At last year’s World Championships, long-time Conquista contributor, Russell Jones, was granted an incredible level of access to the New Zealand squad. From his privileged position embedded within the team, he brings us the highs and lows of the Kiwi campaign.
Our phones ‘bing’ in unison. We are travelling back to Cycling New Zealand’s team hotel from the finish line of the U23 road race in the World Championships in Innsbruck. We are all four of us part of the same WhatsApp group, which is why our phones all sound off in a chirruping chorus. The purpose of the group is to keep track of the various movements of the New Zealand team and its support staff.
It’s all going roughly to plan, a plan I first saw back in New Zealand some six weeks ago. Welcomed in by Cycling New Zealand, I am now witnessing first-hand just what is involved in a campaign of this sort; what is required to field a team to take on the world in Innsbruck on a course touted as one of the toughest ever.
“Here, it’s all on this,” high performance logistics manager, Bryan Simmonds, hands me a printed spreadsheet, “although it isn’t final yet, obviously.”
Simmonds is charged with coordinating the seven staff and seventeen riders, all spread around the world.
“The Road Worlds are always difficult,” he says. We have to book the accommodation twelve months in advance, but a year out we just don’t know how many riders have qualified, or where they’ll be. It’s very different to when we send the track squad away; they all leave from [New Zealand] and all arrive back there. With the road squad we also have to plan for little things like clothing lead time, anticipating who is going to be on the team to get sizes and logos right.”
The squad has riders literally all over, from China to Girona, at the Tour of Britain and back home in NZ.
The other backroom staff besides Simmonds are drawn from Cycling New Zealand and WorldTour professional outfit, Mitchelton-Scott. Jacques Landry, an assistant high-performance director based in New Zealand, is to be team manager, with Craig Geater, a mechanic with Mitchelton-Scott, returning to DS duties for this campaign.
Scanning the list, I’m privy to the final team announcements yet to be made public, information that will fire up the self-proclaimed experts in faceless forums and local media. However, as Bryan points out, everything is subject to change as there’s always a few spanners thrown in last minute. It wouldn’t be real life otherwise.
POSSUMS IN THE HEADLIGHTS
Landry is a Canadian Olympian who turned to coaching back in 1999. As we discuss some of his career achievements, he says “no, this is not my first rodeo,” showing not a little modesty. I mention how the team line-up has changed once already: Sharlotte Lucas, the reigning champion of Oceania, who had publicly campaigned for her inclusion in the squad, has withdrawn citing lack of funding from the national body.
“It was decided because Innsbruck is such an expensive place that all riders below WorldTour level would have to pay a contribution,” says Landry. “Cycling New Zealand would love to cover all the costs but it simply doesn’t have the funds to do so. The riders competing on the WorldTour are covered as they are racing internationally and we already know what that investment looks like.”
With this in mind, Landry is honest about what is required of all the riders before they put their hand up to even don the Silver Fern.
“The criterion for selection is to basically show competitiveness internationally leading into the World Championships, so to demonstrate that you are able to compete in internationally-sanctioned races in Europe, not be just pack-fill.”
Cycling New Zealand have come under a fair amount of flak nationally regarding selection for the Worlds. Landry, however, is pragmatic.
“The biggest problem, especially with regards to the junior categories and the U23s, is that if you don’t compete in Europe you have no clue what to expect. This does not just apply to New Zealand, I’ve seen it in Canada too. Moving forward, the idea is to gain experience through a campaign leading into the Worlds, which will be better for rider development than just going to Road Worlds where, if they are not prepared, they’ll last an hour or two and haven’t learnt anything and will return disillusioned and demoralised.”
Landry also wants a more transparent selection process put in place.
“Plus better managing of the athletes’ expectations, in regards to the notification of selection dates and the process, so as to ensure everything is as clear as possible. With the track team it is different, you hit the time and you are in, but with the road team it can be open to interpretation – and anything that is open for interpretation people will try and test.”
Behind me are the cheers and distorted PA from the U23 men’s finish line, in front I spot Craig Geater across the melee of the team parking, leaning on the provided UCI car, joking with someone from another federation. Like Landry, it’s not his first rodeo; occasional nods followed by friendly jibes in all languages to all and sundry confirm he’s more than at home in this cycling inner sanctum.
