We’re bouncing down narrow Essex lanes. Murky water is splashing across the front of the windscreen as we storm through puddles. In front of us, other team cars are servicing riders and we’re winding through a maze of brightly coloured vehicles. It reminds me of playing a video game, having to press the spacebar to jump over an obstacle or quickly swipe left to duck out of the way of an oncoming opponent. But this isn’t virtual and the risks are as real as they come. I swallow and grip my notebook tighter. I’m nervous. This wasn’t in the job description when I signed up to write about cycling.The person driving the car is Julia Soek. She’s a sports director for Le Col-Wahoo, Britain’s best and longest running women’s UCI continental team. We’re in the convoy on the first day of the Women’s Tour – a 140km stage beginning in Colchester and skirting through the East of England to finish in the quaint town of Bury St Edmunds. As I wipe my sweaty palms on my jeans and we rail it around another corner, I sneak a glance across to Julia. She doesn’t take her eyes off the road ahead, focussed on the job in hand.
But, unlike me, who is beginning to wonder if this morning’s breakfast might reappear, Soek doesn’t give off even a hint of panic. “What we’re doing now is pretty easy,” she says. My mouth drops in slight disbelief. “Sometimes you have situations when it's really aggressive.”
Perhaps it makes sense that Soek’s perception of risk is slightly different to mine. Before joining Le Col-Wahoo as a sports director at the start of this season, she was a professional rider herself for Team Sunweb (now known as Team DSM). In her closing seasons with that team, Soek developed into a “road captain” – she called the shots during races, organising the team’s lead out, race plans and deciding on tactics. A role that could be described as an acting sports director in the peloton, it's why Soek was so suited to move into a DS position once she made the decision to retire from racing.
Julia Soek, DS of Le Col-Wahoo (Image: Honor Elliott)
“I didn’t always think I would be a DS,” she says in a rare break from speaking to the riders through the radio that dangles in between the two of us in the front of the team car. “It just turned up because I’m so passionate about sport. I’m glad that I didn’t have to leave the sport when I retired, I’m still in it.”
The 31-year-old Dutch woman first turned professional in 2009, meaning her career spanned 12 years. In that time, she secured one victory at UCI level in Erondegemse Pijl, outsprinting her two breakaway companions to reach the line first in the Belgian town of Erpe-Mere. But, despite rarely getting glory herself, the contract renewals always kept on coming for Soek. Her ability to read a race, her reliability as a domestique and rapport with other teammates constantly made her a valuable asset to whichever team she was riding for.
Even now she’s a member of staff, rather than a rider, it’s clear that Soek is well-loved and respected among the women’s peloton and the circus that surrounds it. As Coryn Labecki (née Rivera) weaves through the convoy to make her way back to the bunch after a mechanic, she gives Soek a happy smile and waves through the window of the team car. As we’re passed by the Team SD Worx car, Lars Boom toots the horn and smiles. Soek waves back, just another familiar face.
This rapport extends to the Le Col-Wahoo riders that Soek now directs in this next chapter of her career. The team’s French talent, Gladys Verhulst, comes back to the car to drop off her and her teammate’s jackets, they’re stuffed up the front of her jersey and she unloads them to the mechanic in the back seat. “I look pregnant!” she jokes with Soek as they laugh together. It’s a moment of friendship and lighthearted banter in a high-pressure, fast-paced situation, and it sums up the attitude that this plucky British team have towards racing.
“We’re not focussed on results,” says Soek. “We’re more focussed on the process and how you can have the best race, then the results will come.” She talks about the team’s approach to building a strong base and development structure, ensuring that the riders have time to properly develop without too much pressure and with a friendly atmosphere.
