The Rookie’s Tour
Cees Bol got a last-minute call-up to this year’s Tour de France. The rookie rider is sharing his journey with us, as he takes on the three-week race.
It was a hectic stage. There were so many people standing by the side of the road. The crowds in Brussels were fantastic. Never before have I enjoyed a neutral section so much. It was just a tunnel of people straight through Brussels. At the decisive points in the race, such as the Muur van Geraardsbergen, there were just so many people by the roadside. That was so cool to experience.
The last few days leading up to the Tour de France were boring. The team presentation was special and a good time, but we were mostly just waiting for the real start. I was mostly resting. All the real training was done, and you couldn’t exactly go do something fun in the city. So we were mostly just hanging around.
It was a pretty hectic race. You were always fighting for position out there.
Because there were so many people by the side of the road, it was difficult to find a good place to stop to piss. You only had the chance maybe once per half hour, because there were such big crowds, even out in the fields. Of course, you couldn’t just go anywhere.
I felt good in the finale and could move pretty easily through the peloton with Michael Matthews.
All in all, I’m satisfied with my day. It was really beautiful. It could have been better; we didn’t get a result.
Victory was the goal yesterday. We have a strong team and knew that it could have been possible, but we hadn’t considered ourselves to be the big favourite. Before the Tour, the team did a lot of training at an altitude camp. I wasn’t there. This week, we trained well together, and on Wednesday we turned out a good team time trial. We all have experience with the discipline. Technically, we turned round nicely—of course it can always go better. Three kilometres before the finish, I gave everything I had in me. It was a sacrificial effort. At that point, you just go until you are completely kaput. We had planned that beforehand during the team meeting. Before you do such a turn, you communicate it, from the last wheel, with a signal to the team car. After my last turn on the front, I could ride easily to the finish and enjoy the crowds. They were rows thick. Everywhere you go is such a mad house.
Afterwards, we were disappointed. We lost a lot of time to Jumbo, but behind them it was all really close. That says something about the level here at the Tour.
It was an extremely hard stage, probably the first of many still to come. We knew ahead of time that it wasn’t going to be an easy one, with those hills in the finale. It was kind of like the finish of the Amstel Gold Race. It wasn’t really my parcours or day. I wasn’t comfortable in the race and had to suffer like heck to help the boys. Perhaps that is part of the learning process in a grand tour. It was extremely tense in the run up to the first hills. It was fast.
On the second climb, I had to let the peloton go, and then I rode easily to the finish in the autobus. It was good to see that even then I was surrounded by good bike racers and wasn’t the only one who had it hard.
In the gruppetto, there was a bad crash. It was actually a relaxed moment, and we were riding slowly. Kasper Asgreen failed to see a traffic island and whacked straight into it. His bike broke in two. He did eventually manage to finish the stage. I hope he’s okay.
Today, the Tour really arrived in France, but I didn’t really get to see much of it; honestly, I wasn’t looking around. I did notice, now we’re in France, we have a lot more transfers and there’s a lot more travel to get to the hotel and the start.
On the flats, Michael Matthews told me that he had the feeling that the peloton was tired after the hard stage the day before. There was more chatting and less fighting for position. I didn’t quite have that feeling. It was still fast. I felt comfortable in the race and we executed our plan better. The finale was an old-school boxing match for position. The day before, I was actually the one who was most disappointed with my performance. The team rode well and a bad day once in a while is to be expected. Ahead of the stage, I didn’t have the feeling that I had to try and prove myself again. My self-confidence grows and gets stronger when I see how Matthews follows me in the finales. He dares to follow me blindly. Two kilometres before the line, we were riding in about thirtieth place, and I was then able to go and drop him off in a good spot.
After the finish, I was given a bottle of wine. In the TV programme Tour du Jour, I was the favourite for the day. Filemon Wesselink, a Dutch presenter, selected me. It was a bottle from the region. Now I just need to wait for a nice moment to open it.
It was a fun day at the front of the peloton. I have had to ride on the front at times before, but that was always before the finale or heading into a climb. I still had not done it right from the start of a stage and for a longer time. It was special to do that then in the Tour. Mentally, it was a relaxing day. You are less focused on what is happening around you in the peloton, and you can more easily ride your own line. I could enjoy the atmosphere and the crowds more. You only have to pedal a bit harder than the rest.
The early breakaway tried to be tricky by taking it easy in the beginning and riding hard in the finale, so the peloton had to take it easy too. Otherwise, we’d have just caught the breakaway again too soon. It was not hard to keep the gap at around two minutes.
Every once in a while, an update from the team car about the time gap would come over the radio. Together with Bora, we seized control of the race. Luckily, our interests were the same.
I got help from Marcus Burghardt and Michael Mørkøv. They took turns as well on the front. Two experienced men who have often lead the peloton—that was ideal. I could keep up with their tempo nicely and did the rest of the work on feel.
