We devour superlatives when the Tour de France comes round, always noting the youngest rider, or the oldest, or the one with the most participations – for the record, Jens Voigt, on his 17th Grande Boucle, heads the current crop.
How about the reverse, finding the most obscure rider, or the ultimate underdog?
Reto Hollenstein can lay claim to both of those titles. I hadn’t heard of him till his name popped up on IAM Cycling’s Tour roster, and you probably hadn’t either.
He has no professional victories to his name, or revealing past interviews available. I could only find out the basics. He is 28 years old, Swiss, very tall and a domestique for wild card team IAM Cycling.
There’s a certain thrill to that. You don’t get many unknowns racing the sport’s biggest race. Most of the Tour de France peloton are already champions or winners. There is little for us to learn, or mystique intact: a Google search reveals all. I had to find out more about Reto Hollenstein, so we met in his Harrogate team hotel for a chat on the eve of the race.
It turns out that Hollenstein took a circuitous route to his debut Tour de France. Before turning professional, with humble Austrian team Voralberg in 2009, the Swiss worked as an electrician for four years.
“Fixing lights like these,” he says, gesturing around the hotel restaurant. “Wiring, making the light switch connect, giving a house electricity: that’s what I learned. I got money from the company and from my team, then when I turned pro, I stopped and went for cycling 100 per cent.”
When commentators talk about riders putting the power down, at least there’s one guy who’s literally done it. “The Electrician” is still up for grabs in the peloton’s panoply of nicknames, although “Sparky” has a better ring to it, perhaps.
An attacking rider whose climbing ability belies his height, Hollenstein’s performances got him a place on NetApp-Endura. He was picked for the 2012 Giro d’Italia, but it ended after a fortnight when he was knocked off by a TV motorbike and broke his collarbone.
“Shit happens. No point going ‘hey, what the fuck!’” he says, miming a passionate Italian losing his cool.
This is Reto all over: he is unemotional and thorough, very Swiss. Apparently, he’ll ask for his stem or saddle height to be changed minutely several times over, then go and check it with a tape measure himself.
He is one of the beneficiaries of the IAM Cycling project, helping to promote Swiss riders like him and Sébastien Reichenbach.
“Even at the Giro, I never dreamed that riding the Tour de France was possible,” he says. “It doesn’t feel real yet. I think that happens on the start line, when I see all the fans there.”
Reto is a big underdog too. At 197 centimetres, he might be just be the tallest man in the Tour peloton. He thinks not: “I think Van Summeren, Schär and that German guy from Lotto – Sieberg – are taller – 198 centimetres.”
His problem is finding a bike that can cope with his size. Hollenstein has broken several of his 61-centimetre frames over the years.
As our chat winds down, he expresses his surprise that an English journalist wanted an interview with him.
“You’re the first guy to ask the team. I saw the e-mail and it’s a great feeling. You know, everyone speaks to the big stars [in cycling]… I never thought someone from a newspaper or magazine would come to me.”
One of the beauties of the Tour de France is that it can suddenly turn the peloton’s paupers into princes. This century alone, the likes of Jan Bakelants, Sylvain Calzati, and Reto’s compatriot and IAM directeur sportif, Rubens Bertogliati, have had their careers transformed by a triumphant day in July.
Imagine if this meticulous Swiss former electrician took his first ever victory at the Tour de France, of all places. The unknown would never be forgotten.
Though his avowed job is to protect and serve IAM’s GC contender Matthias Frank, a smile creeps across his face when I ask if he’s considered it. “For sure, I want to win a race – maybe it’s here, I don’t know. I’ll try, I go every day 100 per cent for that.
“Now I’m here, everything can happen. When you have a dream in your head, you have to go for it. Never give up. Maybe the door is open and you can go through it.”