Where to find the heroes
A peek behind the scenes of the Tirol Cycling Team during the Tour of the Alps
text: Eva Schwienbacher, photos: Manfred Jarisch
An eight-man squad from the Tirol Cycling Team has challenged the stars from the cycling sport scene during the Tour of the Alps. Sport.Tirol accompanied the riders for part of the way, during the race stage through Tirol.
Team captain Matthias Krizek hands his racing bike over to the team mechanic. He drops into one of the eight camping chairs, takes a sip from his yellow drink bottle and smiles. Lucas Black drops to the ground and leans against a car, his head resting on his legs and face contorted with pain. It is his first stage race in the professional sector. “The pace was tremendous”, he says later in the hotel.
They have just arrived at the Hungerburg in Innsbruck with their six team colleagues and 131 opponents. It is the first edition of the Tour of the Alps and the first stage of this five-day cycling tour, which supersedes the Giro del Trentino. The route on day 1 from Kufstein to Innsbruck is the easiest, with “only” 142 kilometres and 2,075 meters in elevation difference to contend with. Things then gets harder from one day to the next. The pace of these races has been set by the UCI World Teams, such as Astana, Sky or Gazprom-RusVelo.
Eight heroes are nonetheless here in Tirol, where the Tirolean racing team enjoy great notoriety. Friends and family have come to cheer them along the route and over the finish line, where they wait to welcome them with open arms. Cameras and microphones are all directed at the athletes from this Tirolean team - even though none of them won on this Easter Monday.
The eight-man squad competing in this tour for the Tirol Cycling Team is an eclectic mix of veterans with international experience and newcomers, making their debut on the tour. They are accompanied and supported by the two new sports directors, Roberto Damiani and Leonardo Canciani, the team manager and founder Thomas Pupp, mechanics Romeo and Fabian, as well as physiotherapists Elena and Ziga.
Sebastian Schönberger (r. ab.) and Matthias Krizek at the finish in Innsbruck
Sleeping in hotels is all part of the tour routine. The team are staying in Götzens for the first night. They leave for the hotel once the bikes have all been loaded-up, the athletes have changed their clothes and enjoyed bananas, energy bars and drinks to give their sugar levels a boost.
Three coaches and a car are already parked in front of the hotel car park in Götzens - they belong to one of the other large teams who are also staying here. The Tirol Cycling Team minibus and cars have found space to park up in-between the other vehicles. This is where the athletes’ suitcases are stored, bikes cleaned and repaired and spare parts are frantically loaded and unloaded. And while the work for the mechanics Fabian and Romeo is only really just beginning, it is time for the athletes to take a break and revive their flagging energy levels.
After checking-in, the athletes can replenish their carbohydrate levels with a plate of rice or a piece of cake made from rice and almond flour before their evening meal. They all receive a 40-minute massage, which accelerates recovery times.
Mattias Krizek is already on one of the massage tables. The Viennese man, who rode for an Italian team for several years, chats in fluent Italian with the physiotherapist, Elena, while she kneads his thighs. “It’s all about loosening the muscles”, explains Krizek. “When it is cold, like today, you feel the strain even more”. At the same time, the massage is supposed to have a relaxing effect. Smart-phones and other distractions are banned from the room during this period of regeneration.
The 28-year-old, who ranks as one of the most experienced on the team, is satisfied with his performance today. Just like his team colleague, Patrick Gamper, he was able to join a breakaway group of riders at the beginning of today’s stage, just before Innsbruck. He managed to get ahead of the chasing group with two other opponents and pull away at high speed - until he was slowed down by a technical glitch. “For me personally, it went well. My legs were good. Most of the competing teams are preparing for the Giro d’Italia, or have just come back from altitude training. It is certainly not easy for us. But we presented ourselves well as a team”, says Krizek.
It is important for the team to deliver a good performance in their home region: to show, on the one hand, what the young riders are capable of and to boost interest in cycling on the other, especially with the UCI Road World Championships 2018 in Tirol being just around the corner.
Maximilian Kuen’s summary of the first race day, after arriving in Innsbruck and the hotel in Götzens, demonstrates how this task can be a blessing and a curse all rolled into one. “It is always special to ride in front of friends and family”, says the 24-year-old athlete from Kufstein, who is an important team rider on the tour. “Loads of my people came to Kufstein. I had to keep stopping on my way to the start line because I kept seeing people I know. It was madness”.
„Hard races ultimately make you better. The basic pace is faster, the riders are stronger, which has a knock-on effect on your own performance", Maximilian Kuen.
