The Secret Pro: Omicron, kit shortages, and TT bikes

The Secret Pro dishes the dirt on supply issues, COVID ripping through the peloton and more.

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Hello, one and all, and I suppose I should say welcome to the new season. Already. And yet again, for the second year running, we haven’t kicked off with one of the best races of the year in the Tour Down Under. You all know why – and I’ll get to that in a bit – but first, let me tell you where I’m writing this from—the back of the team bus. Don’t worry, I’ve got my seatbelt on! 

You’re probably thinking that the combination of ‘team bus’ and ‘writing a wordy article’ don’t usually go hand in hand. You might be thinking we’re usually on the bus just to get to hotels after races, or for long transfers during Grand Tours. And you’re probably wondering:  what rider in their right mind would want to unwind from a race, mid-race, by writing about the racing life? Who’s got the energy or time to get the laptop out, put the brain in gear, and write? I’ll tell you who.

Actually, I won’t. That’d spoil the whole ‘secret’ bit of these articles. 

Anyway, you’d be right; team buses are indeed for those sorts of jaunts I’ve just described, but we spend plenty of time on it otherwise too. It’s not all air travel – believe it or not, we don’t always fly from race to race. So as I tap away on my keyboard, we’re travelling, by bus, from one early season race to another. It happens more than you’d think, so much so that I think I’ve become a bit of an expert on bus mechanics and maintenance. For example, I’ve become a whizz at getting the generator up and running when it goes down (which is often). Maybe I’ve found my calling once I hang up my wheels. Memo to self: call Tom-Jelte Slagter; I’m sure he can sort me out with the right tools for mending large machinery.

Okay, on with this edition of The Secret Pro. We’ve got race talk, clothing problems, the upside of us riders getting COVID (yes, there is an upside), who has impressed me already, plus lastly, that fact that I finally feel like a superstar, or at least for a fleeting moment. Let us delve in.

A European start

Shall we kick things off with a bit of race chat? Yet again, I’ve started my season in Europe. Hardly surprising, but it certainly still feels unfamiliar; for many years now, I’ve become so accustomed to starting the season at the Tour Down Under. One year missing out on that race was a disappointment, but a second is just downright painful. Even though it’s a WorldTour level race, and the racing was hard, it always had that holiday feel about it – if you’re not an Aussie, of course. The weather, the crowds, and the chilled environment … it got you in race mode, but without a heap of stress. Then, once you jumped on that Airbus A380 home, there was what I like to think of as a kind of mini-break. That slight mental and physical adjustment to crappier Euro weather, Euro culture and regional-feeling races split the early season up into two distinctive parts. 

Starting in Europe straight away is mentally different. We are whisked from the team’s early-season training camp to our first race, then onto another race in roughly the same area of Europe. It’s like one big block of team life. 

I will say that it’s all pretty relaxed so far this year, or at least that’s how I’m finding it. The end of 2020 and most of 2021 was an all-out stomper; races were hotly contested from the start of the season. No matter how small a race was, we never knew if the season would end the next week or not. But this year, it’s far more chilled, and there are a few reasons for this. 

For starters, teams are not worried that the season will be cut short. With the exception of outliers like the Tour Down Under, we now feel we can approach the season content in the knowledge it’s going to be a complete and proper season. These smaller races now don’t factor into whether the season will be judged a success, and that shifts the pressure to perform onto the smaller teams: the ProTeams and the Continental squads. Especially those wanting to secure a WorldTour license or wildcard invite to a Grand Tour. 

But that’s not the sole reason racing is a bit more relaxed for WT teams.

COVID in 2022

Believe it or not, COVID has caused the races to be a bit more ‘chill’. I know that sounds strange, but bear with me.

COVID is, without a doubt, still causing a little bit of havoc with team rosters.  Some high profile teams have already dropped out of the early season races; there are also teams fielding smaller squads. Take a look at the start list of Clásica del Almeria: TotalEnergie had a lineup of four riders, and Israel-Premier Tech had five guys on the start line. So, you see that teams are already under strain from riders catching Omicron and being out for a week to ten days. We’re only a few weeks into the season, and we don’t know how long it will be like this.

There’s an upside, though. It has all resulted in teams riding more conservatively, with less risk than other years.  We’re playing it safe, using these races as leg openers. Having a teammate out due to COVID is one thing, but being a rider down due to a crash that could have been avoided is a different matter.  I know our team hasn’t gone out all guns blazing yet at any of these races; it’s a nice slow ease into racing again. 

Another side effect is that you can expect team line-ups looking slightly more mish-mashed for the foreseeable future. What I mean by this is that you’ll see non-climbers at hilly races, along with wispy little guys tackling northern crosswinds. It could make for some unpredictable racing – and probably some guys getting upset about having to do races that don’t suit them, too. 

You may have heard that Movistar isn’t planning on sending riders to the smaller Spanish races; the official word is that they want to play it safe. But I know for a fact they all tested positive at Valencia. Heck, about two-thirds of the peloton (quietly) did. 

There is a plus to COVID ripping through the peloton.  I can see a change in team managers’ concern for their riders’ health.  I’m not saying before that they didn’t give a damn – that’s far from the truth – but previously you’d be tossed into a race with a cold or such illness, and expected to get on and do your job. Not an ideal situation, but it was always part and parcel of being a professional cyclist. With COVID, we are definitely being looked after better. More caution is being taken, and I think – or at least, I hope – we won’t go back entirely to the old ways.

