If you had told me I would become a Directeur Sportif while I was still racing I would have laughed you out of whichever grupetto I happened to be grovelling around in. Like many of the men I now call colleagues, I never once gave becoming a ‘D.S.’ a single serious thought throughout my racing career.
When you are a bike rider you see your D.S. in a certain light. A D.S. is there to forge and hammer the desires and ambitions of a group of people until their will is as sharp as a blade, until the team is ready to support the best individual rider there. This means that a good one will inevitably occupy both a supportive and an adversarial role, and if you are an intelligent rider this can be as infuriating as it is helpful.
Now, not all of the men behind the wheels of team cars were bike riders – enough great bike racers have been bad enough in management roles that the cycling world has realised that success in the saddle is not a prerequisite of the job.
However most of the time it is riders who become directors; and generally the more they suffered as a rider the better director they can become. Being a former rider certainly makes getting your foot in the door at a big team much easier, however what seems like a simple transition from the outside really isn’t as simple as just swapping lycra for car keys, and sports drinks for late nights, wine and cigarettes.
It is not so much that you have to learn to see things from a new perspective that makes it so interesting; it is the fact that there is no real way to learn how to become a D.S., and no hard and fast rules of how to be one.
A lot of the time directors tell me that it happened to a former D.S. of their won who convinced them that they would be good for the job. This means that someone has seen you have tactical nous, and have the right character to give direction. It is as much as you will ever know that you have. The rest of it can seem like a mystery from the inside as well as the outside, and you soon learn there are as many styles of directing as there are directors.
Apart from a brief U.C.I course in Aigle (more like the theory component of a driving test than anything practically useful) and some basic rules about convoy driving that are thrown your way by a peer, there are scant few instructions on how to do the job at all.
The advice that I was given when I was first offered a directors role was this: ‘you can do as good or as bad a job as you want at directing. There are guys who spend hours on every little detail, and there are guys who just wake up in the morning and put the key in the ignition: it is up to you to work out how you want to do it.’ This made a lot of sense to me, when I thought back to the directors whom I had worked with. I remembered two types: the really good and the really bad.
Historically the Directeur Sportif was the term for the man right at the top of the tree. Often the same man who drove the car at the Tour de France owned and ran the whole team. A man like Cyril Guimard: shirtless and smoking in the team car, giving orders to Bernard Hinault or Laurent Fignon in one of those timeless summers of early colour photography and classic French sideburns.
The Directeur Sportif was the close confidant of the teams biggest star, the discoverer and nurturer of new talent and the man who held and fiercely guarded all of the knowledge; the semi-secret voodoo-hoodoo of how to find and get the best out of a great bike rider.
Think Raphaël Geminiani who jealously guarded the best interests of Jaques Anquetil – even against the interests of other riders in his own teams, such as Luis Ocaña. Or of course the Belgian Lomme Driessens, who’s charges included Eddy Merckx and Freddy Maertens but who’s knack for self-publicity and cunning earned him the nickname ‘Guilliame the liar’. Think also of ‘The Viscount’ Jean de Gribaldy, the man Sean Kelly attributed both his career and his (for the time) advanced training methods to.
Some were fat but effective, some were as hard as nails and brutally strict, and some – like Guimard – looked as cool as Jonny Halliday in his prime while getting results to boot. Back then with his finger in every pie and his possessive control of his information a Directeur Sportif just knew more, but these days things have changed.
In the clinical new model of cycling the crafty used car salesman type has gone. Even the term Directeur Sportif (which was used ubiquitously in the English speaking press and amongst cyclists) has been replaced in the parlance of our time by its literal (and less evocative) translation: Sports Director.
‘Sports Directors’ now have their own well-defined role, the wheeling and dealing, the secret knowledge and lists of contacts is no longer really our tool-kit. Instead we are simply ’responsible for the sporting performance of the team’, and there is a department within the team to take care of everything else. Strictly speaking, in 2018 between the start line and the finish is where a Sports Director earns his money.
