Deinze is a small town in northern Belgium, not far from Ghent and 45 kilometres from the French border. In an industrial area south of the city, carpentry warehouses sit alongside printing shops and cosmetics factories. Here, for the last four years, a nondescript warehouse has been the beating heart of Team Sky.
While the official team headquarters is located in the corridors of the National Cycling Centre in Manchester, it is in Belgium that the operational management is based throughout the year. The sky here is as grey as in the north of England, but Deinze is a strategic location. It is a central geographical point that connects all the races in the European calendar. It also focuses on the daily life of the team, both for race preparation and during the races.
“Everything happens here. Deinze is truly the heart of the team,” said Peter Verbeken, a former professional cyclist and now manager of the Team Sky Service Course. “Between each race, the team comes back here to rest and recharge, and the cars and trucks get stocked and supplied with the necessary equipment for the next race.”
With 14 nationalities in the team, the staff at the Service Course, in Deinze, talk English. But they also talk cycling, logistics, technique, equipment and nutrition. In the storerooms of the Service Course, there are bike racks, tyres, parts, accessories, clothing, bags and tools. It’s like a secret treasure room for cyclists, akin to Ali Baba’s cave.
There are almost 200 bikes stored here, as the team’s riders use about 15 bikes per year, each.
A month of supplies in suitcases
In recent weeks, the tension has gone up a notch at the Service Course. “The closer we get to the start of the Tour de France, the more the pressure becomes intense,” said Thomas Kousgaard, a mechanic who has just arrived back from Denmark.
“This is the most exciting time of the year. For each race, we make a list of the equipment required, and this list depends on the race profile and duration. Obviously, what we need to take is different if we leave for a day, five days, or three weeks. We have to be thorough and exact, because it’s very important that nothing is overlooked,” Verbeken said.
For the Tour de France, where Team Sky is the defending champion, the team takes 50 bikes and 80 sets of wheels, including the bikes and wheels used specifically in individual and team time-trial stages. Each rider has a bike, two spare bikes, and two further bikes for time-trials.
Each bike is prepared with the utmost care. In the days and weeks leading up to the Tour, the mechanics are hard at work.
“When preparing the bikes on which Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas will spend six hours a day on average, we must do our very best,” said Gary Blem, a South African mechanic who has been with Team Sky for four years. “Everything must be perfect. We must ensure that the riders can give 100% without ever having to worry about their equipment.”
For each bike, the team of mechanics has to check 30 specific areas. And each rider has their own preferred set-up.
“Every bike must be the right bike, with the right wheels, the right tyres and the right set-up for the right rider,” Blem said.
All this is done while also taking into account the rules of the International Cycling Union. The mechanics must ensure, for example, that a bike does not weigh less than 6.8 kg.
Beyond the complexities of the mechanics and the setting up of bikes, transporting everything is another matter entirely. The team vehicles carry all kinds of equipment, including the uniforms of the riders, with each rider having 12 jerseys for the three weeks of racing. But there are also boxes of energy gels, muesli bars and sports drinks, not to mention the extra clothing needed to cope with varying weather conditions. For the Tour, there are almost 3,500 bottles on board. The team even takes portable air-conditioners.
“Sometimes, the temperature can be very high in summer. So we have to take precautions and be ready for it,” Verbeken said.
“We also take air purifiers to clean the air in the rooms,” said Marko Dzalo, a carer, while loading a Ford Transit with equipment.
Ford fleet ready for the world’s biggest race
At the Service Course in Deinze, the vehicles are also prepared for the team. Ford is Team Sky’s exclusive supplier of cars and vans, and the vehicles have undergone special modifications and boast the stunning black and blue livery of the team.
But before heading to Mont-Saint-Michel, where stage one of the 2016 Tour de France began, the fleet of vehicles was geared up for the high demands of the race in the team’s Belgian lair.
“The vehicles need to carry a lot of equipment and need to be equipped according to the role they play in the race,” said Verbeken.
For the Tour, Team Sky has ten vehicles, each with very different roles, as well as an equipment truck, a food truck and a bus. The fleet includes:
- Two Mondeo estates, at the heart of the race, with the team managers and sport directors on board
- Mondeo 5-door, allowing the Ford mechanic to look after the fleet
- S-MAX with team carers and supplies for the refreshment points, a second S-MAX transporting supplies and luggage to hotels along the way, and a third S-MAX that is central to the team’s innovative communication system
- Edge, transporting the various VIPs and partners on the stages
- Mustang Fastback V8 automatic, which will be leading some of the stages, minutes before the riders start
- Two Transit vans, for transporting equipment
With three team members and 400 kilograms of equipment on board, including bikes, five spare wheels, more than 50 bottles, tools and a cooler full of drinks, the Team Sky Mondeo estates have been modified in order to handle the extra weight, which included making the suspension more rigid. They have also received any additional communication device – an internal radio that enables the team to communicate with riders and with team members in other vehicles. The team can also listen to Radio Tour, the channel from the organisers that provides real-time information about the race and any incidents that happen along the way.
With the race just underway, Team Sky is ready and the Champs Elysées await. As the riders do battle with 3,519 km, a part of Belgium will be supporting them, cheering in Flemish.