Julia Soek and Marjolein Van 't Geloof (Image: Honor Elliott)
It’s an ethos they take into every race, and The Women’s Tour is no exception. She tells me that Lizzie Holden will be the team’s protected rider for the general classification, while Gladys Verhulst will target the QOM jersey and Maike van der Duin will go for the points jersey. They might not be a WorldTour team, but this doesn’t mean they don’t come in with the belief and ambition far above their status. They’ve looked at the course, and Soek is instructing the riders on how many more kilometres there are to go until the next sprint point.
On the move, she analyses how her riders have performed so far, sometimes with an edge of frustration in her voice if they sprint too soon or aren’t well-drilled when coming back to the car for bottles or food. I wonder if Soek misses the hustle and bustle of the peloton herself, or if she feels like she’d have more of an impact on the team’s performance if she was riding, rather than behind the steering wheel.
“Sometimes I miss racing myself, but not always when it’s raining like this,” she jokes. “I think it's taken me a bit more time than I expected to learn everything as a sports director,” she says. “I thought I’d just do it. I think it took me a little bit more time. Suddenly, I found out that, normally, you're really focused on yourself and now you're really focused on everybody else.”
“This role is so different. You have to think of everything, for me that’s a big change, even more than I expected. As a rider you don’t realise the amount of work everybody does behind the scenes, which is good, in a way, because it means everything is running smoothly if they don’t know what’s going on.”
This stage is certainly giving sports directors a lot to think about. With around 30 kilometres remaining, the race is stopped due to an incident up the road. Riders are left waiting for the restart of the race for over an hour, shivering in the back of team cars until the road is cleared ahead. At the same time, there’s discussion and dispute about the safety of the finish: it has narrow roads and sharp bends in the approach to the line.
Soek chats to the riders as they’re stopped by the road, giving them jackets and rubbing their legs to try and keep them warm on this unseasonably cold day in June. Once word reaches us that the race is going to restart, Soek gives clear instructions about the team’s plan for the finish: “focus girls, get warmed up, keep Majo [Marjolein Van 't Geloof, the team’s designated sprinter for the day] safe,” she says through the radio once we are on the move again.
In the end, Maike van der Duin finishes in 10th place in a hectic, crash-filled finale, as well as taking the points jersey for the team. It’s a solid result for a continental team rubbing shoulders with the big guns. “The Women’s Tour is one of our biggest targets for the season,” Soek tells me. “We are a UK team so it’s super important to show ourselves. It’s good preparation to do a race like this, especially with the Tour and nationals coming up.”
Maike van der Duin wins the intermediate sprint (Image: SWPix)
Like for most of the women’s peloton, Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift will serve as the biggest race of the year for Le Col-Wahoo, and their performances in recent races mean they will enter it with confidence. “It’s going to be one of the biggest events of the year and with the media and the live coverage, it will be huge,” says Soek.
She’s quick to explain that she doesn’t see mirroring the men’s calendar as a solution for the growth of women’s cycling, though. “I feel like we can create our own concept, women’s racing is really interesting, we just need live coverage to show that, to show ourselves,” she says.
“We have our own story to tell, we don’t have to be the same as the men because we’re not men. A three week Tour, for me, is not necessary, women are not the same as men and I feel like it might not be that interesting anyway. Women’s racing is short, intense and attractive.”
Intense is definitely a word that’s on the tip of my tongue as I unstick myself from the passenger seat and climb out of the Le Col-Wahoo team car at the end of the day, feeling a little queasy and slightly relieved to be standing on my own two feet again. I thank Julia for letting me come along for the ride, and she smiles with a friendliness and generosity that permeates through the entire British team.
While my day in the passenger seat may have made me grow a couple of premature grey hairs, it was an invaluable experience that displayed the hard work, grit and thinking that goes into running Le Col-Wahoo. It’s a team that’s about more than bike racing, it’s about learning and creating riders who are well-rounded, versatile and able to cope with the demands of a WorldTour peloton. With Soek leading the way, the sky's the limit for this team in pink and blue. And the Tour de France Femmes is next on their hit list.
Cover image: SWpix