The leader, the substitute and the CCC shuffle

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WOODSIDE, Australia (CT) – Last week, Guillaume van Keirsbulck sat in a Spanish beachside town and pondered the season ahead. On the calendar: a training camp in late January, the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana in February, and a steady build to the Spring Classics, where he’s expected to be Greg van Avermaet’s last man.

After a draining 2019, this off-season was essential. Van Keirsbulck hung up his bike after the Tour of Guangxi – the very last race of the season – and travelled to the Maldives to holiday with his girlfriend. In the tepid waters of the Indian Ocean, a million miles from the grey skies and cobbles of his native Belgium, the classics specialist rode jetskis, relaxed, and let the fatigue of a frustrating and illness-prone season seep from his body.

Having taken a full month off the bike, duty called. Van Keirsbulck relocated to Spain for the remainder of his off-season and there, next to the Mediterranean, the tall Belgian rouleur began the long, slow process of banking base miles and reclaiming form.

He wasn’t expecting to have to call on that form in Australia, though.

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Fast forward to January. CCC’s star rider for the Tour Down Under, New Zealander Patrick Bevin, was in prime shape for the season opener, and hoping for better luck this time around.

In the 2019 edition of the Tour Down Under, Bevin had been a revelation. He’d taken his first WorldTour win on stage two, holding the ochre jersey for most of the race before crashing on stage five and finally losing grasp of the lead on Willunga Hill as a result of his injuries.

Bevin’s year had been a bit like that race, really. Snakes and ladders; glimpses of form, and setbacks. He was forced out of the Tour de France for the second year in a row – this time with broken ribs sustained in a crash a few days in – before turning it around at the end of the season to finish fourth at the World Championships time trial. That result bade well for the Tour Down Under, his major early-season target.

Last week, in the web of quiet roads draped across the hills above Adelaide, cycling’s #1 Most Orange Team trained for the race ahead. And then, on January 15, Paddy Bevin’s heart went haywire.

In a press release after the incident, CCC team doctor Max Testa explained that Bevin had noticed irregularities in his heart-beat during training, requiring immediate treatment to regulate the heart rhythm, followed by a night in hospital.

“Patrick does not have a history of heart problems however, an electrocardiogram detected an episode of supraventricular arrhythmia,” Testa said. The team chose not to chance it; Bevin was shipped back to his homeland to recover, and CCC set the wheels in motion to rush a last-minute replacement on the other side of the world. Bevin’s substitute – Guillaume van Keirsbulck.

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Which brings us to the bright sunshine of Woodside’s main street on stage two of the Tour Down Under. There, still dusting away the last cobwebs of jetlag, an imposing Belgian carefully applied sunscreen and told CyclingTips about his scramble across the world.

“I was in Spain – I would have been there until yesterday, actually – for a training camp with my girlfriend … and I had our dog also,” van Keirsbulck said. “I knew I was the first reserve for Tour Down Under, but it got to about the third of January, and I thought ‘yeah, I’m safe, I don’t need to go anymore’. And then the team called me – and everything changed really fast.

“I needed to find a flight first to come back to Belgium, because the dog wasn’t allowed on every flight … that was a little bit shit,” he said, smiling wryly at the absurdity of a dog’s presence in Spain being a major complicating factor in a Belgian rider getting to a bike race in Australia.

After finally getting the whole crew back to Belgium, van Keirsbulck had just enough time to pack his bag before dashing back to Brussels airport. In the end, van Keirsbulck said, “I was only five hours in Belgium, and directly onto the next flight here.” Another wry smile. “Fuck, that was not perfect for the jetlag.”

“For a race like this, it’s pretty hard because there’s a lot of travel,” CCC sport director Jackson Stewart told CyclingTips. “You can’t just [organise a transfer] that afternoon – you’ve got to have at least a few days.” And apart from the logistical shuffle of rerouting a rider at short notice, there’s the broader implications of what that might mean later in the season.

The sport is increasingly detail-oriented, with training loads carefully calibrated to ensure very particular targets are met at very particular moments. For Guillaume van Keirsbulck – a key figure in CCC’s classics line-up – a start at the Tour Down Under gets his season rolling more than two weeks early.

Now, last minute roster changes are part and parcel of professional cycling. Higher profile riders in higher profile races have fallen victim to the shuffle. Christian Meier getting subbed in for Michael Matthews at the 2014 Tour de France; Lars Boom in and out and in again for the 2015 Tour; Thomas Voeckler flying all the way out to the TDU only to run into a car the week before, break a collarbone and fly all the way home again.

In this particular case, the whole situation is far from ideal – for Paddy Bevin, for CCC, for van Keirsbulck and his girlfriend and his dog. With Bevin out of the race, Stewart says, “it changed everything”, setting off ripples that will influence the coming months, in ways big and small.

According to Stewart, “The plan is that GVK does [the] block of racing stretching through to Cadel’s [Great Ocean Road Race]. But … by changing [that], we have to change a lot of his program coming up.”

It’s a juggle between a number of competing priorities for the team – they need to start a full complement of riders at WorldTour races or they’ll incur a penalty, but sending van Keirsbulck home ahead of Cadel’s Race would arguably be better preparation for the team’s classics campaigns.

“If we could take him out because Paddy wanted to come back in [for Cadel’s] we would … but you can’t always do what’s best for you. Sometimes, you’ve also got to do what’s best for the budget,” Stewart said.

Guillaume van Keirsbulck started last week in Spain with his girlfriend and his dog, and ended with him riding a race he had no plans to attend. Paddy Bevin started last week confident of a good result in a major target of his, and ended back home in New Zealand wondering what could have been.

Cycling’s a sport where everything can change in an instant – and as CCC’s shuffle has shown, you don’t even need to be racing for that to be the case.

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