Chute! In the team car at the UCI Nations Cup

Pat Hayes, DS of the Liv AWOL team, recalls the drama of this year’s GP Isbergues race

Chute! In the team car at the UCI Nations Cup

No meaningful road closures, no race convoy: team managers at UK bike races send their time hanging around at the side of some country lane, waiting for the race to come around. The only excitement is provided by arguing with gammon-faced men, who are angry that the race is delaying their 200m drive to buy the "Daily Mail". In the Netherlands, everything is different: closed roads and race convoys. (And fewer angry, gammon-faced men.) The directeur sportif (DS) is driving the team car in the convoy, which is fun but nerve wracking on lots of levels - and particularly exciting at a UCI Nations Cup junior women's race. It's September 22, 2019, and we're on the Dutch Coast. "We" is the Liv AWOL under-23 women's race team, taking part in the Grand Prix Isbergues, and the DS is Pat Hayes, whose day job is with BeFirst. This is his story...

"Liv AWOL was the only British club involved in this three-day race, which features mostly national teams. So our riders were racing against the stars of the future and just finishing would be an achievement. Many of the other managers were ex-pro riders.

About half an hour before the start, our five riders joined the scuffling melee, which is the depart area of a junior women’s race: riders literally fighting to get to the front of the grid. Forget the sedate starts of men's racing you see on TV: junior and senior women's races at this level always go from the gun.

The team manager has a half-hour wait, during which he can get the radio set ready. He tunes into the race announcer, always known as "Radio Tour" even if the race isn’t a tour. In the race convoy you are very close to the race but, strangely, can’t see anything most of the time and rely on the radio for information.

The car is full of wheels and water bottles and we have two spare bikes on the roof, all rattling around. And there's the extra challenge of driving in close convoy on the "wrong" side of the car.

The announcer switches fluently between three different languages and is soon starting the countdown. And we are off.

The neutralised section on this course is only about 500m, so we lurch off straightaway at speed, bouncing over the traffic humps and out of town. This is a dangerous phase for riders and drivers, as teams try to get to their designated place in the convoy. Each team is allocated a number based on its standing in the race: the first stage, the previous day, was a TT and our time triallist got into the top 50, so we were about halfway up the convoy for stage two. That meant some overtaking on narrow roads to take our place, bizarrely, in front of the Belgium national team car. (They must have had a bad day in the TT.)

The driving is crazy: cars weaving around, squeezing through gaps with inches to spare. One Basque team overtakes along the steeply cambered verge. About a kilometre in, the car in front slams on its brakes and we go from 50mph to stationary. "Chute! Crash!“ is the cry over the radio, followed by a list of team names. My heart skips a beat but our team isn’t mentioned. Mechanics leap out of other cars and run forward, while we squeeze past parked vehicles and hurtle off to catch up with the race.

Just as we rejoin, with other cars flying past to regain their positions ahead, the radio crackles again: “Chute! Crash!”. This time we hear our name: "Liv AWOL". In Dutch AWOL is pronounced "owl", which amuses the riders. But there's no laughter in the car: the parent acting as mechanic today scrambles out and down the road. By the time he reaches the crash scene there are a couple of riders on the ground, but none of ours."

"Back in the car and off down the very narrow, barely paved lane. The front of the race is hammering away at 30mph; we are moving a lot faster to catch up. We pass numerous riders who have been caught in the crash or dropped by the high speed of the main bunch. Sadly one of ours is among them: she had come down but had remounted and was pressing on. But at this stage of the race, she was not going to make it back to the main bunch. With a cut-off five-minutes from the leaders, her race was almost certainly over. We try to draft her with the car, but a motorbike commissaire intervenes, shouting at us to leave her and retake our convoy position.

By now we are driving along a coastal dyke so narrow that it’s a hair-raising task to pass dropped riders, strung out behind the bunch. We lurch to a halt, again, stopped in a line of cars. When we finally get past the blockage we see it is a rider sitting on the ground, blood pouring from a head wound. It seems she has been clipped by a car racing forward to the bunch.

The race turns from the coast and we can see the bunch strung out in a line ahead, like a piece of string. Suddenly the string snaps and flicks up like a whip: the radio immediately springs to life: "Chute! Crash! Doctor!". Our stomachs sink, hoping that none of our riders are hurt. The ambulance is blocking the road when we get to the scene. We squeeze past, precariously close to a water-filled ditch, and rejoin the convoy, passing several obviously badly-injured riders.

The race is now split into two groups, about 15 seconds between them. To prevent the second group using the cars to catch the front group the commissaires announce a blockade: cars are held behind the second group. Slowly the front group eases away. Then, a crash in the second group: two members of the same national team have collided at a tight turn from a dual carriageway onto a farm track. They are back on, but are exchanging views, while their car tries to pace them back to the bunch. This is hazardous: there is a real art to driving fast enough to make up ground, but not so fast the rider is dropped.

We are now losing count of the chutes. We speed down narrow lanes, through ferociously traffic-calmed villages. We have lost another rider, dropped from the second group in a cross wind, and can't do much for her other than "sticky bottle" her for a few hundred metres. That's a hand out of the window, holding a bottle, enabling the rider to clutch it for a while as they are towed along. Its a lot harder to do than it looks on TV, with the constant fear of knocking the rider over or dragging them under the car.

Still stuck behind the second group we see one of our riders, tiring after 90 minutes of intense racing, misjudge a corner and slide out. She gets up and we spend the next half an hour, with the cars of some of the other smaller teams, trying to help her and other stragglers back to the bunch. Each time they get within sight, the bunch accelerates. It's brutal. Our unfortunate rider punctures and we stop, but the broom wagon is behind us. We are told to put her in the car as she is outside the cut-off. She is exhausted, bleeding heavily, so this was the only option in any case.

Two riders remain, one in the second group and one in the first. Two riders finishing a race of this standard will be a big achievement for a little British team. We need to be where we can help them if they have a problem. But we're miles behind the second group, now, so we roar along at 60mph, literally taking off over traffic humps while the mechanic administers first aid in the back of the car.

Eventually we get to the back of the second group and spot our time-trialist sitting at the back with a lot of riders in national team jerseys. The broom wagon is right behind them: if she has a problem or gets dropped it's "race over". But with about half hour of racing, she should be OK, so we overtake and close the two-minute gap to the front group. Our rider's helmet is in the middle of the bunch.

She is a mountain biker and her bike handling and bunch riding are good. She just has to stay upright to finish. We follow for 10KM, uneventful except for cars pulling over for comfort breaks only to come hurtling past a few minutes later.

With a kilometre to go we pull over and wait for the second group. And the radio announces the inevitable: "Chute! Crash!" from the final bunch sprint. Our rider is ok though, finishing safely. As the second group passes our second rider manages a smile, knowing she is now within the last 3KM and will finish even if she crashes or punctures.

It's been a good day: none of our riders seriously hurt, car still in one piece. (That’s important as it's loaned by a manufacturer: a brand new, high-end estate car, not really designed for driving down pot-holed farm tracks at high speed.)

Time now to pack the riders and their kit and get ready for day three."

  • Readers of the Velocity #4 cyclocross feature (if you'd like to buy a copy, call 020 7978 6840) will recognise Pat Hayes, Liv AWOL DS, managing director of developer BeFirst, and Velocity partner. Pat will be providing regular updates on Liv AWOL's progress at www.velocitymagazine.co.uk.