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Inside the Life of a Mountain Goat and winner of the 2016 edition of Liege-Basotgne-Liege
Great climbers are often likened to birds—such as 1959 Tour de France winner Federico Bahamontes, the Eagle of Toledo—flying high above the peaks of the world’s greatest mountains. We think of riders in solitary combat, pitting their skills and energy against climbs that force the weaker ones to fall back. And whether it’s on the roads of the Tour de France or a club ride, once cyclists are on the slopes of a mountain, there is little room for conversation. They must think first of pacing themselves properly on the way to the summit.
Words & images: James Startt
But for an elite few, the support climbers, racing in the mountains is very much a group effort. Team Sky’s Wout Poels is one of those riders. Hired by the British team last year, his job is to pace Tour de France champ Chris Froome on the longest climbs. Before joining Sky, Poels was a solid climber, capable of winning stages in a variety of world-class events. And when he is not busy in his day job, chaperoning Froome, he is still capable of winning, as already witnessed this year when he won the overall classification in February’s Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, a revived five-day stage race in eastern Spain. But such occasions occur with increasing rarity as the 28-year-old Dutchman follows Froome around the world, ready to serve his designated leader when needed.
It’s a job that Poels enjoys, and one at which he excels. He played a key role in Froome’s victory in the mountainous Critérium du Dauphiné last year, attacking out of each turn on the final climb of the final stage until race leader Tejay van Garderen eventually cracked. And Poels’ supporting-role duties continued to attract attention at the Tour de France where, along with teammates Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas, he shouldered Froome to victory.
For most people, climbing is a very solitary effort, but as a support rider for Chris Froome, your job is to ride with somebody, to stay with him as long as you can, to pace him or give him water. After years as a climber in your own right, was it hard to adjust to the support role? Well it is definitely really, really different! Before, it was all about staying [with the leaders] as long as possible, and now I have to drop back and fetch water bottles or close gaps during a climb. Your job is basically done, say, 5 kilometers before the finish. It’s very different. My job on any given day may be to make it the first 7 kilometers up a 13-kilometer climb, but I have to make sure that I get Chris to that point in the best possible condition. If, for example, I am feeling good, I can continue to pace him—that is always good—but my role is pre-established and I have to at least fulfill that.
It’s a very different mentality [than riding for myself]. It’s much more calculated. I could do my own pace—just ride all out for those 7 kilometers—but that wouldn’t be productive. I am there to pace Chris, so I have to set a pace that he is comfortable with and sets him up so that he can finish off the job afterwards. If I have gone so hard that he can’t attack, well, then I didn’t do a good job. But Chris talks to me. Sometimes he says, “slow down,” or sometimes he says, “speed up!”
Wait a minute… Chris Froome has actually told you to slow down? Not many people can make that claim! Ah, yes, that did happen! It happened on the Alpe d’Huez in the Tour de France last year. He was having a bad day and at one point said “slow down.” But I was like, “Ah, we have to speed up man! Quintana is taking time!” But in general Chris knows his body very well and he has a good idea of what kind of pace he can sustain.
So, how does it work? In the team meeting each morning before the start of the stage, do you identify each other’s position? Does the team director say, okay, today, Wout, you are the last guy to pull before Chris, or today you are second to last. Or does he say, your role is to take Chris from kilometer five to kilometer seven? Yeah, pretty much. Normally we have a plan, but it can change on the road if someone is having a bad day. In the Tour there is a fair amount of improvising. But going into the stage we definitely have a plan and I know if I am the last man or second-to-last man to cover Chris on the final climb.
