Inside the race caravan with Team Sky at the Amgen Tour of California
As it was for several teams, Stage 4 of the Amgen Tour of California — a 159km haul from Santa Barbara to Santa Clarita — was an opportunity for Team Sky to contest for a field-sprint victory. In order for that to happen, the sprinters would need to get over four categorized climbs, and their teammates would need to keep the daylong breakaway within reach.
For Team Sky, that meant keeping sprinter Elia Viviani protected and in good position, while also keeping GC leader Ian Boswell, and GC backup Tao Geoghegan Hart, at the front and out of harm’s way.
In the end, the team got through the stage unscathed — no time was lost, but with the exception of making it one day closer to the critical GC stages, nothing was gained, either. After opening up a gap of nine minutes, the daylong breakaway of five riders stayed clear to the finish, holding off the sprinters by just 13 seconds. For the third time in four stages, Viviani would cross the finish line in frustration; he finished third on Stage 1, 34th on Stage 3, and 15th on Stage 4.
Team Sky opened the car door for CyclingTips to sit in their lead caravan vehicle for the day.
Behind the wheel was Norwegian Gabriel “Gabba” Rasch, who has been with the team since 2013. After a career spent racing with Credit Agricole, Cervelo TestTeam, Garmin-Cervelo, FDJ, and finally Sky, he retired after the 2014 Paris-Roubaix and has been a director since, meaning the 2017 season is his fourth as a Team Sky DS.
Before the race, I spoke with Viviani and Boswell about the day’s plans, which were similar, yet vastly different. While both men would be protected riders, Viviani would be hoping to battle for victory, while Boswell would be looking to do as little possible. In addition to Boswell, the team had young British rider Tao Geoghegan Hart, sitting 12th overall, 48 seconds down, and Spaniard David Lopez, 18th at 1:11.
What follows is presented in present tense, as it happened, including observations, conversations, radio communications, all recorded with timestamps and kilometer markings.
Video: Gabriel Rasch, Stage 4, 2017 Amgen Tour of California
The Team Sky caravan vehicles for the Amgen Tour of California are Lexus RX350s, provided by the race organization. I am positioned in the passenger seat. I’ve ridden in the race caravan more times than I can count, and I can assuredly say I’ve never had so much leg room.
The door pocket is stuffed full of tubes and baggies: sunscreen, hand sanitizer, Science in Sport electrolyte tablets and drink mix packets, and a package of baby wipes. Behind me is Thomas Kousgaard, a towering Dane who has been a mechanic with Team Sky for five years — “as long as Gabba,” he says.
Rasch spends his days behind the wheel listening to two radios simultaneously — radio tour, which everyone in the caravan listens to, but is intended to be one-way messaging; and team radio, which only Rasch and the team’s eight riders can use.
Because Boswell sits third overall, 14 seconds behind race leader Rafal Majka, the team is Car 3 in the caravan hierarchy, behind the Chief Commissaire vehicle, Bora-Hansgrohe, and LottoNL-Jumbo. We’re close enough that we can see the back of the race clearly. The same can’t be said for the Astana car; the team is ranked lowest in the overall classification, and is 17 cars behind the “Chief Comm.”
Team radio check. Rasch runs through the start list, asking each rider to confirm they can hear him. Everyone can. He tells them that the neutral start lasts for 4.3km before “kilometer zero” — the official start line — followed quickly by a 1km climb. We roll out, slowly, to the cheers of a beachside crowd in Santa Barbara.
Seb Piquet, the voice of radio tour, welcomes the teams, officials, and VIPs in the caravan. “Welcome to Stage 4 of Amgen Tour of California. There will be 159.6km of racing today, including four categorized climbs and two intermediate sprint points.” The same message is repeated in French, as are most all communications throughout the day.
Mounted on the dash is an iPad, with a clever, custom VeloViewer app which integrates GPS tracking with the stage route, profile, and each categorized climb. Rasch always knows exactly what is coming up — turn by turn, with color-coded gradients, and the number of kilometers to go to each key point, which is constantly being updated. Team Sky licenses the app from VeloViewer and has played a role in its development; Rasch says Orica-Scott uses the app as well.
