Details make all the difference:
BORA-hansgrohe at the Tour de France 2019
With pointed fingers the dignitary scratches off the small sticker with the 11, which sticks on Peter Sagans number behind the seat post. The Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), the organiser of the Tour de France, has equipped the Scratcher with a special badge authorising him to carry out this special duty: In the morning after the stage victory, the winner will receive a small plaque with the number of his total Tour victories on it. At Sagan, after his sprint success in Colmar, the 11th becomes the 12th.
What a wonderful, useless detail. Or the three guys wiping the rider’s tires as they leave the graveled paddock. Something of a holy foot wash. I spontaneously get high blood pressure when I have to ride my holy race bike over gravel. But the professional cyclists take it calmly, stop briefly at the exit and have their tires cleaned. Most of them even say thank you or nod to the wipers. And then there is the helper at the entrance to the paddock, who marks the spots of the teams in the lot on a small felt board. He seems to have lost the overview himself, but does his job with a seriousness, as if the life of his femme and troi filles would depend on it. Countless small and large details bear witness to how the ASO has perfected the “Tour de France” system over many years.
One who is at home in this world of ingenious details is Ralph Denk. He is the Managing Director of Denk Pro Cycling GmbH und Co KG and thus the owner of the BORA-hansgrohe professional cycling team. When you talk to him about the development of his company, it quickly becomes evident how important every single detail is to him. Today, his team grew too big for him to take care of everything himself. In recent years, Denk has surrounded himself with extremely professional workers. His biggest and probably most expensive move was the engagement of Peter Sagan, currently probably the most talented self-promoter and at least as talented all-round sprinter of the peloton. Sagan made a significant contribution to BORA-hansgrohe’s fame far beyond Germany’s borders, which ultimately led to a stable relationship with the sponsors.
Of course, luck is also at play: The route of the tour, which has changed in recent years with fewer flat stages, is quite suitable for BORA-hansgrohe. Even though I look respectfully at Sagan’s thigh circumference, he is not a sprinter who would become a victim of slope downforce on the first hill due to his sheer muscle mass around his ossis femoris.
With the support of routinier Marcus Burghardt and the other six riders, he can make it over longer climbs and still has enough grains for a grenade-strong sprint. But Denk doesn’t just rely on the green jersey. With Emanuel Buchmann he still has a podium candidate up his sleeve. The 26-year-old flyweight from Ravensburg in Germany is the antithesis to Sagan in almost every respect: weak in sprinting, strong in climbing – and despite his outstanding performance, almost pleasantly introverted.
What applies to the riders also applies to the team behind them: Denk has built up a team of Sports Directors, Mechanics, Physiotherapists, Nutrition Specialists, Cooks and Marketing and PR Experts whom he can trust blindly. This is at least the impression when you visit him at the scene.
How it happend
Mulhouse, July 2019. Denk invited me to spend a day with BORA-hansgrohe on the Tour. I wish I could claim that he had read my blog and was so enthusiastic, that he shot Eurosport and ARD and instead invited me to his press conferences. But to be honest, until he cleared this text he probably didn’t even know about the existence of my mini blog. This is what happend: In my real life I take care of events in Munich for the customers of my employer, a large German IT service provider. Over winding paths I got to Denk’s phone number and with a little effort I could persuade him to talk at a Business Breakfast in February 2019. This honestly became one of the best customer events ever. And not because the coffee would have been so perfectly black or the canapés so thick: Denk, with his Upper Bavarian, rough attitude, his undogmatic entrepreneurial thinking and his genuineness, suits the company perfectly. And because I occasionally like to go cycling, he invited me to visit him at the Tour.
And now I’m standing here on a hotel parking lot in an industrial area in Colmar between all the details that make a difference. It’s the evening of Peter Sagan’s sprint victory, which we happen to watch live in the car on the way to the cyclist’s hotel. Unfortunately only on TV, but still a great moment. Chief Cook Christian Willrich will later fry him a juicy steak as a reward. Very thin and not very big, but at least.