We wait for the riders to roll in. In the end, the reigning New Zealand U23 champion, James Fouché, didn’t travel, tired after a long season, leaving the last minute nod to Luke Mudgway. Moving mountains to make it to the start line, Mudgway had flown in self-funded from a race in China, unfortunately picking up a stomach bug en route. He has pulled out of the race early as a result. Of the other two, Spain-based James Mitri lasted a touch longer and Ryan Christensen is still out there somewhere, the Canyon-Eisberg riders legs not as fresh as he’d like from the Tour of Britain.
The early baths for his riders leave Geater feeling frustrated.
“Personally I disagree with the way the UCI allow WorldTour riders to ride the under-23 race. Some of these have come right out of the Vuelta and that’s a massive advantage, that along with all the help from their professional teams in terms of prep for this. And that showed, those riders came out and put the hammer down, destroyed the race. I don’t think it’s fair across the board.”
Earlier in the week, while wunderkind Remco Evenepeol was sealing a WorldTour contract with his emphatic win, Josh Lane was NZ’s best finisher, nearly 19 minutes back. Niamh Fisher-Black came home in the fourth big group in the women’s race, a more encouraging five minutes down. Brutal experiences for all the youngsters, the ambition to acknowledge what’s required of them for the next step will hopefully not scare everyone off; I just hope they got their money’s worth.
Tomorrow, less than one point behind Great Britain in the UCI standings, New Zealand will field three riders, Georgia Williams their designated leader. Eight riders will start in the orange of the Netherlands; it’s a big ask for the kiwi girls to overturn those sorts of odds.
“Georgia is national time trial and road race champion, and considering she fractured her hip the day before the Giro at the end of June, 11th in the TT this week was solid,” says Geater. “She’s a little bit underdone still, if the Worlds could have been pushed back a couple of weeks she would have been back on top of her game, but she’ll get in there for as long as she can. She knows the riders, rides with half of them, knows her way round, so that should add to her confidence.”
Williams, although happy with her TT, is realistic about tomorrow; not that that’s going to stop her giving it a nudge.
“It’s going to be tough but I know how they all ride, how they think and what their tactics are, so I’ll use that. There’s only three of us so we can look at the other bigger teams of eight riders to work, so that’s definitely another advantage for us.
“It’ll split at that 60km climb, so we’ve just got to get over that then hang in as long as we can. I’ll be watching all of the Dutch and my trade teammates like Amanda Spratt, they are going really good. I’m not climbing as well as the top climbers, so I’m thinking I’ll try and get in an early break, get ahead.”
PICK IT UP PACK IT IN
Alberto the team mechanic is doing his best to get all of the bikes ready to go in the hotel’s basement storage room. This makeshift service course is littered with extension cables, plug adaptors and the usual mountains of bidons, musettes and rain bags.
He stacks the three bikes into the back of the Cycling New Zealand Transit while massage therapist/soigneur Delphine Leray wanders over with some picnic chairs for the riders. Logistics man, van driver and all-round fixer, Dirk Van Hove, brings the chillybin/esky/coolbox (depending on which country you are in) and we are off. Happy to help, I’m partnered with Leray at feed zone two, but first we head the 70 plus kilometres to the start in Kufstein. Leray is another behind-the-scenes veteran, this her fourth Road World Championships. She’s also been part of the Canadian Olympic and Track World Cup campaigns for the past eight years. She has an instinct for knowing just what to do and when.
Geater arrives with the girls, Leray escorting them to the chairs where they start to pin numbers and clean sunnies. “It’ll be a cross tailwind to start, so we’ll probably see some crashes on the way in” observes Geater, sharing the UCI car with the Irish and South Africans today.
The girls spin off to the start for the sign in. Leray, attentive as ever, is there to grab their gilets on the start line and ready to replenish their bikes with fresh bottles before the off.
We see them again with 61km to go as they crest the top of the hill. This is the easier and slower feed, compared with the fast-moving and flat city centre position. Leray has already named each musette and loaded it with each of the riders requested contents; carbo mix or plain water, caffeine or non-caffeine gels – no mid-race surprises. It’s stretched out on the climb so we can spot the girls early as they approach. Williams is in the chasing group, with Grace Anderson and Mikayla Harvey in the main bunch.
