Talking about winning the Giro d’Italia
The 100th Giro d’Italia finished almost two weeks ago and it was a race that prompted much discussion in May. In this podcast, we have a chat with the directeur sportif who called the shots from the Sunweb team car.
Interview by Rob Arnold
Photos by Yuzuru Sunada
Luke Roberts is listed as ‘Coach’ on the Sunweb team page but he is also a trainer and, in old parlance, the ‘directeur sportif’ for the German-registered team. The South Australian has lived in Cologne in Germany for many years and he’s the quintessential cycling stalwart who, years after his own racing career, is advising others on their performances in competition.
Roberts was in car one for Sunweb during the Giro d’Italia which was, of course, won by Sunweb’s Dutch super star, Tom Dumoulin.
We consider some aspects of the race and talk through a sequence of topics relating to Dumoulin’s victory… including, of course, the incident of the “stomach problems” on the day the Stelvio Pass was a feature of the Giro.
Click the SoundCloud file below to listen to the interview with Luke Roberts about the 100th Giro d’Italia.
For more ‘Talking Cycling’ interviews, see our YouTube channel.
RIDE: I’ve heard it said that there’s a life-size – or, maybe, a scale model of Tom Dumoulin – in some wind tunnel. And they can put this mannequin on a bike and position him into different stances to do some testing without Tom being present. Is that true?
Luke Roberts: “Uhm… in a way. Yes. There is a life size mannequin at the Delft University near Amsterdam. They can sit it on a bike and they [used it] to develop the time trial suit for him… to test different materials or different stitching lines, etcetera or whatever else they do with making time trial suits faster.
“That way Tom is not needed to go into the wind tunnel every time they have a new idea on a suit.”
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Let’s talk about [Tom] as a person. We’ve seen him in situations of extreme duress and also high elation during the Giro this year. How did he cope and what sort of commentary did you have during the course of the three weeks?
Luke Roberts: “He had experience in the past of going close to winning a Grand Tour – with the Vuelta two year ago – and that sort of ended as a bad experience for him almost… on the last mountain stage dropping down to sixth on GC while in the [leader’s] jersey.
“That’s, of course, on his mind.
“Last year with the number of days in the pink jersey at the Giro and then he needed to abandon with saddle sores.
“He had a couple of experiences in the past that, of course, were playing on his mind as we went through the Giro this year.
“He started really focussed and strong and in that hard last week we had some ups and downs there. I think two of the days in the last week were really difficult for him. The one day with the stomach problems and another day he had bad legs and the focus wasn’t quite there. It ultimately cost him the jersey on that day.”
We can talk about the day he lost the jersey but I think the Stelvio one is what everyone is curious about. What was the atmosphere like in the car when we knew when it became apparent he had to go to the toilet? What was going on in advance of that and what was your advice to him? Can you give us some insight that perhaps people haven’t heard about?
Luke Roberts: “He’d had it in the past. He had it in the Tour last year after a stage – or during a stage of the Tour last year… and so he had experience with that himself and knew that it can be, possibly, that it’s caused by gels or the high altitude itself.
“But as we came down off the Stelvio descent, he called the car up and I spoke to him then. He said then that he ‘really had to go’ and I had some medication there for stomach problems.
“I said, ‘We’ll try this…’ and ‘We can either try this and see if you come good by the time we got onto that final climb… or if you need to stop, it’s best to do it, try to do it, now. Straight away. Before the teams start riding.
“There was a group up the road and there were some riders on the GC that were going to put other riders, top-10 places under threat or the white jersey under threat.
“We knew there was only a short moment there – of hesitation – where he could stop.
“He chose to try to push on at that moment. And then realised just before the bottom of the climb that he wasn’t going to be able to keep going like that.
“I gave him the advice. I said, ‘If you stop now, you know you’ll be starting this climb at least a minute or two minutes behind the group… and then you either need to make that time back up or, if you just try to hang on, you have to consider whether you’re going to lose that two minutes just by trying to push on.
“And, without a second’s hesitation, he had already pulled over on the side of the road and stopped…
“I guess he was willing to give up the time to… ah, feel more comfortable on the climb.”
I know that at stage 13 of the 2003 Tour de France, when Jan Ullrich was within striking distance of the yellow jersey he had similar problems. It was 100km to go and he dropped back to [Rudy] Pevenage and asked some advice. Some associates of mine did an interview with him at the finish that day and it was apparent what he did; in other words, he just… he ah, didn’t stop. And it was a very… it was a smelly interview, let’s put it that way. Was there any…? There’s a lot of graphic detail there but you’ve been a bike rider, you’ve ridden Grand Tours, you know what it’s like. And the topic of pooing comes up every now and again. Was there a temptation to, perhaps, try the old cap down the knicks trick or anything like that?
Luke Roberts: “Actually, at that moment there were not many other options that crossed out mind.
“I mean it was a long time still to go to get to the finish and it would be…
“He wanted to be comfortable on the climb. So for him to have to give away a few extra seconds to take the jersey off and drop the shorts was going to be much more comfortable that trying any technique that could have ended up messy.”
These are, sort of, the questions that everyone wants to ask but aren’t sure how to put them so we’re trying to tip-toe through that topic.
“Afterwards, of course, some other things crossed my mind: to have cut the shorts in a place and… to make it a bit quicker.
“But he had his helmet and jersey off really quickly and there was myself out to the car and the mechanic [was] there to quickly get the jersey back on – and helmet – and back onto his bike.
“There was probably not so much extra time given away for him to stop and do it in a more comfortable way.”
Okay. We can move on from the scatology… thanks for giving us a little bit of insight Luke. It’s probably a little bit more detail than someone listening to this while having dinner wants to hear…
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[Click the SoundCloud file to hear the full interview.]
Luke Roberts is one of four Australian directeurs sportif who were part of the team of a Grand Tour champion in the year of their success. The others are Neil Stephens (with Alejandro Valverde at the Vuelta), Scott Sunderland (with Carlos Sastre at the Tour) and Allan Peiper (with Ryder Hesjedal at the Giro).