Tom Steels: Preparing the Tour de France from A to Z

Tom Steels: Preparing the Tour de France from A to Z

Friday 25 June 2021 - 18:00

Deceuninck – Quick-Step’s sports director gave an excellent insight into what it means to lead the team from the car at the biggest race in the world.

The most difficult question that I am asked is ‘how many Tour de France editions have I been involved in?’ It was the same when I stopped riding and now that I am a sports director. I really don’t know and I would have to look at my Wikipedia page and find out that my first Tour as a rider was back in 1997.

But it is the Tour, and you can have many, many conversations about why this is, but it is still special. To pinpoint one reason why it is so different, is really difficult though.  It usually starts when you look through the start list and you know every rider, so you know that the level is really high – every team puts their best team out. It is held during the holiday period, so you have lots of people that come out to watch beside the road. And it is a career maker – winning one stage can make a rider’s career. Many things make the Tour very hard, which means every stage victory is almost on the level with winning a classic. If I put myself in my shoes at my first participation, and in my shoes now as an experienced sports director, it is still the same – the Tour is special. You can feel the tension amongst the riders at the start. Each team must pick their best team and that means to even be on the start is something special.

The process of trying to choose our Tour de France team start at the beginning for the year. Usually, when we look at our program with the year, we start with the Tour and work back from there. We put the names in, even if we don’t 100% know the course and we build it up. This will get refined as we closer to the race, but we just want to end up with the best team possible. It is race where leaders can become domestiques and then the next day be leaders again. You really have to have a strong team spirit where everyone is willing to fight. Everybody we have in our team now has done incredible things on a bike, but there needs to be a mixture.

We are lucky in this team that we don’t have many islands – we can pick the riders with the best qualities, and we don’t have to worry about personality clashes. If we say for example that we need a sprinter and a lead-out, we can just pick the riders who are best at their job and we don’t need to worry about the characters, which is also a strength. And then you look at their build-up, where different people prepare in different ways, with some liking to race, some go to altitude camps, some train at home, but you know when we bring them together we have the best blend.

We have seen in the build-up to this Tour that all our plans have to be flexible. You have to kind of have a plan in your head, but you cannot get fixed on it and things change day-by-day. You need to always stay open and always stay flexible, where you can adapt. You can’t even say to each rider what their exact role will be for the next three weeks. Of course, a sprinter will always be a sprinter and a lead-out man will always be a lead-out man, but it may be that one day he needs to bring a climber to the bottom of a climb. That is part of the strength of the team but it is also part of being professional and adaptable.

Part of the role as a sports director starts at home, weeks before the Tour begins.

Some stages you can spend 3 hours on a computer, looking at the route street-by-street online. You need to look at it from a sporting point of view and I start to make the presentations that we will show the riders before each stage. Then when we are at the race, we start our days by waking up and seeing the riders at breakfast, checking how they are. We then have a meeting on the bus with my colleagues where we make a clear plan for the day, which we convey to the riders.

Once we are in the car and all hell can break loose in the race, we have to stay calm and try to find a solution. After the race we get back to the bus and I usually take a coffee and a biscuit, and take 10 minutes to myself to process what has gone on, before we go back to the riders and discuss what happened, good or bad, and we start to think about the next day. I think I have a calm exterior, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a desire on the inside, but around the riders you need to keep a calm atmosphere. You have to support them and keep your focus – if you start to fall asleep at the wheel then perhaps this is not the job for you. I can stay calm under pressure, even though sometimes we all have our moments where we are angry, but we cannot do that around the riders.

When I was racing, we did not have all the details of the road like now – we had the roadbook and maybe a diagram of the finish. We had to keep in our minds ‘ok, there are two roundabouts, and the first one we have to be here and the second one we have to be there’, but for the rest we had no clue. Nowadays there are so many options that can help; the riders can see the course on their Wahoo, we in the car can see the course and we relay information over the radio, we can do things before the race using things like Google Street View, and at least we have a clue where we are going to.

Over the next three weeks I am hoping to see the rainbow jersey win in Julian’s own style and the way that he likes to ride – doing his thing, which is always nice to see. Of course, we have Cav, and we are hoping we can get a stage win, and if you feel the tension in the team, everyone is pulling for him and it will be nice to see. We won’t put a number on it – one is enough. And then we have Kasper who is flying this year and will suit both TT’s. He is a guy that likes the details and will be prepared.

Two new guys in the Tour are Ballerini and Cattaneo. Mattia is one of the best domestiques, while Ballerini is a fantastic part of the lead-out train, and both of them can be dangerous in their own right, if they can get into a breakaway. Tim is Tim and he just knows what to do. And then Michael is our road captain, he makes the calls on the road. He is very calm on the road and when it looks like he is gambling, he is always very calculated and in control. All these things make us confident and calm as we get ready for the start in Bretagne.


Photo credit: ©Sigfrid Eggers

                        ©Wout Beel

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