I sat down last week and realised that I hadn’t written anything on here about the Tour of Britain, which is a tragedy as it was one of my best ever cycling related days. Given the time that has passed and the amount of drama that was packed into the day I have opted for a (scrappy) bulletin style write up. Although I can never express in words the events of the day, I hope the images help tell the story and you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed being there.
So here goes, my day out at Stage 2 of the Tour of Britain with Bastian Buffel, the Head Soigneur of Team MTN Qhubeka, Africa’s first Pro-continental Team.
Big crowds were expected along the 187km route through the Lake District, particularly at the KOM point at Honister Pass, Stage 2 had the potential to be a classic for the spectators.
For the riders, having already endured a tough opening stage in terrible conditions, thoughts for most were more than likely on survival rather than glory.
Before the race even left the neutral zone it had started to rain, hard, however the MTN squad were in high spirits.
At the feed zone, Basti caught a few minutes sleep while we waited for the riders to approach due to his continuous 6am – midnight (and beyond) work days during the season.
Basti’s evening prior to our meeting was particularly late due to a need for second kit wash it had gotten so dirty on the Scottish roads.
As he listed his daily tasks to me it quickly became apparent how involved and intense each day on the road is, but from his tone of voice it also showed how much he loved being part of a team that has a great atmosphere given the relatively small budget.
Basti told me that as of the start of the season only two members of the squad were over the age of 30, with all but six riders coming from Africa.
He also pointed out that despite the inexperience they have picked up more wins this season that many of the ‘big’ teams and this gave him a real sense of pride. “When anyone performs well in a race it is a victory for everyone, I can tell the riders really appreciate what the staff do for them, we are all one big team” he said.
Basti explained that if I wanted to eat then now was the time (before the riders appeared) as he destroyed a tuna baguette. “Once we are following the riders it may get a little wild, you will see what I mean shortly. I had a sponsor in the car once and let’s just say he was pretty ill”.
Basti explained that having the musettes handed out on the left of the road caused chaos for the European riders and although no one went down in the torrential conditions, many stopped completely to take on food, drink and clothing.
Before we left the feed zone, we were joined in the car one of their German riders Andreas Stauff who had gone down hard in the opening kilometres. He was visible battered and bruised but seemed to be in good spirits.
The chase began and we hurtled round the country roads at a speed I could never have imagined. With visibility poor it felt like I was on a water slide with my goggles steamed up. I now understood why I needed to eat early. In another life Basti would probably do well on the WRC.
As we passed around the lakes on the route we picked up Songezo Jim (see Cycling News link below), one of MTN’s young African riders. Basti explained that the main aim for all their young riders is to just finish the race, however that is easier said than done in the terrible conditions and with another 6 stages to follow. Songezo seemed to be struggling to hold the wheel of the group he was with but was constantly being encouraged by Andreas and Basti to battle on.
As we approached the valley at the foot of Honister Pass we were surrounded by a wall of people, many more than I imagined. Basti and Andreas commented on the craziness of the crowds, many in bib-shorts, out to catch a glimpse of their idols. At this point Andreas seemed genuinely gutted that he wasn’t out there riding up the steep road to the slate mine given the support.
We crested the top of the hill and immediately there was a problem. A second rider was down with a suspected broken collarbone.
Ferekalsi Debesay had ridden for 120km’s in freezing conditions, he was soaked through to the skin, he was up with the main peloton and just crested the KOM point at Honister Pass. His bike slid out from under him and hit the deck. He was receiving treatment at the side of the road and he was in a bad way when we arrived. I quickly moved the contents of the back seat to the boot of the car and he climbed in along side me.
Ferekalsi was in pain. His helmet was destroyed, his glasses were scuffed. His head obviously hit the ground too. He was bleeding, a lot. He was clutching his shoulder, he was shivering and he was in tears. I was absolutely gutted for him and was close to tears myself so I can’t even imagine how he felt.
We got moving again (60km of back seat pinball remaining) and I started to help Ferekalsi to make him more comfortable. I removed his rain cape, jacket, outer gloves, inner gloves, and two pairs of arm warmers. As I find him a tissue to clean up his arm he apologised for getting blood on my jacket.
Basti suggests Ferekalsi should eat and hands him some cake in a foil packet, which I open for him. Despite there being four of us in the car now, the only sound is the rain beating on the windows.
A few more kilometres down the road we catch back up to Songezo who has now lost the group he was with. He is battling hard but the weather is starting to get the better of him. Basti offers him food and a drink and Andreas shouts out to him that he must finish inside the time cut given the team already has two riders already out. Songezo shouts “I don’t think it is possible” but battles on up the next climb, alone.
With no race radio at the Tour of Britain it is tough to understand what is happening at the front of the race and hence calculate the time cut. All we knew at this stage was that Songezo had to keep going and he (and the whole car) was given a welcome boost as news came through of the stage result. My officially duty for the day was to update Basti on the stage via Twitter and I had just picked up the top ten finishers.
I read through the top ten finishers in reverse order, and was pleased to announce that Sergio Pardilla had finished 9th just 9 seconds behind the winner of the stage. A great result for the team, but the best news was yet to come. After just over 5 hours and 187km in the driving rain, there was one name at the top of the list that made the car erupt. Gerald Ciolek.
Basti immediately wound down the window and shouted to Songezo that Gerald had won and that all that was important was to focus on getting to the finish. We now knew that Songezo would make the time cut if he continued at his current pace and so he gritted his teeth and dug in for the finish.
Songezo finished 97th out of 104 in a group 14 mins 8 secs down. He made the time cut in the process and got to spend the evening celebrating the win knowing he was still in the race. What a story.
If you have made it this far down the page you will have noticed that, despite the team achieving two top ten finishes and a stage victory, I have spent most of the time talking about the back of the race. Funny how it works out like that in cycling, the stories of heroism and courage often come from unexpected places.
As well as Andreas Stauff and Ferekalsi Debesay, eight other riders abandoned that day through injury or illness. Songezo Jim could have abandoned but he didn’t, he carried on alone in some of the worst weather conditions I have ever seen anyone ride a bike around this country in. For that, he can consider himself a hardman the next time he is on these shores.
For completeness, the only MTN rider not mentioned, Meron Russom, went on to finished 65th in a group 5 mins 39 secs down, finishing just behind Iljo Keisse and just ahead of Bernhard Eisel. In my book that is a class ride.
As well as finishing stage 2 as top dog, Gerald Ciolek came 3rd in the points competition, 3rd in Stage 1 and 3rd in Stage 7.
Sergio Pardilla came 6th in the GC. Amazing effort given the team only finished with three riders.
Despite the length of this post there is so much more I could have written, but I have to finish at some point, and so here are the ‘thankyou’s’.
Special thanks for my day out with the team need to go to Xylon van Eyck, the teams Press Officer. He gave me an incredible opportunity to get a ‘backstage view’ of a team I have followed since the end of the 2012 season.
I also need to thank Basti. His insight into the team, the job, the race and the cycling world in general was fascinating. It is also worth saying he is a top, top bloke who is obviously well respected in the soigneur community and is a great asset to the team. He is a regular tweeter so give him a follow at @bastiTeamMTN to boost his followers (he needs them for a bet).
If you would like to support the team then visit: www.teammtnqhubeka.com
For more back stage images then check out my Flickr site: http://www.flickr.com/photos/john00taylor/
For info on Songezo’s story: http://www.cyclingnews.com/news/songezo-jim-living-his-dream-with-mtn-qhubeka