“For the rest of the race they’ve asked for one of us to be positioned first with water, the second at the top with mix,” instructs Leray, passing me the water. Next time up, 39km to go, Williams takes a water, Anderson and Harvey a mix from Leray, the race all over the road now, the winning move already made. Williams was right to keep an eye on those Dutch.
“I’m super happy for Amanda,” says Williams of her trade teammate’s silver medal. “She’s worked so hard and really deserves it. It was tough, in the first 20k there was some moves going and I was up there with all of them but nothing was sticking. Then Mikayla put me in a really good position for the first climb but… I’ve had seven race days since June and am just lacking fitness.”
Race over, her focus is the tight turnaround, back to Italy tomorrow morning for her team’s training camp, but full of praise for her younger teammates, “Considering they’ve both not done much racing in Europe they were both super strong.”
“Grace and Mikayla went really well, better than expected,“ agreed Geater, philosophical back at the hotel. “A lot of the riders from big nations and a few big names went out the back when they hit that 60k climb, but they managed to hang in there. They are not used to riding in such small roads with riders that are so aggressive, so they really handled themselves well and are definitely promising young talent. We all knew that Georgia is a couple of weeks from being on top form but she went well, 140km, couldn’t quite get over the last climb with them but it was an exceptional ride and she should be happy with that considering.”
The focus now on the last day, I walk with Patrick ‘Paddy’ Bevin to the race brief, a successful season so far with TTT stage wins in the Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour de France he’s come into the World Championships in form after claiming the points jersey and a fourth place overall in the Tour of Britain.
A third in the team time trial with his BMC squad earlier in the week and eighth in the men’s individual time trial show the form’s still there.
“Since Britain it was all about the time trial prep, they were the two big targets. The TTT, the last for BMC, and it was my first Worlds time trial at any level so I had a few unknowns, but it was good to get the first one under my belt with a solid performance.”
He’s been here nearly a week now, plenty of time to recce the course.
“I’ve been trying to unwind myself from the TT work. Four hours yesterday and we did a lap together today. It’ll be interesting tomorrow, it has the potential of being quite stressful going into that climb coming onto the course and it doesn’t let up on the city circuits either, tight and technical, which could shape the race more than just the pure climbing. We’ll be on deck all day, and a 250k road race where you are on deck all day is a different animal for sure.”
BEDROOM MASTER PLAN
The elite men are getting their pre-race briefing from Geater in the room he is sharing with Van Hove
“It feels weird me over here,” says George Bennett, before jumping over from Geaters bed and squeezing onto the couch with the other three. Dion Smith is using the stacked cardboard boxes of equipment as an elbow rest. No meeting rooms with PowerPoint strategy plans here.
Bevin, ever the analyst tactician, puts his opinion across.
“It’ll kick off at that 60k corner and not stop.”
Bennett has raced around here during the Tour of the Alps, placing fifth overall and coming second on the Innsbruck stage, and thinks that with 200km still to go it’ll be maybe later. Sam Bewley has an answer that sends everyone into stitches.
“Nah, we’ll turn onto that climb and what’ll happen is Valverde will get his big Spanish schlong out and say ‘Boys, now we are pissing!’”
Either way, it’s obvious Bennett is up for the fight. He’ll either win or come nowhere.
“Top tens are always nice but I think it’s time to really play for the win. It’s a special race and the value of winning it is so high. Hey, it might blow up and we are fiftieth, but I just feel better if we really race to win and that’s what the guys want to do, and that’s what I want to do.”
Bizarrely, three wedding receptions are taking place tonight in the team hotel, so the boys are shifted to quieter rooms well away from the parties. One of the brides, adorned in an oversized pink meringue dress, is outside having a fag, watching Alberto’s late night prep for the last race tomorrow. Her younger groom comes out to persuade her back in, brushing him away she lights another. I’m guessing it’s not her first rodeo either.
A mechanic for the Mitchelton-Scott team, Alberto’s been here since the TTT, one of the WorldTour outfit’s three staff and two riders here for Cycling New Zealand. He’s tweaking Bennett’s gears to perfection.
“The others are 53/36 and 11-30 on the back, but George is 34 and 11-32. I think it’s too much but this is my thinking – if you want to go better on the climb then push harder!” he laughs. Another experienced professional, Alberto is unfazed working on a BMC, a Bianchi and a Cube after a season spent spannering solely Scotts, “Not a lot is different, a bike is bike,” he winks.
