Sean Fowler is dancing on the roof of his mobile kitchen, awaiting the passing of the Garmin-Sharp team time trial squad, camera in hand. The acid green of nine Cannondale riders in close formation flashes past.
“Still can’t get used to that colour,” he says. The two teams merged this year. A lot of people will be seeking new employment: two into one does not go.
Sean is one of the lucky ones. He has a new van on order for this season: more spacious, more efficient, air conditioning, solar panels on the roof. It may curtail his dancing activities while seeking a photographic vantage point but that’s a small price to pay. All of the niggling little design flaws that he got wrong the first time round will be put straight in his shiny new wagon.
The man from Colorado is right at home on the Vuelta. After working in restaurants both at home and all over Europe, he settled in Catalunya 17 years ago and opened his own establishment, El Racó d’Urús. He finally stopped trying to juggle the two careers six months back and sold the restaurant to focus on life on the road with Garmin – just at the point when he might be expected to think about settling down. Chefs don’t seem to work like that. He’s a bundle of energy, enthusiasm, humour. And a cycling fan, as you’d expect.
David Millar working up an appetite
Back in 2008, Sean was out on a ride near his home bordering Andorra when a pro rider shot past, then stopped. He was lost. It was Garmin’s Tom Danielson. Pretty soon, Danielson was a regular at El Racó d’Urús, bringing more and more of his team-mates along to sample Sean’s fine fare. Next to drop by Sean’s restaurant was Garmin’s nutrition guru Allen Lim, who suggested the chef might like to come to the 2009 Tour with the team.
“I had three kids, and a restaurant to run. But I had to do it.”
Grand Tour chefs are, overwhelmingly, fans of the sport. What on paper would sound like madness to an experienced cook settled in a nice permanent kitchen – moving every day, working in strange kitchens with sometimes hostile hosts, sourcing local produce within a couple of hours of hitting a strange town – is all forgotten when there’s an offer on the table. Work on a WorldTour team? Travel all over Europe every summer? Hang out with pro bike riders? And they’ll pay me? Where do I sign?
Sean’s first Grand Tour was, it must be said, not altogether successful. “The logistics hadn’t been worked through, either from my side or the team’s. The reception from the hotels was always terrible – there were two kitchens that would not even let me in. I had a camper van with two little electric burners, no oven, that was it.
“I was making paella and rice-based dishes every night. The riders were happy, but I was suffering. And finally the camper broke down – blew up in the middle of the road. This big plume of smoke came out of it for an hour. The next year, we had this van designed,” he says, welcoming us into his modestly proportioned but efficient workplace.
Olga and Sean in the back of the van. It's okay, they're married
Olga, Sean’s wife, is preparing vegetables for the evening meal. She used to stay home and run the restaurant while he was on the road, but now joins him in the van at the races. It seems a less stressful arrangement than trying to juggle two businesses at once, and they are clearly a good team. “It pays the bills, we have a modest life,” says Sean.
How does he plan for a three-week race? “It needs to be enticing enough that they will devour as much as possible. At the beginning of races, a lot of raw vegetables, more than normal. Once the race starts, the vegetables come down, the protein comes up. And there will be more sauce, more intense flavours, nothing dry. Chicken curry, with a lot of vegetables, and quinoa and rice, so the riders will cover the rice with the curry sauce.”
And how important is feedback? “All. I listen to every little comment, everything I can get out of them.”
Sean dismisses my mistaken notion that, like in my kitchen back home, he would have a weekly menu mapped out in advance attached to the side of the fridge with a magnet. The chefs have to think on the hoof, always adapting.
“I think of the menu on a daily basis. There are all sorts of thing to take into consideration: a hot day, a cool day, windy, how the rider might feel when he comes to the finish. Let’s say, you make a cold soup and it’s raining all day. What do you do? Heat the cold soup up?
“Sometimes we actually miss, because what you don’t realise is, although they are pedalling all day in the heat, they are quite protected. They get to the hotel from an-air conditioned bus after a nice shower. I’m sweating away in this hot kitchen, but they are nice and cool, so cold soup might be the last thing they want.”
TTT day, so Sean keeps it nice and simple
The late evening start for the team time trial presents rather different dietary requirements from a long day in the mountains. Sean has to keep it simple: “Today is by the book. Dietary guidelines take over. Clean protein – either chicken or hake, 80g of rice, fruit, that’s lunch. I can’t do my thing today, just this.
“It’s a combination of specific calories, energy and digestion. It needs to be quick, easy and done. I’m going to tell them: you need to eat this and get out of here.”
And with that, we get out of there, without having eaten anything, leaving Sean and Olga to ponder the colour scheme of their shiny new wagon for this season. Blue? Acid green? Both? A bit of jaunty Argyle trim, perhaps? It’s hard to see them being flustered about it, to be honest. After all, they’ll be on the inside, cooking up a storm as usual.
Extract from issue 50