Wow, the way you describe it, it sounds almost like the way a sprint train is organized, except you are climbing. That said, you guys sometimes seem to be sprinting up the mountains! Yeah, it is very much like that! You can really compare the two! In a race like the Tour de France my role really can change a lot. In the first week, for example, I have to work some, but not as much. There are others that are better at protecting Chris on the flats. I am just trying to save myself as much as possible so that I am fresh when the mountains arrive. That is actually one of the benefits of riding support. Before, I really had to do my best to stay at the front all of the time, in the crosswinds, on cobblestones, whatever, because I was concerned with the overall classification. But now with Chris that is not important. If I drop off 20 kilometers from the finish on a crazy flat stage it just doesn’t matter. That said, when you have a leader like Chris in the Tour de France there is always stress, but for me at least, there is not so much in the first week or so.
The day where you impressed me the most was not in the Tour but on the final stage of the Dauphiné. That day, on the final climb, you just attacked out of every turn with Chris on your wheel as you tried to crack Tejay van Garderen. After each turn the gap was a little bigger and it took Tejay a little longer to close the gap. And finally he just cracked. Yeah, that was the plan, just to attack out of every turn in an effort to break Tejay. That was our tactic. We knew that there were a lot of hairpins and we felt that our best chance would be if we attacked out of each turn. Not that many riders are good at changing rhythm so frequently. But Chris is good at that and I can do that, at least for a while. It worked perfectly and finally Chris attacked, soloed to victory and took the overall win as well.
What is the hardest thing to do when you are supporting a great rider like Chris in the mountains? Hmm, just staying as long as possible in the front. You know, sometimes you really feel like you are going to drop, but you still have 2 kilometers to go. But the fact that Chris is a really good guy and he has shown that he can really finish off the job helps. You know if you dig deep, he will too. And often it results in victory. You know it is going to be worthwhile afterwards.
But riding support is more than just about riding hard. You have to think a lot on the road. You always have to think about your leader. Does he need a bottle? Does he need some gels? Is the pace right? Sometimes just speaking to him, just communicating while racing full out, is hard.
What is the most impressive thing about Chris when it comes to climbing in the mountains? Well, mostly, that he just knows his body really well, especially in the mountains. I mean that day on L’Alpe d’Huez was a perfect example. He was in trouble, but he knows just how far he can push himself and for how long. That is a really good thing to have as a GC rider. That is so important in a grand tour because if you go over your limit one time, you can just blow your engine big time and lose the entire three-week race. On that day on the Alpe d’Huez, the Tour was on the line. If Chris went too deep and blew his engine, with say 5 kilometers to go on the Alpe, he could have blown big time—game over!
That must have been a scary moment. Did you really think the Tour was in danger? Yeah, I think I left a few years off my life on that mountain! I dropped just after Dutch Corner. Richie [Porte] took it over from there but I couldn’t see what was going on at the front any more. [Nairo] Quintana was out of sight and I could only listen to the time gaps on the radio. That was really, really stressful. I was so happy when I heard that Chris managed to keep the jersey. Can you imagine losing it on the next-to-the-last day of the Tour de France?
What is the hardest climb in the Tour? Well, last year, I would say La Toussuire, the day before L’Alpe d’Huez. That whole day was just so hard.
Do you have a favorite climb? Well, I would have to say L’Alpe d’Huez. I’m Dutch and Dutch Corner is just very special. The Dutch riders just have such a special rapport with that climb. My neighbor, Pieter Weening, twice won the Alpe d’Huez stage and we have often talked about it. It’s just special. But a lot of climbs, well, I don’t always have time to look around!
You are obviously a natural-born climber. Do you still have to train specifically for climbing, or is going hard in the mountains just like going hard on the flats for some guys? No, we still focus on climbing-intensive workouts. We are always looking for training camps in the mountains, altitude camps, et cetera.
Do you have any advice for people that want to improve their climbing skills? Buy an E-bike! No, seriously, the more you can climb, the better you will climb. There is no substitute for training in the mountains. Sometimes we have training camps where we focus only on climbing and, with it, your body adapts.
Good climbers are notoriously bad descenders. How do you rate? Well, in training, not so well. I just take my time and go slowly. But in racing I try my best to follow the Nibalis and Valverdes. I think I rate pretty well.
From Issue 52. Buy it here.