Inside the Tour de France convoy with Team Katusha-Alpecin
Back in January Katusha-Alpecin were good enough to invite CyclingTips behind the scenes for a stage of the Santos Tour Down Under. We sat in on their team meeting, met the riders, and then jumped in the team car to watch as the Swiss-registered squad tried to make its mark on the race.
Six months later Katusha-Alpecin welcomed us into the fold once more, this time at a slightly larger bike race: the Tour de France. CyclingTips’ Australian editor Matt de Neef rode along with the team on stage 16 of the 2017 Tour, to see what it’s like inside the Tour de France convoy.
Gennady Mikhailov doesn’t seem to remember me, but that’s not entirely surprising. It’s been half a year since I sat in a team car with the Russian former pro at the Tour Down Under and he had other things on his mind that day. The same is true today — he’s driving Katusha-Alpecin’s second team car in the Tour and has things to do before leaving the start town.
It’s roughly an hour until stage 16 starts and the riders are arriving at the team bus in dribs and drabs. They’ve all ridden the 500 metres from the hotel to the start village and as they arrive, they go and sign on, before heading back to the bus. Tony Martin signs a few autographs, takes a few selfies with fans, and receives a special edition watch from Tissot. Maurits Lammertink answers questions for the Dutch press, while media manager Philippe Maertens previews the stage for some French journos.
Team soigneurs have set up stationary trainers in front of the team bus — after the team meeting the riders will jump on their trainers and warm up. There’s 20km of climbing straight out of the start and the team wants to be raring to go when the race kicks off.
At 12:45pm, 45 minutes before the riders head off, Gennady is ready to leave. He jumps into the driver’s seat of team car 21, team mechanic Roger jumps in the back seat, and I hop in up front. Normally team car 2 slots in behind the line of primary team cars in the convoy, ready to head up and cover any riders in the breakaway. Today though, we’re heading well up the road — 20.5km to be exact.
With 20km of climbing from the gun, on windy, narrow roads, it will be hard to get bottles to riders that need them. Instead the plan is to forge ahead, just past the point where feeding is allowed (20km) and wait by the roadside.
First though, there’s the startline traffic to push through.
Gennady is remarkably patient as he inches his car through the thick crowd ahead. Journalists, riders, fans, and officials all mingle around the team buses, most oblivious to the fact they’re blocking the way. Gennady uses the horn sparingly, instead waiting for riders to finish their interviews, sign their autographs, and chat to people they know before pushing on. It’s a game of centimetres, the car only just squeezing between barriers and bodies.
Past the startline the road opens up and we forge on. Some 20.5km up the road we pull over into a driveway and wait for the riders. Fans crowd the Katusha-Alpecin team car, ogling the nine spare bikes on the roof. Both team cars in the race have a spare bike on the roof for each rider in the team. The bikes of the team’s marquee riders, Alexander Kristoff and Tony Martin, have prime position on the far right. This positioning allows easy access for Roger — he’s sitting in the right-hand side of the backseat.
Children come up to the car and ask for bidons but Gennady and Roger politely turn them down. “Pour les coureurs”, they say, “For the riders.” The pair have pulled a handful of bidons out of a car fridge in the back of the Scoda, and are standing on the road, waiting.
When the race comes past it’s already split into several groups. Lammertink had briefly been up the road, trying to get clear, but he’s not in the lead group of five that passes us. A short time later it’s the peloton, or more precisely two pelotons, that climb past. Roger and Gennady hand out bottles to the Katusha-Alpecin riders that want them.
As we pile back into the car Gennady takes stock — Alexander Kristoff, Tiago Machado and Robert Kiserlovski are all in the first main group — a good sign. The remaining six Katusha-Alpecin riders — Martin, Lammertink, Marco Haller, Reto Hollenstein, Nils Politt and Rick Zabel — are in the second peloton, along with Marcel Kittel (QuickStep Floors), the German sprinter who’s already won five stages of the Tour.
Having Kittel isolated behind is a boon for Kristoff and Katusha-Alpecin, even if the team doesn’t have strong numbers up front. The plan is to get Kristoff to the finish in a reduced bunch — minus the other big sprinters — and then sprint for the win.
It’s been a solid but not amazing Tour de France for Katusha-Alpecin thus far. The team’s best result came on stage 4 when Kristoff was second behind Arnaud Demare (FDJ) in the bunch sprint that saw Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) crash out, and Peter Sagan (Bora-hansgrohe) sent home. Kristoff’s also been fourth on two occasions, and also has a fifth, while Tony Martin was fourth in the stage 1 time trial in Düsseldorf. Respectable results, for sure, but it’s a stage win the team’s really looking for.
“Tony: we don’t pull the Kittel group”, sports director Jose Acevedo tells Martin over the radio from team car 1. “We have Kristoff up front.”
There are two handheld radios in the mobile office that is the Katusha-Alpecin teamcar, both dangling from the rearview mirror. One is black, for communication between the two team cars in the race convoy. The other is red, for communicating with the riders. There’s also a speaker playing Radio Tour, the convoy-wide communication channel that provides updates on the composition of groups on the road, and the gaps between those groups.
A tablet is mounted to the dash, recording in a route-tracking app the car’s progress through the stage so far. This, in combination with the car speedo — reset to 0 at the end of the neutral zone — gives Gennady an indication of how far through the stage we are.
A stage map, taped to the dash, and a stage profile, taped to the steering wheel, have important sections notated — narrow roads, tight turns, sections where wind could play a role. And wind certainly will play a role later in the stage.
It’s mostly quiet in team car 2, or at least there’s very little by way of conversation within the car itself. Radio Tour crackles to life every so often, punctuating the near-silence, as too do messages to the riders from Jose Acevedo.
