The Secret Pro: Jumbo’s arrogance and why weaker riders make the best directors

When racing comes easy, you don't have to learn how to do it properly.

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Back again, so soon. I’m sorry to say, yes, I am. After all, it’s that part of the season we all love. Yes, Itzulia is on this week. The Tour of the Basque country. 

Sorry, that joke is a bit weak now. A few years back, when it was a race on its last legs, it would have worked much better, but in the past few years, it’s been rejuvenated and had fresh life breathed into it. Anyway, believe it or not, I’m not here to chat about that. Nope, you know what I’m here for. The 68th edition of the Circuit Cycliste Sarthe – Pays de la Loire. 

That’s a better joke, ain’t it?

It’s that part of the season I look forward to, the cobbled classics, the northern races with their crap weather and amazing fans. It’s where the action is. It’s the races I dreamed of competing in as a kid, obviously outside the Tour.

The early leg openers are just that. You rock up, worried that your form isn’t where it should be. Head all over the place, then bang a race or two in, and you get that race head back again; the legs remember what it’s all about. You just can’t simulate it in training. So yes, I’m feeling fine, my head’s in the right place, and I’m ready to get cold, wet and try not to get too much of a kicking. Because after all, no matter how much training you do, how well prepared you are, your mind always throws up an “am I good enough”. Well, I will find out. 

If you’re after my predictions for the next few weekends, I’m only going to throw a few names out there. Well, actually, I think you should keep an eye on one quiet guy and the obvious team. So that quiet assassin people may not have down on their list is Nils Politt. He’s looking good, simple as that. Back to his best, maybe. And his best is very fast.

And as for that team, well, it’s hard to look past Jumbo-Visma. But if I’m honest, I am a little pissed off with that team at the moment. You know the saying, “you can get too big for your own boots”. It could be applied to some of the riders on that team. And I’m not talking about the winners here. A few are getting far too arrogant, and yes, I put it in part down to recent success, but there are other factors too.

For instance, Tiesj Benoot is usually a guy I don’t have a problem with, but he’s been an absolute arse in the races of late. He has been throwing his weight, or what weight he thinks he has about in the breakaways. Telling us to pull when it wasn’t necessary, or in one instance when he’s just caught a group and we’re already on our knees. 

He had a real whinge and got shitty at a few riders recently. Fuming that we should work, and if not that he’d drop us. Fair enough, drop me mate. You’re a big powerful lad at the moment. I’m not going to argue. 

I also put some of it down to fear; I think he lacks confidence and is a bit ignorant about that, so it comes out in the shitty way he’s dealt with people. But there will be a part of the season later in the year when he doesn’t have the legs, needs some help, and I’ll dish out what he dished out to us. Or I hope so. 

Talking about big, strong guys who throw their weight, we should discuss Victor Campenaerts and his 58 tooth chainring at Dwars door Vlaanderen. Now let me preface this by saying he’s a really nice guy, but I will say he’s a bit daft. Or at least in a racing sense. He’s a guy who could win so much more than he does if he only used his head and not just the big engine he possesses.  

Pretty much everyone was speaking about his 58-tooth chainring in the peloton, knowing when he would use it and how. So it no surprise that he attacked in the last 20 downhill. But this isn’t the first time in the past few weeks where he’s shown his pure power and not got the victory or result he could have. 

For instance, at Bredene Koksijde Classic, he got sick of people in the 25 rider breakaway not working as he wanted them to. Everyone else was content with the effort made, but he went to the front and put the hammer down, putting everyone in the gutter, including his two teammates, who he eventually dropped. Wise move, mate! Also, obviously, with showing that much power, everyone else decided to stop working with him. Way to screw yourself over.

He’s not alone, though. Usually, the foolish guys are the ones with huge engines. Though emotion does ruin good rides as well, I put my hand up to being too emotional in the moment and ruining my chances. You need a cool head. Either way, if you have endless energy and always have, then the chances are you’ve never needed to learn how to race smart. Or something like that. 

As for flipping this idea on its head, intelligent guys who aren’t strong. Well, it’s not possible in the pro peloton. If you’re a World Tour rider, you need to have a big engine. If you possess the smarts on top of that big engine, it’s just a bonus, and some have it more than others.

For instance, Mads Pedersen is one of the smart guys, he knows where to be at all times. Another one, far less well known, is Rüdiger Selig of Lotto-Soudal. He’s got the smarts in a different form. He just knows how to do his job, whatever it is, to perfection. Give him a task, and he’ll complete it to a T. Then, of course, it goes without saying there’s Sagan. Racing intelligent, strong and a champion.

You may be wondering what’s happening to Sagan at the moment, out the back at races, not starting Flanders. I think it’s simply that he doesn’t give a shit this season. Who can blame him? He has a three-year contract with Total Energies, so a year not worrying about all the wins, form, and racing isn’t too bad for him. He’s Sagan, after all, but hell, that team is doing good. I bet he’s sharing his knowledge with riders on the team that didn’t have access to winners like him before; learning from someone like Sagan must be a spectacular crash course in the art of bike racing. It definitely would seem to be that way, a second at Milan-San Remo and a third at Gent-Wevelgem. Impressive.

