A Ride-Along With Team Astana
Initially I was asked if I get motion sick and then given the following instructions: We will pack you a lunch, unless you are a vegetarian – then we just feed you apples and apricots. Hydrate lightly, or pee al fresco in front of thousands.
Thus preparation for my very first ride-along in a team car for a stage of the Tour de France was complete.
As a precursor to being in the team car for a full road stage, a few days prior I was embedded with Astana Pro Team and went for a test-run in a team car during the ITT. I met the soigneurs, mechanics, and directors, and watched riders warm up for their time trials.
The team is an incredibly friendly one; I was told to relax, sit down on a chair outside of the team bus, and handed a Chinotto as I chatted with their press officer, Chris Baldwin. Now there’s a guy who’s no slouch when it comes to conversation. You want to know the history of Kazakhstan, the history of cycling in Kazakhstan, or the intricacies of the coalition of state-owned companies that form the team’s namesake? Just ask – he’ll tell you and might add that Borat is over, and clarify that the team is, indeed, not Russian.
Having passed the test in the TT car (ie: no puking), fast forward a few days to the morning of Stage 14.
I would be in in Car 2 with team director, Dmitriy Fofonov, and mechanic, Javier Lopez. I got the run-down of how the team car numbers worked. The GC rank of a team’s top rider is the number given to the team cars for the day, which relegated you to a spot in the line of cars. That day their rider, Jakob Fuglsang, was ranked 4th overall, so Astana’s team cars would slot in 4th. Every team has two cars, and in each is a team director (or two) and a mechanic. Car 1 is in the first group of team cars immediately behind the peloton while Car 2 is typically further back in the race convoy. Car 2 is allowed to move up, only if there’s a rider in the break, or if Car 1 has to stop for some reason.
I stood outside of the bus and watched as the riders came out and went to sign-on, with the media coming and going for interviews, the mechanics readying the bikes, fans hovering to snap a photo of their favorite rider, maybe even get an autograph, and friends and family stopping by to wish the staff and riders luck. I chatted with Chris, and asked if there were any major faux pas to avoid while in the team car.
“Don’t pass gas,” he winked.
And with that I was waved over to the car, time to go. We drove into the starting chute, I looked out the window; so many fans so close, screaming, crazed with the rush of finally getting to see the riders after waiting for several hours.
Settling in as co-pilot, the first thing I noticed was that five languages were being spoken. Dmitriy speaks English, Russian, French, and Italian. Javier speaks Spanish, French, and Italian. In the car there are three radios: a race radio, a team radio that goes to the director in Car 1, and a radio that communicates with the team’s riders. For each radio Fofo, as he’s called within the team, used a different language, sometimes switching languages between sentences. There’s also a dashboard satellite TV with a live-feed of the race in French. The radio, conversations, and live-feed all overlap… how’s that for linguistic ping pong?
The driving is intense. Take a road only wide enough for one and a half cars, then put nearly 200 riders on it, and behind them, two cars per team, two dozen photo-motos, neutral support cars and motorcycles, the Gendarmerie, a mix of Tour organization and VIP vehicles – and then add that riders weave between them all as they drop back to the team car for clothing, drinks, food, or tactics talks. Add in a lot of stress, intensity, and driving at high speeds. The cars jostle for position often, and pass each other frequently. Of course, it isn’t always the high-speed auto ballet that I witnessed… sometimes you get a little roller derby thrown in. I heard that there are a fair number of paint scrapes and dinged quarter panels at the end of some stages.
Alexey Lutsenko didn’t make the break as they hoped, so our car didn’t move up into the peloton. Still, I got a taste of being in the lead car when Car 1 had to stop and we moved up (very quickly), which is when I experienced the rally car aspect of it all.
Sometimes we’d slow down to chat with another car; it’s amazing how close the vehicles are while the drivers chat and just casually push in their side-view mirrors to be on the safe side. Fofo and I talked about the United States, his new baby, bike racing, and what it’s like for him to be working as a team director (for the first time) this year instead of racing. I spoke Spanish with Javier, about Kansas City, Missouri, cowboys and how The Country Club Plaza was designed to replicate Seville, Spain.
Although Dmitiriy apologized for the lack of excitement, or as he put it, the “five hour nap,” I couldn’t have been more in awe: inside the car and out. The different radios and languages, watching the race on the dashboard TV, passing cars and speeding along course while I white-knuckled the Oh Shit handle. The final stretch as we sped by screaming fans was eight-deep – pressed against metal course barriers. And at the end of the stage, parting a sea of people frantic to see their favorite riders, to get to the team parking.
I’ll chronicle it under yet another unforgettable Tour experience. It was insane. And I loved every minute of it.