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Orica-Scott: 24 hours on the road with a Tour de France team

Since its establishment in 2011, Orica-Scott has become one of the leading teams in the World Tour peloton. The only Australian outfit competing at the highest level of road cycling, Orica-Scott has won stages at each Grand Tour and numerous prestigious one-day races.

In 2017, the team travelled at Tour de France start city Düsseldorf with a different goal in mind: Orica-Scott has come of age, and stage wins are no longer enough. The yellow jersey is the most prestigious prize in cycling, and it is firmly on team owner Gerry Ryan’s agenda.

While Ryan’s team has performed admirably in the overall rankings before – last year Esteban Chaves placed second at the Giro d’Italia and Adam Yates finished fourth in France – the Tour’s 104th edition is the first time the team is entertaining just one objective: general classification success. Although Orica-Scott has attempted to manage expectations, with this campaign portrayed as a warm-up for an assault on the 2018 maillot jaune, they faced their toughest Tour yet.

‘This has nothing to do with luck’

11:36am, Wednesday: Team Bus

In the scenic mountainside town of La Mure, Orica-Scott’s team bus parks at the end of a kilometre-long throng of vehicles, bikes and people. True to form, the Australian-registered World Tour outfit is 19th of the 20 participating teams to arrive. “We are not always last,” a staff member jokes. “But we are certainly never first.”

Stage 17 is one of the toughest in the three-week race, the difficulty of multiple category two or tougher climbs compounded by tired legs. “Today is a key stage,” says Orica-Scott sports director Laurenzo Lapage. “It is no longer a question of being fresh, but of being less tired than the other teams. Every day something can happen – one weak moment and your Tour is over.”

Given the challenging climbs ahead, keeping riders fed and hydrated throughout the stage is critical. Each evening the directors devise a plan for the following day, determining the placement of bottle-carrying staff along the course. “It is quite the puzzle,” Lapage admits. Riders can collect food and water from team cars by dropping to the back of the peloton, but doing so wastes precious energy.

With the start time rapidly approaching, head sports director Matt White initiates a pre-stage briefing. His colleague Matthew Wilson offers the weather report – light winds, variable temperatures and a chance of rain – before outlining each section of the course. White then takes over: “I am not going to complicate something very simple. We know what we need to do today.”

That something is to protect Brit Simon Yates, Orica-Scott’s 24-year-old general classification contender. Yates is wearing the young rider’s white jersey and sits barely two minutes behind overall leader Chris Froome. “This has nothing to do with luck,” White tells his charges. “We are here because we have ridden well as a team.”

The likely tactics of rivals are briefly considered – veteran Mathew Hayman interjecting occasionally – before the day’s strategy is unveiled. White wants an Orica-Scott rider in the early break, someone who will be available to help Yates over the latter climbs. “You are not there to win the stage,” he says bluntly. “Go as far as you can and then assist Yatesy.” With White’s spiel over, the riders exit the bus wearing focused expressions. Yates mumbles some words to the media before riding to the start. “I have had a few strong days and I am feeling good,” he says.

‘Internet access can make or break your day’

1:43pm, Team Bus

On the bus, driver Garikoitz Atxa winds his way through the Alps as a skeleton crew work away onboard. Most staff are roadside on bottle duty. Communications director Taryn Kirby taps at her laptop, sending out live race updates to Orica-Scott’s 520,000-strong social media following, while videographer Anthony Drofenik naps; the team’s popular “backstage pass” daily videos are often not uploaded until 2am, so sleep is at a premium. Reliable phone reception can also be scarce in small French towns – “internet access can make or break your day,” says Kirby.

Orica-Scott has a well-earned reputation for being the most media-friendly team in the peloton. This is partly the work of owner Ryan, the Jayco caravans millionaire, who has often quipped that “Orica-Scott are in the business of entertainment”. It is also a by-product of being registered in Australia, where professional cycling lacks the mainstream popularity it enjoys in Europe, and necessitated by commercial imperatives. “We do not make money in any other way,” explains Kirby, “so we need to help our sponsors.”

While the communications director insists she would never prioritise press access at the expense of high performance objectives, it can be a difficult balance. During the Tour de France, Orica-Scott are being filmed for a forthcoming series on Amazon Prime. “No other team would commit to that,” says Kirby. The cameras are everywhere, even at times traditionally considered sacred by riders: on the bus and at meals.

After injured forced West Australian Luke Durbridge to withdraw from the Tour, Kirby faced a dilemma. “Amazon wanted to film Durbo straight away,” she says. “It was an uncomfortable moment, but I decided that – as he had withdrawn – there were no longer any high performance considerations.” Orica-Scott’s transparency has won them fans and backstage pass now has a cult following. “Many of us were initially quite confronted by the intrusion,” says Wilson, who rode for Orica-Scott in its first year before becoming a sports director. “But then it just became part of the team.”

Once the bus arrives in finish town Serre Chevalier, Atxa prepares for the riders’ return. Orica-Scott’s transport has its own infamy in France, after it caused chaos by becoming wedged under a Corsican finish line in 2013. When an inflatable distance marker collapsed on team member Adam Yates last year, Tour boss Christian Prudhomme allegedly joked: “Now we are even.” With no overhanging metal gantry to navigate, Atxa makes post-race food – “recovery shakes, rice, pasta and museli” – and cleans the onboard showers. His colleagues fire up a satellite television to watch the stage.

