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Sport directors: more than meets the eye
Tejay shares his experience from La Vuelta in his new role
With a dozen seasons as a rider in the WorldTour, Tejay van Garderen had certainly seen sport directors at work.
Or so he thought.
There are some jobs you can’t learn in a traditional classroom. That’s what van Garderen realized during the first week of the Vuelta a España where he shadowed our sport directors ahead of becoming a director himself next year. Instead, it’s trial by fire.
“There’s what the riders see which is basically what they hear on the radio and what they see on the bus and team meetings and that sort of preparation,” van Garderen says. “I’d say that’s about 5% of the job.”
The bulk of the work, he learned, is done either before the race even starts or behind the scenes. “Since I knew I was going to the first week of the Vuelta, I was looking at the courses and trying to think about long term race strategy and I came in thinking I was prepared,” he explains. The other directors said, ‘Oh, we’re not there yet. Race strategy changes depending on what happens.’”
As if to drive home the point that being a sport director is more than just strategizing, he spent time with the team’s soigneurs and mechanics to get a deeper understanding of what their jobs entail. “One day I went to help the soigneurs set up the hotel. Another day I went with the soigneurs and did the feed zone and I was up early putting mix and filling up water bottles,” he says. “You even take one person out of that equation and the whole thing falls apart. It was really eye opening for me to see how hard everyone worked and how much work there is behind the scenes. It definitely gives you a much deeper appreciation. Now I feel like I need to go back and write thank you letters to every single staff member I’ve had and say, ‘Holy cow, I had no idea!’ You only really see what’s in front of your face.”
The guidance and encouragement van Garderen received from veteran sport directors Juanma Garate and Ken Vanmarcke was invaluable. “I was thinking ‘I hope they’re not going to be territorial’ but I got nothing but support from every single one of the directors. They wanted to give me any piece of advice or any helping hand that they could to try to just help me learn the job, help me succeed, just help me along. At the end of the day we’re all on the same team. If I do better work, they can do better work. It was really cool to just see how supportive the team and directors were in inviting me into their group,” he says.
Time management turned out to be one of the biggest lessons. “A lot of it was how to prepare. Some of what you might prepare at home might turn out to be a waste of time and time that would be better spent playing with your kids or spending time with your wife or just living your life. If you try to plan too far in advance, those plans are always going to change.”
Switching from riding to directing gave the former American pro a different perspective. As a general classification rider himself, van Garderen was accustomed to focusing on his strategy to get through each stage, while directing required a holistic approach. “As a director you’re looking at what the strategy should be for the team whereas before I’d only look at other GC riders. You’re very self-centered when you’re a racer and I think when you’re directing you have to take it more big-picture,” he says.
Going to the Vuelta as a director was an emotional experience in ways van Garderen hadn’t anticipated. He compares it to parenting. “When you’re teammates, you’re like brothers. When you’re directing, you’re the parent. You want the best for all of your riders and you have to sometimes take the good with the bad. Even if there’s one rider struggling, you can’t let that emotion get in the way of the happy emotion of the win.”
In addition to becoming a director, van Garderen will start taking on clients with Team EF Coaching. “With EF Coaching, I told them I want to do this. This is something I’m really interested in but I wanted to take on a small workload there just so I don’t overextend myself. Then if I feel comfortable, maybe I’ll take on a couple more. I’ve always taken a really analytical approach to my own training and I’ve taken bits and pieces from each of the coaches I’ve had in my career. All that experience I’ve gained from just the training aspect of it, I think would be great to be able to pass that on as well.”
Reflecting on his time at the Vuelta, van Garderen says, “At the start of the week I was thinking, ‘I don’t even know if I can do this job,’ but Juanma and Ken did a really good job of just showing me what everything was and how everything works and I was feeling a lot more comfortable by the end of the week. Now I’m super excited to get started with next year and take on more responsibility. I’m convinced more than ever that it’s definitely a job that I can do.”