“After the first climb there will be a short descent,” he tells his riders. “Then a short kick with a left-right turn.” This kind of communication, related to the race route, continues all day.
Two riders have escaped, though they are brought back. Team radio: “Quick-Step is all over the road.” Radio tour goes over the day’s categorized climbs — Casitas Pass Road, which has two KOM points, Dennison Grade, and Balcom Canyon — and locations of the sprint points, Ojai and Grimes Canyon Road.
Radio tour: Four riders have escaped, followed by a six-man chase. Riders shout out team names over radio: “One BMC … one Sunweb …” The breakaway has 25 seconds. A UAE rider has overcooked a left turn on a twisting neighborhood road and crashed into some bushes. Not a great start to the day.
Radio tour lists off the six riders in break. Each name and number is repeated twice. “Number 15, Floris Gerts of BMC Racing. Number 74, Mathias le Turnier, Cofidis. From Rally Cycling we have two riders, number 81, Rob Britton, and 84, Evan Huffman. Number 115 Lennard Hofstede, Sunweb. And number 146, Gavin Mannion, UnitedHealthcare.”
Team radio: “UnitedHealthcare is closing it down.”
Rasch asks Kousgaard who is the highest-placed rider on GC. It’s Britton, who is 12 minutes down. Kousgaard quickly hands Rasch a start list, with the six names highlighted.
Radio tour: “There are six riders in the lead, with a 10-second advantage. Three riders are trying to bridge across.”
Rasch, over team radio: “If it’s a big group, Danny [Van Poppel], Owain [Doull], [Jonathan] Dibben, go with it, we can also win a stage this way.”
Radio tour: “The UAE rider is returning to the back of the pack after crashing.”
Rasch asks over team radio why UnitedHealthcare is chasing, as they have a rider in the break. Geoghegan Hart answers, “They’re going for the KOM.” Rasch surmises that UnitedHealthcare more or less accidentally ended up with the wrong rider in the break.
Rasch, over team radio: “The time gap is 40 seconds.” Specifically to Boswell, he says, “it’s going to be a fast climb, when you have the chance, move up.” Then, to the team, “At KM21 you will turn left, at KM23, the KOM starts. KM27 is the top.”
I recall what Boswell told me, prior to the start. “I’ll be trying to save as much energy as I can for Mt. Baldy [Stage 5],” he said. “At the same time, riding for GC, every day is stressful, because every day is important — especially at the finish. Yesterday there was a split. Thankfully all the GC guys were on the backside of it, rather than [Robert] Gesink. So, saving energy, but also helping the boys as much as I can.
“I’ve developed a role as being a worker on this team, and I still have a desire to help the guys. I don’t want Elia to win a stage and I’ve sat last wheel all day and done nothing to help. And I know that tomorrow I’ll be counting on those guys to help me out.”
Radio tour: “The gap is 35 seconds.” Rasch repeats it over team radio. Word comes over radio tour that Jean-Pierre Drucker (BMC Racing) needs a rear wheel. Rasch says he doesn’t think the breakaway will stay clear over the Casitas climb, which is 4km long at 5.5% average.
Radio tour informs us that Gerts has been dropped from breakaway. Rasch relays that over team radio.
Two sprinters, Andrea Guardini (UAE) and Wouter Wippert (Cannondale), are the first to be dropped from the peloton. Next to fade back are Greg Henderson (UnitedHealthcare) and Mark Renshaw (Dimension Data.) Soon a group forms, including several from Novo Nordisk and UnitedHealthcare. Van Poppel is also dropped. Rasch encourages Van Poppel to ride with the Renshaw/Henderson group.
It’s the summit of the day’s first King of the Mountains point, but only 4.3km to the next KOM. Kennaugh attempts to bridge across to the leaders, while Viviani is dropped on the climb. Over team radio, Rasch encourages Kennaugh, and then instructs Debben to wait back for Viviani.
Radio tour: “The pack is breaking up into several groups.”
Team radio: Rasch asks Boswell if he is doing okay, which he is. Kennaugh radios that he’s been caught by the peloton. The gap is just 20 seconds to the five leaders. Radio tour announces that Mannion has taken maximum KOM points from the breakaway.
