Inside the Katusha-Alpecin team car at the Tour Down Under
Katusha-Alpecin sport director Gennady Mikhaylov kept his cool on the hottest day of the year.
The third stage of the 2018 Santos Tour Down Under was a real scorcher. Temperatures soared to 115 degrees in what was one of the hottest days ever recorded for a bike race. Teams and riders across the peloton that day were in survival mode. The only objective was to finish safely and not go too deep into the red.
Calling the shots that day from behind the wheel of the Katusha-Alpecin car was veteran Russian sport director Mikhaylov. After a 10-year racing career, he’s entering his ninth pro season as a sport director. Now 43, Mikhaylov is sharing his knowledge and expertise with a new generation of riders.
“I do this to stay in the family of cycling,” Mikhaylov said. “You do cycling your whole life. If you still have the passion, this is the best thing you can do when you retire.”
Mikhaylov certainly has no shortage of passion. Meticulous and focused, he’s emerged as one of the team’s most reliable directors.
On one of the hottest days of Australia’s summer, the team invited VeloNews to ride along in the director’s car. Here’s the front-row seat view of how Mikhaylov kept his cool:
10:55 a.m.: Soigneurs bustle around to pack up the team vans that replace the huge air-conditioned buses during the WorldTour season opener. Riders post up at the start line and the team cars line up single-file. It’s going to be a real stinker, so no one seems in a real hurry to race. I slip into the front passenger seat and a blond-haired Russian mechanic is behind me. He barely speaks a word during the entire afternoon. I don’t understand much Russian, but “journalist” is understandable in just about every language.
11 a.m.: Mikhaylov does a final radio check, calling out each rider to make sure they can hear him on the two-way radio. He peels off last-minute reminders: “Don’t forget to drink. Stay close to Nathan. Save your legs.” It’s a refrain that he will repeat throughout the day. And whoosh, we’re off.
11:13 a.m.: The pack slinks along during the neutral rollout. GC captain Nathan Haas drops back to the team car and asks for an ice sock. “It’s so hot, my throat is dry,” he says. The temperature is already 107 degrees at the start of the stage. It’s so hot, in fact, that race officials invoke the extreme weather protocol. After meeting with riders and commissaires, the stage is reduced by about 25 kilometers by eliminating two finishing circuits. “It’s a shame for the fans who might be waiting, but it’s too hot to race so far today,” Mikhaylov says matter of factly. “It’s the right decision. The result will be the same.”
11:30 a.m.: No one is in a hurry to move in this heat. Two riders pull clear, including one from the South Australian composite team, and Nicholas Dlamini, the South African rookie from Dimension Data who is looking to defend his King of the Mountains jersey. Despite the apparent lethargy in the main pack, riders continually float back to the car to ask for the last of the ice socks to jam inside their jerseys. Even at the reduced distance, they’re in for more than three hours of racing in oppressive heat. In what’s a mantra of the day, Mikhaylov repeats over the race radio: “No risk today. Stay close to Nathan. Keep drinking.”
11:46 a.m.: The temperature creeps up to 111 degrees and Haas pulls up to the side of the car. The Tour Down Under often comes down to time bonuses, but Haas wants to call an audible as the race approaches the first of two intermediate sprints. Haas proposes that teammate Jhonatan Restrepo go on the attack as they close in on the first bonus to try to gobble up the seconds in play behind the break. “That will take the pressure off the sprint. I want to save my strength for the finale.” Mikhaylov agrees, and Haas pedals back to the group to pass on the change of tactics.
11:52 a.m.: Mikhaylov keeps calling up to the riders to remind them to keep drinking. That doesn’t seem to be a worry. Soigneurs are waiting up the road with fresh bottles, and there will be more at the feed station. But they’re going through bottles fast. The mechanic loaded about 70 bottles for the stage. That won’t be enough at this pace, and Mikhaylov is already calling up to another soigneur to see if they can intercept the route to pass up more bottles after the day’s feed zone.
12:20 p.m.: With the breakaway set at about four minutes, Mikhaylov starts to be a little more chatty. I’ve been in enough team cars over the years, and the last thing a sport director wants is a journalist asking a bunch of stupid questions during what can be a stressful operation. Even in the relatively worry-free Tour Down Under, it’s all hands on deck, and even more so because there is only one car per team. Mikhaylov must keep track of seven riders, a team of soigneurs, his mechanics, and track the gaps and time bonuses. “I spend 160 to 170 days a year on the road,” he offers with a shrug. “It is the life.” Like most good directors, Mikhaylov was a solid pro but not a big winner. His only pro win was a stage at the Tour of Luxembourg. The top stars rarely translate well to life behind the wheel of a car. He retired in 2009 with Katusha after the Russian team’s first season in the peloton, and stayed with the outfit in his director role. “I come from Cheboksary,” he said. “Do you know where Cheboksary is?” Before I can say no, Mikhaylov cuts in on race radio: “Be careful, guys, there is a lot of wind in this section.”
12:38 p.m.: Even in a relatively straightforward stage, there’s plenty going on. Riders from across all the teams float back to stuff six, seven, and even eight bottles into their jerseys. A Katusha rider comes back with a brake pad rubbing, and the mechanic leans out the window to make an adjustment. That’s the team’s only mechanical hiccup on the day. “Don’t grab onto the car!” Mikhaylov yells out the window. “We must always follow the rules.” What? You don’t want to get DQ’d like Nibali, I offer in a lame attempt at a joke. Mikhaylov doesn’t even blink.
