Back when I was an aspiring Under 23 rider on the Great Britain World Class Performance Plan, a team-mate and I used to have a word to describe professional riders: shiny. It became a quantitive assessment of a rider’s worth.
"How shiny is that guy?"
"That guy is so shiny."
Being shiny was something we aspired to at that stage of our lives. Yet, even then, there was always the lingering implication that being shiny was a little hollow: it was more about style than substance, more surface than content.
Professional cycling teams were shiny to us too, with their big team buses, fancy bikes, polished team cars and team jerseys that we’d seen on TV. However, beneath the sparkling veneer, cycling teams have sometimes been badly run and woefully organised. I’m not taking a stab at the small teams from the lower divisions here, but I’ve always wondered, instead, about those big teams that get away with being so impressive on the outside and so shoddy on the inside.
The first time that I picked up a hint of this rottenness was in an interview with Robert Millar in early 1995. He wasn’t short of criticism for the TVM team he’d parted ways with at the end of the previous season.
“Like the time they hid the bus so we wouldn't climb off because it was raining heavily and it was a shit little race no-one wanted to be at. Or having no maps in the team cars. Or getting the earliest morning flights possible back from races so you could go training that day. Or the Gazelle bikes made from 531 plumber’s tubing when everyone else had carbon frames. Or eating in the team bus when we were staying in the Hilton, and then eating in the restaurant when we got put in a cheap and nasty motel…”
TVM looked like a great team: sure, they rode the big races. But in a cycling team, the race is the tip of the iceberg. There is a whole world of logistics and planning that should go into getting riders to and from them.
The Fagor team, another that Millar rode for (although the Scottish climber missed the worst of things by arriving with Stephen Roche in 1988, who brought his own management along) was a notorious disaster for several years too. In his recent autobiography, Sean Yates recalled that the pre-Roche era Fagor was “a mess”, and wondered why anyone of the Triple Crown winner’s calibre would want to go there.
While Yates at least made the best of a bad situation, winning a number of races for the outfit, fellow Briton Cayn Theakston had a very different experience at the hands of the chaotic management. After driving through a blizzard to get to the team’s training camp in San Sebastián (only to find there was no team clothing), Theakston rode one race before being fired – via fax, no less – for “returning to the UK without permission from the team”, during a three-week break from racing before the 1987 Tirreno-Adriatico. Little wonder the Tour of Portugal winner described the team’s organisation as “terrible”.
Although Anglophone riders often got a rough ride in European teams, it wasn’t just Britons who suffered at the hands of badly organised outfits. In 1992 Swiss rider Pascal Richard signed for the Festina team, which he found to be a lot less professional than he bargained for, telling Winning Magazine the following year:
“I wasn’t paid for my first seven months in Festina, and there were other problems too. For example we had to buy our own plane tickets. We rode three weeks of the Giro without a single team meeting. God, we didn’t even stop to look at the race handbook once before any stage.”
Badly-run teams weren’t confined to the Eighties and Nineties either. In 2001 Rob Hayles signed for David Millar’s Cofidis team. Despite having one of the biggest budgets in cycling at the time, things were not as tidily run as expected.
“My programme changed four times before the first race. You could never work out any kind of programme where you raced, trained, recovered and then raced again,” Hayles says. “You could come in from a big ride and the fax machine would be going and then you’d think, ‘oh shit’... And to a certain extent that was true for Dave too, so if it was like that for Dave, I had no chance. My first team meeting was at Paris-Roubaix; that was it in a nutshell.”
Race equipment was often a bone of contention. Hayles recounts that at Cofidis the riders had to make do with one bike each. “The first year we had a bike. We trained on the bike, we packed the bike and we turned up and raced on the bike. The bike was fucked, it was all shit stuff, I mean it worked but… it looked like a hack bike.”
“Of course that created a whole load of trouble for the mechanics: eight riders would turn up the day before a race and their bikes would all need re-cabling, new chains and all that. More often than not you’d come out the neutralised and as soon as the racing started, the chain would start jumping around on the cassette.” It is the kind of thing that every third cat in the country would be embarrassed about, let alone a professional rider.
There was one thing though that Cofidis, for all their faults during the period, did get right. “We were always paid - and we were paid well,” Hayles says, adding jokingly: “They always said that Cofidis was where you went to end your career. You got paid well and didn’t have to race much!”
One must hope now that, with the changes that accompany the current globalisation of the sport, as much time and effort is being put into getting things right on the inside of professional cycling as to polishing its shiny exterior.