At the 2014 Vuelta opening ceremony the night before the opening team time-trial in Jerez, a man is getting snapshots of his young son with whichever riders are passing by. It’s one of those classically cute scenarios seen at bike races the world over.
Except the dad seems more thrilled at being in Spain and meeting his heroes than the boy. The lad indulges his old man by posing in the scorching evening sun with various arms draped obligingly around his shoulder while, if appearances do not deceive me, and the kid could take a decent photo, pop would rather swap places.
To say MTN-Qhubeka’s boss and founder Doug Ryder was excited to be at the Vuelta, seeing his team make its debut at Grand Tour level, is something of an understatement. He was grinning from ear to ear.
The disappointment of not receiving a wildcard spot at that year’s Giro was swept away in Jerez. The following three weeks saw a solid if unspectacular performance from the African squad still finding its feet at the highest level. How to progress, we wondered?
The answer came as the announcements started dribbling out of their 2015 signings: Edvald Boasson Hagen joined from Sky; Steve Cummings from BMC; Theo Bos from Belkin; Serge Pauwels from OPQS; Matt Goss from Orica-GreenEdge – a slew of riders stepping down a tier in professional cycling’s hierarchy in order to, hopefully, step up again.
EBH: stepping down to step up with MTN-Qhubeka
Another rider taking a punt on carving a new career for himself with the ProContinental team was Tyler Farrar following seven years with Slipstream. A winner of stages at all three Grand Tours in a golden period between 2009 and 2011, opportunities to strut his sprinting stuff with Garmin were becoming increasingly rare as the team became more focused on general classification. Time for a change of scenery and a new challenge.
He certainly got what he was looking for, as did many of the new signings. Boasson Hagen, Pauwels and Cummings joined Farrar on the Tour de France start line in Utrecht. Could they cut it on the world’s biggest stage?
The answer was an emphatic ‘yes’.
And what a Tour they had: Daniel Teklehaimanot in the polka dot jersey for four stages; Cummings’ memorable win on Mandela Day in Mende; gutsy riding from a resurgent Pauwels to finish 13th on GC. The team classification may not garner much attention, but that MTN-Qhubeka ended fifth at their first attempt speaks volumes.
And at the head of affairs was the man the team’s general manager Brian Smith affectionately (we think) calls “Captain America” – Tyler Farrar. "Your role evolves over time, and my role has changed a bit since I came to MTN-Qhubeka. I’m playing road captain, doing lead-out for the first time in my career. It’s different but I’m still having fun."
The Belgium-based American seems to have been in the peloton forever, yet is only 31. “That was my fifth Tour and fourteenth Grand Tour,” he says, his expression suggesting he is amazed at the tally himself.
They don’t get any easier, either. “I think this was the hardest one yet. Lots of guys in the peloton would agree with me that this was a particularly tough edition.”
Lots of armchair spectators, too, no doubt. Christian Prudhomme seems to have found a winning formula and is sticking with it. Transition has become a dirty word; sprinters an endangered species. A daily diet of drama is served up for the viewer, for better or worse.
“It makes for good TV, that’s for sure,” says Farrar. “It’s spectacular. There is not a single easy day on the Tour now. That’s the thing about Grand Tours in general: those transition stages were an opportunity to recover a little bit, even if you were a sprinter. You could sit in the bunch, even if you had to sprint at the end – you weren’t going to the death, all day, every day.
“Now we finish in the Pyrenees and the stages before the Alps were almost as hard, if not harder, than the mountain stages. There’s no respite. It’s game on from day one.
“It’s a spectacle, but if you compare it to any of the three Grand Tours when I was a young pro, it’s a big change for sure. You used to have seven sprint stages. You get that very rarely in cycling nowadays. There’s a lot less opportunity for a sprinter now.”
Teklehaimanot riding himself into the polka dots
Not so cool are the inevitable crashes that accompany the opening week of the Tour. Farrar did not escape unscathed, but it could have been worse. “I was in that huge pile-up on stage 5 – I fell on the top. But it’s better to be on the top of the pile than the bottom!"
I suggest he might want to get somebody to edit his Wikipedia page, where it is stated the sprinter has a reputation for crashing.
“It kills me to have that reputation and be asked about it all the time,” Farrar says, not exactly annoyed that I’ve mentioned it, but keen to put the record straight.
“That just won’t go away. We race a lot, crashes happen. Some guys crash spectacularly at a spectacular moment, and that just builds on itself.
“As a sprinter, what do you do? Every guy crashes. I went through a stretch where I did have a lot of them – you can’t fight facts.
“In 2012, I had a whole bunch of crashes, then in 2013 I didn’t crash the entire season, not once. How many guys get through a whole year without crashing? But I was still ‘the guy that crashes a lot’.”
Farrar gets to play Captain America on UK roads this week, part of a strong-looking MTN-Qhubeka line-up that includes Daniel Teklehaimenot, Serge Pauwels, and former Milan-Sanremo winner Gerald Ciolek. Hopefully, he'll have better luck than his cursed year of 2012, his last Tour of Britain. He crashed on the opening stage, then went home...
And what of the future? The American’s contract with the African team has another year to run. Does he see himself taking this new road captain and lead-out role further?
“I’m not a young guy any more but I still like it. I’m only 31 but I turned pro at such a young age that I think people assume I’m older than I am. This is my thirteenth year as a pro, counting my Continental years.”
“I love cycling; I’m passionate about it and enjoy the whole process of goal-setting and getting the guys motivated. The longer you are in the sport, the more you start to thrive on that team aspect.
“Nobody can do this for ever: I don’t see myself as a Jens Voigt or Chris Horner, going on until I’m 43 or whatever those guys did, but at the same time, I don’t see the end in sight.” Brian Smith might want to consider a new nickname for Captain America, then.
Tyler "Buzz Lightyear" Farrar: to next season and beyond.