It’s the top of the second KOM. The time gap is now 1:35. Just before the top, George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo), second overall, swings off to right side of road for a nature break 500m from the top of the climb, as does race leader Rafal Majka. Radio tour announces that Huffman has taken maximum KOM points from the breakaway.
Rasch hands a bottle out the window to Dibben. Over team radio, he informs them of the time gap, that Viviani is back with Dibben, and that Van Poppel is further back as well. Kennaugh responds that he’s experiencing rear-brake rub. The car pulls over, and while Kousgaard replaces the wheel, the former British champion uses the opportunity to take a nature break.
Speaking before the stage, Viviani had mixed emotions about the first two sprint opportunities of the race — happy about Stage 1, and unhappy about Stage 3. He viewed Wednesday’s stage as an opportunity for redemption.
“We are really happy with Stage 1, we did a good job, we took the lead with 10km to go, and I was always in the best position,” he said. “I had a chance to try to win the stage. Yesterday, we did a mistake. We wanted to try to do it late, but maybe we don’t have the experience to move like Quick-Step in the last few kilometers.
“I was disappointed we weren’t able to try to win the stage, because Kittel also didn’t do the sprint, and it was a good chance to beat him. It was not an easy sprint, it was a perfect sprint for Sagan.
“Today, we hope somebody will control the race. We are not in position to control the race. We need to also save energy for tomorrow. We have three riders who are in good position on GC, they can play a good role [on Mt. Baldy]. I think we need to see what the other teams do, and try, if it’s a sprint, to do the best job we can. We need to improve on yesterday. We have a new plan, and I hope to be in good position if there is a bunch sprint.
“The new plan is less riders, only the sprinter group does the job for the last part, not all eight riders. For two reasons: The climbers need to save energy for tomorrow, and not lose time today, so we’ll split the team into two groups. The GC contenders need to save energy and not lose time, and the sprint group will try to go a little bit early. We want to [play] our game in the sprint, and not to be on the back. We’ll try to move early, and then with [Danny] Van Poppel, see which team is most organized, and take this wheel.”
With that, Viviani was on his way to the start line, and we loaded up in the car while the national anthem was sung.
After the car and rider are back rolling, Kennaugh asks for bananas, and takes on several water bottles as well. Rasch explains that Kennaugh is riding as a domestique, rather than leader, because he struggles with allergies during the spring, but adds that any rider, other than a GC leader or protected sprinter, would load up on bottles while they are at the team car. “Whenever they pass the car, I try to give them at least three bottles,” he says.
Video: Gabriel Rasch hands Peter Kennaugh a banana and bottles
Rasch rolls down the passenger window and jokes with Dimension Data director Roger Hammond, who is in Car 4 but positioned ahead of Sky due to servicing Kennaugh’s wheel.
Radio tour says the gap has gone up to five minutes. Over team radio, Rasch reminds his riders of who is in the break, and then goes over what is coming up — descent, left turn, right turn, 180-degree turn. I look at the gradient scale on the VeloViewer app; blue is a descent, green is flat, yellow and red climbs, with red indicating the steepest sections.
Video: A look at Team Sky’s slick VeloViewer iPad app
Asked about how he envisions the GC for this race playing out, Rasch says Majka looks really strong, but he needs a little bit more time on Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing) and Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Drapac). It’s the same for Bennett and Boswell and Lachlan Morton (Dimension Data), ranked second through fourth on GC, heading into Friday’s 24km stage 6 time trial.
“They need over a minute, maybe 1:30,” he said. “Tao can be 30 or 40 seconds away from Talansky on the TT. Those four guys need a little more time, and they know it. It’s them against Talansky and Bookwalter.”
Race radio calls out results of the first intermediate sprint, in Ojai, won by Le Turnier. Cars in the caravan are still 3.7km away from the sprint point. The gap is 6:50.
The top of the third KOM, Dennison Grade. The time gap is up to nine minutes.
Team radio: “Katusha, Quick-Step, Bora, and Trek are now at the front, working to pull back the break.”