There was a lot of talk about La Planche des Belles Filles. I knew that it was going to be a hard day, but luckily I didn’t encounter any real problems. I didn’t think that the gravel section added anything; it mostly just looked good and was good for the pictures. It did increase the risk of flat tires. I thought that climb was hard enough as it was.
By the time we’d started the final climb, we already knew in the gruppetto that we would make the time cut. There was no talk of red numbers. We cruised to the top, at least insofar as you can call that cruising. I’ve never before ridden a climb with such steep pitches.
On the way, I heard my name being called out by people by the side of the road surprisingly often. They were mostly Dutch holidaymakers, I think. It’s always nice to hear people cheer for you personally. Maybe, it’s because I’ve been interviewed by the NOS and Tour de Jour for television. I’m not sure.
During the fifth stage to Colmar, I lost my bike computer on the last descent. It bounced off my stem. A day later, I got a message in the evening from a 12-year-old Danish boy, saying he’d found my bike computer in the grass. The screen was broken, but it still worked, he said. I told him that if he came to watch again at the race, I wanted to trade him for a race number or something else. But he said: “No, no, we can bring it to your hotel.” So, yesterday evening he came with his parents and little brother to the hotel to give back my bike computer. As thanks, he got an old time trial suit with a signature and a cap for his little brother. That was a nice moment!
All in all, I was on the bike for about six hours and 20 minutes during the stage. It was a long day. We had more in us as a team. In the end, it was a beautiful victory for Dylan. He deserved it. We are both North-Hollanders, eh. In the gruppetto, we do sometimes chat, or in the peloton, and there is often time for a joke together to break up the suffering on a climb—‘are we going to make time cut today?’
A sprint in the Tour de France is so much more hectic than, say, a sprint at the Tour of California or in Norway. At the Tour, so many teams are ready to compete for the victory. Sprinting to a place in the top-five would already be a great performance for some riders, certainly for those on smaller teams. Everyone throws themselves into the battle and really gets mixed in, because for almost everyone the Tour is their main goal. If you’re racing California, there are also riders riding around whose main goal is the Tour, and they will likely take fewer risks, because they are looking ahead. At the Tour, everyone is 100% committed.
In the moment itself, I’m not really thinking about the fact that I’m part of a sprint in the Tour de France. Then, I’m more focused on myself and what I have to do. It would be great if it would all work out once in this Tour for the team. I think it’s good to be surrounded by the world’s best in a sprint and to just be able to set my bike right between them.
Today, I officially rode out of my comfort zone. I still had not experienced an eighth day of racing in a stage race. I’m not counting China, because you can’t compare that to a race in Europe. So, in a really hard race, I still had not ridden more than seven stages. It’s good to know that I can do that. For the ninth stage, I don’t foresee any problems either.
After a week at the Tour, I’m beginning to notice that the peloton is racing differently. It’s not the same as the first days. Everyone is suffering more. And everyone pretty well knows his place in the peloton. So, there is less pushing and shoving. Luckily, it’s not like the first stages anymore. Then, you even had to fight for the 150th spot in the peloton. It’s a good bit more relaxed now.
The climbs aren’t much different for me than they are for you. If you have to ride hard, it hurts your legs, and at a certain point you can’t go any faster and you get dropped. Then you just suffer and hope that you can get back between the cars or that you get dropped with a big group and can ride easily to the finish.
I was actually surprised two days ago when, out of nowhere, three fighter jets flew over the peloton, leaving behind the colours of the French flag. You would think they would do that on Bastille Day? There also weren’t too many French riders in the breakaway. Perhaps, the French already had their prize with Alaphilippe’s yellow jersey. Beyond that, it was an easy stage without much spectacle. For the first time, the break away was given real room to ride. In the peloton, we didn’t race. At some moments, it did go very hard, but those moments were it.
Only on Tuesday do we get the rest day. I don’t know why. The next rest day is just on a Monday again. Today will very probably be a reasonably easy stage with a bunch sprint. We go down more than up. That is nice for once.
Earlier in the stage, I spoke to Niki Terpstra and said, “God damn, I have bad legs.” He replied, “Ah, don’t worry. The last hundred kilometres are easy.” Unfortunately, we were both wrong. It was anything but an easy day. I wasn’t comfortable on the bike and really didn’t feel good, but then it got nervous and started breaking into echelons.
With one or two moves, I made it into the decisive group with five teammates. And, before I knew it, we had a 25-second gap on the peloton. That was cool. We rode in the group at a beautifully high speed. I wanted to shift into the 11 and thought, huh, my chain is already on the 11. We rotated nicely.
The shift to the moment when the race exploded went pretty quickly for me. You pull each other along. It’s chaos in such a situation, so it is an illusion that you’re all riding together. On the way, you come across teammates and yell, “hey, come forward.” I then pay extra attention to Matthews.
