What’s it like to be a Tour de France rookie? We spoke with three debutants
ÉPERNAY, France (VN) – Every time Joey Rosskopf has turned on his mobile phone over the last week, the list of congratulatory messages from his friends and family has gotten longer and longer.
“It’s like I won a race, but obviously I haven’t. I just made it to the start of a race,” says the 29-year-old American rider on Team CCC, with a smile that reflects his bewilderment.
Rosskopf is correct, of course. It’s simply that “the race” he is referring to is not just any race. It is the Tour de France, and he is one of 33 rookies making his debut this year.
Rosskopf is one of three Tour debutants that VeloNews spoke to this week about the unique personal and performance stresses dished out by the sport’s biggest race. Canadian Mike Woods (EF Education First) and Australian Jack Haig (Mitchelton-Scott) are also making their debut this year. All three riders have grand tour experience in the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, but the Tour is the Tour — the biggest bike race of them all.
So, before the Tour left Belgium on Monday on stage 3 from Binche to Épernay, we checked in with the three men to get their initial impressions of racing the Tour.
“I was afraid to tell my family.”
Rosskopf has known since Team CCC’s training camp last December that he would race the Tour, as part of a line-up that was no longer pursuing general classification. The team is now chasing stage wins, with Belgian Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet leading the charge, but with the understanding that all of the riders could get a chance along the way.
“We always do a meeting [at the training camp] to lay out each rider’s race schedule for the year,” Rosskopf said. “I had a good idea as long as I could stay healthy and fit, that I could be here at the start.”
Rosskopf admits there were times he doubted if he would ever race the Tour. At BMC, the team’s focus on the general classification meant that an all-rounder like himself was often overlooked.
“I was still doing a grand tour every year, and there was no big pressure from within that I had to get to the Tour de France or else,” he said. “My cycling career was still really fun, still feeling enjoyable, hard. But everyone knows how big a spectacle this is. It’s still a huge pleasure to be here.”
What are the big differences Rosskopf has noticed when he compares the Giro and Vuelta with what he’s experienced at the Tour so far?
“The crowd, I think; which feeds the pressure,” he said. “You are always hearing about how stressful it is, how much pressure there is — especially among the riders from their directors and what they put on themselves. It all just feeds off itself … the build-up all year and the crowds.”
Rosskopf is keen to see how he performs in the Tour. He believes he could get a chance to shine in a breakaway on a stage with some of the “shallower” climbs. His family and many friends are cheering for him – from both the roadsides of France as well as back home in the U.S., where he hails from Decatur, Georgia.
Rosskopf produces a wry smile when asked if his family had planned any special trip to France to see him race. They have. His brother and his family were due to arrive on Monday, while his parents and some of his “riding buddies” will join the Tour on the first rest day — next Tuesday — and follow the Tour to its end in Paris while going on a cycling tour. He was still anxious about telling them he had been selected to the Tour squad.
“I was kind of afraid to tell them or mention it to them,” he said. “As soon as I did they started planning a trip, a big summer trip to France. I gave them fair warning, [saying], ‘These cycling schedules are always changing, you know. I could crash tomorrow and be out for six months. You never know. And if you plan a trip to France make sure it is enjoyable in itself, not reliant on me being present.’”
Deep down, he is thrilled by the buzz from his parents. “It is a big excitement,” he said. “It is the only race that is reliably on TV that they have been following, and the only race that probably their friends recognize the name of, if they start to talk about cycling and what their son is doing.”
“I would watch the Tour every summer.”
Mike Woods is getting up in years at the age of 32, but the Toronto native is still young to the sport he took up in 2013 after injury ended his career as a middle-distance runner.
And the EF Education First rider happily admits that he had nerves heading into his first start in the Tour. Now that the Tour is up and going, he said he is “feeling great.” He has been able to “lose a bit of the nerves” he had when he first arrived at the start in Brussels.