He always feels, however, a mounting pressure to perform at home races. You want to show everyone what you are capable of. But as a sprinter or an all-rounder like him, you feel like an amateur on the mountain sections. “I don’t feel particularly good when I know I have no chance”, says Kuen. At the same time, he recognises and appreciates the opportunities this tour gives him to develop - and grow into his role as a top sportsman. “Hard races ultimately make you better. The basic pace is faster, the riders are stronger, which has a knock-on effect on your own performance”, says Kuen.
Sporting director Leonardo Canciani, who accompanied the team in the support vehicle during the race, holds a similar view: “It is a shame that nobody won the mountain or sprint jersey, but the fact that two of our young riders led the breakaway group is as good as victory for us. The tour’s standards are very high. It is not easy, but the riders’ potential is very evident”.
After having had their massages, the last riders gradually make their way into the hotel lobby. Mountain specialist, Lucas Schwarz, has a smile back on his face. The athlete from Jenbach sits on a bar stool and tells of his debut as a racing cyclist. The 24-year-old only began cycling seriously three years ago. Since then, he has won numerous amateur races. Thanks to these successes and an excellent performance test, the Tirol Cycling Team brought him on board.
However, he has never taken part in a tour of such high calibre before, he says. “It was quite simply a brutal race. The Russians set a decent pace from the outset. I had to invest a huge amount of effort into the first few kilometres to even stay in the group, "says Schwarz.
In addition to the speed, the tight pack of riders in the field and quick change between braking and accelerating were new to him. “First of all, I had to get used to actually having physical contact with the other riders. I just need to practice, practice, practice. Schwarz, however, does not only have career plans in cycling sport. He is currently studying law in Innsbruck and must attend an examination in penal law only one week after he gets back from the tour. His suitcase is therefore packed not only with clothes and co., but revision papers too, so he can use the time after dinner to study.
state of the tour meeting
moody weather conditions
Schwarz’s evening programme is an exception to the rule. The focus for most riders is on recuperation. The means: relaxing, eating, chatting with colleagues or watching a film. Another thing keeping the team members busy tonight is the weather forecast. Sub-zero temperatures and snowfall in North Tirol is forecast for the following day and the second stage of the race from Innsbruck to South and East Tirol, via the Europa Bridge and Brenner Pass. A rumour that the planned route will be shortened is currently doing the rounds. How the tour organisers ultimately decide still remains to be seen. The last riders finally get to bed at around 23 hrs.
It is snowing gently in the Tirolean state capital the next morning. In Götzens, which lies a little higher, the flakes are falling thick and fast. The riders are all sat at the breakfast table, preparing themselves for the race. This means, eating as much as they possibly can. They can choose from a wide selection of cereals, coconut or rice milk, chia seeds, wholemeal bread, curd, bananas, nutella, honey or warm food from the breakfast buffet, such as rice, scrambled eggs or pasta. There is also coffee, which Elena from Italy prepares freshly in the team bus, and serves in paper cups. A final decision on the race route is still outstanding.
To make sure they are prepared for winter conditions, Elena is making thermos pots of tea. “There are designated stops along the way, where the riders can warm up”, she explains. Another measure the athletes can take in order to prevent themselves from getting cold in bad weather, is to smear their calves with a special warming cream. “This is better than wearing long trousers, which would only get wet anyway”, says Elena from experience.
The team meeting begins at 8.50 hrs sharp in the hotel room of two of the team riders. The small room is chock-a-block with the eight athletes and three team supervisors. They try and keep the mood light-hearted and there is much bantering, especially considering there are many unresolved issues surrounding today’s race day. “We should give KTM a call. We need skis”, says sports director Roberto Damiani in jest. “What should I do if the route is shortened? I have eaten breakfast for 180 kilometres”, says Krizek and laughs.
The time is then used to study the course and determine race tactics, as well as praise the previous day’s performance. “The first 30 kilometres was our priority, and we succeeded in staying ahead here. For this, you have earned yourselves 100 points”, says team manager, Thomas Pupp. This tactic - of positioning a rider in a breakaway group - is also planned for the second day. The team then makes their way to Innsbruck, where a decision on the race is to be announced at 9.30 hrs. Just before the planned announcement, it is still snowing.
The team buses and cars park up one behind the other in the centre of Innsbruck, next to the Landhausplatz. A hive of activity is going on. At half past nine, an official announcement is made: The start of the second stage in Innsbruck is to be cancelled and moved to Sterzing for twelve o’clock. The reason given is that it would have been too dangerous to let the athletes ride over the snow-covered Brenner Pass. Tirol Cycling Team welcomes the decision. “Too many things have gone wrong in the past, when others have tried to play the hero role. The athletes’ health takes absolute priority”, says sporting director Roberto Damiani. It is now time to jump in the car and head south.
Change of agenda
Due to bad weather conditions, the team passes the Brenner by car.