Despite the fact that it really was hard at some moments, I also enjoyed it. This was more my thing. I like to ride a finale with echelons. You are suffering then in a different way. It’s way better for the morale if you’re in the middle of a finale at the front of the race, instead of suffering to not get dropped from a group. That’s a whole other sort of experience.
Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to sleep in in the morning. I had trouble with a grumbling stomach. Luckily, a good breakfast was waiting for me, and I was ready to meet the press. I did a couple of interviews.
In the afternoon, we rode for an easy hour and had a coffee break. I’d been looking forward to that for a while. That is something that I miss during the Tour. During a long training ride, I like to stop on the way for a coffee and piece of apple pie. Sometimes, I dream about that during a stage.
The café that Michael picked out was unfortunately already full with two other teams. In the end, we rode on to a spot a bit further. I’d already given up on apple pie. That’s too much to ask of a French café. Nevertheless, the coffee was very good.
After lunch and a massage, I had a power nap and then had two hours to just do nothing. It was so good to do everything at the pace of an old man, to not have to rush for a bit. Then, I had a coffee with my parents and went for a little walk with them.
The rest day helped me to take a little step out of the rigid rhythm of the Tour. Over the past ten days, so much has happened, and there was little time to let it all sink in.
In the days before the rest day, you’re really waiting for those moments of peace.
It was a fast and furious finish with a good fight between the big sprinters. I rode shoulder-to-shoulder with Kristoff and tried to find a little gap via Ewan. But if those guys are well placed on the wheel, it’s really hard to get between them.
Thirty kilometres before the finish, there was a short moment of stress after the crash. I lay in the middle of the pile, but luckily stayed undamaged. Chad Haga was right beside me. That was good, because he exuded calm and that calmed me down again. I wanted to jump on my bike right away, but Chad saw that my tyre wasn’t stuck properly to my wheel. After a wheel change, we rode calmly through the cars back to the peloton. Our communication after the crash went well. The team stayed in formation, which meant that I could quickly find my spot and focus on the sprint.
I am happy that I got the chance to experience a sprint at the highest level and to test myself against the best. In the morning, I was more nervous than normal, but as soon as I got on my bike, that disappeared. I did feel a bit of pressure, even though the team put no pressure on me. I really did want to do well.
After 100 kilometres, my work was done. Matthews and Roche were in the break, and we had managed to get a good gap on the peloton. It took a while for the early break to form. For the first time this Tour, it took longer than an hour. For a mountain stage, there were a lot of big guys and sprinters in there.
I was able to climb the Peyresourde at a calm tempo. I let myself gradually fall back to the peloton, so I could play a meaningful role for the rest of my teammates down in the valley. Mentally, that allowed me to be a part of the race. If I had begun the first climb in the peloton, I would have had to go harder to get up the second climb. This way, I could go easily on it. I knew that a grupetto was riding behind me, though they never caught me.
So, I had the whole downhill to myself and could have some fun on the descent. For the first part, there weren’t any police with me, so I had to watch out for the crowds walking about. Then, I could really enjoy it. Unfortunately, I didn’t break any downhill records.
For a mountain stage, I eat more gels than bars. You don’t have enough breath to chew them down. The amount that I need to take in is a quick calculation. During a stage, your body needs to absorb 90 grams of carbohydrate per hour. It could be 80; it could be 100. I go for 90. In some bars, you have 20 grams of carbohydrate; in others, you have 40. A gel has 20, and a bottle has 30. In a normal stage, I eat a bar with 40 on the full hour and one with 20 on the half hour, or a gel. After 12 stages, you are a bit fed up, and sometimes you want something different. You eat because you need energy, not because you’re excited to eat.
I can often look forward to a cold cola to mix things up on such a day. I know that there is one in the bag after the feed zone. Our soigneurs are often on the climbs. This time, I got one from a soigneur from another team. I was climbing alone and he motioned to me to ask if I wanted to grab a can. Luckily, that’s no problem. During the Tour, everyone helps each other a bit.
I had a relatively good idea of what I had to do to make the time cut. I could then follow the plan calmly. I did not want to go by instinct and ride too hard after the start signal. You really feel it in the legs after 13 stages.
Since it was not something I’d been gunning for, like a time trial where you’re really going for a good time, I approached the race differently. I was satisfied to just get around the course well. In my warm-up, I was more relaxed and didn’t try to be too precise. That wasn’t necessary.
Finally, I could enjoy the crowds more again. That’s something I won’t get tired of this Tour. My girlfriend, Josien, also came to watch today and was in the follow car. That gave her a nice view into the kitchen of this crazy Tour.
Josien: It was a real show! It was nice to experience the time trial through Cees’ eyes and see how he rode through those massive cheering crowds. The Tour has really brought this region to life. It is one big village fair everywhere you look. That was really nice to see.
