The Tour Doon Hame, sucessor to the famous Girvan International stage race, is, behind the Tour of Britain, the toughest Premier Calendar event of the UK season. Despite the loss of a key sponsor, and the cutting of the event from 3 days to two, the 2012 edition of the race is still a gruelling 3 stage event over some of the toughest terrain the lowlands of Scotland has to offer. Day 01 sees the riders take on a split stage day, with a road stage in the morning and an afternoon criterium. The event closes with a long road stage on Easter Monday.
I’m up with Team Wallis-CHH to capture the team competing in, what for many of the riders, is the hardest and longest event they’ve ever done.
The team’s planning is meticulous, with every part of the two days planned out like some of kind of maniacal ballet. Martin Wallis, the team boss, spells out the idea of the organisation to me as we unload the cars and unpack into the two log cabins that the team has taken over; everything is about keeping the riders relaxed and focussed on the race, nothing else is important. The organisation also makes the support crews job a whole lot easier. It’s clear that this weekend is the culmination of weeks of planning.
As we arrive at the accomodation on the saturday evening, the place is a hive of activity with riders doing final checks of their equipment, packing their clothing and sorting out the hundred and one things that go along with bike racing. The team doesn’t have a dedicated mechanic but the riders have plenty of experience between them so it isn’t an issue. The final thing to do before crashing out for the evening is to fuel up, an enormous meal of lasagne, with extra pasta. Borrowing an idea from pro-tour teams, Martin has arranged pre-prepared food to try and ensure that his riders don’t end up down with stomach bugs. It’s a clear signal of how well prepared and professional the approach being taken.
Stage 1 takes the riders back to the past, with an 80 mile slog from Castle Douglas to the original home of the race, Girvan. True to national stereotyping the forcast for the day is poor with a damp and cloudy start leading into an afternoon of torrential rain.
After an early alarm call the team cars are packed, bikes are loaded and we head over to the race HQ where the boys sign on and then make their final preparations for roll-out. I’m riding the team car for the day and rapidly discover that whatever naive and romantic allusions I might have had about stage racing, they don’t make it through the first 5 miles.
Despite being a relatively quiet start, or so Martin informs me, all hell appears to have broken loose on the road. After a short period of calm Endura begin to turn up the heat and a break of 11 goes up the road. The attacking group features most of the big teams and it rapidly establishes a lead of over a minute. The atmosphere in the team car is a strange mixture of total seriousness, some nerves and brash childishness, mainly aimed at other team cars or riders, or the odd spectator. The race radio is a constant chatter with the chief commissaire maintaining time checks, announcing riders requiring service and the miriad other bits of information that hold the race together.
The road winds past a beautiful reservoir where a line of anglers watch with bemusement as the fluid blur of legs and lycra zips past, followed by the herd of garishly painted team cars, festooned with spare bikes and wheels. The poor road surface starts to take its toll and rider begin to drop back for service. The Raleigh car slides to a halt in the verge and undertakes a quick wheel change before charging back up through the convoy multi-tonal horn blaring with their rider tucked neatly into the car’s slip-stream. Technically it isn’t on and there are loud complaints from our team car but an unspoken acknowledgement that we’d do it if we were in that position. It’s all about bending the rules up until the point they look like they’re going to break.
The race winds on through the hills and it begins to rain. A Sigma rider flashes past after a mechanical break, his face contorted with pain as he tries to keep with the car in front and sling-shot his way back to the pack. Th break is making progress, 1 minute…1 minute 15…1 minute 30…the gap keeps going up. Our guys havn’t made it in, perhaps understandably because it went so early, it seemed like an unlikely move to stick.
The bunch trundles through the feed zone, not many are taking bottles, it’s a symptom the cold that could hurt them later. At this point we make a quick stop to disgorge Phil, the team’s press officer and myself. We’re collecting a spare car and taking it to the finish so that we’ll have enoughspaces to get everyone back after the stage tonight. When we leave them the bunch is holding the break at about 1 minute 30. Our guys are still in there.
We rock and roll over the Girvan, taking a considerably more direct route. We aren’t alone and pretty soon there’s a little convoy of race vehicles winding it’s way into Girvan. We’ve got water and spare clothes, we wait anxiously. The bunch is 10 miles out, then 8. There is a lead group, probably of 3 and then a main chasing group, and then the main field. God what’s happened in the time we were away from the car? We wait and hope.
The lead 3 flash past the top end of the park with the chasing group hot on their heels, the gap can’t be over 30 seconds. The commentator is breathless, will they stay away. The bunch is hot upon them as they come round the final bend and begin the slight climb to the line. They sprint for it with Rowsell taking the win for Endura. The chasing group, probably half the field, sweeps across moments later. But where are the boys?
They come in the remnants of the main field, probably 5 minutes down. A moment’s bad luck with an ill-timed puncture has cost them dear. However, it could have been worse. Everyone has stayed upright and they’ve all finished. They neck gels and protein bars and head for the showers as quickly as possible.
The support team gets to work, washing bikes, filling bottles, preparing food. 3 hours between the end of the road stage and the start of the crit sounds a long time but it turns out not to be that long. We’re all done with about 45 minutes to spare, time to catch a quick 30 minutes shuteye. I wake to the noise of the rain on the car roof. The bad weather has arrived and it isn’t welcome. The last thing anyone wants to do is get back on their bikes and race a 15 lap crit in the rain.
