Junior racing at the top level

Team Hottubes tearing it up on the international scene

[for race reports & video you can skip down a bit]

More than two decades ago, I met Toby Stanton. I’ve never met somebody more passionate about bike racing, putting all he has into his Junior team. And not just any team, a team that has produced many US World Tour riders.

Even more importantly, it has produced tons of outstanding human beings. Meeting the team is always a breath of fresh air, so focused but also so polite and well-spoken.

So sometime around the year 2000, I started supporting the team with Cervélo bikes. Then when Toby helped us out with something important a few years later, I told him he’d have a sponsorship for life. More than a decade later, I sold Cervélo but the sponsorship continued.

Unfortunately, a few years later the sponsorship stopped. Luckily it was just after we launched the Strada at 3T, so I could keep my promise that way. Then this year, I had to break my promise – a bit. We simply didn’t have the stock to support the team. Luckily they are very careful with their equipment, so they had enough to get through the year with last year’s bikes.

It’s fun to get their updates and also to see the riders go on in their career. In a way being involved in junior racing is ungrateful (by the time the masses hear of these racers, they have moved on to other teams and bikes). But when you see the joy they race with and the impact it has, it’s actually the most rewarding form of sponsorship.

Especially when every now and then you get an update gives you goose bumps or makes you laugh. This one did both so I’d like to share it. (in case you wonder, it’s the two photos that made me laugh, how they are almost identical yet completely changed due to a 19.7km stage). It’s a nice touch they didn’t have a Spanish rider so at least one new face and one original team jersey remained for the photo.

Actually stage 2 had me laughing again, having known Toby for so long I can just picture him in the team car listening to race radio in Spanish and French which may as well be Klingon to him, wondering what on earth is going on.

Junior Vuelta – stage 1

Hello from sunny Spain. 

Today we started the four day, four stage junior Vuelta based in north central Spain. The race is the premier UCI junior race in Spain. It’s broadcast live on TV throughout the country.

The first stage was a 17.9km team time trial. The teams are six riders and go off at three minute intervals and the race is done Eddy Merckx style meaning no aero equipment at all.

I think this kind of race is good for the kind of team we have this year. We have strong time trial riders and guys that are comfortable with going fast. The Hot Tubes team has never raced in Spain so I had no real idea about the strength of who we were facing or the style of racing they do here. The race production is first rate. There were probably fifty police motorcycles, and hundreds of race staff and volunteers. When we arrived at staging, we were led to reserved team parking, fans all over the place and TV cameras with big screens.

Most of the teams at the race have big logoed team vans with matching wrapped team cars, team tents with trainers and staff and all look really professional. It’s an intimidating scene for the uninitiated but we had seen it before. I knew we needed to stick with what I knew worked for us. Northern Spain in August is hot so the real danger was warming up too much. 

We had pre-ridden the course the day before and knew that there were only a few danger spots we needed to be careful with, all in the first kilometer. Doing a team time trial is technical. The idea is to be fast and stay together but with guys of different strengths, the strong guys need to pull longer, not harder and it’s a delicate balance. The start is especially sensitive. Everyone is excited and it’s easy to blow up going out too hard. I had Matisse Julien lead the team for the first kilometer to control the pace and let the team settle in. It’s a little slower initially but likely faster in the end.

We started smoothly and reasonably fast and all together. Just as Matisse pulled off after his stint we hit a hard downhill left hand turn and had our first issue. Jonas Walton, sitting third wheel, lost grip with his front wheel and slid out at 60kmh. I don’t know how the other guys didn’t crash into him but it caused a split in the team so they had to slow to regroup. We got Jonas back up and riding but his chances of catching back on were non-existent so he was on his own. We drove fast and caught the team and they seemed to be going really quickly.   

The kilometers ticked by fast and on a long drag uphill with about 5km to go the team had it’s second issue. Managing your effort is a really hard thing to judge. You want to pull hard and fast but at this fast pace you have to allow some energy to sprint back onto the back of the team after your pull or you risk not getting on and splitting the team. That’s what happened and we were down to three riders, the minimum since the team time is taken on the third rider crossing the line. Fortunately, the three left were our best three time trial riders. 

Flying through the ancient towns at 70kph with the streets full of people is a really cool experience. Even though we had the problems we had, I knew we were going fast and would post a good time. I thought we could be in the top five, maybe, out of the thirty teams here. We hit the last kilometer which is a climb up to a castle. They didn’t allow team cars up so we had a detour to the bottom of the hill and had to wait to know how we did.

I saw other teams giving high fives, clearly happy with their rides so I was less confident until the Swedish national team director came over to tell me we had the fastest time for the moment and I was relieved. In the end, our time held up and we won the stage by 57 seconds.  