The Tourmalet was a climb of about an hour for us. I knew that it was going to be long, and my legs hurt, but the closer we got to the top, the more people there were. The ultimate crescendo was the crowd between two and one kilometres from the finish. After that, there were barriers. People ran up the road, yelling and cheering you on. It was literally a sea of people that opened right before you.
I really did get goosebumps there. It was so crazy. I rode the last kilometre with a big smile on my face, and it’s still there. The view was fantastic. We were up above the clouds, and everywhere I looked were the summits of mountains. As a cyclist, I have never before climbed a col of that calibre. It was an incredibly beautiful and cool experience.
The absolute ultimate would still be to compete for a victory on this stage and win. So, I will keep dreaming.
One advantage of riding up in the grupetto may be that we have more time to really enjoy the climb than the overall contenders. Though I must say that, when we were eight kilometres from the finish and saw the summit for the first time, a big sigh echoed through the grupetto. There was no talk of enjoyment at the moment.
It was a very difficult stage. Pretty well the whole peloton wanted to be in the early break, so the attacks kept going for a long time. As a result, we went flat out over a climb. It really wasn’t steep or long, but because they were racing all out at the front, there was drama at the back. So, we got dropped, first with a big group—no, that’s wrong—first with a small group. With four guys or so, I got dropped. One of them was Caleb Ewan. Luckily, six of his teammates waited for him. And they rode with everything they had in them for him. Eventually, we made it to a big grupetto, and then back to the peloton. The peloton had fallen still when the break had gone. It was beautiful that; Lotto-Soudal had pretty well their whole team wait to bring him back. That really was an anxious situation. If from that moment I’d never made it back—yeah, then I would have really had a problem. But yeah, then we came back, and eventually, 80 kilometres from the end, got dropped on a climb, but then we were with a big grupetto—25 guys or so. We had to ride a hard tempo to make it to the finish, but it wasn’t a critical situation any longer.
Rest Day II
Every day at the Tour has quite a rhythm. The time goes so fast. When I wake up, I often try to rest a little while longer, before I pack my suitcase, put it in the hall, and walk to breakfast. When I get back to the room, I can usually hope to lie down for ten minutes if there’s time. If I’m really lucky, that might be half an hour sometimes. Then, we leave with the bus to the start. If it’s a long trip, I’ll listen to music on the way. We do our pre-race meeting in the bus. Then, it’s time to get changed, sign in at the start, and maybe do a few interviews.
The team told me beforehand that there would be a lot more media present at the Tour. There are people from the team who keep things on track and make sure that it’s not too much for me. I can always be honest and say when I’ve had enough. But up till now, I’ve found it all really nice. It’s sometimes annoying to tell the same story eight times over, but that’s not so bad after all. I just try to be friendly and myself.
Once we’re back at the team bus, I might do a cool down, depending on how the finale was. After a sprint stage, I usually would. The pace in the grupetto on the climbs usually isn’t deadly, and we often have a descent down to the bus. Then, it’s not necessary. Afterwards, I have a recovery drink, go for a shower, and eat a recovery meal. On such a day, your appetite is dampened, because you’ve already been eating all day to fuel your body. During the week, I really wanted a bag of chips, but that will have to wait till after the Tour.
When we’re in the bus to the hotel and it’s a long trip, we’ll watch a replay of the stage. The team records every one. Sometimes, it is interesting to watch, but sometimes I’ve seen enough. Then, I’d rather watch a TV series or do something else. I do always learn something from those sessions, and of course it is cool to suddenly see yourself racing in the Tour. Last year, I was watching the Tour at home on my couch.
The rest day was quite calm, a day out of the Tour routine. We did a coffee ride and had a crêpe, and then had a massage and lay on the bed doing nothing. The legs feel tired after the past few days.
I was well positioned to go for the sprint again in the finale. The stress in the peloton was slowly picking up. Suddenly, a rider fell right before me and I flew right over his bike. It was a hard crash, and my head did touch the pavement. I sat for a moment before I got back on my bike.
I tried to make it back to the peloton behind the team car, until a motorbike with a member of the jury rode up beside us. It was hard to stay behind the car. Eventually, I did make it back to peloton, but then my candle was going out. We quickly switched plans and decided to go for Matthews.
I was disappointed afterwards. I had wanted to ride another good finale. My legs felt great after the rest day. It is a bummer to have to leave the Tour on this note. As a precaution, with the hard stages in the Alps coming up, and to ensure that I don’t go over my limit, the team management decided that I won’t take to the start today. I have mixed feelings. I do understand the team’s decision. We had made a plan beforehand, and now the time has come. As a racer, I believe that I’ve become stronger over the past two weeks and will make progress when I get back to training. It was a special experience to be able to start the Tour and be a part of the circus. There is no other race like it. I am happy that I got my chance!