“Someone called us the ‘stylish team',” says John Herety, team director for Rapha-Condor-Sharp. “But I think 'winning team' fits better!”
Winning did not come easy to the men in black – or to anyone, for that matter – at the seventh Tour of Britain. On our day in the team car with Herety, for stage seven from Bury St Edmunds to Colchester, the Rapha director could reflect on a tough race – easily the toughest, in his opinion.
“It’s a combination of factors,” explains Herety as we swoop through roads packed with schoolchildren, cheering as if they’ve just seen the Pope, when in fact all they’ve witnessed is the neutralised section of the Tour of Britain.
“For me,” continues Herety, “the riders dictate the race. The course has been challenging, the weather was difficult at the start of the week, but it’s the riders who make it hard. It’s always the riders.
“I heard riders complaining on one of the days in the South West, saying the race shouldn’t go down narrow, twisty roads like that. I thought, hang on a second – you dictate the race, you choose to race flat out. I don’t have much sympathy with the riders on that point."
“But it’s the hardest Tour of Britain I’ve ever been on,” adds Herety, whose experience of top-level racing stretches back to the start of his own professional career in the early 1980s. “There have been no easy breaks.”
Herety’s phone rings – the theme tune to Top Cat. As the speed picks up and we jostle for position behind the peloton, as car number 13 in the convoy, the most tip-top Top Cat begins to convey instructions to his riders.
Herety senses that today, across the plains of Norfolk and into Essex, a break will be allowed some freedom. “Pay attention boys,” he tells his riders, and the lack of any response over the two-way radios tells its own story: within seconds of the official start, the speed is high and the attacks are coming in waves.
Radio Tour reports that one of Herety’s riders, Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, is in an early move, with two others. They quickly gain 11 seconds. “That’s not sticking,” mutters Herety. Speaking into the radio, he tells his riders: “Boys, watch for the counter. Stay on it; let’s not miss anything.”
Herety is right: the first escape is brought back. Two riders launch a counter-attack. Rapha miss it. Radio Tour crackles once more: “The leaders have 28 seconds.” “Bugger!” says Herety moments later. But it isn’t the gap that prompts TC to temporarily lose his cool – 28 seconds is nothing.
It’s what he sees ahead: one rider, then another, then another, then half the peloton, peeling off to the side and pulling down their shorts. It's the time-honoured sign that a truce has been called, the white flag raised and approval granted for the break to enjoy a big day out. It’s a mass pee stop.
“That’s it for the day, then,” says Herety. One of his riders, the bearded Dan Craven, had been one of the pee-stoppers, and minutes later he appears alongside the car en route back to the bunch. “Not happy,” Herety tells him.
“Neither’s my body,” says Craven, who – like a lot of riders – has been fighting illness. “Get that beard off, that’s the problem,” says Herety. Craven shakes his head, rides on. “I’m dead against beards,” says Herety. “Why would you shave your legs and not your face?”
Team director John Herety chats to mechanic Andy Verrall (kevinfranklin, Flickr.com)
Race radio again: “We’re approaching Mark Cavendish.” We’re not really. It’s the village of Cavendish, but the name must induce a cold sweat in Andre Greipel, Cavendish’s HTC-Columbia team-mate and bitter rival. Still, it affords the German sprinter the opportunity to pass through and leave Cavendish behind. It’s easier said of the village than of the bike rider.
The race settles down and Herety tells me about the team. It is no small enterprise: 12 riders, two full-time and four part-time staff, and a budget of £500,000. Herety reckons the current British racing scene matches the 1980s heyday of televised city centre races, in which he was a leading light.
Though Herety might have appeared dismissive of the “stylish” label that attaches to (and indeed sponsors) the team, it is certainly true that the appeal of the sport – and of sponsoring a team – has to extend beyond winning.
“It can’t be just about winning races, much as I love winning races,” says Herety. “We want to win, but not at all costs. We have fantastic sponsors, who understand that it’s the way you race that’s important.”
Herety is interrupted when a “chute” (crash) is announced over race radio. Craven is down, and he doesn’t look happy, even if his beard offers a partial disguise. “That’ll be it for him,” says Herety, getting out the car. Craven, clutching his arm, is helped into team car number two, chauffered by one of the team’s out-of-action riders, Tom Southam.
We drive like the clappers to get back into the race ‘bubble’ and then, safely ensconced in 13 place, Herety – after a brief interlude to extol the virtues of the Skoda he’s piloting (a sponsor, he later confesses) – resumes. The focus for the team, he explains, is on the UK, though they’ve enjoyed racing trips this season to the United States and Japan, as well as throughout Europe.
The trip to America took an interesting turn when the volcanic ash grounded them. “British Airways rescheduled our flight,” says Herety, “but it was in 12 days’ time. The hotel they put us up in was at the airport, with no bloody roads – only motorway.
“We had eight riders, two staff, but Rapha put out a ‘tweet’ that we were stuck and a Rapha customer in Connecticut said, ‘I’m going on holiday – come and have my place. I’ll leave the keys under the barbecue'.”
A sceptical Herety set off, only to discover, as the Rapha party rolled into the grounds of a “stunning place by a lake, with a cyclo-cross course in the garden”, that every volcanic cloud has a silver lining. “It turned into a mini training camp,” he says. “We had a brilliant time.”
Today, on the road to Colchester, they’re not having such a brilliant time. We zig-zag through the Essex fields. At one point, we can look across and see the peloton, stretched in a long line, gaps opening. Herety squints through his dark-rimmed glasses and simultaneously picks up his radio: “Boys, you need to move up, you need to move up. I can see you across a field. It’s splitting. You gotta move up.”
At the finish in Colchester, at the top of a vicious little hill to the line, Zak Dempster is Rapha-Condor-Sharp’s top cat, placing 10th. With one day left, they're two men down (Darren Lapthorne broke his collarbone on day three), but Herety and his riders are philosophical and upbeat – and stylish.