As someone from the ITV production team recently told me after recounting a string of simultaneous disasters during one stage on last year’s Tour, “we’re not paid for when it goes well, we’re paid for when it goes wrong.”
The same goes for the Tour peloton and certain trusty team-mates too. Stage 11 in 2016 between Carcassonne and Montpellier was a prime example of how a seemingly innocuous day can turn the Tour de France general classification on its head. The wind blew all day, several contenders were caught behind the front group, but the gusts and gaps were never sufficient to blow the race apart definitively.
It could have been Chris Froome’s downfall; instead, he was kept in front and ended up putting time into his rivals, thanks to help from one Sky man in particular.
With a dozen kilometres left, Froome memorably escaped with Geraint Thomas and Tinkoff duo Maciej Bodnar and Peter Sagan. “Rewind the footage. Ten seconds before it split, I was right next to Froomey and dropped him off where he needed to be,” Luke Rowe says. “That’s the kind of work I need to be doing, am expected to do and the reason I’m in the team for the 2017 Tour de France.”
Froome’s Tour de France win was the sum of all of Team Sky’s parts, and in recent seasons, 27-year-old Rowe has become an integral one. He is a cobbled Classics contender in his own right and a valuable road captain for the Tour’s flat, windy stages.
His role is “looking after Froomey and ushering him through as many stages safely as possible”. Speaking on the eve of the race at Sky’s hotel in Düsseldorf, Rowe makes it sound more straightforward than the reality: a frantic, dog-eat-dog fight for positioning with occasional confrontations and potentially race-ending consequences.
“Anyone’s Tour de France can be over at any moment throughout the race, but more so in the first week,” Rowe says. “It’s just so hectic, there’s so many guys here, so much goes on. [With] the results of this Tour de France, a lot of people are under pressure and stress and it causes pressure and stress in the peloton.
“Coming towards those sprint finishes, it’s a case of being well positioned: a fine balance because you want to give the sprinters’ teams enough room to do their thing. We’re not doing a lead-out or trying to win the stage, we’re just trying to stay in the top 40 to avoid splits and crashes behind.
“[For me], it’s a case of try and stay glued to Froomey’s hip throughout the flatter days and try and be completely reliable. Whatever he needs me to do. He says jump, I say ‘how high?’”
Half of the battle is getting picked for one of the eight spots along Froome, given Team Sky’s highly-competitive squad. In May, Rowe spent a couple of weeks on Mount Teide. Aside from being able to do 20,000 metres of climbing in a week, it proved a boon for Sky team-building.
With WiFi non-existent on top of the Tenerife volcano – and Rowe leaving his laptop on the plane – the riders resorted to playing the card game donkey, which involves slapping rivals’ hands: an antidote to the modern era of fixation with mobile phones and mod-cons.
They will need to have each other’s backs in July. Beleaguered team principal Dave Brailsford suggested the Tour de France has always been “a hostile environment for us as a team to go there and win the race”. It extends beyond the competitive action too: Chris Froome has been jeered, spat at and had urine thrown at him; Richie Porte was punched in his days as a Team Sky rider. What’s Rowe’s experience of hostility?
“Yeah, I’ve been hit,” he says. Asked when it happened, he pauses and says: “I don’t want to get into all that. I don’t want to shine a negative light on it.” Admirable restraint both now and at the time: you’ve got to be a particularly foolish coward to whack a tall Classics hardman.
“There’s always a very, very small percentage of people who for some reason or another don’t like Sky, don’t like other teams, don’t like cycling in general, which I think is the case a lot of the time,” Rowe says. “I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily against Team Sky, it’s against specific riders and teams throughout the peloton.
“Fortunately, 99.9 per cent of the people on the side of the road are cheering for each and every rider that passes and are there for the love of the sport.
“In any walk of life, we’ll get that small percentage who are there to spoil the party. You’ve just got to be professional, accept that and move on. Honestly it makes no odds to me, I just completely ignore it and get on with the job at hand.”
Rowe is good at that job too: this is his third Tour in a row and Chris Froome has not lost an edition with the Welshman as his wingman. He smiles when I mention that fact. “It’s more to do with Chris having good legs than me being here. Though it’s a bit of a cliche, it’s just been an honour to be here for the past two years. As overall GC ambitions go, the closest I’m gonna ever have to success is being part of the team.
“Just to be a very small piece of the puzzle, part of Chris’s success and that Tour de France-winning team, it’s genuinely a massive honour.”