A team car ride with Team Francaise Des Jeux
By Karen Forman
"Aqua, s'il vous plait!"
Number 61 in the 2002 Jacob's Creek Tour Down Under, Bradley McGee, calls out, raises his arm above his head and casts a pleading look at the Francaise Des Jeux team car, following 50 metres behind the bunch.
Franck Pineau is on the ball. With an expert touch on the accelerator, the Directeur Sportif adjoint relations publiques (team director/public relations officer) zooms to the edge of the peloton, looks inquiringly at Chief Commissaire Martyn Swinkels, and gets the nod to move to the inside of the group.
Seconds later, team mecanique (mechanic) Laurent Theron, sitting in the back seat, is passing bidons of water (marked with an "o") and electrolyte replacement solution, though the window to the sweating rider.
"It's bloody hot," the Australian rider tells Pineau, who isn't at all surprised. The 38 year old Frenchman, who rode four Tours de France in his riding days, has had the car air conditioning on full pelt for the past half-hour and is slapping sunscreen over his face and arms, despite his deep tan.
While we're up there, a couple more bidons are handed out to number 62 Thomas Bodo (France). I'm in the front passenger's seat and it's all happening.
With riders going around us everywhere, the sounds of heavy breathing, the smell of sweat, the droplets of water that splatter on the car windscreen as Bodo tips a bidon of water over his head, it feels like we are in the bike race, too - without actually being on a bike.
We are only 10 minutes into the stage and FDJ's eight riders are already thirsty, their bodies desperate for rehydration in the 41 degree-heat.
From the over-sized esky in the back of the station wagon, they can choose from the great taste of water or lemon sports drink. Solid food, on a day like this, isn't something anybody is interested in, especially number 68 Carlos Da Cruz, who has had an upset stomach for four days and is not feeling too well at all in this heat.
All the same, the atmosphere inside the car is light. Neither Pineau nor Theron have been to Australia before and, in quieter moments of the race, in between checking riders, supplying drinks and giving instructions to their riders, they are enjoying looking out the window, admiring and photographing the vineyards of the famous Australian Barossa Valley wine region.
They are also quite interested in the great taste of Aussie sweets - particularly when they learn they are 95% fat free (which Pineau, ever the athlete, thinks is great).
A radio gives them constant updates from the Commissaire in English, Italian and French (luckily, because they speak very little English), so they know where their riders are and who needs attention.
Sometimes it can be interesting, with riders at the back of the main bunch AND off the front with the breakaway. This means some very fast driving in between (French-style) for Pineau (with the Cyclingnews reporter quivering beside him in the front seat.)
Because it is so hot and the race doctor is concerned about dehydration, race officials have declared feeding can take place throughout the race, which began at 11.07am. As the field rolled off, with the 12 team cars following behind (media and neutral spares, a radio car, ambulance and race doctor), Pineau explained that FDJ was operating here in Australia on a much smaller scale than usual in France.
"Here we have two mechanics and two masseuses," he said. "In France we have four directors of sport, four mechanics, five massage, one doctor and three secretaries. It is much bigger."
The team has been going for seven years and Pineau has been with it for four. Its major objective is the Tour de France and the Tour Down Under is, he says, an important part of early training for it.
Like the other teams in this Tour, FPJ is based at Adelaide's Hilton Hotel, where massage rooms have been set up and the riders are massaged every day after returning from the road. Team members are McGee, Bodo, Frederic Guesdon, Baden Cooke, Regis Lhuillier, Matthew Wilson, Nicolas Vogondy and Da Cruz.
For Australians McGee, Wilson and Cooke, the Tour Down Under is a welcome return to home soil.
Conversation in the car during the day is in rapid French, with a little Italian, Spanish and English thrown in to afford communication with the guest reporter.
"He is going very good," Pineau says a third of the way in of McGee. "I have told him to put water on his neck and to keep looking at Saeco. And to not go too hard."
The radio crackles and we learn riders in the lead bunch are preparing for the first sprint. It is the invitation Pineau has been waiting for. He sprints forward at *** per hour. (He has taken my pen and blotted out the numerals I had written). He is, he tells me with a smile, a "good director".
After we have handed bidons to Vogondy, who is in the front bunch, we can relax. We stop under a tree on the side of the road and wait for the bunch to come through. Pineau and Theron, being male, can easily take a "nature stop". I am not game to.
We hand some bidons to Bodo, at the back of the bunch, and Wilson, then fly ahead again to the breakaway, because Vogondy is thirsty again. While we are there, Theron passes a Bidon to a Telekom rider "because it is hot and we help him," says Pineau.
The riders are desperate for water. It is getting hotter and hotter. Pineau is telling them to spray as much as possible over their heads and necks, to cool them down. We get a call from the race doctor. He is concerned about Da Cruz.
"He can't drink, he is bad in the stomach," Pineau translates. "The doctor say watch him. It is too hot. He is too sick." Da Cruz is off the back and obviously not feeling well at all. He is frothy around the mouth, pale in the face and losing strength rapidly. By the 72km mark, Pinaeu sighs and declares, " he is finished".
A little while later we are next to McGee as he climbs the hill to the King of the Mountain.
"Holy f***" we hear clearly in English. It is a tough ride, particularly with this heat. You hear a bit of swearing this close to the bunch.
Mapei rider Andrea Tafi is justifiably, I reckon, "vaffanculo, vaffanculo, vaffanculo," as he chases the leading bunch back down after a puncture pulled him up. He catches up. Maybe the swearing helped.
None of his riders are looking at being on the podium at the finish, but Pinaeu isn't worried. "They are going well. This will be a long season, this is the first race. I am happy with them. It is very good training four Bradley."
"The Tour de France is our objective."
When the race is over, it is a case of loading up bikes and returning to the hotel for showers, massage, dinner and a couple of glasses of wine for Pinaeu. He reckons French wine is the best, but he won't knock back a glass or two of Australian red, he says. After all, he did spend the day driving around one of the country's best wine regions...