Pearl Izumi Sports Tours International’s Director Sportif (DS) Marty Mc Crossan and Team Manager Barney Storey were following their six riders over the 138km course between Braintree and Clacton-on-Sea.
Mc Crossan spoke with pride about her performance, saying: “She’s very cut up but she’s as tough as they come. We’re the little engine that could, we’re here to attract sponsors to step up as a pro team and the only way to do that is to put yourselves in the shop window and we did that on telly last night.”
During this five stage race, the DS, two soigneurs and a mechanic will work hard from 6am until 11pm making sure everything is ready for the riders to perform as Archibald did yesterday.
The team follow a meticulous routine. Mc Crossan explains: “We have a logistics plan which is worked out before the race starts, for example ‘bags out at this time’, ‘camper leaves at this time’, ‘cars leave at this time’, ‘this is how long it takes to the start’.
“When we’re all there we have a team meeting, go through the tactics of the day, what we’re going to do, then they [the riders] go sign on, sometimes do some PR, then if they want to jump on the turbo they do, then we check the swannys know what they need to do and when.”
“A lot of the work is done before the race, the night before. Then everyone knows their role. As Sport Director, the buck stops with me but we’ve got a great team, we just let everyone get on with their job and it all runs smoothly.
“The mechanics and swannys are always first up and last to bed, the hardest working on the race,” he adds.
Swanny (or soigneur) Colin Baldwin tells me they’ve brought ‘a couple of hundred bottles’ to the race – for riders, and because fans always like to pick up a bottle to add to their collections.
Preparing drinks for the bikes before the event, he explains the logistics of the feed station – where swanny’s line the road to pass bottles to the riders: “You can’t be wandering round, they have to come to you, you have to stay dead still. If they drop it, that’s it. There’s two swannys on the team so if they miss me, they’ll get Sam [Bailey, his colleague], but no one got a drink yesterday.”
Yesterday’s drink stop was on a flat section, he explains: “They came through at 40 mph, there was no chance of getting a bottle, they’d try to come in, drop the bottle, the bloody bottles go everywhere, it’s better if it’s a long drag when they’re going slower.”
We line up behind the other team cars ready for the start, and hear the count down from the commentator. Once the whistle goes, we’re moving, and the team cars around us jostle for position – there’s a place for every car depending on the team’s rank, and no one wants to be further from their riders than they have to be.
We fly through towns, the DS honking his horn to rally the crowds for cheers that will carry the riders forwards.
“You’d never get crowds like this anywhere else in the world for a women’s race,” he comments.
Many events are run alongside men’s races, otherwise the women ride to empty pavements – the crowds, he tells me, are the thing the foreign riders love about the Women’s Tour.
I ask him how much difference it makes to the girls, and he says: “It’s like, if you imagine playing a football match in an empty stadium, then playing in Old Trafford when it’s full, or riding in an empty velodrome, then a full velodrome. That emotion lifts you.”
We listen to calls from the race radio, and charge to the peloton when we hear one of the riders is dropping from the rear of the peloton. It’s Rowsell, but she’s with two other riders, and waves to us without looking concerned as we cheer her – she’s perhaps saving her legs for a later stage.
There’s a brief moment of panic when we need to stop for a “comfort break” for one member of the car who hasn’t “managed his drinks situation well” – we have to hurtle past the other cars to return to our assigned rank in the convoy.
We’re following the race for just under four hours, and in that time we see plenty of riders drop from the peloton for mechanical support, drinks, and a quick wee stop behind a fence. The riders in question then leap from the slip stream of the cars to join the peloton.
Paralympic Champion Dame Sarah Storey comes back to the car not too far from the end of the race to collect bottles – taking two in her bike, three down her jersey, and one in her mouth.
It’s been a hard race for her, when she’s warming down afterwards she tells the speed of the peloton and twisty roads made her disability much more noticeable, saying: “It’s my set up… If you have to do everything with one side, at that speed, you can’t lose concentration for a second, so I have to take myself off the back by a couple of metres to eat and drink, so I tend to lose ground quite easily.
“If I can get to the front and be involved in a consistent pace those technical aspects don’t show themselves as much, but in a juddery bunch that’s going left right left right through towns it’s really challenging for me.”
The finish draws closer, and we hear the race radio proclaiming that a break has been caught and the riders are approaching the line as one group. As we turn left into the final stretch, we see Archibald close to the back, and about to take a right into the car parking area, so we honk and holler as loud as we can until we see a marshal direct her to the finish line.
From this point, we can go no further, and roll into the car park to wait for riders to return. Everything is prepared, with rollers set up and food out in readiness for hungry riders.
Dame Sarah is first back, she’s straight onto the rollers, but there’s a grimace as she swings her leg over the top tube – it’s been a tough ride.
Riders dribble in, Gabby Shaw comes next, and when asked what she wanted, she said: “I don’t know yet… that was tough” – then follows Sarah’s lead.
We catch up with Archibald to find out what’s next for her this evening: “I’ve asked for a Mr Whippy over here but not sure if we’ve got that. We’ll get some food down us, get some protein down us, then get in the bath when we get back.”
She’s bandaged up following her crash yesterday, but the pain faded after the first few miles, she tells me. She’s tough on herself, chiding the breakaway that the team were so proud of, saying: “You’d think that I’d realise that I’m a track rider and shouldn’t have spent all my beans on day one to no avail… now it’s a case of trying to recover in the bunch and hold on for some moves later on in the week, but I think I’ve put myself in a state of trying to survive rather than trying to prosper.”
We’re sure we’ll see a prospering Archibald soon, and that the team will grow from strength to strength.
Last year the support car had been Team Manager Storey’s own vehicle, and now they’ve got two Volvo team cars, plenty of CNP nutrition and two bikes for every rider.
Mc Crossan tells me: “Until recently it was hard to get team bikes for women’s teams, you had to buy them – and that adds up to a lot, if every bike is £3k and every rider has two bikes… each bike is basically the cost of a race.”
That’s changing as the sport grows. Storey adds, when I ask if equal pay is next: “Just any pay I think. Not all these professional teams pay their riders, which is pretty bad really. If you want successful riders you’ve got to be able to take some of the stresses out of their lives.”
It’ll be many long hours before bed time for the riders, and even longer before the team support put their heads down. It’s hard work from riders and teams that makes races like these possible, and with growing crowds comes growing sponsorship – which allows even better support, and even better racing. Which means more crowds. Like an ever improving merry-go-round of swishing carbon rims and bright lycra.
The next few years, we reckon, are going to be awesome.