The dad of the breakaway

On a lighter note, sticking with these early season races, it’s made me realise how far I’ve come in my professional career (as a cyclist, not a bus mechanic). I recently had a moment where I felt like the dad of a breakaway I found myself in. I was in a small group – you could count us on one hand – and we were up the road with a healthy lead. Just by chance, I was the only WorldTour rider in the break, surrounded by a couple of riders from ProTeams. They just kept pushing on as if they were trying to tear each other’s legs off, throwing down what felt like 500 watts all the time.

I had to tell them to calm down – that we weren’t the ones in charge of our destiny as much as they hoped they were. The peloton would dictate our eventual survival. I felt that I was passing years of knowledge to my fellow (keen) breakaway companions. It was odd as I could see they were in slight awe, really respecting me and what I had to say – looking to me to guide them. It was a great feeling, and one I definitely hadn’t expected when I got myself the move that afternoon. 

I’ll have to get in more doomed breaks with Continental and ProTeam riders in future. It’s obviously good for the ego. 

New kit day 

I’m sure you’ve heard it from other pros, but the first team camp of the year can feel a bit like Christmas. It’s when we get the first delivery of our new kit. This year’s been different, though. Clothing is in short supply – just like Shimano, or any component manufacturer for that matter, clothing is in short supply. Or, to be more precise, certain materials that we’ve asked for are in short supply. As pros, we usually have a vast wardrobe of different jerseys, shorts and other accessories to choose from. We have the option of not just getting a custom fit but also choosing the exact material we want jerseys to be made of or the exact pad we want in a short. You can’t get much more custom than that, can you! Unfortunately, that’s been whittled down for the start of the season. We’ve been told that some materials are off the shopping list, as are some chamois.

Now, I’ve mentioned Movistar already in this article, and I don’t want to single them out, so I’ll also include Bora in this following tidbit. Both teams have swapped kit suppliers for 2022 and gone with brands that without a deep catalogue or history of supplying vast arrays of items to pro teams, especially Movistar with La Passione. I hear on the grapevine they only have two short-sleeved jerseys to choose from at this moment. A winter-weight jersey and a light one: that’s it. I know, I know, I can hear your hearts go out to the poor Spanish squad. It’s not so much first world problems, but First World Tour Problems. But as we all know, dedicated kit with specific usages in mind can make a winning difference. 

Saying that – as of writing this, I have a TT coming up in a few days, and even my skinsuit hasn’t arrived yet. My team, too, is experiencing supply issues. So the question is, will I be rocking a shorts and jersey combo? We will have to wait and see. 

As for bikes and mechanical equipment, our team doesn’t seem to have any problems sourcing any of that. We’re pretty lucky as we have some big sponsors on board who have managed to throw their weight around. We are riding last year’s race bike in training – no big deal at all, and nothing too out of the ordinary, although I have changed a few bits on it. I won’t say much more in case it gets you one step closer to working out who I am…  

Do time trial bikes belong in road cycling?

Like many others, I watched that recent Youtube video that Chris Froome posted on his channel. I skipped past the section where he talked us through his many bikes – I didn’t want to get too jealous. The real meat of the video, anyway, is his view on gravel, cobbles and time trials in a Grand Tour. I’ve touched on cobbles before. But it was his time trial views that got me thinking – or at least, disagreeing with him. 

When he asks how many roads are out there that you can go out and blast for an hour in a TT position safely, I’d say this: it all depends on where you live, Chris. The same could be said for any sort of specific training. I don’t expect to be able to go out and climb Alpe d’Huez when I need to train for a full-on assault on a mountain pass. I train to the conditions that are on offer to me; I make the best of the available roads. And if I have a necessity to do such specific training, I’ll head to a camp where I can get the roads that allow me to do it. The same should go for TTs. 

It goes without saying that there are riders that do this. They head to the velodrome; they hunt out areas that will allow them to tune the type of rider they want to be. I know he’s recently retired, but Tony Martin was the prime example of this; he knew how to train for a TT safely and meticulously at the same time.

As for the tech side of it all – yes, things are getting extreme. But the same companies with the cash to develop these super slick aero bikes would do the same to road bikes. Plus, guys who want to do well in TTs (on a road bike) would still put in the time and effort to hone their “road aero” position. There might be the odd rider who just couldn’t perform the same on a road bike as they do on a TT bike, and it possibly would change who would be winning time trials, but I guess it would have a fairly minor impact. Also, as a bit of a tech-head, I’d miss TT bikes. They are one of the last bastions of customisation in pro bike tech. The pits on TT day is one of the last places that really geeky bike tech can still be found.

And really, how many crashes have there been in the past five years on TT bikes in races? Not that many, and when it does happen it’s usually down to rider error – riders not reconning courses beforehand, or being given the correct info about how sharp a corner is or how windy it is, or where you shouldn’t take your hand off the bars. You can’t eliminate everything that is slightly dangerous – then again, maybe that’s why the UCI are all behind e-racing. Thinking long term, you’re never gonna injure yourself in the metaverse when cycling, unless it turns out to be a Matrix kind of set-up!

As for the safety of amateurs trying to emulate pros – that’s utter BS. It’s not the UCI’s job to make riders safe when out training. You gain the skills you need in racing by gradually learning them out on the road. No one knows how to handle any sort of bike correctly straight away; you learn. I once overcooked it in training on a TT bike, I was too confident, but I learnt from that mistake. We all learn from mistakes. Isn’t that survival of the fittest?!

Okay, time for a breath. Rant over.

I’ve got more to say, but that’s it for this article. Besides, the team bus is pulling up to the race hotel—time to unpack and get ready to continue the season.

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