We have some action in the car, as Duoll has a rear wheel puncture. Kousgaard quickly jumps out, swaps wheels, and jumps back in the car. The whole thing happens in under a minute, and the rider and mechanic seem very relaxed about it. The team’s second car is being driven by former pro Xabier Zandio who asks if Kousgaard needs anything. The latter asks for a Shimano C40 rear wheel. The car pulls up, and they swap wheels.
Van Poppel is struggling on only the slightest of uphills. Rasch asks if he’s feeling bad. “I’m shit,” is his reply. Over team radio, Rasche says, “Guys, Danny is really suffering. There is a long descent ahead, almost 10km long. The time gap is now 8:25.”
Video: Team Sky mechanics pass wheels between cars at 65 kilometers per hour
I bring up the topic of Cannondale-Drapac rider Tom Skujins’ concussion on Stage 2, and the controversy about the neutral support mechanic not stopping him from continuing, comes up. I ask both men what they think about the role of neutral service, and whether that should include medical assessments after a crash.
Rasch feels strongly that Skujins should not have been enabled to continue, but stops short of saying he feels neutral support mechanics should have that authority.
“The mechanic should have looked at the rider,” he says. “In situations like that, it’s just common sense. I guess it depends on the guy who is sitting on the motorbike. He’s probably full of adrenaline, really concentrated on his job, whether that is to give a wheel or a bike. But it’s all common sense when you see someone like this, and he’s falling over.
“Should we have doctors on motorbikes? Or should neutral service have some training? That could get out of hand as well, if every motorbike is going to ask questions to everyone who crashed. It wouldn’t hurt to have more doctors, but you can’t have a doctor everywhere. This was a situation we don’t see often, luckily.
“If we were behind, normally we have a doctor in the first car, and the doctor would be with him directly. Normally at all races he is in the first car it. It was so easy to watch on TV and make up your mind, but if you are in the situation yourself, full of adrenaline, focused on servicing the rider, it could be different. And of course bike riders have always been told to get back on the bike. I learned this as a junior.”
Kousgaard shares his perspective as a mechanic. “It’s difficult. Normally we just focus on bike, is it rideable? I do ask, are you okay? And I wait to see what the answer is. I know the riders, but maybe the neutral service mechanic doesn’t, he won’t always be able to tell if something was different with them.”
Rasch instructs riders that the feed zone is coming, and Team Sky is positioned last in the row of teams lining the feed zone. The gap is down to 7:30. Kennaugh comes on over team radio and says that Trek is asking if Sky will put one rider on the front to help chase. Rasch tells Kennaugh no, that Van Poppel is suffering, and if Sky puts one on the front, there won’t be many riders left for a lead-out.
Rasch then asks Viviani if he feels the team needs to help chase, and suggests they do it after the third KOM. Viviani answers: “We wait, they are four teams. I already told Trek I was dropped on the first climb, we will see how many we have after the third climb.”
Geogeghan Hart comes on team radio asking if there will be crosswind on the road ahead, following Balcom Canyon. Rasch says no, but the course is always left and right, up and down, and that it’s going to be hard at the back of the peloton.
Rasch is on team radio with Xabier Sandio discussing Van Poppel, who will likely be dropped on Balcom Canyon, the fourth and final KOM, and will need to be serviced by the second team car. In the feed zone, a team soigneur hands Kousgaard a few spare feedbags.
Van Poppel is the first rider dropped on the steep ascent of Balcom Canyon Road, 2.6km from the top and with 65km left in the stage. Rasch tells him to hang in there, others will be dropped, and to try to find a group to ride with. Rasch tells his riders Van Poppel is dropped, and that the gap is down to 5:55. Geoghegan Hart comes over team radio to say that “Cannondale is looking quite lively” at the front.
(Hours later, while reviewing the daily “Decision of the Commissaires’ Panel,” I’ll notice that Van Poppel was eliminated from the race and fined 200 Swiss Francs, while Zandio was also eliminated and fined the same, for Van Poppel’s holding on to the team vehicle.)
