the top two steps of the podium. They’re on another level. I’m definitely hoping to see Jai Hindley on the podium, which I think he can do. He’s like a Silent Assassin. If you watched him in the (2022) Giro you didn’t see too much from him for the first 19 stages (except for his stage win). He was always there but just just biding his time. And then it took just took one day for him to win the GC. Don’t be surprised to see him pull that off again.
Felix Gall from Austria is also someone who has been very impressive. Also, Ben O’Connor has been solid in the lead-up to the Tour. It’ll be interesting to see how Ben copes with being in a co-leadership role. With the level Felix is riding at, there may be too many cooks in the kitchen for AG2R.
My top five picks for GC, in no particular order:
- Jonas Vingegaard
- Tadej Pogačar
- Jai Hindley
- Romain Bardet
- Ben O’Connor
Until next time … wish me luck making the squad!
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