The podium presentation was held in the ancient town plaza in front of tons of people and it was a real show. Probably the best ceremony protocol I’ve ever seen for a junior race. Because we were the fastest team, we collected all of the classification jerseys. We had the race leaders jersey, points jersey, KOM, young rider and best special sprint jerseys.

The only one we didn’t get was the one reserved for the best Spanish rider. Tomorrow the racing really starts so we need to calm down, get some sleep and figure out how to hold on to what we can.

Thanks for reading,

Toby

Hottubes Cycling

Junior Vuelta – stage 2

Good morning from sunny Spain again.

Stage 2 started late on Friday evening. This, I guess, is to allow people to get home from work to watch. It certainly wasn’t to allow the heat or wind to dissipate as both built during the day.

It’s funny having every leader’s jersey but one. You would think maybe there would be a calmness, and there is. We did, after all, win a stage and there are only four available so a lot of teams would go home empty handed but not us. Winning the first stage is probably the most prestigious stage except for the queen stage, which is today. This one has the most climbing, the most wind and finishes on a beast of a climb to yet another castle.

At breakfast the guys were happy and excited, seemingly blind to what was going to be coming at them. The conversation at breakfast centered on what they wanted to do. I was asked about getting into breaks, “Can we get into a break if we can today” they all asked? I calmly explained that we had all the jerseys currently but would not likely end that way. Decide what is most important and work to keep that. If you can nip some points for a sprint or a KOM, great but the overall GC lead is the goal. They all seemed to understand.

We were the last team to show up to the start. We were still an hour early and I knew we had reserved parking, which is really nice. The race labels two big parking spots for each team and they are based on your GC standings so as Bob Uecker would say, “I must be in the front row.” and we were. 

There is little value getting to the race really early when it’s this hot. Half of the teams were on turbo trainers or rollers warming up. I knew we just needed to be loose. This race has a great organization. Everything starts right on time and is very orderly. One of the race staff walked the parking lot distributing each team’s race packet. This included complete results from the day before with a current GC list, stage profile sheets and your car caravan sticker. You place this on the left rear of your car window and this tells everyone in the race caravan your place in the fifty car parade. We were car 1.

Part of the discussion about getting into breaks was this. The only good break was so unlikely that it was hardly worth discussing. We had 1-2-3-4-5 in GC at the moment but only 1-2-3 had a 57 second lead. 4 and 5 were only 3 seconds in front of the first Spanish guys. A good break was 1-2-3 in the move so keeping it together was the most safe option, or so I thought.

The race started fast after the neutral section and went to a big climb after ten kilometers. The race radio chatter was constant but of little use to me since it was first in Spanish then in French. After the first big climb as we went around a lake I could see a five man group off the front. My best French is bad but I understood it to be just over a minute in front of the field. The leading five were all different color jerseys, I could see that and it was a long stage and windy so I wasn’t worried. As the race went on the gap continued to increase and I started to wonder what we were doing. Why were we allowing it to go out so much?

Race caravans are a bit crazy, especially on narrow roads. Teams back in the caravan want to get to the front to hand up water to their guys or they just want to get a glimpse of the race before being sent back to their place in line. This makes for a lot of crazy passing and retreating on roads not wide enough for two cars. I did more two wheels in the grass passing than usual. The Swedish team director pulled up next to me and filled me in. Seems he speaks French and Spanish. The break was five and we had Luca, Matisse and Artem in it.

I still don’t understand how this happened. Artem pressed it a little on the first climb. Luca jumped to him and in just a moment Matisse with two Spanish guys and that was it. 

With breaks like this, it becomes a game of chicken. The break is driving and the field is chasing. Usually, one gives up and you are either caught quickly or the gap goes out. In this case lady luck favored us and the field gave up or blew up, I don’t know how you tell the difference. The gap increased to five minutes. I have no ability to communicate with the guys in the break but I was confident in their ability to read a race. The two Spanish guys in the break sat on the entire time. I don’t know if they couldn’t contribute or were unwilling. If they were my guys I would have told them not to work. In a five-man break with three from the same team, the burden is clearly on them since it’s so much in their favor.  

Matisse Julien, our Canadian in the climbers jersey, attacked first and quickly got a gap. Once he was 30 seconds up the road Luca, in the race leader’s purple jersey, bridged up. Artem, in the white, best young riders jersey, sat on the two Spanish guys as they tried to chase. As they got to the final climb Luca took the lead and won the stage followed closely by Matisse. Artem and one Spanish guy came into sight 45 seconds later with Artem taking third for a 1/2/3 sweep.  

The field came in just about five minutes later and it was done. We maintained our first three positions in GC gaining time on everyone. We had 4:04 on the first non-Hot Tubes rider and 5:30 on the guy in fifth. We did have one casualty on the day with Christian DesChamps falling hard on a descent and breaking his collarbone so he was out for the rest of the tour.   

