Watching from the sidelines, a feed zone looks like organised chaos to the outsider and the one I’m witnessing on stage two of the Women’s Tour is no different in that respect. Shouts, cries, bidons and musettes, all fly in a cacophony of noise.
I find myself in the honourable position of front passenger seat, P1 no less, in the Storey Racing car and the air conditioning is doing double time to regain some cool after the pitstop introduced me to the 30-degree heat.
It’s only going to get worse the nearer the riders get to Daventry. Not that the town is a tropical oasis. More the fact that it’s even more grippy from now on and the pace has increased as the fight for position begins in the bunch.
There’s plenty of toing and froing happening amongst the team cars as riders are dropped, mechanicals occur and squabbling over convoy position goes on. Even though these guys on four wheels have numbers as well, they’ll quite happily sneak a place or two nearer to the front if they can. We can’t though, as we’re car 17 out of 17 so I’ve gone from the front of the race to the back in one fell swoop and it’s a totally different experience.
Back here, it’s bang on the brakes at every junction, hill and obstacle on the route, followed by a dose of flat-out acceleration to close the gap in the convoy that has opened. It’s not DS Paul Freeman’s fault, as he’s keeping up with the guys in front. No, this is just how it is. Bumpy, uncomfortable and loud.
Being in P1, I have to turn around to speak to Barney Storey, who is doing the mechanic role in the back and that means quite quickly I start to feel sick. Adjusting the air vent so it’s blowing onto my face – which as a rider I would never have done in case I got ill from the temperature change – helps a bit, but I’m glad I haven’t eaten too much.
My companions seem used to being thrown about and unfazed by the constant changes of direction, so I focus on where we are as a distraction and look forward to when we get onto some smoother surfaces after the first time over the line. As is typical of British races, there’s a circuit involved and I know this part of the route intimately.
It’s a while away though, so I enquire of Barney’s bike building progress as some new Boardman frames they received prior to the event were for electronic shifting and they were running mechanical. Oops. Quickly solved by a delivery, and welcome upgrade, of Di2 group sets, which Barney has been assembling when he gets the chance before and after the race. Three is the answer, three more to go then.
This might be Women’s WorldTour level but Storey Racing is the smallest team here and is more of a friends and family affair compared to the big shots with the fancy campers and liveried trucks. This is the third year of the team’s existence and its set-up was originally to allow [multiple Paralympic champion] Sarah to race at a higher level on the road and do the race programme she needs.
But it’s grown quickly into a 12-rider group which covers all the cycling disciplines. The only reason Sarah herself isn’t riding is she’s looking after one-year-old Charlie, their second child following on from Louisa, who at the age of a year and a half was taken round on the 2016 Women’s Tour in an incredible feat of multi-tasking.
Here they have a mix of road, track and cyclo-cross riders who have just finished with the Tour Series, so they’re going from one-hour efforts at national level to international racing over three times longer. It’s no wonder the riders are still adapting to the circumstances which are very different to what they are used to. In the UK National Series races they can decide how things go, but here at a WorldTour event, it’s a whole other situation.
Storey Racing isn’t just about the result; it’s as much a place to develop and grow as a cyclist and as a person, so in that sense what the Storeys are doing fits in with the narrative of what the Women’s Tour is about. Participation, inspiring people, being the best person you can be. Throughout my career I was judged on my last performance: was it good enough? There’s none of that here and that’s what the team’s sponsors are supporting – an ideology that promotes health, fitness and wellbeing.
We arrive in the village of Everdon and I impart some of my local knowledge that this is the last chance to move up in the bunch before the race reaches the crucial climb of Newnham Hill, so Paul is on the radio with the information straight away. From where we are in the convoy it’s hard to see much of what’s happening. That changes when we get to the hill and stop at the bottom, whilst up ahead there are riders strung out everywhere because of the steepness of the climb.
Personally, I rarely went into Daventry this way because it was just too hard for comfort. As is normal for a bike race there’s a big crowd gathered just where it’s most difficult. Down the descent, through part of the industrial estate faster than seems sensible, and the route is onto the ring road where we pass a couple of groups which contain three of the Storey girls. That was predictable as they’re the bigger, stronger ones and definitely wouldn’t have enjoyed the 16 per cent slope.
Up through the finish for the first time and the photographer, who has been in the back, gets out and I see my chance to swap places, so after the speed bumps and roundabouts are negotiated, I climb ungracefully from the front to the rear seat beside Barney. Phew, it’s much better in the back, being able to look forward and talk and take notes has calmed my stomach – not to the point that I’m hungry and thinking of eating the chocolate I have in my bag but at least there’s no more motion sickness going on.
Between them, the Storeys have been to ten Olympic Games: three for Barney and seven for Sarah. Will she be going to Tokyo 2020? Barney says he doesn’t know as he hasn’t asked her, but he wouldn’t be surprised as she still has the same determination and focus.
It’s unfortunate I won’t have the chance to meet her as she’s only coming to the last day and I’ve only scheduled two visits to the race, but hopefully I can sometime in the future, because anyone who juggles being a mother to two small kids, trains and races to win medals at the Olympics, does all the logistics for the team and still has time to visit schools to talk and inspire people is remarkable.
Into the last 15 kilometres and we have a puncture to deal with. Beth Crumpton requires a back wheel at probably the worst time to flat. From here to the next crucial part of the race there are five kilometres and by the time she’s up and riding again, she’s at least 45 seconds from the back of the bunch which means, even if she can get back, it’ll be at the beginning of the dodgy, dusty descent to the start of Newnham Hill again. There’s no chance of getting anywhere near the front of the bunch. She tries yo-yoing in the cars as we go up and down and through villages, but as predicted she’s still in the cars at the beginning of that last descent so we tell her to take it easy and save her energy for another day.
Second ascent of Newnham Hill is much the same as the first, bodies everywhere, nutters in Spiderman outfits and lots of cheering and merriment.
At the front of the race the strongest riders break away and Marianne Vos makes a slight mistake in the uphill sprint that lets Coryn Rivera (above) through on the inside.
We’re troubled by none of that debate as we pull into the deviation at the back of the leisure centre where I first went to Tae Kwon Do lessons oh so long ago.
Back out into the 30-degree heat, I realise I quite enjoyed that last part and from the looks on the Storey girls faces in a strange way they did too. They are glowing, they’ve done the cool to be sweaty part of the day and now it’s time to get cleaned up, pile in the cars for the transfer to the night’s hotel and begin recovering for tomorrow.
Extract from Women on Tour, first published in Rouleur 18.7