Through the glass
View from a team vehicle shows a car race within a bike race
ASPEN — A hip-crushing crash ended pro cyclist Omer Kem’s racing career in 2009. But as he accelerated and swerved, jockeying for places to pass during Monday’s stage of the USA Pro Challenge, it didn’t always feel that way.
What differentiated Kem from the more than 120 riders on the road, though, was he was driving in a car rather than sweating it out on a bike. Kem is the director of the Bissell Development Team, and he was piloting one of two Bissell support vehicles that accompany cyclists to provide mechanical help, occasional drinks and food, and some coaching here and there.
But as Kem and other drivers in what’s referred to as the race vehicle caravan charged and swerved down winding hills trying to keep up with hard-charging cyclists, sometimes weaving in and out between vehicles and cyclists to try to reach one of their riders, it seemed like they were part of a car race within a bike race.
Even as police officers lined the race course and sometimes followed behind him with their lights flashing to accompany the cyclists, Kem often occupied the wrong side of the road, topped the speed limit by 25 mph or more, and even multi-tasked by live-tweeting how his team was doing. It was all acceptable behavior on the closed race course, but you wouldn’t want to try this at home.
“I don’t drive much when I go home,” Kem said. “I let my wife drive.”
This reporter’s view of the race from the passenger seat of the team car came courtesy of the Bissell team, and through the help of a public-relations assistant who warned that he’d done it once and it was pretty boring. He explained the car he was in was far enough behind the cyclists he could hardly see the race.
Still, Bissell’s offer seemed like a good chance to get some sense of the team strategizing that occurs during a race, perhaps witness a quick flat-tire change or some interaction with a lagging rider, and in general view the race from the inside out — from the road rather than alongside it.
That viewpoint alone proved eye-opening enough as we started out well behind the pack of riders, buoyed by roadside crowds willing to cheer on not just the pedal-powered but gas-powered contingent of this traveling circus, as a television helicopter circled overhead.
But it wasn’t long into the first lap of the three-lap, 61-mile circuit race that things quickly got a lot more interesting. A race official in radio contact with the team cars announced a breakaway group of riders had gone ahead of the pack.
She then read off the bib numbers of the riders, including 153.
“Greg,” Bissell mechanic Craig Virr called out from the back seat of Kem’s car.
He was referring to Bissell rider Gregory Daniel.
“I wouldn’t get too excited about it till they’re over a minute gap,” Kem told me.
Although Kem still wouldn’t get too excited about it, the breakaway group, which grew to eight riders, ended up exceeding that minute lead time, which proved to be a wonderful hurdle from the perspective of a first-time team-car passenger hoping to get a closer look at the action. That’s because once that minute gap was exceeded, teams with riders in the breakaway were allowed to send cars up to support them.
Thanks to Daniel’s aggressive riding, we were about to get that chance. Soon the announcer reported the gap had grown to 55 seconds. Just moments later, she declared, “1 minute and five seconds.”
“Uh, it’s going to be a hassle,” muttered Kem, much less excited than his front-seat passenger about the prospect of having to pass the other team vehicles and then the cycling pack on narrow, hilly roads to try to reach the breakaway.
Tires squealing, horn blaring, he started charging and swerving downhill, only to be brought up short by the radio announcer saying of the gap, “It’s only 50 seconds.”
Then she quickly corrected herself and apologized, saying, “1 minutes, 20 seconds.”
Game back on. Omer Kem again turned into Jimmie Johnson.
“It’s not easy on cars,” Kem acknowledged as his tires resumed crying out.
For the novice team-car passenger, it can be a bit hard on the stomach as well.
“I wouldn’t say anyone can do it,” Kem had said earlier of the kind of driving skills required to man a team car in a cycling race. “But if you’ve done it 500 times in the last five years, it becomes second nature.”
Cowboys taking a break at the edge of a ranch hailed us as we sped by. Later we saw a construction crew do the same.
Eventually a hole in the bike and car traffic opened up to let Kem reach Daniel.
“Greg, you doing good?” Kem asked from his driver’s-side window as he pulled up alongside his rider.
“Yeah,” comes the quick response from Daniel, who appears to be working hard but not struggling.
“Good job,” Kem said.
Then he advised, “Greg, do as little as possible, all right? Just keep it together.”
After separating from Daniel he explained his advice.
“The breakaway is doomed, as they say,” he predicted.
It’s too early in the race to last, Kem said, and he doesn’t want Daniel wasting too much energy trying to push the pace of the breakaway rather than drafting behind others when he’s got six more days of racing ahead of him.
In terms of racing strategy, Kem said the breakaway helps give control of the race to Cannondale, a team with a strong sprinter, Elia Viviani of Italy. Unless a breakaway succeeds, the race is expected to end in a sprint finish involving the main pack. He said Cannondale’s strategy likely will be to not chase the present breakaway till well into the third lap. Close the gap too early, and it could open the door to other breakaways by fresher riders the pack can’t catch before the finish, ruling out the chance of a sprint victory for Cannondale.
“This is kind of the race within the race,” Kem said of the breakaways and teams’ response to them — it’s part of the chess match of cycling.
The gap opens and closes, repeatedly going below and above the 1-minute mark, forcing Kem over and over to retreat behind the pack and then try to pass it again, speeding past cyclists just a few feet away.
“This might be the most exciting day for us (all week), getting to go back and forth seven times,” Kem says, appearing less thrilled than his words suggest.
“Greg, keep it up, all right,” Kem encouraged his charge on one of their meet-ups, handing Daniel some gel energy food Daniel has requested after Kem gave him a water bottle earlier. At 41.5 miles, the one minute gap remains.
Kem’s still not expecting anything from the breakaway. At this year’s Tour of California, he was willing to get his hopes up when Daniel was 12 miles from the finish in a breakaway with a three-minute lead. The breakaway lasted, and Daniel took second in the stage.
Soon the race radio announcer says a rider has broken away from the breakaway group. It’s not Daniel, heeding Kem’s advice.
If it had been him, “I wouldn’t feel bad for him if he struggled later in the (week-long) race,” Kem said.
Shortly afterward, the announcer reports, and repeats, that the breakaway has been caught. Kem and Virr compliment Daniel’s attempt, for at least putting himself in the position for a possible high finish.
“It was doomed from the beginning, but that doesn’t mean you don’t go out there and race,” Kem said.
As it turns out, the breakaway was caught too soon for Cannondale’s purposes, as Kem had warned can happen. Others were able to race off the front and stay ahead of Cannondale and its star sprinter through the finish.
Despite the high speeds and heavy traffic on the course, we see no bike wrecks on the course, and one vehicle incident involving a motorcycle that tipped over trying to avoid a biker with a flat tire.
Kem says he can’t remember seeing a crash between vehicles in all his time in the caravan. But maybe that depends how you define a crash.
“Once in a while they run into each other,” he said, and then quickly added, “Usually they keep going.”