Perhaps somewhere beyond the advanced driving test lies an exam to determine a driver’s fitness to serve as a directeur sportif.
Seemingly unprompted accelerations, sudden stops, and the ability to drive with the window down for mile after mile, even in the coldest conditions, might provide some of the points of examination.
Simon Howes, the new directeur sportif at Team IG-Sigma Sport, one of only a handful of British teams who will compete this season in the UCI EuropeTour, as well as in the biggest races on the domestic calendar, would surely be a successful candidate. Freezing drafts, rain, and occasional hail blows through the open window from which he barks instructions and shouts words of encouragement, but Howes remains oblivious. His only concern is for his riders.
It becomes clear during a training camp on Mallorca that Howes likes to have his troops in sight at all times. Those separated from the group, he ‘tows’ back to the bunch: an exercise requiring the rider to pedal inches from the bumper and in which mutual trust is paramount. On other occasions, Howes will drive ahead, gaining time to stop the car, leap from the driver’s seat and wait at the roadside for his men to pass. Race radio will not feature in the races in which Team IG-Sigma Sport will compete, a source of disappointment to Howes, but a sentiment, he concedes, his riders are unlikely to share.
Data, the obsession of the modern coach, and the key stone of Team Sky’s famed aggregation of marginal gains, will not inform his analysis of today’s ride: a five-and-a-half hour epic punctuated by a hailstorm. “They’re professional bike riders. They should know how hard they’ve got to push to make themselves better,” he reasons. “If I get home and they’re running up and down the corridors, perhaps then I’ll know they’ve not tried hard enough.”
This philosophy, half serious, half deadpan, should not be confused with an unscientific approach: part of Howes’ proposal to his new employers was that the riders should have access to a dedicated coach. Seven of the 12-man team, mostly the younger riders, now work with Ian Goodhew, a trainer whose previous clients have amassed seven national titles.
The appointment of a new manager at a football club is often followed by a clear out of backroom staff and players. “It’s not his team,” is an excuse frequently offered for the new man who fails to do so. It is not one Howes has allowed himself. He admits that of the two choices available to him, replacing the riders he had inherited was the harder option. “If they do brilliantly, I get a big pat on the back,” he says of his new signings, “and if they don’t do so brilliantly, then it’s my fault because I chose the wrong riders.” He pauses. “But that’s a risk I’m willing to take, because I want to enjoy this as well.”
Despite a late-season appointment, when many of the riders capable of competing at Continental level had already begun negotiations with the five British teams registered for the UCI EuropeTour, Howes clearly feels he has got his men. Just four have remained from last season: Pete Hawkins, a podium finisher in Premier Calendar races, talented under-23, Jake Hales, Andrew Griffiths, a former British under-23 time trial champion, and Dutch powerhouse, Wouter Sybrandy, whose career looked to have been ended by a nasty crash on the final stage of the Tour of Britain.
New blood courses through a team that Howes admits suffered disappointment at times last season. The investment in youth that has characterised recent iterations of the Rapha Condor JLT squad, and more recently, Madison Genesis, is obvious too in the IG-Sigma Sport ranks.
Chris Worrall, 23, Manx training partner of Mark Cavendish, has returned from two years racing in Italy to join the team. In Ryan Mullen and Joe Perrett, Howes has acquired two seemingly indefatigable riders, who despite their youth, have already made significant additions to their palmares.
The experience of Hawkins and Sybrandy has been bolstered by three signings from Node4-Giordana. Pete Williams, winner of the sprints jersey at last year’s Tour of Britain, Matt Cronshaw, formerly of Rapha Condor Sharp and Raleigh GAC, and James Moss, an ex-Endura rider who will race with Team IG-Sigma Sport in the role of team captain, have all joined from a squad managed last year by British road race legend, Malcolm Elliott.
IG-Sigma Sport’s 12-man team will be divided equally into two squads, for road races and criteriums. Some riders will race in both; others only the road. Howes is enthused also by his “mini time trial squad”. Perrett is a former European junior time trial champion; Mullen won the Chrono des Nations junior time trial in emphatic style last year; Griffiths has worn the jersey of national under-23 TT champion; Sybrandy broke Chris Boardman’s record at last year’s North Road Hardriders test.
Perrett proved the star of a recent through-and-off training drill, Howes reveals. “I split them into two groups of six,” he says. “The riders with him said he just sat on the front and no-one could come through.” A former British Cycling Academy member, Perrett is a rider Howes describes as having “an ability to smash most people”; one of a number of “multi-skilled” recruits with “big engines”.
Howes talks of CVs, interviews, and hours spent on the phone to assemble his squad; the culmination of a proposal he made to the team’s sponsors last summer when invited to races by friend and then IG-Sigma Sport rider, Simon Gaywood. His association with the team goes back further, to his days as a rider when he raced in some of the shop’s earliest line-ups.
The talent offered to Howes as DS he describes as “bloody amazing,” and included European champions, but he has remained resolute in his belief that character is of primary importance. “Personality is key,” he says, “massive”. The atmosphere in Mallorca suggests Howes has got the balance right.