Jacob Tipper and five other cyclists are keeping rider journals for The British Continental this season. The 28-year-old Ribble Weldtite Pro Cycling rider is a three-time UCI road race winner. This is Jacob’s second journal entry…
The month of February had 3 Chapters for me (a bit like a poor man’s David Millar) and, as I’m guessing no one cares how stressed I was at work this week, nor wants to read a second blog on Calpe, the obvious choice for me to write about is my take on the Saudi Tour. As I did bugger all results-wise, I’ll at least try and give an honest insight into what it’s like racing with the big boys…
I arrived at Heathrow fairly easily, kindly being dropped off by the UK’s answer to American rapper Xzibit, Charles Page’s Dad, who apparently used to work at a premium version of ‘PIMP my ride’ which I thought was pretty cool. We didn’t quite have the red carpet rolled out for us at Heathrow but Saudi Airlines were genuinely mint. They helped check in all of our bike boxes before sending us off to their airport lounge for a bit of a posh buffet before we flew. I can’t imagine the rest of the lounge were too happy that a crowd of lairy lads turned up making noise, and probably questioned why even a fairly tame looking stag do were off to an alcohol-free state.
We got to the five-star bowing-alley-equipped hotel in the centre of Riyadh at some ungodly and got a solid three hours of sleep in before setting off on our first exploration of the roads of Saudi Arabia. The first ride was not a great success. We essentially filtered through traffic for an hour in between occasionally hitting full speed motorways and questioning what life decisions had led to our ultimate demise taking place in Saudi Arabia of all places.
Hitting the buffet in stages races is always a test
Hitting the buffet in stages races is always a test. The food was great with the hotel flying in some posh head chefs specifically for the event, but there was also the constant battle between, “I’m in a mint hotel, I need to take advantage of these 17 different desserts” and “there is a big bloody climb on day three so piling an extra kilo on would not be too advantageous”. Thankfully for my scales, every single dessert seemed to have at least one random nut grating on it [Ed. Jacob has a serious nut allergy] meaning they were never a temptation.
This is also the time you see all the other pros – Cavendish, Bouhanni, Terpstra – on the table next to you. And what do you do? None of us is arrogant enough to pretend we haven’t watched all these lads race and dreamed of emulating their success. At the same time, you don’t want to look like some noob approaching them to sign your race manual. Instead you ‘play it cool’, or try to, unless you’re our race mechanic Michael.
The remainder of us spent the stage being berated by Bonifazio
Onto race day. In the hot sun, we set out into the baron desert landscape. The break went from the gun with the team’s favourite derny racer Olly Moors representing. And then, as with a lot of UCI racing, the block came on and it was pretty chilled. I was happy to mansplain to the lads this is what I expected to happen. With 2 of my 3 of my UCI wins taking place in desert-based countries (Qatar and Morroco), and probably 40-50% of my UCI race days in the same conditions, I would say racing in this environment is a very rare niche I happen to have a lot of experience in.
Also as expected, when we hit a crosswind section with 70 km to go preceding a tailwind run-in to the finish, the s**t hit the proverbial fan. Jonsey was actually the star man of the crosswinds, making the front group of 40 until slapping off with just 4 km left to the finish. The remainder of us spent the stage being berated by [Niccolò] Bonifazio, who was complaining that one of our teammates had knocked him off. Besides later video evidence which suggested this wasn’t the case, I was somewhat puzzled by what he expected me to do about it? After apologising to the Italian in my best French a couple of times, my next response was going to be along the lines of “if you don’t piss off pal you will be back on the deck again”, although I’m not sure my translation skills would have made it that far.
Kudos to Charles Page for getting up there but I also questioned his sanity on the wild run-in we faced
Desolate, the break went, etc., etc. This one had a sprint, however. I kind of know my way around a sprint. I’ve never had that pure sprinter mentality of being completely brain dead, but if I can convince myself to be in the right place I can open up with a bit of gas. This one was mental though. The level and intensity was definitely a notch up from what I have previously experienced and I have no idea how more riders didn’t crash. Kudos to Charles Page for getting up there [Ed. Page finished 14th], but I also questioned his sanity on the wild run-in we faced.
I also struggle a little bit when I know form isn’t great. It’s not bad right now, I’m just not pinging in February, unsurprisingly. I operate on a risk versus reward mindset, and when I don’t foresee the reward being great due to an expected lack of gas in the final 500 metres, I also struggle to take any form of risk whatsoever. Rather than seeing gaps to go through I sit there like a risk detection officer on speed, quickly identifying every single opportunity there is to end myself into post or pillar while wondering how bad the food in a Saudi hospital truly could be. Needless to say, my position was nothing special.
My aim was simple: hang on for grim death first time up, and then the second time I should be close enough to the finish to make the time cut
Desolate, again. This time though there was 30 minutes of attacking before the break was allowed to go, and the small difference of having a motorway to climb. Twice. Thankfully the stage was fairy settled until the climb with UAE controlling it. We hit the 6%, 10-minute-long motorway at a faster speed than our minibus had got up there the day previously. We also hit a peak temperature of 37 degrees, and with a tailwind, there was nothing to cool us down.
My aim was simple: hang on for grim death first time up, and then the second time I should be close enough to the finish to make the time cut. I just about hung on first time before the fireworks of the second time. And then I just made enough of an effort to stick with some UAE lads knowing they should make decent partners to roll in with. This should have been a relatively simple ride to the finish. At five minutes behind the bunch, however, the marshals started letting traffic back on the roads. I could only describe Saudi roads as wacky racing at the best of times, so dodgy oncoming 4x4s did add some extra spice to the mix.
There was 30 minutes of attacking before finally, a break got away. With me in it…
This could almost be a carbon copy of day three. We rode out through a desert until we repeated the motorway climb. Twice. Ironic, as the race’s slogan was meant to be #newroadstorace. Anyway, there was 30 minutes of attacking before finally, a break got away. With me in it…
The bad news was there were only three of us in it and the one lad who was clearly a climber did not like riding aero on the flat, leaving it up to me and a Rally lad to keep it going. Until we hit the first berg. I was holding on, just about. Someone comfortably asked if I would be competing for the KOM. I assume my response of panting gave them the answer. Eventually the cavalry [Ed. four other escapees joined Jacob’s group] arrived including two Spanish riders. We then had some friendly exchanges with the BH Burgos rider as he refused to roll through. We took it in turns to tell him in our finest Spanish that if he didn’t roll through he would end up headfirst into a sandcastle.
Carnage would ensue in the final kilometres as no team was able to really take control
We finally made it to the last day, avoiding the carnage of crosswinds, cat’s eyes and oncoming traffic. I had hoped for an easier affair. Instead, we spent the first 40 km at 52 kph. Thankfully at this point, it settled as Rich Jones went up the road with a few Grand Tour stage winners!
Every now and then the bunch would kick off towards a potential crosswind section before settling, then ease and have a few crashes. With 50 km to go there were about three crashes all coming in a ten minute period. The first two were caused by Spanish teams who seemed to struggle with the concept of cat’s eyes. The final one was a double whammy of Gazprom riders wiping each other out, then looking back at which teammates had crashed before crashing into another teammate.
The final run-in was a motorway through the centre of Riyadh. 30 km at 51 kph average while only actually doing 180W as the roads were so smooth. This actually just meant with everyone sat in taking it so easy, carnage would ensue in the final kilometres as no team was able to really take control. Perfect for fearless Charles to take another top 20 while the rest of us did our best to avoid hitting the cat’s eyes of doom.
Featured photo: James Huntly
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