The story behind the story: Imperfect information on the road to Stanley

by Matt de Neef


I was sitting in a small cafe on a Saturday morning, somewhere near the Victorian regional centre of Wangaratta. Around me, a small group of my fellow journalists had gathered, their eyes, like mine, fixed on the iPhone propped up on the table in front of me.

We were watching the highlights from the previous day’s stage of the Jayco Herald Sun Tour, an event we’d been following through regional Victoria for the past few days. It had been 16 hours since the previous day’s stage ended, and our reports from the stage were long since published. And yet there we all were, glued to the tiny screen, waiting to see exactly what had happened on the roads near Beechworth.

We’d all been there in the race convoy as the stage unfolded, with updates being delivered to us via race radio. And we were all there for the post-race interviews, chatting with riders to find out what happened during the stage. And yet none of us could say, with any great confidence, what happened out on the road that day.

***

There’s a lot to love about the Jayco Herald Sun Tour. For one, it’s the final race in an increasingly busy Aussie summer of racing that’s headlined by international races like the Santos Tour Down Under and Cadel’s Evans Great Ocean Road Race. As a smaller race that comes after those WorldTour fixtures, the Sun Tour feels comparatively relaxed. The riders are chilled out, the weather’s great and the race visits some of the most beautiful parts of Victoria.

After the hustle and bustle of the Tour Down Under, the Sun Tour is simply a joy to cover. It’s a small media contingent that heads along, and there’s a real sense of camaraderie that you get when everyone travels together.

It might surprise you to learn that journalists from rival publications generally get on very well — there’s a shared sense of purpose, and while you’re technically competing against each other, there’s also benefit in helping one another. Sharing rider quotes with a fellow journo one day might buy you a favour the next day; a day when you might miss a finish-line interview for whatever reason.

At the Sun Tour the media crew is an even closer-knit bunch than normal, with reporters and event staff travelling together, sharing meals together, and sharing hotel rooms. It’s all very friendly and relaxed.

While the small-race vibe of the Sun Tour is great, it also has its downsides. For instance, the race organisation can be a little relaxed in its provision of information throughout the stages, particularly where race radio is concerned.

Each vehicle in a bike race convoy is fitted with a race radio to receive updates from an announcer in the chief commissaire’s car. These updates provide information about which riders are attacking, who’s in the break, which riders need mechanical assistance, any notable hazards ahead, results of the intermediate sprints and so on.

At the Sun Tour, we journos spend much of our time in media cars in the race convoy, following the race from start to finish. It’s not like the bigger races where each stage is broadcast live and you see more sitting in a press room. While the media cars occasionally get to pass the Sun Tour peloton or spend time up with the breakaway, those of us in the media cars rely heavily on race radio to tell us what’s happening and at what point. When that information supply is limited, we’re in a difficult spot. There was no clearer example of this than on stage 2 of this year’s Sun Tour.

After the queen stage a day earlier — in which Damien Howson (Orica-Scott) won atop Falls Creek — the race headed from Mt. Beauty to the historic town of Beechworth, via a tough little climb roughly 15km from the finish. Race radio had been patchy for much of the day, and when the race hit that final climb, things only got worse.

We heard over race radio that overall leader Howson had had a mechanical of some kind, somewhere near the base of the climb. We were told he had several teammates waiting for him, to help pace him back to the peloton. The next thing we heard was that defending champion Chris Froome (Sky) was on the attack, riding away from the peloton on the climb to Stanley.

It was a decisive moment in the race. Froome had missed his chance on Falls Creek the day before and the climb to Stanley was his best chance to regain time on Howson. Not only that, but Froome’s attacked had seemingly come around the time Howson had a mechanical. Did Froome attack when he saw Howson pull over to the side of the road? Did he just attack when he looked around and see the yellow jersey wasn’t there? Did he attack and just not look around at all? Was he already on the attack when Howson ran into difficulty?

It wasn’t clear. And while the drama unfolded on the climb, race radio was largely silent. We heard that Howson was being paced up the climb by the likes of Simon Gerrans and Esteban Chaves (a great story in its own right). But it wasn’t clear whether Froome was still away, whether he had company, how much of a gap he had, and where he was in relation to the breakaway that was up the road.

Next we heard that Froome was in a group of about eight, ahead of the peloton, while his teammate Luke Rowe had attacked from the break and was riding away to a solo victory. By the time Froome reached the finish line, the peloton (or what remained of it) had come back together and Howson was there.

At a bigger race, like the Tour Down Under, we would have had TV coverage to show us what had happened in the peloton and with Howson’s chase. Here, we didn’t, and what information we did have barely told the story.

There were a lot of gaps to fill in.