Tool and gear truck, team bus – and a kitchen truck
The kitchen truck in which cook Willrich is performing his art is a detail Denk is particularly proud of. But because of its size alone, the vehicle is way more than a detail. Its 12-metre length is divided into a kitchen and a rustic dining area, where the riders have each meal together. The truck was one of the larger investments next to the team bus and has several advantages: the meal times are independent of the hotel, the food is exactly tailored to the needs of each individual rider, nobody has to worry about germs and above all: common meals strengthen the gang. What works at home seems to work for the Bora family as well. Band of Brothers.
We guests are served a small bite in the Kitchen Truck before the riders are back from the race. To be honest, it’s just a snack that hopefully isn’t meant to be satiety. It’s more like a minimalist ramble through the haute cuisin of cycling: lightly marinated raw vegetables, goat cheese, a little piece of ham, wholemeal bread and fruits. Very tasty, very light, very lean, very little. No wonder that some of the boys make a slightly anorexic impression. But the two chefs Udo Keil and Christian Willrich assure us that everyone is always satisfied.
At least as exciting as the cute appetizer is the feeling of dining in a shrine of Denk’s universe. Only a few teams have a Kitchen Truck at all. When you sit here, you understand why the vehicle was an important detail on the way up.
Even more sacred than the kitchen is the team bus, in which the riders drive to the race in the morning and to their next hotel in the evening. Before entering we have to disinfect our hands. The fear of germs, bacteria and viruses is omnipresent, as the immune system is likely to develop reciprocally to exhaustion for most cyclists during the three weeks.
Inside it looks like I imagine the First Class of Lufthansa: Freestanding leather seats, tiled restroom, shower, huge flat screen. A palace on three axes. Until today I thought our seven meter family caravan was generous. How one can be wrong.
The team bus is also sacred because it contains personal belongings of the drivers. Headphones dangle from a seat pocket, Sagan’s magic cube lies on the couch in the rear next to his cycling shoes. Inconspicuous testimonies to the everyday life of professional cyclists. If one can describe a day at Tour de France as everyday life.
In the front part of the bus the riders hold their team meetings with the Sport Directors before the stage. The main focus here is on routing, sprints and mountain classifications. The distillery of the morning meeting then sticks to each driver’s stem: an overview of what’s going on on the track.
Very helpful, because in my races I even mess up the colours of the shirt numbers or otherwise like to lose my orientation. With such a small piece of paper under a thick strip of Tesa this might not have happened to me.
After the race, they analyse together what worked well and what didn’t work so well. I would have liked to join them, but somehow I couldn’t convince the Sports Director that my participation would be essential. Sad.
Immediately after the race strikes the hour of the mechanics. Every bike is cleaned, checked and prepared for the next day. Sagan gets a smaller chainring mounted for the difficult stage from Mulhouse to Planche des belles Filles. It all goes so fast that I can hardly follow it. The trick seems to be to always return the used tool directly to its place. It’s different in my basement at home. The torx that I need, I always have to look for it first. Always. Only to find it somewhere where I really wouldn’t have suspected it under any circumstances and where it really doesn’t belong.
Another very special vehicle belongs to the BORA-hansgrohe motor fleet: Sagan’s rolling suitcase. Because the airlines have always been so uncooperative in transporting the many prizes and the big trophies, Sagan has had its own motorhome rolled along for some time now. An additional team takes care of the vehicle and its valuable contents. Sagan is not allowed to spend the night in his rolling suitcase, this is forbidden by the statutes of the ASO. But his devotional objects are guaranteed to arrive intact in Slovakia.
If you are looking for BORA-hansgrohe in the paddock, you only have to follow the beats: It can get really loud under the awning of the team bus. The BORA-hansgrohe playlist on Spotify starts stylishly with the Star Wars anthem. And for readers with a penchant for details: Scooter with “Bora! Bora! Bora!” is indeed also included.