Junior Vuelta – stage 3

Stage 3, on paper, looked like the most likely sprint stage. There were two climbs on the day but both came in the middle section of the 98km stage. When you have the last 40km as a false flat and downhill the bunch can just go so fast that it’s almost impossible  for a small group to stay away. That was my hope. I wanted a field sprint for two reasons. One, we keep every jersey we have and secondly, Artem Shmidt wanted a shot at the field sprint.

Stage 3 was beautiful. The roads were wider than the day before so the caravan was much calmer. Some of that was owed to it not being as hot. The stage started at 10:00am and although it was sunny and getting warm, it wasn’t a cooker. The entire stage I didn’t hear much on the race radio except once in a while they would mention that Hot Tubes was on the front controlling the race. Small groups of two or three would try to get clear but they never really gained any time. It was looking likely to be a bunch sprint.

These sprints are tricky in Spain. The races all finish in the town center which is cool but the roads to get to the center are narrow and twisting and we were going fast. Fortunately, the approach to the line was uneventful. The team cars are required to deviate several hundred meters before the line so I didn’t know how it played out. In the end Artem lost Luca’s wheel in the mad scramble to the line and finished off the podium. Luca managed 5th and I was happy.

I needed to add another guy to the team for the Vuelta. The teams all need to start with six guys and we only had five since Will Sharp was at home in Texas recovering from a health scare. We added Brooks Wienke from the Hincapie team. He’s a good, strong guy who we got to know at training camp earlier in the year in GA. The guys told me that Brooks was the MVP of the stage. He was out of GC placings since he had waited with Christian when he crashed the day before and lost a lot of time. Brooks sat on the front setting tempo and bringing back breaks with the other guys.

I think what sets our team apart from others is this, all for one and one for all. He could have ridden for his own success, his own glory but he didn’t. He rode selflessly for the team and they knew it and acknowledged it.

Junior Vuelta – stage 4

The last stage was longer, at 114km with a lot of climbing in the first 70km of the stage. It had a long flat to downhill run that made it look like it would be a field sprint again. Last stages in races like this are not like the last stages of pro grand tours. There is no section where you drink champagne.

When you have the GC, mountain climbers, sprint and young riders jerseys your mindset changes to become conservative. But, being conservative wasn’t how we got into this position so I told the guys to be aggressive again. It was another 10:00am start and the temps were just like the day before so I knew the heat wasn’t going to decide the race, legs were.

In the first couple of kilometers I hear our team car being called. “Bike issue for number 132” That was Luca, the race leader. He dropped behind the field, we did a bike change and he quickly got back to the bunch and that woke me up.  We could still lose and I needed to remember that.

Going through another small town before the first of the big climbs and I get a call again. This time it was Matisse who was involved in a crash in a roundabout. Seems there was an oil slick right in the apex and several guys went down. I see Matisse running to the team car without his bike and I think, “Man, what next”? In the crash Matisse broke his front shift lever. Fortunately, we had Christian’s bike on the roof. Paul, our mechanic, got the bike down for him quickly and he was off again.

There were two immediate issues we had, firstly, I can’t help Matisse get back to the bunch. When you watch the Tour de France you often see riders who were involved in a crash getting motor paced back to the bunch. That is strictly forbidden now so he had to do it all on his own. The gap was over a minute and the bunch was going fast. Matisse chased hard picking up riders on the way that had also crashed but got going before he did. They all jumped on his wheel as he rode by them but none of them were able to help him pull at all. Matisse was able to regain the group after what was essentially 25km time trial, right at the base of the first big climb.

The second issue was this, Christian damaged his front derailleur in his crash the day before so Matisse would need to do the entire stage in his big chain ring.

I knew that Matisse was feeling OK when the news came over the radio that he had won the KOM points on the first climb.

The field split on the first big climb and around 30 guys had made the lead group. We had Matisse, Luca and Artem in that split and I was feeling better. With a smaller group being chased by a larger group the speed stays high and a bit safer because both groups are smaller. Fast steady is what I wanted. In the descent into town the gap remained about a minute so I knew it was going to stay away. I thought Artem would have a better chance in this sprint.

All I wanted was to see the 3km to go sign. At 3km to go the race for the GC is over. If someone gets in a crash or has a flat, they get the same time as the field they were with and at that point we win. They have signs for each kilometer from 10km on down and I felt like a ten year old on Christmas morning before his parents were awake. At 3km I shook Paul’s hand and said it was over. We had won.

The finish was a blur and I don’t know who won and I didn’t really care. There is an odd calm I feel when we win. I am happy and thrilled for the guys but it doesn’t show on my outside. I’m not a high-five, chest bumping kind of guy. I gave them a hand shake and congratulations on a job well done. I’m incredibly proud of these guys and they know it without me needing to say it at the moment. My time, my moment to tell them what they did is long after the stage, when its just us. I love those moments.

Thanks for reading,

Toby

Video, all 4 stages in 8 minutes

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qw-c-K5Q27U