Behind all the thrill and the glamour of winning moments we mostly see of the Tour onscreen, there’s hard work, staff dedication and routine. Team Sunweb did a short behind-the-curtain Tour de France video of the crew getting ready before the day’s stage and Matt Winston, Team Sunweb’s coach, was kind enough to give us more details. We’ve caught up with Mr Winston on Monday’s rest day after Stage 9 of the Tour, right in the middle of it all. As one can guess, ‘rest day’ being quite the euphemism in the life of a pro-cycling coach.
At the start of the video, you can notice Pim Heemskerk, the team’s mechanic, laying down the basics of the team’s usual morning routine. We are then greeted by Matt Winston from one of the ŠKODA team cars that spend the entirety of the Tour stages following the riders, acting as a mobile counselling, mechanical workshop and support. Matt joined Team Sunweb fairly recently, in 2019, as a race coach. Prior to this, Matt coached the junior national team of British cycling for eight years and also was Head Coach for the UK-based ONE Pro Cycling Team.
That must’ve been quite the career change of pace, which was our first question for Mr Winston. “I’ve worked with another team after the [British Cycling] Federation but it was not a World Tour team at this level so, yeah, it’s quite different. There are a lot more races and the races are also bigger and more high-pressure.”
A team coach also drives the team car. What we wanted to know is how does one learn to drive so carefully within the crowd of cyclists and among all the other vehicles? “It’s experience. Only on the big races, we have two coaches in the car. On other races, there’s only one coach who drives and talks on the radio. On races like the Tour de France, there’s a lot more motorbikes and spectators so we have someone focusing just on the driving and another person focusing on the race and the tactics. Most people who drive the cars have been cyclists, we all ride a bike, so we can guess where the riders are going to go and we can lead the car in a good way.”
There’s no shortage of excitement or accidents at the Tour. What’s the craziest occurrence Matt witnessed from the team car? Turns out it’s pretty recent. “I think yesterday was the most exciting Tour experience I’ve had. Mark Hirschi (Sunweb) was in a breakaway for 85 kilometres alone and he was caught with two kilometres to go and, still sprinting, he came in the third place. That was a hectic and a busy day but also quite exciting all the way to the finish.”
The team cars and their crew have to be ready for whatever might befall the riders and as such are perfectly stocked. As Matt told us:” We have eight riders in the race and we have one bike for each rider on the roof. We always have two cars and each carries eight spare bikes. In total, each rider has three bikes per the whole race and each car carries eight.” Not only such preparations make the Tour one of the bussiest races of the season but how does it stand compared to the likes of La Vuelta or Giro d’Italia? “There are more media and TV motorbikes but even races like Giro can be pretty hectic. Basically, it’s not about the race but the route of the day. It might be lots of hills and rain or big roads and flats where things are more relaxed. Any race can be really hectic; it depends on the conditions and on the course.”
The team coach in the car often has to make decisions in split second and mid-race. What’s the toughest one that comes to mind Matt had to make recently? “That was probably a few days ago in what was supposed to be a sprint stage, and our sprinter was dropped early in the race so we decided the whole team should wait, to try to pace him back. They weren’t successful, which means all of our team is behind in the race and it’s not easy to make that decision. You only have about five, ten seconds to make it, to think very quickly about all the options you have. If it works, everyone is really happy; if it doesn’t, not so much. ‘What do we want to achieve?’ We want to win. So yeah, we have to gamble.”
One has to think of their mental wellbeing after being exposed to such a long period of pressure. When asked how Matt unwinds during and after Le Tour, a bicycle was strongly present. “I try to ride the bike a little bit in the morning before the race, sometimes for an hour, if it’s time. After this Tour, I have to go directly to the Giro. I will drive from Paris to Sicily so maybe I’ll take one week to do the drive, take it easy, and spend some time riding a bike in Tuscany and Sicily before the next race, as a little vacation. Normally, I try to take a few-day holidays after a Tour.”
Thank you for your time again, Matt.
Do you root for Team Sunweb or do you have other favourites in the La Grande Boucle?