John Herety knows it’s a fool’s errand to get in the breakaway on a sprint stage like today. But as the boss of the Continental level British team JLT-Condor up against WorldTour opposition at the Tour de Yorkshire, this is more or less his lot at this race.
“It’s horrible to say you’ve got to go in the break,” he says. “It’s bad tactics. You’re not gonna win.”
For something so apparently undesirable as being breakaway fodder, there are plenty of riders who want to do it. Like most British teams, JLT throw everyone to the task except for designated sprinter Ollie Wood.
Just like the allotment of team car positions in the race convoy at the start of the race, success is down to a matter of chance. Right place, right time. As the race rolls out of Beverly and the pace hots up, JLT-Condor’s Skoda sits second in line, just behind BMC.
“Everyone thinks they can get in the breakaway in a tailwind,” Herety says as the bunch careers along a wide bypass. “It makes me laugh. You’re already doing 35mph in the bunch. Can you do 40mph for five minutes? No.”
It’s the law of the jungle out here, a dog-eat-dog world, and the WorldTour riders are top of the food chain. Of course the break is let go, but only after those in it have been forced to make an effort that they’ll be sure to feel later on.
“Wind ‘em. Give ‘em a quick kidney punch to start off with.”
Six riders make the cut. Four of them are on British Continental teams. JLT-Condor rider Ali Slater is one of them. The bunch sits up and relaxes. Riders come and go in the convoy and the race lets out a sigh.
The race moves gently, the weather isn’t too hot, and riders aren’t sweating out what they’re taking in. JLT-Condor are all kitted out in high-wicking base layers and breathable aero jerseys and skinsuits anyway. All the PeDALED wet weather gear is shoved in bags in the car boot since the sun is out in God’s own county.
That means a lot of pee stops.
From team car number two, the Tour de Yorkshire is just one endless stream of riders pulling over on empty verges to water the daffodils.
Everyone knows John Herety. He’s managed half the field, ridden with or against half the directors, and knows most of the commissaires and the organisers too.
Light-hearted banter gets chucked around. There’s a dry, tongue in cheek sense of humour to a bike race. Herety pulls over in a driveway to swap equipment with the second team car about to follow the breakaway. He winds the window down and shouts to a handful of spectators alongside.
“Two teas please!”
“We’ve been stuck here for hours,” they finally shout back. At least they didn’t get inundated by the yellow floodwaters.
“You got any talent for me!?” demands BMC’s manager Allan Peiper as he navigates a roundabout. “Nah, you ship ‘em out to other people don’t you, you bastard!”
Mark Cavendish, stage favourite on his return from injury, rides up to shoot the breeze on his way back through the convoy. Half a minute later he continues back into the bunch.
Herety says Cav is his favourite rider he’s ever managed. He gets sprinters, having been one himself. But there’s more to it than that.
Imagine bike riders are dogs. Now, he explains, according to former British Cycling psychologist Steve Peters, you get four breeds in the bunch: Rottweilers, Alsatians, Labradors and Poodles.
Your sprinter is your Rottweiler: a reasonable performer in training who is capable of banging out world class performances when push comes to shove. But the problem is, it’s a Rottweiler. So you can’t complain when it barks and upsets someone in training.
Cav is a Rottweiler.
After that you’ve got Alsatians. Solid and dependable, they’re no trouble at all. You could have a team full of Alsatians. But would you win much? Perhaps not.
Ali Slater, the JLT-Condor rider in the breakaway, is an Alsatian.
Then you’ve got Labradors. They pull your Rottweilers and your Alsatians together. They will run for the team until they die. But they need to be stroked.
One well-known British rider, who Herety used to manage, fights his way through the cars and back up to the peloton, his jersey stuffed full of bottles.
“He’s a Labrador,” Herety says. “Full on Labrador.”
Then you have Poodles. They are difficult to work with. They do their own thing. They struggle to obey orders. They can be disruptive in a team.
“As soon as you find out you’ve got a Poodle, get rid of them.”
Harry Tanfield, the Canyon-Eisberg rider in the breakaway, left JLT last season. Apparently he was a bit of a Poodle. One who insisted on sprinting on the hoods, not the drops.
The thing is, one man’s Poodle might be another man’s Rottweiler.
We’re certainly in the dog days of the stage now. The race ebbs and flows. Ollie Wood’s bottle drops out of his cage, jams in the rear wheel and locks it up, bringing him to a skidding halt. The tyre is nearly shredded to the canvas. JLT mechanic Richard Lambert hops in the back with it and we brace ourselves for the loud bang of bursting tub. It doesn’t come.
It might look like a flat, dull stage on TV but there is intrigue and nuance to the racing, political toing and froing as riders and teams take up the running and suss each other out.
“I still want to do it,” Herety says, almost out of the blue.
“Apparently Pep Guardiola [Manchester City manager] says he’ll know it’s time to stop when he gets a call at 11pm at night and he doesn’t want to get up and take it.
“I still get annoyed when we don’t win. Even when it is to a rider who could go on to do great things. That’s when my sad country music gets played on the drive home.”
Country music wouldn’t fit this mood. The adrenalin is rippling. There are quick accelerations, there are riders sheltering behind the rear windscreen, there are corners taken with mere inches between elbows and wing mirrors. The atmosphere is pregnant with anticipation. The race is on.
We enter the finale. The kilometres tick down. The peloton stretches out on the narrow roads outside Doncaster and the Mavic neutral service car is called forward by race radio, an indication that a split is looking possible. It doesn’t arrive.
The race radio chirps. 20km to go, 1:35 advantage to the break. We exchange glances. Herety admits his heart is pumping a little faster now. He’s short and sharp on the team radio, relaying concise information from mechanic Richard, a Donny native who knows these roads like the back of his hand. Keep right here, take the roundabout on the left, narrow bridge coming up.
10km to go, 1:09 advantage. That glimmer of hope is now a crescent slither. Thoughts turn belatedly to Ali Slater, the supposed cannon fodder Alsatian in the breakaway, for the first time. How’s he been going lately, John?
“Best he’s ever gone.”
Heart rates climb higher. Into the final five kilometres we race. The bunch roars along but the gap refuses to come down.
Two kilometres. 20 seconds. What was once fool’s gold is now a golden opportunity. Kristian House, the team’s former British champion turned DS, is driving the second team car behind the breakaway. Herety is on the team radio again.
“Bluff it Ali, bluff it.”
800m to go. The break will stay away. The British minnows have embarrassed the WorldTour sharks. The exception that proves the rule.
And then we turn off. Into a Doncaster side street. No radio, no crowds, just normal traffic. This is the deviation for team vehicles to bypass the finish line. What an anti-climax.
Sat at the lights. Everything is quiet. We’re all quiet. The winner will have won by now. Radio static.
“Victory to rider number 166, Tanfield.”
Silence. Herety’s phone buzzes. Messages. Three words. One of which isn’t printable. One of which is ‘sake.’
Harry Tanfield nicked it on the line, and the first British rider to win a stage of the Tour de Yorkshire did it by sprinting on the hoods.
One man’s Poodle is another man’s Rottweiler. The Alsatian finished second.
“I don’t like going to races and not winning,” Herety says again.
“If you’re not pissed off after a day when you’ve not won, then you know it’s time to stop.”
Rouleur was a guest of JLT-Condor clothing sponsors PeDALED at the Tour de Yorkshire. The team might have swapped black and pink for navy blue and maroon, but they still look the proverbial dog’s dangly bits. www.pedaled.com