And that brings me on to my next topic. I want to pay homage to some people who know how to race in the real world and pass that knowledge on to us young guns in the peloton, the too-often unsung director sportifs.

The DS may be a member of staff that you don’t often take notice of as a fan. But these people can be worth their weight in gold. They can be the one person on a team that unlocks a successful season or not.

If you’re a long time cycling fan and go through any team website, you’ll no doubt recognise the odd ex-pro now working as a DS. But on the whole, they’ll be names that maybe ring a bell, maybe don’t. So you’ll be hard pushed to find a legend of an era working today in a DS role. Why? Well, let me tell you.

Let us take EF-EasyPost as an example. Their head DS is Charlie Wigelius. I’m sure you’re familiar with a name, especially if you’re a Brit who followed the sport in the early 2000s. Not one pro win to his name in his entire eleven-year pro career. Next, Ineos. Their head DS is Roger Hammond, another Brit, an absolute hitter when it came to the Classics back in the 2000s, but more of an underdog, again not many wins. His most notable result was that nailbiting third at Roubaix in 2004. Shall we continue? Bora with Ralf Aldag was an absolute monster of a rider when he was with Team T-Mobile in the 2000s; as for his personal wins in his sixteen-year career, the odd stage at smaller week stage races and a GC or two at 2.1 events. As for a few others, Trek-Segafredo has Steven de Jongh; he is genuinely great, Israel-Premier Tech has Rik Verbrugghe, Movistar with Pablo Lastras, and of course, Quick-Step has Wilfred Peeters. Anyway, I’m sure you get the gist. Names you’ll recognise if you’ve been around the sport long enough, but not names you’d pick out as winners of their generation. 

Charlie Wegelius (right) is still supporting riders these days, now from the director’s seat.

These guys and many more were the workhorses of the peloton, the ones that did the donkey work, the hard slog. Getting in the breaks, setting the team leaders up for a sprint, the final climb, protecting them from crosswinds, headwinds, bottle duty, and then on the odd occasion as a thank you, they’d be allowed to try and shine, take a day for themself. For the most part, these were super-domestic legends in the peloton, but not out of the peloton. They knew their job, did it exceptionally well, and even though they didn’t have many or even any wins, they’d get solid contracts, year in and year out. 

So why do these sorts of riders make ideal directors? Quite simply, they know what it’s like to suffer, what it’s like to do every job. They had to think because they couldn’t use strength alone. They’ve been there, done that, and excelled. They’ve not been the ones on the team with the legs to do what they want when they want. They’ve suffered. They learnt their trade inside and out and, for the most part (in my experience), are seriously nice guys. This delicate mix is what makes a stellar DS. 

Remember what I said earlier about the strongest riders being the most useless tactically? The opposite is also true. That’s exactly why these domestiques make such good directors. 

Go and look at any successful team, and that’s the sort of guy who’ll be head DS. One DS I’d love to call out is Allan Peiper. He left UAE-Emirates at the end of last year as DS as he fights cancer, and I know he’s already sorely missed in the races. He was an integral part of Tadej’s wins. Softly spoken but had it all for the job. I’ll be interested to see what happens at the classics this year as I wouldn’t be surprised if Allan hangs about a bit, as he lives in Belgium. 

The next generation now learning their trade are the likes of Steve Cummings at Ineos. He’s now an assistant DS. In his racing days, a man you’d find hanging at the back of the peloton, not because he was suffering, but that was just Steve. But he’d be in the right place at the right time when needed. Who wasn’t blown away by his stylish yet suffering win on stage 14 of the 2015 Tour into Mende? That was a pure calculated experience of knowing how to manage himself and not worry about what the two french men up the road were doing. Class! His ex-teammate at Dimension Data, Bernhard Eisel, has just become an Assistant Director at Bora; these guys are prime examples of super-domestics that should become super-director sportifs.

As for my predictions as to who in the current peloton would make an ideal DS in the near future, well you don’t need to look any further than Heinrich Haussler. That guy would be perfect. Also, Luke Rowe, a team captain out on the open roads, would be an ideal DS in a car. 

Before I turn the computer off and file this article, I’d like to take a second to say that, like many fans and people in the sport, I was saddened to hear of Richard Moores’s unexpected death this week. I’ve had the privilege of chatting and being interviewed by him on several occasions. He was always a journalist that I wouldn’t avoid, and there are plenty of those. He was always a nice guy, opened minded. He had the right approach; he never looked for the dark in the sport, never digging for shit that wasn’t there, but just the right approach and in a professional way that allowed for the stories that needed to be told. I can happily say that I chatted with him at the last race he attended. Sad to think that, but I’m glad I did. It’s a shock; he will be sorely missed in our sport’s rolling circus.

Oh, and if you are wondering which journalists I avoid, well, let me just say you’ll never see me on German TV. Dear oh dear, they just want to talk to the winners. They never look for the spirit of the sport. It’s painful at times.

OK, with that final little snarky comment, I will get out of here—until next time.

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