12:52 p.m.: A sport director must be a master of detail. Running a stage race, the DS is like a general with a battle plan. Details matter. Mikhaylov has a map taped to the dashboard marked up with the day’s intermediate sprints, climbs, distances, and tricky corners noted. He has a folded copy of the GC tucked into his shirt pocket. Overnight, he studied the route on Google Maps to have a better understanding of the lay of the land. What’s changed since he started being a DS? “All of this,” Mikhaylov said, waving his hand toward the GPS and his cell phone. “Before, you had to know everything. Now you can just talk to Siri.”
1:06 p.m.: : We sweep past the soigneurs with the extra bottles. “Look,” he says pointing to the thermometer. It spikes at 115 degrees. Riders are blowing through their water bottles. Mikhaylov quickly does the math and realizes they might not have enough bottles to last to the end of the stage. “Guys, don’t throw away your bottles. We need to refill them.” They packed water, but with this heat, the riders are gulping down water in a vain attempt to stay hydrated. Race radio crackles with the news: the peloton is splitting as it nears the day’s first sprint. “Guys, pay attention — split in the peloton.” It comes back soon enough, and with the two riders still up the road, none of the rivals pick up any of the valuable bonuses.
1:19 p.m.: Team cars take turns filtering through the group to pass up bottles to their thirsty riders. One DS from another team is driving with his foot sticking out the window. Even in the relatively light caravan of the Tour Down Under, it’s a dynamic and frenetic scene as cars, motorcycles, race officials, VIPs, photographers, and neutral support all filter through the caravan. It’s even more harrowing at major European races, with more vehicles packed onto even narrower roads. Directors are pretty good drivers, eh? “Not all of them,” he offers.
1:24 p.m.: We blow through the feed zone and riders are now rationing their water bottles. Riders come back with empty bottles and wait as the mechanic refills them with water. The gap is down to less than two minutes to the attackers and the pace is picking up. Even on an easy day, the bunch is zipping along at a brisk 40+ kph. The mechanic pulls out some sandwiches and he gently reminds his riders: “Save your legs. In this heat, you can pay tomorrow.”
1:55 p.m.: We take advantage of a lull in the action to stop for a quick nature break. The caravan disappears up the road and we scramble back into the car. Mikhaylov expertly guides the car back into the caravan. A rider drifts back and Mikhaylov is yelling into the race radio, “Come to the right side of the car!” (That’s the driver’s side in Australia). Finally the rider pulls alongside. “I told you to come to the right side!” The rider replied, “We can’t hear anything you’re saying on race radio.” Mikhaylov reaches down to the radio console and adjusts a cable. “Can you hear me now?” The rider waves yes, and pedals off with fresh water bottles. Mikhaylov shoots me a dirty look. I must have kicked loose the radio cable when I jumped back into the car. D’oh!
2:05 p.m.: With the day’s second intermediate sprint looming, the two-man break is reeled in. The pace and tension immediately quicken. “Stay in the first half of the peloton,” Mikhaylov barks into the radio. “Everyone around Nathan.” At the Tour Down Under, team cars don’t have TVs, so he’s entirely dependent on race radio for updates. It’s a misnomer to think that sport directors control tactics and race dynamics sitting in a team car. Most of the information that’s being relayed up to the riders is about safety, course conditions, and upcoming key moments.
2:17 p.m.: Race radio calls out results from the second intermediate sprint. Haas won it, taking seconds to his rivals that could be pivotal when it comes to the podium. Last year, Haas lost out on third place on the final day of racing due to count-back on placement, so the adage that every second counts rings true at the Tour Down Under. Mikhaylov shows no emotion. He’s focused on the looming finishing circuit, and knows one false move could ruin a hard day’s work. “No stress at the moment. Stay at the front. Stay close to Nathan. Wait for the sprint.”
2:22 p.m.: Just like that, Katusha’s Tiago Machado unexpectedly jumps off the front of the pack as it roars onto the 10.5km closing circuit. The Portuguese rider is dangling 15 seconds off the front of the peloton. Other riders start dropping back after their work is done and soft pedal to the line looking ashen and spent. I ask if Machado’s attack was part of the day’s plan. Mikhaylov looks at me and offers, “It will bring good publicity to Katusha!” Who says Russians don’t have a sense of humor?
2:33 p.m.: The pace quickens as the teams start jostling to position their sprinters for the day’s prize. This is a WorldTour race, and early success here can set up any team nicely for the first few months of the season. Machado is swept up, and the pack barrels into the final 3km. Everyone is tuned into the tension of the moment. This is what these guys live for. It’s the elusive thrill of the hunt and the tension, speed, danger, and ultimate rewards that can only come from racing. Mikhaylov starts barking orders into the radio: “Come on, guys! Keep pushing! Let’s go!”
2:38 p.m.: Race radio calls out the results. Elia Viviani wins in a bunch sprint, and none of the GC favorites figured in the bonuses. Riders do their best to cool down, gulping down hydration drinks and pouring water over their head. Several riders jump into the nearby ocean. “It was a good day. We protected Nathan, and now we’ll see what happens in the climbs,” Mikhaylov says. Within 15 minutes, the caravan is heading back to the team hotel.
This all occurred three days into the 2018 racing season. Mikhaylov has about 100 more to go.