***

After his podium duties, stage winner Luke Rowe came and answered some questions from reporters about what happened on the stage. His take: Froome had attacked without realising Howson had had a mechanical. When he was told over team radio to sit up, he did.

“I heard over the radio ‘stop riding’ because it’s not … a very classy way to take the win,” Rowe said at the time. “He [Froome] was on his own, on his own off the front. He said he could see three guys in front of him, who were just behind me [Rowe’s former breakaway companions].

“Yeah there was an opportunity there [for Froome to take time on Howson] but I think it just shows that the class that Froome’s got and how good of a guy he is.”

Howson, who managed to retain his overall lead despite the drama, painted a slightly different picture. He was asked if he would have attacked had the situation been reversed — had Froome, in the yellow jersey, had a puncture.

“It’s part of bike racing,” Howson said. “We’ve seen it in the past and I don’t think it’s going to be the last time. I don’t really know what happened today. All I can control is my own race.”

Ultimately the man best placed to explain what happened was Chris Froome. Unfortunately the three-time Tour de France winner avoided media contact throughout the tour and didn’t speak after this particular stage. A Team Sky press officer did send through some quotes from Froome a few hours later, however, which contradicted Rowe’s account of Froome sitting up and waiting.

“We obviously wanted to shake things up on the general classification so we hit the climb hard,” Froome said. “Halfway up we heard that Howson had punctured but by then the race was in full swing and there was no stopping again.”

No further access to Froome was possible, meaning we couldn’t ask about the timing of his attack. Other riders and teams weren’t forthcoming with information. Instead we were left with conflicting reports about a decisive moment in the race, and little way of verifying what actually happened.

We journos chatted amongst ourselves, trying to piece it all together; trying to work out exactly what to write. Hours later, and after speaking to commentators, convoy car drivers and others on the race, it was still unclear what had happened on the slopes of that climb.

It’s an uncomfortable position to be in as a race reporter. It’s your job to tell the story of the day; to synthesise the information available to you and present that to a wider audience in an authoritative and informative way. On this occasion, I wasn’t able to do that.

In the end I had no choice but to admit to a lack of clarity in reporting on the race:

While Rowe was riding away from his breakaway companions on the tough climb to Stanley, race leader Howson was in difficulty at the bottom of the climb, his progress halted by a front-wheel puncture. Howson took a wheel from his teammate Mitch Docker and was soon on his way, but the South Australian had a considerable chase on his hands.

Somewhere around the time Howson punctured, defending champion Chris Froome (Sky) attacked solo out of the peloton. It’s not clear whether Froome attacked once he saw Howson was in difficulty, or if, as Froome suggests, he only realised later that Howson had flatted.

Cyclingnews’ Australian editor Zeb Woodpower, with whom I was rooming, took a similar approach:

As Rowe was enjoying his bid for glory, teammate Chris Froome was attacking on the climb in his bid to claw back time on Howson. While the specifics of the timing regarding Froome’s attack and a front wheel tyre flat for Howson remain somewhat unclear, the duo was part of a big front group that arrived at the finish line 1:17 down on Rowe.

Other reporters dealt with the confusion by simply not mentioning Howson’s puncture and chase at all.

It could be argued that the Howson-mechanical-and-Froome-attack incident was only a minor sub-plot on the day; that Rowe’s win from a breakaway, on terrain that didn’t suit him, was the main story. I disagree. To me, the Howson-Froome incident was the story of the day.

It had everything. Froome was trying to make up for lost time in a race everyone expected him to be leading. Howson had won a stage no one expected him to and was leading a tour for the first time. As a result Howson had Esteban Chaves riding for him — a great story about the Colombian paying Howson back for all his hard work in support of Chaves at last year’s Grand Tours.

Throw in the mix the timing of Froome’s attack and the ethics of attacking the race leader when he’s in trouble and you’ve got a great cycling story. To not be able to get to the bottom of it was frustrating and unsatisfying.

***

So as we sat around the table in that cafe, watching the stage highlights 16 hours later, we did so with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Excitement to see exactly what had happened in the race in those dramatic final kilometres; trepidation because we couldn’t really be sure that what we’d reported would line up with what happened on the road.

Ultimately, the highlights package did little to clarify what happened on the climb to Stanley. There was no vision of the moment Howson punctured, and nothing of the moment Froome attacked. The first we saw after that incident was Team Sky on the front of the bunch, riding hard, with no Orica-Scott riders in sight (see 30:56 in the video below)

Did Sky know that Howson had punctured? Did they attack once they saw he wasn’t there? Were they already driving the pace when Howson had his puncture? Did Froome sit up? Or did he just run out of legs?

All of these questions remain unanswered.

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