Ever wondered what life is like behind the scenes of one of the biggest women's races in the UK? Our friend and ambassador Dean Downing recently worked behind the scenes at the Aviva Women's Tour of Britain, so we took the opportunity to ask him a few questions about what goes on in the background during an elite race:
1. What is the Women’s Tour and why was it so special this year?
The Women’s Tour is now one of the biggest professional races in the world for women and this year it attracted some of the best riders across the globe – current world and Olympic Champions, along with 14 National Champions.
2. What was the atmosphere like from the crowds?
It was amazing. The crowds lined each stage; all the little villages each day were packed. Some of them even had carnivals going on whilst the raced passed. The crowds on the climb were some of the best I have seen in the race's 3-year history. It’s definitely growing.
3. What are your thoughts on your second Women’s Tour experience?
I really enjoyed last year as I personally learned a lot; especially how well organised the world’s best women’s teams are. This year was no different. Working on the event has given me a better understanding of how such a big bike race is put together too.
When you’re a rider you’re so focused on your race and your team; it’s a like a little bubble, so it’s great to see the sport from a different perspective. Working on the Aviva Women’s Tour has given me a real appreciation for how much hard work goes into getting a race on the road and the expertise of every single person who works on it.
4. What role did you perform, where were you positioned and what did you have to do? Why’s the Regulator car important?
My role was Race Controller 1 Driver. Guy Elliott is the Race Controller and is the liaison between all the officials – the Commissaires – safety drivers and police. Our car is one of the last safety vehicles between the riders, along with police motorbikes. We often sit close to the break and to the peloton, so it’s a pretty important car. We get to see a lot of action.
Being able to read how a peloton moves and predicting what the riders will do on a sharp descent or corner is important for safety. Because of my racing days, I suppose I have a natural understanding of how the race will move so it’s definitely one of the skills I can bring to the role.
5. There were over 70 vehicles in the convoy and at times they move with the peloton pretty fast, especially down the descents. What are some of the challenges you have to deal with in the race for those who might not know what it’s like?
In the neutral zone (the few kilometres or so before the race starts properly when the riders group and warm up), we have 30 plus safety bikes watching for all the hazards in that zone. They leap-frog the peloton and all the vehicles protecting the front of the race, so they can protect and warn the riders, keeping them safe.
During the race, Guy looks at the route book which we are given from the police and checks the distances covered and the hazards, against those in the book. This helps Guy to understand what’s upcoming so he can warn and advise the whole convoy, and they can position themselves accordingly. I have to concentrate on keeping the car in a safe position, not only so Guy can get a perspective on what’s happening, but being aware of all the other vehicles and moto’s around us, as well as the riders themselves.
When we have big crowds, we also look out for any potential safety issues happening as we drive towards them. This year we didn’t have any issues, but for example in the past we’ve had a mobility scooter wanting to drive on the road in the last 3km of the race which we had to pull over and kindly ask to stay on the pavement as 80-odd riders were about to pass at speed!
You have to be able to keep a cool head when there’s a lot going on around you, constantly check your mirrors and all around the car, and make quick decisions with a safe outcome for everyone when it matters.
6. It sounds challenging. How is it different from normal driving?
Yes, it’s more challenging than just day-to-day driving. You have to concentrate from neutral zone to KM zero, and on the finish line. You’re in the car for a good 3-4 hours. Afterwards, you get out the car and you feel pretty tired!
Everyone on the race has a unique role to play and the calibre of the people doing them is excellent. Some staff have experience on events like the Grand Tour and come from mainland Europe every year because they’re the best at what they do. The UCI really doesn’t cut any corners when it comes to professional racing.
7. You obviously have experience of how the peloton and convoy move. How important is this to your role?
It definitely adds to the role, knowing how fast the riders will be coming off a climb and on a narrow descent, and I can help to move the police and safety motorbikes a little further along the road to keep it clear for the riders.
On the flat, we generally sit about 50 metres in front of the peloton, but you’ll be surprised at the speeds riders can reach down a descent and you really have to push ahead. It’s essential to keep the riders safe and give them a free run of the road.
8. What was your best moment of the Tour?
Getting back to the hotel one day with a bag of cookies that I had bought on the way home after the stage, and giving my last one to a certain world champion and fellow Wattbike Ambassador-ess. She was pretty happy.
9. What do you think this means for women’s racing and where do you see its future?
Staying in the same hotel as some of the top teams really opens your eyes to how professional these teams are, and it was personally a great experience for me chatting to some of the managers who I used to race with. Even new teams like Drops Cycling – they really did themselves proud.
This is when you realise the teams, riders, managers and staff really do think this is one of the best stage races in the world for women’s cycling.
If it moves from five to seven stage in future, the race has potential to take the honour of being the best women’s stage race in the world. The organisers have worked so hard to get it to where it is, and we should be really proud of that.
10. You and Lizzie are friends. Was it good to see her win?
I haven’t seen Lizzie for a long time so it was great to see her. She came on some of our training rides in south Yorkshire back when I was racing a few years ago. She also came round to see my little girl Lily when she was born.
It was great to wish her good luck on each stage and see how happy she was with her stage win and yellow jersey on the final day. It was pretty funny to see her eating my last big cookie too!
11. Lizzie mentioned in her interview after the Tour that she’s keen to work on sprints. How do you think working on the Wattbike might help her get those sprints nailed?
As we all know, Lizzie is also a Wattbike Ambassador. When I was racing, the Wattbike was a key part of my training, especially for my sprints in the road races and criteriums I used to do. So I have no doubt that Lizzie and her coach will be coming up with some awesome sprint sessions that will help her. Maybe some 30/30’s at capacity will do the trick.
12. We had Wattbike staff working on the blackboard. The most important question is, did you share any Jelly Babies through the car window?
Yes, Hannah was on the blackboard on the back of a moto. Sadly I didn’t share any of the Jelly Babies so I’ll probably regret that! I think my passengers did though…that counts doesn’t it?