“The big reasons why there are more nerves is because this is the only cycling event that really transcends cycling,” Woods said. “It’s known outside the cycling world. When I had no knowledge of cycling I still knew of the Tour and followed the Tour and watched all the riders in the Tour. You feel that. You feel the increased number of messages from fans, the increased interest from media back home, particularly being one of two Canadians here [Hugo Houle (Astana) the other]. And we haven’t had a Canadian in the Tour since 2016.”
Woods admits that during his athletic career he believed even then that he had the ability to race the Tour.
“I would watch the Tour every summer when I was a runner in high school and really enjoy it, and feel that I could relate to the guys racing it because I was in an endurance sport,” he said. “I felt that maybe some of my skills could transfer to that discipline. But when I was in my mid-20s and dating my now wife, she asked me, ‘Do you think you could do the Tour?’ I was like, ‘Yeah probably.’ And knowing what I know now, that is crazy. But I was right, I wasn’t wrong.”
That proof came when EF Education First sports director Charly Wegelius telephoned Woods two weeks ago to confirm that he had been picked for the team that is led by Colombian Rigoberto Urán, one of the overall contenders.
Woods, a bronze medalist in last year’s world road championships, had been on the team’s Tour list since the beginning of the year. But that call reaffirmed his belief that he earned his spot through a strong season that included a 10th-place finish in the Tour de Romandie and fifth in Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
“I told them I wanted to do the Tour,” Woods said. “I told them, ‘I will do whatever it takes. I will get bottles. Whatever role, I just need to do the Tour.’ I’m not getting any younger. I need that experience. Over the course of the season, I felt I cemented myself on the roster through my performances.”
And like any Tour debutant, Woods was not short of receiving some tips. His mind was awash with advice.
“Oh man, I have received a lot of unsolicited advice and a lot of solicited advice for this race,” he said. “To be honest, there are a bunch of people spinning in my mind when I think of the Tour because of the advice I received. But I can’t tell you one guy. It is just an accumulation of knowledge. A lot of people have reflected the same sentiments… that it’s a super stressful race and it’s not like any other race. A couple of people have said, ‘Treat it like any other bike race.’ It’s not.”
“When I got the call, it was, ‘Aaah!'”
Jack Haig learned of his Tour selection on the Monday afternoon following the Criterium du Dauphiné, a race which both Rosskopf and Woods also used to finish their Tour preparation.
Haig, 25, was at home in Andorra drinking a coffee when Mitchelton-Scott head sports director Matt White called to confirm his spot in the team led by Briton Adam Yates.
“It was a bit of a relief — I missed the Giro with a knee injury and I fought pretty hard to come back to get a good level of fitness,” said Haig, who has been on the Australian team since 2016. “After working so hard, performing well at the Dauphiné [he finished second on stage 8], waiting for the call I was like, ‘I really hope I made it. I put a lot of work into this.’ When I got the call it was, ‘Ahh..!’ Then after the relief I was, ‘Wow, it’s the Tour de France, the biggest bike race. I get to go now.’ It’s pretty special.”
Haig contained his excitement though. He said he did not telephone his family back in Australia to break the big news, but he conceded that his “girlfriend was pretty excited.”
However, he is embracing the added attention he is getting because of his Tour selection. “It’s getting bigger and bigger in Australia,” he said of cycling. “The Tour is the most followed race. It’s nice to have a bit of extra support from Australians and get a bit more recognition for the sport.”
Haig said his job for the Tour will be to help Yates in the “critical moments” in the mountains, and because of that he will try to conserve as much energy as possible until then.
Haig is not letting the hype of the Tour get to him either. So far, at least, he has found much of it overstated. “I think everyone builds it up a little bit,” he said. “It’s definitely special and big, and on stage 1, when we were riding into Brussels in the last 10km there on that big road, there was the fountain and the big archway… I did take a little moment to have a little look around. I thought, ‘Ah, it’s pretty special, hey? There are a fair few people by the side of the road.’ It is special, it is different. But I think everyone does build it up a little bit more than what it is. But I think once we get to France and to the mountains it will really sink in there.”
As for finishing in Paris? “It’s definitely a special thought,” he said. “The icing on the cake. Rolling down the Champs-Élysées … finishing the biggest bike race in the world.”