Alain Daniel is the man that professional cyclists do not want to see at a race. Clap eyes on him and chances are that their race is over.
He is the driver of the broom wagon for all ASO races. At the likes of Paris-Nice, Paris-Roubaix and the Tour de France, Monsieur Daniel is the grim reaper, driving his Volkswagen minibus at the back of the convoy of race vehicles, waiting to sweep up abandoning riders.
However, there’s nothing stern about his demeanour. The warm-hearted former cyclo-cross racer gives back markers regular time gaps, water bottles and encouragement.
Since he started driving the voiture balai in 2004, hundreds have abandoned into his vehicle, sick, tired or broken. But he has also witnessed dozens of remarkable rearguard actions. The man everyone calls “Le Gaulois”, due to his impressive moustache, has fond memories of supporting David Millar and Jens Voigt on unlikely lone survivals on Tour de France mountain stages.
Especially over the course of the three-week French epic, a rapport with riders who are regularly dropped is forged. Last year, he had a wry ‘see you tomorrow’ from Dan McLay (above), the British debutant who spent most of the high mountains successfully fighting the time cut.
“There are things that nobody sees,” Daniel says. “They are warriors. It’s not like footballers, they don’t roll around and wait for the yellow card to be brandished.”
“On the 2015 Tour de France, in that big crash that took out Bonnet and Cancellara, a rider called Michael Matthews crashed. There was nothing broken, but he was flayed, scraped, he had road rash everywhere.”
“He got going, then stopped and climbed into the ambulance. The commissaire next to me in the car said ‘I’ll announce him as an abandon [on race radio].’”
“I said ‘no, no, wait, perhaps he’s getting treatment. I looked at my watch: he spent seven minutes in there, got out of the ambulance and he finished. It was day three. But he finished that Tour too. Two months later, he did the world championships and was second behind Sagan.”
Daniel has seen riders joyous at quitting and the end of their suffering, while others are inconsolable. “At one Tour, Paris-Roubaix winner Magus Backstedt was in front of my broom wagon for fifteen days. When he abandoned, he was crying, I had him in my arms. It’s emotional moments,” Daniel says.
The Tour and Paris-Roubaix are the two races where competitors most strive to avoid the dreaded DNF: “I sometimes get to Roubaix velodrome three-quarters of an hour after the winner behind riders who want to finish.”
In 2017, this sweeper is himself getting the broom. There will be a new voiture balai driver because Daniel has reached 60: retirement age.
He drives off into the sunset with no regrets. “Ever since I joined ASO [in 1992], I wanted to drive the broom wagon. I’ve done this for twelve years, I’m happy.”
Read more about Alain Daniel and his Paris-Roubaix anecdotes in issue 17.2 of Rouleur, published in March 2017.