I just went inside America’s coolest Tour de France team’s critical race recon — here’s what I saw

Riders on the EF Education First–Drapac p/b Cannondale team, like everyone else in the cycling world, are eager to get the 105th Tour de France underway on Saturday.

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Riders on the EF Education First–Drapac p/b Cannondale team, like everyone else in the cycling world, are eager to get the 105th Tour de France underway on Saturday.
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Daniel McMahon/Business Insider

  • The world’s greatest race, the Tour de France, starts Saturday. One hundred and seventy-six riders on 22 teams will take the start of the three-week, 3,351-kilometer/2,082-mile event.
  • One of the most critical days of racing could be the team time trial on Monday.
  • Three of the teams are registered in the US, with EF Education-Drapac p/b Cannondale arguably its most colorful.
  • Business Insider got a behind-the-scenes ride in an EF-Drapac team car while the riders got to work reconning the TTT course with race-pace efforts.

LES HERBIERS, France — Though the Tour de France starts Saturday with an opening flat stage suited to the sprinters, many cycling insiders are already talking about the day that could help decide the race, or at least meaningfully influence its outcome: the stage-three team time trial of 35.5 kilometers/22 miles around Cholet.

Unlike on typical days at the Tour – as on Saturday when the 176 riders will take the start en masse – the TTT is a unique discipline that pits team against team to see which is the strongest. Each of the 22 squads’ eight riders will race together in concert to try to set the fastest time over the course and position their general-classification leader strategically for the coming two and a half weeks of racing.

Britain’s Team Sky is expected to win the day, with the US-registered BMC squad of Australian Richie Porte another top candidate for glory. If Sky wins, its leader, Chris Froome, the embattled defending Tour champion, could put massive time into his rivals after just three of 21 stages – possibly a minute or two. That’d be a tough pill to swallow for his competitors, but as they like to say in racing, anything can happen.

Other teams will look to simply limit their losses and hope to stay within striking distance of the leader. Among them is another US-registered team, the EF Education First-Drapac p/b Cannondale outfit that counts Colorado and Texas natives Taylor Phinney and Lawson Craddock among its fast men. Both are strong time-trial riders, and along with their other teammates they’ll be aiming to deliver their leader and last year’s race runner-up, Rigoberto Urán, quickly and safely to the line.

EF-Drapac has no illusions of winning the TTT, but with a great ride it could finish in the top five and, more important, keep “Rigo” close to Froome on GC.

Business Insider got the opportunity to see the team in action as it reconned the TTT course on Thursday, two days before the Tour’s start. Here’s what we saw:


It all started at the team hotel where the eight riders and more than 20 staff are staying in the run-up to the Tour. For the recon there were three cars with Cannondale Slice time-trial bikes packed on top. (I rode back seat in one of these cars.)

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Up front the riders rode in the team bus, which we just followed it to the course’s start, a half hour away here in western France …

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On the way there was lots of signage letting people know that roads would be closed over the weekend for race …

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Getting closer to the course …

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Once in Cholet, mechanic James Griffin, of the UK, and his team began taking the bikes down from the cars …

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Jorge Queiros, a mechanic from Portugal, was checking to make sure the brakes were working properly and the wheels were spinning fast, while team boss Jonathan “DJ JV” Vaughters of the US did some spinning of his own.

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Some riders had special grippy tape put on their saddles to help keep their butts firmly in place while riding hard at high speed …

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EF-Drapac’s TT bike of choice is the Cannondale Slice. Very fast-looking bikes indeed, with the deep-profile aero wheels, aero bars, aero frame, and full disc wheels …

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We waited for the riders to get ready. The bus is their sanctuary and, outside the hotel, their only real place of privacy during the very public and hectic three-week race … the bus is off-limits to basically everyone save the riders and directors.

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The thick legs of Belgian classics specialist Sep Vanmarcke.
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Wherever they go during Tour mechanics bring their tools …

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Before the pedaling got underway, American Lawson Craddock took time to meet with a fan. (Note his patriotic watch.)

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Craddock’s custom Lake shoes represent his hometown …

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All Tour riders wear a two-way radio to communicate with their teammates and directors … this is EF-Drapac’s road captain, the Australian Simon Clarke.

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Tom Skully, a strong time trial rider from New Zealand, dialed in his cockpit. The Tour rookie should be a big help to Urán in the TTT …

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Finally we set out. I rode in the lead car, just ahead of the riders. Behind them there were two team cars with the sports directors, mechanics, and other staff …

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The most recognizable American rider in the Tour de France today is Taylor Phinney, self-described chief vibration officer. “I have to keep the vibes up, make sure the frequencies are calibrated.”

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And so we rolled out of downtown Cholet for a recon lap of the stage-three TTT … it was pretty chill at first.

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Soon we started hitting false flats and long, dragging climbs, so there was definitely some intensity early on. The order of the riders is crucial to success: Faster riders rotate with slower ones in order to keep the speed as fast as possible, so it’s faster rider, slower rider, faster rider, slower rider …

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Up front sport directors Tom Southam, of the UK, left, and Jonathan Breekveldt, an Aussie, were in charge of helping keep the riders safe, which was priority No. 1. It meant they drove just ahead of the riders, looked out for anything in the road that might put the riders in danger, and just kept everyone in the know via radio about what was coming up the road.

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There were frequent stops for traffic lights …

Riders on the EF Education First–Drapac p/b Cannondale team, like everyone else in the cycling world, are eager to get the 105th Tour de France underway on Saturday.

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Daniel McMahon/Business Insider

But once we got out more into the countryside, the riders picked up speed … they cruised along at 25 mph but hit 50 mph when they put the hammer down — part of a few 10-minute efforts that helped simulate race pace and open the legs …

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After the big rollout and a 10-minute effort, the riders pulled over to a safe side of the road to answer the call of nature …

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While the team took a short break, Craddock had head director Charly Wegelius, a Finnish-born Briton, help him adjust his race radio …

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Team leader and last year’s Tour runner-up, Rigoberto Urán, always seems to look cool and stress-free … but everyone knows how important the TTT could be to his ambitions in this race.

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While were were parked roadside, the Spanish Movistar team went flying by … they were really moving … all for their leader, Nairo Quintana.

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After some chit-chat and adjustments to the bikes, it was time to get back to work …

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Once we got moving again we started really going up and down the rolling hills … and the 10-minute efforts started up again …

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The TTT will be super fast … the course has several downhill sections that will see the riders hitting very high speeds, so our car stayed well ahead of the riders to give them safe space to go hard …

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The riders hit 80 kph/50 mph several times … easily …

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Cycling is unique in that the athletes compete in the real world, on real roads, with things like roundabouts and other “road furniture” about … as well as live traffic … so the directors constantly reminded the riders to play it safe.

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Sometimes there was just nothing you could do but slow down for traffic … but the riders always managed to stay together and ride safe …

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Finally, nearing the end of the recon, Clarke told us it had gone well and that the team worked together smoothly …

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After the two-hour recon it was back to the bus …

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Riders took time after the recon to make some adjustments to their bikes … as did Vanmarcke.

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Tour-stage winner Pierre Rolland, a Frenchman, kept his Garmin computer snug between his aero bars, or “skis.”

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Riders synced phones with bike computers’ GPS so that they could ride back to the hotel and not get lost …

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As we finished up the morning’s work, Urán looked like he was all business … he’s highly regarded as a true professional. If the team can get through stage one and two safely without issue and then do a solid TTT on Monday, Urán and Co. should be in good shape for what’s to come — just 18 more stages till Paris.

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