Bennett’s Bluetooth speaker gargles from the side door of the Transit while the four pin their numbers on, sitting on the deck chairs outside. “Biggie Smalls, so we can offend as many people as we can,” Bennett laughs, cheekily. These notorious rhymes lost on the autograph hunters, grown men busily flicking through their catalogues of fan cards so to seize this moment of access not found elsewhere in the car park. Of the other nations, Team GB are over there nestled in the Sky bus, the Spanish in Movistar, the BORA – hansgrohe bus, well, you always know where Sagan is, just listen for the chanting crowd.
The four kiwis laugh along with the jovial flag bearing fanatics and above the East Coast rap the talk is of provincial rugby games from their youth, inescapable when growing up in New Zealand.
“Yeah, we’re all good mates,“ beams Bewley. “We all live in the same town, train together a lot, hang out together, watch rugby games and go to dinner, all that sort of stuff. So, yeah, it’s good to race with your mates, and it’s always special to put the New Zealand kit on as well”.
Bennett is ready but not psyched, yet.
“Not psyched, nah, excited. It’s 260k, if you came out psyched you’d run out of steam by 100k, so, yeah, I’m just ready. Actually, I’m cold, I’ve just got to find some arm warmers first! Hey, what are you going to do with the gilets? Just chuck ‘em?”
While he’s asking his teammates I’m envisioning a confused Tirolean bystander watching the Worlds circus zoom past during their daily stroll, bemused further as a black Cycling New Zealand gilet lands at their feet. The boys zip up and head off for the sign on – Leray is at their side, making sure they have full bottles before the start, Geater and Alberto parked up sharing car 23 in the convoy, Landry packing up the picnic chairs to head to the first feed zone.
ELASTIC BANDS AND BIDONS
Different day, different race, different musettes, different feed zone. Leray checks through the rider requirements listed by Geater and starts to make them up. No caffeine until the last 100km, the first musette for the team to be picked by Bewley, while Smith and Bevin grab bottles as and when. It’s easier at the hill feed, plus they can ditch their bottles at the start of the hill and grab a fresh one for the next lap at the top. They first pass us down here at 170km to go, already strung out, either by the pace or perhaps possibly more by the encroaching overenthusiastic feed staff. A Belgian swanny takes control, shouting at some of the ‘smaller nations’ to back off. Although I doubt many understood the barrage of flemish he let fly with, I suspect they did understand what he was getting at – the whole line dutifully retreating under orders.
As the race moves on, the big screen in the distance keeps us informed, as does WhatsApp. The message comes through from the top feed that Bewley has finally packed, as expected at this distance, time to pass the baton. Bevin alongside Bennett now, Smith dutifully grabbing the musette as they pass us, the bunch dwindling, the pace visibly faster now and his grimace backing that up.
Unceremoniously, a Slovakian staff member rolls Peter Sagan’s spare bike away from the pits, the still current World Champion visible on the big screen passing bidons and gels from his musette to the souvenir hungry crowd on his way to the BORA bus.
As time passes we get the message that both Smith and Bevin have packed, George still looking comfortable as he heads past us, he’s fed from the hill this time. Bevin and Smith roll into the pits for a quick debrief, then back to the finish line to meet Van Hove. “Filthy” is Bevin’s one-word race assessment. Together with Bewley he heads onto the Mitchelton–Scott bus to watch the rest of the race, welcomed on as present and future teammates, and as ANZACs.
Leray starts to empty the chilly bin, our last feed is fast approaching so we only need a bottle each. George passes us, 30km to go, still in the main group he looks focused but happy in the long, thinning line.
Abandoning the feed we head to the team parking, Landry calmly navigating the only roads that are still open. I find Van Hove on his tiptoes at the finish line, straining to watch the big screen as the race plays out on the Höll [the deciding, super-steep climb of the race]. No sign of Bennett, but Landry’s pre-race tip, the Canadian rider Michael Woods, is up there.
You know the ending, you’ve seen the finish, you’ve seen how it plays out and who got it. But that’s not this story.
We wait for Bennett, the French next to us have three riders in already. A third group comes around the corner and he spots our black jerseys. Silent in the wall of noise. Van Hove instructs which way to the team parking, running behind him down the back streets to guide him to the picnic chairs.
