The rain hammers down with an intensity that suggests the roof of the Lotto-Belisol service course will soon be breached.
The logistical centres of professional cycling teams, warehouse-like buildings that contain everything from trucks and team cars to hundreds of bikes, still greater numbers of wheels, and even the kit worn by the riders, are necessarily anonymous structures, and Lotto-Belisol’s is no different, identical from the outside to any of the surrounding units on a non-descript industrial estate in Belgium, about an hour from the Dutch border.
Such facilities are not intended to draw attention; indeed, it is in their interest not to do so, given the value and desirability of the kit within.
Sheltering inside like some giant beast motionlessly awaiting the passing of the weather, one of the team’s service trucks stands silently in the semi-darkness, unloaded and awaiting the cycle of preparation that will foreshadow its deployment to the next of the historic races on the WorldTour calendar, that make up the greatest challenges in professional cycling.
Its brightly-lit interior, one of rubberized flooring and metallic wall panels, is immaculate. A work bench near the rear door is empty, save for a permanently attached vice with a wheel jig gripped in its jaws. Two retractable airlines, one mounted above the workbench, another in the opposite corner at the furthest end of the truck, are neatly stowed in blue plastic cases.
Andre Greipel’s Ridley Noah Fast, its head tube bearing the image of a roaring gorilla that has become his calling card, is rested against the truck with little ceremony. The contrast between the two could not be greater: function vs. form, plodding purpose vs. pure speed. Wheeling the bike across the warehouse floor into stronger light is a slightly surreal moment: this is Andre Greipel’s machine after all, in all probability the one that crossed the line first on three occasions at the Tour Down Under, and likely to do the same in the Tour de France.
The Ridley Fenix machines raced over the cobbles of Flanders and northern France, are racked sans wheels, in another area of the service course. A list of the infamous cobbled secteurs of Roubaix is visible on the top tube of some of them, the most brutal of all highlighted in green: the Trouée d’Arenberg, Mons-en-Pévèle, and the Carrefour de l’Arbre. Some are paired with a separate frame swathed in bubble wrap, the Ridley Helium SL, bearing an instruction to transfer the equipment to the super lightweight chassis used for climbing duties. It’s possible to read the change in the cycling season from the task awaiting the mechanics.
Their eight workstations are empty today, those who work there deployed at the Tour of the Basque Country or enjoying rare respite between the Flemish and Ardennes Classics. A Ridley Dean time trial bike is mounted in the work stand of mechanic Chris Van Roosbroeck, mid-way through what appears to be a complete rebuild, sans drivetrain, and with a nest of electric cables partially threaded through its TT bars. Van Roosbroeck has enjoyed no downtime between Roubaix and Amstel Gold, instead leaving the cobbles of northern France for the heat of Corsica to recce the opening stages of this year’s Tour de France with Lotto-Belisol’s GC contender, Jurgen Van Den Broeck.
On his bench is a chart, neatly printed with the sizing requirements and preferred equipment of each Lotto-Belisol rider. Tosh van der Sande, for example, the 22-year-old who made his Ronde van Vlaanderen debut this year, rides a frame in size small, with his saddle height set at 74cm, and steers with a 42cm Deda Newton Shallow bar. Other details are obscured by Van Roosbroeck’s identity card for Paris-Roubaix, the red lanyard wound neatly around the yellow pass.
Elsewhere, the riders’ helmets and ‘wet bags’ – supplies of spare clothing and items such as shoe covers, designed to keep out the weather – are neatly racked on a shelves marked with the owner’s name: Greipel, Van Den Broeck, Henderson, et al. Such sights provide a slightly uncomfortable intimacy. These are not replica items, fan merchandise whose only connection with the rider is a reproduced signature, but the equipment the riders will wear in cycling’s biggest races. The chromed dome of Greipel’s Lazer Helium FAST lies within touching distance, though, from respect, your correspondent chooses not to touch.
Considered only in terms of bald statistics, the service course is still an impressive facility It is home to the machines of Lotto-Belisol’s 28-strong rider line-up, each of whom is given a minium of four bikes, including a Ridley Dean time trial bike and a choice of the Belgian brand’s Noah Fast aero bike, the ultra light Helium SL climbing bike, and the Fenix bike intended for the Classics. The frames of many decorate the walls of the service course, stripped of their wheels, and ready to accept any of the 150 sets of competition wheels placed at Lotto-Belisol’s disposal by sponsor, Campagnolo (the Shamal, Bora, or Hyperon), or the Eurus or Zonda hoops reserved for training.
If watching a rider dispose of an empty bidon has ever prompted you to wonder how many water bottles a team makes its way through each year, the number in Lotto-Belisol’s case is between 20,000 and 25,000.
The day following our visit marks the eve of the Amstel Gold Race, and it’s likely that the service course will witness greater activity than our visit, where we are invited to wander at will, to examine and photograph any aspect of the service course, a further indication of professional cycling’s willingness to accommodate its supporters, even at the sport’s highest level.