“Tiego, Robert: On the wheel. On the wheel,” Jose implores his riders in the front group. “The gap is two minutes. We need you for the final.”
Sunweb is driving the pace, trying to ensure Kittel doesn’t rejoin. It’s working — the sprinter’s group is falling further and further behind and Michael Matthews (Sunweb) is fast becoming the favourite for the stage. Alexander Kristoff chances of winning, too, are on the rise. The five-rider break, meanwhile, is all accounted for after just 45km of racing.
In team car 1, Jose and his fellow director sportif Torsten Schmidt drive past the Kittel group and head on up to the yellow jersey/Kristoff bunch. We stay back, to service the six Katusha-Alpecin riders in the Kittel group, if needed.
The bulk of the day’s climbing is done and we’re flying down into the valleys of the Ardeche region. The roads are narrow and windy, and yet Gennady throws the car downhill at great speed.
We’re a world away from regular driving conditions — in the Tour de France convoy cars overtake one another at 70km on serpentine mountain roads with barely centimetres of clearance. Race motos flit about, as too do dropped riders, trying to battle their way back to the convoy. Fans crowd the roadside, frequently encroaching onto the tarmac in search of the perfect snap for social media.
It takes a skilled driver to navigate this stressful environment, to stop a gap opening to the car in front (“Keep the convoy tight,” Radio Tour often says), and to keep everyone in and around the car safe. And that’s just when sitting in the convoy, let alone when moving up the through the line of cars to reach the riders.
“Genna, can you come?” It’s Rick Zabel on team radio, calling Gennady up for a bottle. “Yes, I’m coming”, the Russian responds without hesitation. As the road kicks up, so does our speed. We’re overtaking the convoy at a rate of knots, passing other team cars on our right, screaming fans on our left, Gennady throwing the car into gaps that most wouldn’t see. I’m not surprised to recall that he used to be a lead-out man in his days as a pro.
Zabel drops from the back of the bunch and Gennady slots in on the German rider’s right, passing a bidon out the window. He’s driving one-handed, barely a metre from the car in front, on a very narrow, twisty road, all while ensuring he doesn’t knock his rider off. It’s a sight to behold2.
Job done, Gennady pulls over to the right and waits for most of the convoy to pass before continuing on. Katusha-Alpecin is in position 20 of 22 in the convoy, determined by the placement of riders on the general classification.
The stress recedes for a moment before Jose is on the radio again.
“Tiago, are you pulling? I told you, sit on the wheel,” he says, calm but exasperated. “Sunweb, BMC, Dimension Data have lots of guys. We need you at the end.”
The Kittel group is out of contention now, the gap out beyond four minutes. This bodes well for Kristoff and his ambitions of a stage win, but there’s a significant challenge coming. Down on the flatlands the wind is howling. Every change of direction is going to be important.
“Crosstailwind,” says Jose Acevedo over the radio to his riders. “Robert: make sure you have Alex in a good position.”
If Kristoff is going to win the stage, the two teammates he has with him will need to be super-attentive. The wind is tearing the lead group apart and the worst is yet to come.
In the Kittel group, the riders have realised their day is done and any sense of urgency in the bunch has disappeared. It’s looking like a sedate run to the finish for team car 2, until Marco Haller gets on the radio: “Genna: Can you come?”
“I’m coming”, comes the immediate reply. Again Gennady barrels past the convoy, edging into position at the back of the bunch. Haller and the others in the Kittel group are being buffeted by strong headwinds. The former Austrian champion utters an expletive as he tries to stay upright while grabbing a bidon from his sports director. This wind is no joke.
Sure enough, Radio Tour reveals that race leader Chris Froome is at the front of the race with about 20km to go. Gennady points to a left-hand turn on the map that’s taped to the car’s dashboard. It’s here that the riders will turn into a crosswind and the race could really split apart.
A few minutes later Radio Tour confirms that a split has indeed occurred at the front. Alexander Kristoff has been caught out and is on the wrong side of the split. The Norwegian sprinter is contributing to the chase, trying desperately to close the gap to the group ahead — a group which contains fast-finishers like Matthews, John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data), as well as the GC favourites.
With a touch over 11km to go, the gap is 18 seconds between the Kristoff group and the front of the race. “It’s done”, Gennady says. His team won’t win the stage. And he’s right — the gap continues to grow as the 28 riders in front pull away.
We’re still 13km from the finish when Michael Matthews crosses the line to win his second stage of the 2017 Tour de France. Gennady gives a big sigh — while he’s full of praise for the way Matthews has ridden this year’s race, it’s certainly not the result he wanted.
The Kittel group crosses the line a touch over 16 minutes after Matthews. By the time Gennady fights his way through the finish-line crowds and pulls up at the team bus, Alexander Kristoff has already showered and is back outside the team bus, speaking to the Norwegian press. He’s the team’s best finisher, in 42nd place, 53 seconds behind the stage winner.
A short time later the Katusha-Alpecin bus and team cars roll out in the direction of Grenoble. It’s most of an hour’s drive to the team hotel for the night. Massages and an evening meal follow for the riders, while the mechanics wash and prepare bikes for the following day.
Despite a promising start, stage 16 hasn’t gone to plan for Katusha-Alpecin. But there will be other opportunities. The following morning they’ll roll out to another stage start in another town somewhere in France, trying their best to take an elusive first stage win at the 2017 Tour de France.
1. At the Tour de France, each team has two cars in the race convoy, compared with one at the Tour Down Under and other smaller races. Katusha has a total of five team cars at the Tour, as well as a bus, truck, and two vans — a total of nine vehicles. Multiply that by 22 teams and you’re still barely scraping the surface of the rolling circus that is the Tour de France.
2. Sadly, ASO accreditation rules forbid anyone but the host broadcaster from capturing video within the race “envelope”.