The role of a Sports Director requires the ability to string together winning tactics, to roll with the punches as a bike race takes an unexpected turn, and to rally the troops both on and off the road.
As Steven Sergeant, one of the team’s Sports Directors, tells us, the job starts well in advance of the race, with a review of the parcours. Firstly, they will look up the route online as soon as the road book becomes available, to identify any traffic furniture, the narrowness of the roads, and how wind may affect the race route.
Then, closer to race day, the team will do a recon. As Steven says: “We still try do a route recon because some of our riders may have never participated in that race and it obviously comes in handy when we talk about tactics the day before. Typically, that takes a couple of hours. The process itself is to look at the geography of the race, such as the gradient of climbs and descents, the finish area, the small or wide roads, wind predictions, dangerous roads. These factors will all then be discussed in our meeting.”
A balancing act: selecting the right squad for each race
Another area of pre-race planning that forms an important part of the job is rider selection. Particularly for the major races in the calendar, the Sports Director will draw up a long-list of riders who have performed well and who are suited to the course of the race.
As Steven elaborates: “The different types of riders are selected according to the route profiles, and we strive to have the strongest mix available at the start of the race. The choice of balance is largely dependent on the route profile and where we believe the decisive points can be to win a stage.”
Striking this balance is key. For a long stage race such as the Giro Rosa, a wide variety of riders with different strengths is required. The Director must assess the team’s GC riders, sprinters, lead-out riders, time trial specialists, and domestiques, and strike the correct mix to enable the team as a whole to benefit. Does the team want to focus on the overall standings, stage wins, or breakaways? These are all tactical questions that must be answered by the DS.
Keeping the well-oiled machine of the team running smoothly
After all this strategising has been done, then the real work on-site begins. The team arrives at the hotel, and logistics becomes a central focus of the task at hand. As Steven explains, it’s a complex process with all team members playing their part. With so many moving variables operating against a strict time schedule, the slightest hiccup can turn into a big headache.
He elaborates, “if an airline company does not deliver a suitcase or a bicycle on time, that could have a big impact on the race, before we’ve even started. But let’s say that everything runs smoothly then all selected riders travel from their resident country to the closest airport, train station or pick up point. The staff then have to travel from the Service Course a couple of days prior to the race. They then have to pick up the riders from their arrival locations and bring them to the hotel on time.”
It’s the Sports Director’s role to make sure that this well-oiled logistical machine continues to run smoothly until the on-site work with riders and staff can begin.
It’s at that point that the riders can better acclimatise themselves with the race route and settle in to life on the road. “If possible we will go out on the bike, which can be combined with a route recon, to shake off any stiffness created by traveling, which is then followed by a massage treatment.”
And while the Director is busy taking the riders through their paces over the course route, other members of staff continue to keep the cogs turning back at the race hotel. The mechanics work on the bikes and the essentials for the race convoy, while the soigneurs look over travels to and from the different race hotels, and prepare meals and bidons for the riders, while also providing massage treatment after training rides.
As Steven explains, it’s the DS’s role to make sure all of these elements work in harmony: “We also set up meetings with the riders and staff to make sure that we all are aligned with the goal ahead. It’s the Director’s job to link the meetings so that vital information is given to all. All team Directors are also in contact with race organisers the evening before the race, so that they receive the latest information about the race rules and regulations, officially enter their riders into the race, and obtain accreditation and race numbers.”
A guiding force during the race: heard but often not seen
After all of the groundwork has been set, race day arrives, and the Director takes on the role that they are perhaps best known for. When the riders cross the start line, they’ll be in the race car in the convoy, ready to follow the race situation and guide the riders throughout the day. This is an ever-changing process, as Steven describes: “We’ll start with a set plan, but as we receive information over race radio, this plan might change. We will convey these updates to the riders, and see if we can push ahead with the original plan, or if need be, re-adjust what we will do. Being in constant contact with the riders is a plus point, as we can give them the latest race news, but also warn them of dangerous obstacles ahead. This job is often underestimated because of the lack of public visibility during races, but one can compare it to a soccer trainer, who directs his team on the field. The only difference is that we don’t have a televised debrief interview after the race.”
But the Director is not the only one who calls the shots during the race. A rider, who is usually the most experienced in the squad, or has a good ability to read a race, will sometimes have to make decisions to guide her teammates in split-second moments. In the case of losing radio connection to the team car, for instance, the role and judgment of the road captain becomes even more important.
Rallying the troops both on and off the road
However, apart from rallying the riders on the road, a large part of the Director’s role is to motivate the riders in times when the race doesn’t go according to plan, or keep them focused after successes on the road. As Steven says: “We must always remember that we are working with athletes, and not robots. We always act according to our strongest beliefs, but we must accept that these may not always align with reality. When things do not go according to plan, we need to be flexible in our thinking and realign our plan to best benefit from all scenarios. One of our team strengths is the common understanding of responsibility towards each team member, which helps us maintain agility during racing.”
It’s not always an easy task, but it’s one that Steven says he relishes: “In general, I love this job and any job comes with rewarding and difficult parts.”
And what does he say makes everything worthwhile?
“A win is always great for the team. But the most rewarding aspect of the role of a Sports Director, for me personally, is seeing all the parts of a plan come together.”