The boys are there to greet him with handshakes and bro hugs, the team’s only finisher happy to finally relax sits with his head back and eyes closed. All the time autograph hunters lurk ready to pounce.
Bewley knows the moment to start the assessment.
“Fark, started early today, hey?”
“60k in,” Bennett continues. “That climb. Reckon we did that well though, surfing around there, and Paddy, right after you moved me up I went full, that was real good. Must have taken some biscuits though?”
“It did, but that was the play,” chips in Bevin.
Bennett had also been in the play with 22km to go, when the final selection started to split.
“I was just waiting and waiting for the right move and I saw one that had every big nation in it; French, Spanish, Aussies, British, an Italian, so I tagged on the back of that but I was pretty under the pump there. Someone brought that back. Once you saw a move like that wasn’t going to stick then you just had to play the waiting game, so I just took it easy.
“[The final climb] was real shit. Guys were unclipping, going across the road. I had to unclip and try to get going again, I lost the group then. I was definitely not the only one having to stop, heaps of guys were, one guy from Kazakhstan just cramped up and fell off!”
While the support team work out which rain bags and bikes are going with teams for Lombardy and which are staying with the riders, Geater promises the boys a couple of cold Duvel’s he’s kept back in the minibar for them, although Bewley’s got a plan for the way home, “Anyone know where the Spanish are staying? Bro, we should so crash their hotel!”
THE RIGHT DIRECTION
Three DNF’s and an 18th place, does that really tell the story of the day?
“Everyone rode their role and I didn’t expect any of the other three to finish this race,” reasons Geater. “So I’d say we’ve come out with a pretty good result. George will play it down and say it wasn’t good enough, but there was only about 25 guys left at the end and as he said he got tangled up and lost momentum. As Sam was getting dropped there were guys going out left right and centre so it was a lot harder than it looked. Paddy and Dion rode really well, they gave it 100%. It would have been nice if they’d been there that last 20-30k to help George but that’s bike racing.
“We put in a pretty solid team around George, some of the best guys we have, and we only get a small amount of numbers so that’s what makes it difficult to match some of the bigger teams at those times in the race. It’s really the first time we’ve been able to go for a goal like that and we are getting closer and closer with the more points we are getting. We are certainly going in the right direction.”
Landry draws a comparison to his native Canada, another small cycling nation, but also sees the possibilities.
“Obviously George is disappointed and who knows what he’d have done if he had been better positioned. He looked pretty good. I think by then he was hoping to move his way up from the bottom, but he was blocked. He got in that move on the second to last lap up when the hammer was really starting to go down and, although people considered him as an outsider, in my opinion he’s got the legs to be up there with the top guys. Obviously he’s at a disadvantage because he had no teammates, Valverde had a couple to set him up, but then again Mike Woods didn’t either. It was really down to being in the right place at the right time and having the legs to be there, being in position when you know the climb is going to happen, arriving the freshest at the foot of that climb.
“Looking ahead, with regards to the elite men and women, we don’t need to do too much as they are doing a lot leading up to these races with their trade teams. With the juniors and under-23s it’s a different story. We really have to support the riders more by setting up a programme and giving the younger riders some guidance through the ranks, nurturing, take on more of the prep for these races. The problem with funding being what it is in New Zealand, that’s tough to do.
“It’s always an eye-opener for the juniors, but what we want to do next year is a better selection policy and better plan going into the Worlds, focusing on a block of racing beforehand so they get some experience. You don’t come to the Worlds to learn, you come to perform, so showing up and being a deer in the headlights is not learning anything. Being based in Europe is one thing but the step from racing in New Zealand is a huge jump.
“The cost to do a three-week block is just about the same to do the one World Championships, but the benefits are huge. Getting them used to positioning in those bunches, fighting for position and owning those positions.
“You can show videos but you don’t learn until you are doing it, and you won’t learn here at the Worlds, but you will in the Belgian kermesses; the real school of hard knocks.”
Saying my goodbyes I try to squeeze past through the chanting crowd that surrounds the BORA – hansgrohe bus. Sagan might be defeated this year but certainly not by public opinion. I leave the New Zealand team to disperse back across the globe, hopefully first via the Spanish hotel.
Woken the next morning by squalls of rain against my window, a quick weather app check says storms and a decent drop in temperature for the next few days. Twenty-four hours earlier, well, that would have been a very different rodeo.