BORA-hansgrohe wants to be different. Sometimes that seems a little too hard for me. In front of the bus I can’t get rid of the impression that the music annoys most riders. Obviously this is the case with Emanuel Buchmann, but he prefers to avoid any noise anyway. Maximilian Schachmann likes to have his own music in his ear when warming up under the awning.
What seems a little forced with the music, works quite well otherwise. Differentiation is an important element, which Denk certainly used consciously in the beginning to weld the racing team together. Meanwhile, the will to be different has been burned into the DNA of the entire team. Band of Brothers. Even if Denk employs a few women, which is by no means the rule in professional cycling.
There was something else, wasn’t there? Right, the stage from Mulhouse to the Planche des belles Filles. We guests are driven by Sponsorship Manager Thomas Hörl and Hospitality Manager Michael Kolár to some special places on the route. Hörl would surely be able to take over the job as Safety Car Driver at Formula 1: I see us and the Ford Transit several times in the ditch, but he drives us extremely fast and sovereign from one destination to the next. Road traffic regulations are only made for pussies like me.
Our Ford Transit in BORA-hansgrohe paintwork is equipped with a special permit, with which we may drive on the closed route. The spectators, who have been waiting for hours, are grateful for every change, and the car causes a sensation. I’m not sure whether it’s Hörl’s rally ride or just the car. Never mind. A nice feeling that Hörl and Kolár also visibly enjoy.
Shortly before Sewen we finally find a vacancy where Hörl can still force the Transit in. And then:
And in between we are lucky to get some food, because Hörl and Kolár have done a good shopping beforehand. “Brotzeit” in French. Unbelievable how good this tastes along the route. And then again:
At some point I finally hear the helicopters that accompany the field all day long. I count an incredible five of them. Did something go wrong? But countless motorcyclists of the Gendamerie follow, racing up the climb with an iron face behind mirrored glasses. Then finally some red cars. First some without important men in it, then one with important men in it, one of whom looks even more importantly from the open sunroof to the rear. Shortly behind, finally, the field! It rushes up the mountain at an incredible speed, and in about 30 seconds everything is over.
For the spectators it is hardly possible to perceive individual drivers. But they’ve all been waiting for these 30 seconds, all day long and some even the night before! They have endured the advertising caravan, then the countless cars that constantly race up the mountain. The attention threshold sinks with every minute they stand their legs in their stomach. One becomes thankful for every distraction and even cheers for a disdainful Ford Transit by BORA-hansgrohe.
Julian Alaphilippe will lose his yellow jersey that day. The ASO is very consistent: When he returns to the team bus, he wears the blue one of Deceuninck-Quick-Step again. The poor man had to take off the yellow fumble directly at the finish line.
Emanuel Buchmann fought his way far to the front on this stage and is now in fifth place just two minutes behind. A grandiose result, and Buchmann now has to do what is always said he doesn’t like to do: give interviews. Even though I didn’t get the impression that he would enjoy the moment, he was understandably more talkative than he was in the morning. And media wanted him to talk.
What sticks is the impression that BORA-hansgrohe – like most of the other racing teams of the Tour – has a genuine real-real-real team at work. And this with great passion and respect for everyone in the team.
It’s always so easy to say that. Teamwork. In my real life in software development, we also understand the great importance of the the ability to work in a team. Every applicant who is halfway well-read usually identifies himself already in the cover letter as an absolute team grenade. We know whether it’s true from the first project.
This thing here has a completely different level: Everyone here knows exactly what depends on him. And nobody goes to bed until they have really done their job. Mission accomplished, every evening again. Three weeks can become very long, most of all if everyone gives everything. That doesn’t just apply to the drivers, but to everyone in the team. All the cogwheels mesh. And Ralph Denk has at some point brought the many small, medium and very large cogwheels to their optimum position.
Today, his clockwork runs pretty well even when he’s not there.
But he feels most comfortable when he is on the street with his people.