Video: Danny Van Poppel dropped on Balcom Canyon Road
The race is splitting up due to wind and pace, as well as a false-flat drag. Rasch is on the radio telling his riders to stay at the front. For about a minute, the Chief Commissaire holds up a red paddle out of the sunroof of his car, preventing any cars from passing a group of about 25 dropped riders.
We roll through the second intermediate sprint on Grimes Canyon Road. Nathan Brown (Cannondale) and Juraj Sagan (Bora) are both at their team cars, taking on water bottles. The gap is down to 4:05. A quick look over my shoulder reveals that Kousgaard is taking a cat nap, though he wakes up on the twisty descent of Grimes Canyon. He says he’s been up since 6 a.m.
Typically, team mechanics wash the riders’ bikes at night, and in the morning it’s more about syncing and calibrating power meters, checking tire pressure, and packing bikes onto the roofs of team cars, and spare wheels into the cars. The mechanics’ trucks head straight to the next hotel for set up. Team Sky has three mechanics at this race; two are in the caravan, and one drives the truck.
Viviani comes on over team radio, and asks about the gap, which is 3:55 with 41km remaining. A bottleneck into a righthand turn forces Rasch to brake hard to make a complete stop, and for an instant the brakes lock up.
Viviani comes over team radio: “Gabba, we can put one [on the front] now.”
Rasch: “Okay, we can put one on now — who is up for it, Pete or David Lopez?”
There is no answer. A minute later Rasch asks Lopez, but Geoghegan Hart replies that Kennaugh has gone to the front to help aid the sprint teams of Katusha, Quick-Step, Trek, and Bora.
Kennaugh: “Gabba, I don’t mind if you want David on the front, and I can help with the lead-out.”
Lopez comes back to the car, takes on seven — seven! — bottles, and will distribute them to the team before taking over duties at the front for the remainder of the stage.
There is 29km remaining. The gap is down to 3:30. The peloton is strung out on narrow, twisting roads. Race radio describes the pace as “very fast” for both the breakaway and the field, as both are aided by a tailwind. Rasch tells his riders “it’s going to be very, very close” to catch the breakaway before the line.
There is 25km remaining. We turn onto Highway 126/Telegraph Road, a straight road which we’ll stay on for the next 18km. The gap is 3:15.
Geoghegan Hart has a puncture. His rear wheel is quickly replaced, and he takes the opportunity for a nature break. The gap is 2:50.
With Kennaugh waiting back, Geoghegan Hart works his way through the cars and onto the back of peloton. The gap is two minutes with 15km remaining. Steve Porino from NBC pulls up on a moto and hands Rasch a microphone, interviewing him on the air.
Video: Team Sky director Gabriel Rasch speaks with NBC’s Steve Porino.
The gap is 1:40. Over radio tour, we hear the call for team cars for Trek-Segafredo, Cannondale-Drapac, and Astana, all due to punctures. The lead group is now at 10km to go. The difference on the road between the two groups is 1,500 metres. Katusha is chasing hard. Rasch tells me it’s 50/50 whether or not the peloton will catch the breakaway.
The time gap is one minute. There is conversation over team radio as to whether or not it’s too late. Talansky has a flat tire at 7.5km to go. He quickly swaps bikes with a teammate and works his way back through the cars.
With 5.5km to go, the gap is just over one minute. The chasing peloton is breaking into pieces. Riders like Zdenek Stybar (Quick-Step) and Bernie Eisel (Dimension Data) are dropped. Over the radio, a Sky rider shouts that Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step) has been dropped. Travis McCabe (UnitedHealthcare), another sprinter, is on the side of the road with a puncture.
There is 2.7km to go, and a 30-second gap for the breakaway. It’s clear they will not be caught. I ask Rasch is he is surprised. For the first time of the day, he’s not very responsive. “Yeah, a little bit surprised,” he says. “We had one less rider.”
Over radio tour, we learn that Huffman (Rally Cycling) has won the stage.
After the stage, I speak with Geoghegan Hart and Rasch; Viviani is frustrated with the day’s outcome and prefers not to chat. He’ll have one more opportunity at this race — Stage 7, from Mountain High to Pasadena.
Video: Tao Geoghegan Hart, Stage 4, 2017 Amgen Tour of California