Where experiential knowledge used to be key, now preparation is a huge part of the job. The old-school DS knew from experience the time from the hotel to the next start town and the important parts of the parcours. These days you can see pretty much every street in Western Europe (very few in East Germany) on Google Street view, and live traffic updates are at our fingertips.
With the world of technology now on our touchscreens we can accurately predict wind changes based on the exact route, average speed and time of an upcoming race from weeks before the event is due to take place, and this isn’t rocket science – this is a ten euro app that anyone with a smart phone can access.
This doesn’t mean that knowledge is no longer valuable, but a lack thereof can be largely compensated for. The mystique of having all of that information in your brain somewhere is gone, we all rely on the route information in our iPads in the car, and have a phone glued in our hand the rest of the day.
Technology also means that the world is no longer as remote as it once was. A blessing for checking up on how riders train. Whereas in the past a sports director would likely live close enough to his charges to turn up at the riders’ doorsteps in a team car and follow their training rides, thanks to the wonders of GPS technology, I now know exactly where Taylor Phinney has been training, at what time of day he left his house, and how long he may or may not have stopped for a coffee for.
Most of the time this feels more like surveillance than coaching, it certainly doesn’t have the hands on feel that following riders on their rides would. Some directors still coach riders of course, but more and more the director as coach model has given way to riders being looked after by coaches who then report to or work with the D.S.
Tactics are one aspect of the sport and of a directors job that actually have become increasingly refined, with the advantage of rider radios a director has become more important than ever at making the decisions during the race.
Truth be told, until radios came in there wasn’t a great deal that a D.S. could actually do to influence a race once it was rolling. Contact with riders was brief and communication was limited to what could be barked from the window of the car. Decisions in races always need to be made quickly, and the time it can take to call up a car (that can be barraged or held up with any manner of problems) is the difference between winning and losing.
Chatting to the Australian legend Phil Anderson on a mountain bike ride last summer, I asked him how they used to manage the tactics on the road without radios and extremely limited contact with the D.S., and he told me that road captains simply had a lot more responsibility.
These days we still use the tried and tested formula of having a ‘road captain’ in the race (interestingly many of these riders become sports directors later on) but their effectiveness is limited compared to years gone by, and almost everything now goes through the D.S.
In the car these days you are literally swamped with information. The only way that I can really describe how your brain has to work in a team car on race day is that it is like being told to sit on the couch watching TV while listening to the radio, and trying to hold conversations with two different people at once.
There is a constant and exhaustive flow of information. Race radio, rider radio, phone calls from the staff with weather updates, the television, information from the mechanic, and a GPX file showing exactly where you are and what is coming up. Not to mention the fact that it is commonplace for VIP’s to be in the seat next to you, who are either terrified by your driving or desperate to ask questions.
There is a temptation when you first step into the car to tell the riders as much of this as you can. The reality is that riders need information, but just the right amount. Working out what is useful, what is motivational, and what will simply be distracting is the most important thing you will do in the car. Sometimes with all of that information flowing over you in waves, the best thing that you will say all day will be “Yes” or “No”.
At the root of all of that there is a goal in your head that belongs to the organisation, not the rider, nor any individual with ambition, but the team, and that is where you slowly realise the importance of being a D.S. comes in. The job is and always has been about perspective: in the car you see the things that the riders can’t, you understand the importance of things in a broader context than the tunnel visioned riders in front of you, and you use that picture to try to get the result that the team needs. This in its essence has never changed.
The thing that defines the job in many ways, and the thing that has never changed and never will, is that as a sports director you are the one who has to stand up in front of the riders and point them in the same and hopefully the right direction each day. The rest of the job is hard to define and ever changing, but what will never change is the fact that you are and have to be the man with the plan.
Oh, and even if, sadly, you can no longer drive shirtless smoking Gaullois with your mechanic dangling out of the back window, his nose inches from the moving parts in a riders drive train and back wheel, it is important to look cool too – that has certainly never changed.
Tom Southam rolled along in the pro peloton from 2002-2011. Afterwards he was part of the staff at Rapha Condor and Drapac and wrote about life on the road. Since 2016 Southam is Directeur Sportif at team EF Education First-Drapac/Cannondale.
If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 19 where it was first printed.