Tour de France 2014: How Tour’s underdogs Endura day on the road

Simon Usborne hitches a lift in the NetApp-Endura car as the wild cards’ rider Jan Barta makes a break for London

As crowds flood Parker’s Piece, the large green at the heart of Cambridge, Team Sky’s “Death Star” leads a convoy of sleek, luxury buses into the parking zone along its northern edge.

Behind blacked-out windows, an equally sleek Chris Froome reclines on his throne-like leather seat, blissfully unaware how dismally his race will end two days later.

If the appointments of dressing rooms reveal the wealth of football teams, in cycling it is the buses. They keep rolling in before stage three of the Tour de France, each juggernaut polished to a deeper shine than the last. But as fans gather to gawp at the pampered riders and bikes of the giants of pro cycling, one team prepare in peace.

NetApp-Endura are the ultimate wild cards. Neither the German-Scottish team nor their nine riders had competed in the world’s greatest bike race before Tour organisers invited them to line up alongside the big boys. It’s unfair to compare their bus to that of a middle-ranking grammar school, but it stands out for being much smaller and less lustrous than its rivals.

Video: Experiencing the Tour with NetApp Endura

Zak Dempster can take the credit for the only fans waiting outside as the Australian emerges for the race to London: his father, Darren, and his auntie Jennifer, who have travelled here from Yarrawonga, Victoria. “I am very, very, very proud of Zak for being here,” Darren says. “I think it’s also really nice to stick it up to the big teams. This is a small team, but it’s big in heart.”

Dempster, 26, has battled for almost a decade to make it big. Until recently, he was an Aussie rules fitness coach in the off-season. Now he’s at the Tour de France, but he won’t be awed by the likes of Team Sky. “They’ve got the experience and the budget, but they’ve also got two arms, two legs and a heart,” he says. “There’s no reason to be scared of them.”

NetApp-Endura’s nine riders wheel away from the bus to the start line. Alex Sans Vega, their sporting director, follows in one of two branded cars that will support the race in convoy. Ralph Denk, the team’s German boss for five years, has agreed to let The Independent take the passenger seat for a rare insider’s view of a stage with the Tour de France underdogs.

If sporting directors are like football managers, their touchline is the wheel of their car, which they drive with terrifying aggression while also studying course profiles and delivering orders to riders via radio. A mechanic sits in the back, ready to leap out with replacement wheels or bikes, which rattle around on the roof as the Tour caravan rolls out of town.

Sans Vega shares a simple plan the team agreed to over breakfast: get a man in a breakaway. On a flat stage like this, the big sprinting teams, such as Marcel Kittel’s Giant-Shimano, ride in a huge pulsating bunch, staying out of trouble until the manic final kilometres. If a smaller group jump ahead early on, the bunch tend not to react, safe in the knowledge they can catch up later. Word quickly comes in via race radio that Jan Barta, NetApp-Endura’s Czech time-trial specialist, has leapt ahead with a French rider, Jean-Marc Bideau of Bretagne-Séché.

As the gap builds past two minutes, Sans Vega is invited to overtake the peloton and follow the breakaway in support. As we pass, dozens of riders have paused by the road for a strategic pee. There will be no such luxury for Barta, who must stay out front for as long as possible.

He knows his chance of holding off the fearsome sprint trains until the finish line are vanishingly small, so why bust a gut?

“Well, the first is television publicity,” says Sans Vega, a laconic Spanish former mechanic. “There are 190 countries watching the Tour de France – millions of people watching your sponsor on the jersey. And there is always the chance. Can you imagine if it starts raining in London, with the roundabouts and corners? They will not chase like if it’s dry and nice. At least you’re in the break – you’re doing nothing sitting in the bunch.”

Chris Boardman is watching with the ITV Sport crew in London. In his yellow jersey days in the mid-1990s he rode with one of the big teams, but he says the wild cards are more important as cycling gets ever more professional. “There is less room for flamboyance now but everybody loves the underdog,” he says. “They have to take long shots and that’s what livens up our day; otherwise big riders look at the script and play the odds.”

Boardman recalls the day his team-mate Eros Poli tore up the script during the 1994 Tour when he held off the bunch, alone, during a stage that included the fearsome Mont Ventoux. “These guys don’t look at the odds and say, why bother?” he adds. “They say there’s a chance. They’re looking at the 1 per cent, not the 99.”

Zak Dempster with his biggest fan, his Dad Zak Dempster with his biggest fan, his Dad (Teri Pengilley/The Independent)
It’s clear from the NetApp-Endura team car as it winds through Essex how much that chance means to Barta. His legs pump like pistons as he takes turns to extend the gap with Bideau, another wild-card rider. “Remember to eat and drink,” Sans Vega tells his man on the radio. “Well done. Well done.”

A cameraman stands on the back of a motorbike, capturing Barta’s heroics. Jim McFarlane watches in breaks from a business meeting in Scotland. He founded Endura, the Edinburgh-based cycle clothing brand, in 1992, and Endura Racing in 2008. The team merged last year with NetApp, named after a US tech firm. “Emotionally it’s amazing to have got here and commercially it’s hugely important,” says McFarlane, who also supplies kit to Movistar, one of the biggest teams on the Tour. “We now have global coverage.”

But the risks are high for teams without Rupert Murdoch-sized backing. McFarlane says his sponsorship accounts for a quarter of his profits, despite a budget around an eighth that of Sky. And as a “professional continental” team rather than a full pro team, he and Denk have to rely on invitations to get the exposure that comes with riding in the Tour de France. When Denk sought a five-year deal to take things to the next level, McFarlane’s head overruled his heart; the team will reveal a new sponsor next week. The business of cycling can be as brutal as the racing itself.

Barta’s team-mate Zak Dempster in front of the team bus in Cambridge Barta’s team-mate Zak Dempster in front of the team bus in Cambridge (Teri Pengilley/The Independent)

As Barta and Bideau pass the Olympic velodrome in East London, it begins to pour with rain. “I told you this could happen,” Sans Vega says. Barta drops Bideau for a final solo push. But the bunch is hunting him down like hounds after a hare. With just six kilometres to go, he’s eaten up. Kittel goes on to triumph on The Mall but Barta joins him on the podium to receive the day’s prize for the most combative rider. Millions more people now know who he is.

On Horse Guards Parade, the crowds gather again around the team buses – or at least some of them.

Before the Grand Départ in Yorkshire, Alberto Contador and his Tinkoff-Saxo team-mates flew to Leeds in the private jet belonging to their Russian team owner Oleg Tinkoff. But as the Tour heads back across the Channel, there is a moment of levelling that could only happen in cycling.

NetApp-Endura and Tinkoff-Saxo are allocated the same standard-issue coach for the short journey to City Airport. For the next half hour at least, Barta, Dempster and Contador are equals.

Evans Cycles is the exclusive UK stockist of Fuji Bikes, suppliers to Team NetApp-Endura; evanscycles.com

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