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Dust and drama: my day on the Tour de France gravel in a pink Cadillac
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Dust and drama: my day on the Tour de France gravel in a pink Cadillac

Tom Southam is getting a sinking feeling. After four hours at the wheel of the EF Education EasyPost team car, guiding the Irishman Ben Healy through 14 sections of narrow, dusty farm tracks east of Troyes, the holy grail – a stage win in the Tour de France – is within touching distance.

I’m sitting in the passenger seat alongside Southam, one of the American team’s three sports directors, for stage nine of the 2024 Tour. It’s like sitting in the dugout at the Euros, dreading penalties, but without the existential angst.

Southam is the team’s in-race manager, calling the shots, guiding tactics and, every now and then, offering hands-on support to his riders when they puncture, crash or just need encouragement. He knows that, of the eight-man leading group heading to the finish in Troyes, Healy is not the fastest sprinter. Instead the stage is set for Tom Pidcock, Ineos Grenadiers’ versatile mountain-biking road racer. Now Healy has to somehow get clear of the group to avoid contesting a sprint that he cannot win.

Southam is at the wheel of EF’s lead team car. It’s an all-electric Cadillac Lyriq. It’s big and pink. Even in the swirling dust clouds hovering over the vineyards, you can’t miss it, which is just as well because, as stage nine wears on, you can’t really see much of anything.

The Cadillac doesn’t have fins, but it does have an iPad, a TV, several phones, a hand towel, multiple short-wave radio channels in multiple languages, packets of mints, spare wheels, a cool box, a bumper load of Bounty bars that the mechanics picked up on special offer and, handily for Southam’s stress levels, an in-built back massager.

It can also accelerate from 30km/h to 100km/h in the blink of an eye, which is much needed as the race splits apart and Southam is forced to cover events at both the rear and front of the peloton. The team has every member of staff out on the course. Chefs, press officers and bus drivers are standing at the roadside, lugging spare wheels and bidons back and forth. The biggest issue, Southam says, is likely to be wheel changes. “Basically, if you have a problem today, then you’re out of it,” he says as we roll out of Troyes ahead of the peloton.

Out in the countryside, there is a stiff breeze. Southam pauses and studies the wind. Another sports director on a rival team stands in the road, fiddling with a wind metre. The tailwind picks up and the flags on the camper vans at the roadside stiffen in the breeze. “They’re going to be hammering along here,” Southam says.

As the peloton exits Troyes, the attacks begin with the EF rider Neilson Powless one of those moving clear in the breakaway. Charly Wegelius, the team manager, comes on the radio as the breakaway nears the first gravel section. “Ben,” he says to Healy. “Remember what we said in the meeting. Remember the stretch after the first sector.”

Tom Southam at the wheel of the EF Education EasyPost team carView image in fullscreen

The first section of gravel comes into view. “Shit!” says Southam as he catches sigh of it. The route turns left and climbs into a sharp bank of packed earth and loose white stones. The dust is thick and choking. The fans cover their faces, but it is already in their hair, their noses and covering their clothes.

Immediately, Southam’s on the radio to his riders. “Sit in the tracks,” he tells them. “The side is very loose to left and right.” Healy hasn’t forgotten what was said in the team’s pre-race meeting. He and Pidcock set off in pursuit of the six-rider break ahead of them. They collaborate well, but can’t close the gap.

Wegelius makes a strategic decision. “Neilson, wait for Ben,” he says. Powless obliges, dropping back and sacrificing his own chances of success to pace Healy up to the front of the race. But there’s a calculated risk: the EF pair take Pidcock with them and that might backfire in the finale of the stage.

When the “catch” happens, Healy and Pidcock settle into the familiar ebb and flow of racing in a Tour échappée. Meanwhile, Wegelius’s unflappable voice talks the riders through each chemin blanc. “Bad gravel,” he intones sonorously as the riders enter section seven. “Loose gravel. Heads up.”

As the roads get flatter on the approach to Troyes, Healy’s chances of winning slip away. The Irishman needs hills, short, sharp ones, to make a difference, but there are none left. “He’s running out of road,” Southam says despairingly.

Now the rouleurs, strong and powerful on the flat roads into Troyes, take over. Healy’s hopes are finally extinguished on the Boulevard du Regiment d’Artillerie de Montagne, where Anthony Turgis of Total Energies takes his team’s first win since 2017. Southam tries to remain positive. “The most important thing is to be there,” he says, as he parks up beyond the finish line. Healy is less philosophical. “Everyone was so knackered,” he says.

Source: theguardian.com