‘This is our dream’

2.07pm, Team Car

Professional cycling may be a rich sport – Orica-Scott’s annual budget exceeds A$23m – but money cannot buy a decent television signal in the mountains. “People imagine we have all sorts of fancy technology to follow the race,” suggests Wilson, driver of the second team car. “But often we just have our own eyes.”

Each silver Renault has a dashboard-mounted screen, which, signal permitting, would ordinarily show the live race feed. But in Wilson’s vehicle, the television is locked on old French dramas and a remote control is nowhere to be found. Race and team radio, a WhatsApp group and eye sight are guiding Orica-Scott through this stage.

The convoy snaking behind the race is a place of barely-organised chaos. Teams, medics, media, police and race organisers liberally interpret road rules as they jostle for the best position. While convoy order is officially dictated by each team’s general classification standing, cars move back and forth to service their riders, so minor accidents are commonplace. As if to emphasise the point, a UAE Team Emirates vehicle rear-ends Wilson.

But road rage does not inhibit an admirable sense of collegiality, both in the convoy and among the peloton. Team Sunweb sports director Luke Roberts asks Orica-Scott to mind several riders, and he later repays the favour. Teams regularly provide food and water to opposition riders, while the peloton performs pass-the-parcel with bottles.

After making the breakaway pursuant to White’s instructions, Chaves cracks on the first uncategorised climb. “I am done,” he gasps through the car window. While the ever-cheerful Colombian battles on valiantly, he struggles to keep pace and eventually drops back. Following strong Grand Tour results last season, Chaves was seen as a potential yellow jersey candidate, but injury troubles and a personal tragedy midway through the Tour have taken their toll. While the diminutive climber can be regularly heard encouraging downtrodden team-mates – “this is our dream,” he reminds them – by week three it sounds more mantra than conviction.

Although tempers often flare in professional cycling, during stage 17 there is a sense that the teams are in this together; the mountains are enemy enough. One early casualty is green jersey wearer Marcel Kittel, who withdraws after being unable to shake the after-effects of a crash. His premature exit is welcome news for Sunweb’s Michael Matthews, who takes the sprint classification lead. Notwithstanding their disappointment for Kittel, Matthews’ elevation is acknowledged warmly in the Orica-Scott car; “Bling” rode for the Australian outfit until December.

The brief distraction is soon forgotten when the race reaches Col du Télégraphe, a category one ascent which precedes the day’s toughest task: the feared Col du Galibier. Chaves’ early departure from the breakaway has caused difficulties for Orica-Scott, and Yates is soon riding without support in the general classification group. Despite regular words of encouragement from White over the radio, Yates loses contact with Froome and company. “You are right there,” exclaims his sports director, but the Englishman cannot recover the distance. Worryingly for Yates, white jersey rival Louis Meintjes remains with Froome.

‘It could have been a disaster’

5:03pm, Team Car

At the other end of the race, 39-year-old Hayman grimaces. He is in a gruppetto 30 minutes behind the leaders, and concern is growing about the time cut – riders must finish within a certain percentage of the winner’s time. The domestique has become a fan favourite since winning Paris–Roubaix last year, and there are Australian flags aplenty on Galibier’s switchbacks. “Hayman you are a God,” yells one spectator, eliciting a brief smile from the pained rider.

As Wilson’s car nurses Hayman up the last climb, its passengers frantically seek updates on Yates. With no reception and the radio now out of range, the fate of Orica-Scott’s leader is unclear. One fan asks through the window, “who won?” Wilson sighs: “You tell us.” After cresting the mountain, a call finally arrives. Yates finished 14th, 90 seconds behind Meintjes. While Orica-Scott retain the white jersey, Yates’s lead has been nearly halved.

For only the second time this Tour, White postpones his debrief until the following morning. With Orica-Scott’s eight riders in a state of exhaustion, the sports director decides to leave the evening free. Yates, Hayman, Chaves and their team-mates head for hour-long massages, dinner and an early night.

There is no rest for the support staff though. Mechanics wash bikes, soigneurs clean cars and Kirby prepares a press release. Despite the tumultuous day, White puts on a brave face. “Yatesy rode very smart on that last climb,” he says. “If Simon went too deep trying to stay with the lead group, it could have been a disaster.”

‘Ultimately, what can a coach do when the riders are half way up a hill?’

11:32am Thursday, Team Bus

Orica-Scott’s bus does not pull into the stage 18 start town until late morning, but several staff members have already been at work for hours. Danish chef Nicki Strobel woke at sunrise to prepare breakfast, a spread of fresh bread, omelettes, porridge, fruit and juice. The gourmet restaurant-trained chef is also responsible for mid-race snacks; Nutella treats were popular on Wednesday and are again tucked into feed bags.

The mood in the debrief is surprisingly upbeat. Despite Yates’s time losses, White is impressed by the maturity he demonstrated. The sports director canvases his riders, asking each for their positives and negatives from the stage. Hayman, who finished last, quips “I didn’t see much.” The meeting is conversational, the riders discussing the stage, and at times disagreeing with their colleagues. England rugby head coach Eddie Jones, on board as a guest of White, is impressed by their engagement. “It is good to see the cyclists taking responsibility for their performances,” he says afterwards. “Ultimately, what can a coach do when the riders are half way up a hill?”

White has the final word. “We are not here through luck,” the 43-year-old repeats. With that, the stage is forgotten and attention turns to the day ahead: 179.5 kilometres from Briançon to the infamous Col d’Izoard. “It is the privilege of the Izoard to distinguish the champion,” a Tour de France race director once wrote. Despite Wednesday’s travails, Orica-Scott are up for the challenge.

Kieran Pender is following the Tour de France with the support of Orica-Scott.

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