When the doors of the broom wagon first open for you, there is the smallest fraction of a moment when it feels OK. It is not even a full heartbeat’s worth, but in that microsecond there is a sense of relief that the suffering that has brought you to this point is over, and that this vehicle will be your carriage away from the pain — and the reality that you can no longer face. That all ends as soon as you step inside however, as the Broom becomes what it really is: the saddest of places for a bike racer.
Somewhat ironically I find, these days the broom wagon has become an object of humorous standing in the modern cycling world. The image of the classic H Van, which first appeared in the Tour de France in 1910, with a wooden broomstick strapped precariously to the front has become something of a cycling icon.
There is something amusing about the Laurel and Hardey-esque film footage of riders in the early Tours refusing to get in the broom while they weaved all over the road and collapsed repeatedly in drunken fashion. The truth I imagine was a lot bleaker (riders had a tendency to collapse a lot more when amphetamines and alcohol were the sports drinks of the day, they also tended to be a little more agitated than usual when this was pointed out. I’m sure you can work out the rest.)
In reality the broom wagon is hard to laugh at when you are a racer, what is more, it is rarely the great relief that many might imagine. For all of the fact that it is there to help the riders, the broom wagon is synonymous with quitting, with defeat.
Cyclists don’t generally give up easily. If they do (for pre-planned reasons, as sometimes happens) their abandons are neatly choreographed: a rider will ride to the feed and climb directly into the soigneurs vehicle, or they will wait until the finish circuit where they can slip off unnoticed, directly to the team bus. These options offer a much more dignified exit, and rightly so. There are many good riders who don’t finish races. The broom wagon is something entirely different: no one — but no one — ever wants to be in it.
The first real tribulation of the broom wagon is that by the time it looms up behind a rider that rider has been passed by every other bike rider in the race, every team car (including two of their own team), every doctor, every VIP guest and journalist hitching a ride, as well as every commissaire and policeman on the race and fan by the side of the road. It is a slow and inglorious fall, punctuated by long looks from other team directors while their mechanics strike a line through the rider’s name on the start sheet. There is an incredible sense of loneliness for a rider in this position, which seems highlighted by the emptiness of the road once every other vehicle has passed. The transition of racer to lonely lost cyclist on the side of a hill is never pleasant to see, and it is right here that the broom wagon spends its time.
Then there is the simple fact that once you actually get inside the broom wagon, it is an unpleasant place to spend time. If the inside of the team bus is designed to make a rider feel like they are flying first class, the interior of the broom wagon makes you feel like you’re being shoved in the back of a police van.
Most of the vehicles used for the job are old and are nothing more than the most basic forms of transportation: transit vans, school buses, Mercedes Sprinters so old that even unsigned touring musicians would baulk at riding in. There is no food, no Coca-Cola, just whatever soggy race food is left in your jersey pockets. More often than not your precious bike has been tossed like scrap into the back, and the only comfort is likely the type of blanket that you normally expect to find in the boot of someone’s car. There is no change of clothes, no warm shower or compression socks, so you sit in your racing shorts, (at the worst soaking wet, at best just simply sweaty and soggy), while the heat that you have built up by racing slowly dissipates and fogs up the windows, adding to the damp atmosphere in the back.
In cases of bad weather, whatever shelter or relief the vehicle offers from the conditions outside soon fades as hands and feet warm again and thoughts drift back to having to explain to your DS why you got off while others didn’t. But much like the joke goes with inmates inside prisons, everyone there is innocent. No riders believe that they have ended up back in the broom wagon through their own fault. As such the chatter, what little there is, is reduced to a slow lament to misfortune, or complaints about the weather.
All the while the race radio crackles on, you can hear all of the action from the race that you were just a part of. Faces of spectators stare into the back unashamedly trying to get a glimpse of the guys who gave up. It is the hardest reminder that you are no longer involved, and yet the race can carry on without you regardless.
But the hardest part of the whole experience is of course, that the broom wagon drives at the speed of the last person in the race. The absolute last. This only really truly dawned on me when I abandoned the Tour of Normandy one year.
I decided in my wisdom that the suffering really wasn’t worth the effort after only 30 kilometres or so of a stage, and after I’d dealt with my team manager’s dispassionate flick of the head after he drove past, that signalled: if you’re getting off, you ain’t getting in here (the car window remained closed for this), I hopped in the broom wagon only to discover that another rider had been dropped on the small rise. For the next 120 kilometres the rider ploughed his futile furrow towards the finish. At first I had hinted to the driver to pull him over, in the end I was begging, but he simply refused. Leaving me fuming at the poor rider who in my mind was being selfish by just wanting to do what he was there to do: race his bike.
There is some debate as to how much authority the driver will have as to when they can force a rider out of the race. Races generally have a certain time window that the roads can be kept closed for, which means once a rider is outside of that, the cyclist goes from a sportsman mid-event to a hazard holding up traffic. It is then that the bus driver has the right to make them get off. There are very few drivers however who really want to have to do this, and as such the broom wagon can end up following limping riders for hours.
At the Tour of Korea a number of years ago I discovered (purely by chance) that the race organiser had a novel way around this problem. Riders only had to complete the first 50 percent of the stage, and then if they were more than ten minutes behind they would be put onto the large bus that served as a broom wagon and shipped efficiently to the finish, before being allowed to start the next day. It took most of the race a few days to catch on to this, but needless to say the idea of riders being able to compete the final stages with half the race in their legs didn’t exactly please those of us who had slogged our guts out to get to the finish.
In some cases the drivers of broom wagons can adhere less strictly to the rules than others. One particular incident remains in my mind, from a mountain stage I raced in the Pyrenees in 2003.
At the finish our whole team sat exhausted from the efforts of the day, one by one we’d slumped down at the team car, until one of our teammates arrived as fresh as a daisy. Naturally we all assumed that he had abandoned — he had been dropped very early on, and it was impossible that he had finished inside the time cut.
In fact, he recounted jovially he had indeed clambered into the broom wagon after being dropped, but having something of a gift of the gab (the rider in question is now a television presenter) he had sweet-talked the driver in to dropping him off just outside the finish town, under the guise that it would be faster for him to get to the team vehicles. This was before transponders of course, so after dismounting the bus he simply strapped on his helmet, waved at the driver and rode off and crossed the line neatly within the time cut.
If truth be told though, the broom’s relevance has changed in recent years. It used to be that any rider who abandoned a race was required to get into the broom. Race numbers would be unceremoniously stripped from the rider’s back, whether the walking wounded or the maillot jaune. In recent years things have changed, and the team car has become a potential option for riders, and a must for team leaders.
When Contador finally admitted defeat in the 2016 Tour not even crazy old Oleg was incensed enough to make the Spaniard wait for the broom wagon, and instead El Pistolero was duly whisked off in a team car. These days as a sports director you have to make a decision each time a rider finally hangs his head and admits defeat. The relative comfort of the car or the bitter sadness of the sag.
As a sports director, condemning a rider to the broom wagon is something I don’t take lightly, but don’t always ignore. Over the ten years that I raced I can recall scant few details of the races that I was a part of. But I can remember in agonising detail almost every moment that I spent in a broom wagon. Those experiences stay with a rider, and in some ways make you better. I would still do anything at all to avoid going back into a broom wagon. Whatever the case, in my experience as a rider, you have to fear the broom wagon for a long time before you can laugh at it.
If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 17 where it was first printed.