Once again Endura are flexing their muscles. The bunch strings out almost immediately and riders pop left right and centre. Rapha and Sigma try and respond but they haven’t got the strength in depth, Endura are in complete control and wind the screw still more. Rob the team leader reponds to his earlier puncture-based disappointment by gritting his teeth and hanging in the lead group. The bunch flashes over the finish line with Endura once again victorious, rob is in there somewhere. The others are hard on his heels, individually or in small groups, it’s been a true test of grit and determination and they’ve passed.
Martin’s pleased with how the day’s gone. Bad luck is a feature of bike racing and he isn’t letting the earlier puncture worry him at all. The reaction in the crit has been good. He gets a text and it’s to be pleased with, Harry Tanfield, a junior rider for the team, has placed 18th in the Junior Paris Roubaix riding for Great Britain.
Back at the accomodation the support staff enjoy a well deserved meal and a beer, the third stage is a 107 mile hilly epic with the only 1st category climb of the event. With no GC placing to chase, the team are being given a free rein to get into breaks, show off the kit and generally enjoy themselves.
After the hammering of the first day the riders are a bit subdued on the morning of Easter Monday. They’ve 107 hilly miles to ride and it’s raining hard, typical weather for Scotland in April but it’s only going to make the days racing even harder.
The team know what they have to do. Today is about exposure, getting the jerseys out in front but it’s also about finishing. The Tour Doon Hame is a tough event and getting through stages will be a massive confidence boost for the riders for the season to come.
As the convoy rolls out of Moffatt we hear almost immediately that riders have gone off the front in a suicidal display of aggression. There’s no number announcement from the commissaire but pretty soon a rider in the Wallis kit can be seen slipping backwards through the team cars. It’s Steve, who isn’t going to finish the stage anyway as he has a family commitment, who has decided that he doesn’t fancy the hills and has gone down in a blaze of glory.
After two laps of Moffat, the riders stream off towards Talla Lins, the 1st category climb, and into the worst of the weather. The convoy is chaos with riders puncturing and falling behind left, right and centre. The race radio crackles constantly with riders requiring service or feeding, and occasionally telling team cars off for pacing their riders back up the convoy.
We have to take a rest halt, piling out of the car and then back again. Too late, the tail end of the convoy races past and we’re out of the protective bubble of the race. Martin floors the team car, unwilling to leave his riders without mechanical assistance at a crucial time. The horn blares as he throws the car round the scottish lanes, the tyres scrabbling for grip as we listen anxiously for any bad news from the radio. Nothing…we breath a sigh of relief as we slot back into our allocated position in the convoy.
The Talla Lins looms above us like a wall. We can see the breakaway group, a bunch of 12 riders, perched perilously hundreds of feet above, the flashing blue lights of the police outriders piercing the low-lying cloud. This climb must surely break some riders, it’s ridiculous even the car is struggling, grinding gears as it heaves us up the slope.
We pass the crest, a decent bunch of spectators is congregated despite the terrible weather. A rider punctures, beside the road holding his wheel aloft. Not the best place, his team car will be a while and he’s well behind. The descent is a blur of speed, rain and colours. The bunch is gone, the team cars in desperate pursuit, their drivers throwing the big estates round tight, sodden bends and through gates barely wide enough for the cars. The Corley Cycles car slides to a halt, the crew hanging out of the windows, they have a problem. A puncture, we leave them behind, powering down into the valley and again crossing our fingers for our riders. The bunch has consolidated at the bottom, the leaders have over 2 minutes and all the main teams are featured. We aren’t in it which is disappointing .
We start climbing again and suddenly Tipper and Waller are off the back, slipping gently but inexorably backwards. We shout encouragement, a bottle and slip by, hoping they can find their rhythm and get back on. Looking back Jack has jumped into the slipstream of the cars, he’s with 2 other riders and they’re fighting back, Tipper has fallen off the back.
Into the descent Jack steams past on the wheel of a Rapha rider, it looks like he’s going to be ok. Another group is off the back, that’s got John in it, not good. But Jack and John are together, and there are good riders with them. John falls back to the car, “any food…no wait a pothole…got any bars?”. Chaos for a second in the team car, no bars only gels and bottles, and finally a banana. John snaffles all he can carry and sprints forward back into the group. They start working together, using the last of the descent to slip back into the safe cocoon of the main bunch. Good riding, very ballsy.
They don’t seem to be chasing. Despite only having a couple of riders in the move Sigma, Rapha and Node4 aren’t interested in chasing. The lead goes up, 2 mins 30…2 mins 45…then over 3 minutes. Still 20 miles to go. A rider falls off the back of the lead bunch, spent. That’s now down to 10, Cronshaw already DQ’d for holding onto his team car., his team boss Malcolm Elliot isn’t happy. Chaos on the radio but the chief comm stays firm.
The riders roll into the last 5kms. No help from now on, a few cars go forward to provide last minute feeding. We hang back. Noone’s asked for it so we aren’t too worried. They’re all going to finish, now racing for 15th or so, we’ll see how it goes.
The race is over, frantic finish and a final sprint. Our boys in the pack and waiting after the finish to tail the car back to the finish HQ. Showers, food, numbers off, it all goes into the team car. The rain doesn’t help, a nasty end and everything’s wet. Going to be a nightmare to sort out.