The 2016 Tour of Poland started in the small city of Radzymin. It’s a place not on international maps, overshadowed by nearby Warsaw. Radzymin’s value is in its history. Along with being a forgotten town, it’s a famous battleground for a largely forgotten war. The town was at the heart of the Polish army’s resistance against the Russians in the 1920s, its bicycle-mounted soldiers charging forward to defend the city. The Tour of Poland was born out of the history of these cycling soldiers, eight years later in 1928.
Eighty-eight years on, many of these riders are still, in a way, bicycle soldiers. Their battleground isn’t bloody, the stakes are not for life and country, but they fight every day. And many are rank and file. We know the majors, the generals and the loyal lieutenants, but behind every decorated officer are the ones that truly fight for little glory.
And like any great war, a cycling career is a series of battles, ups and downs, near misses, and fleeting moments of glory.
Matt Brammeier’s career is one that follows this pattern. A national junior road race and time-trial champion, a bad incident with a cement mixer left him with two broken legs.
“It was 2007, mid-winter. I was still amateur and working a winter job in a bike shop in Manchester. I was riding into work when a cement truck didn’t see me on a roundabout. He turned left and drove right over me. The image and sounds are still in my mind today. The truck’s wheels just missed my head, my legs snapped like brittle sticks. The one thing that sticks in my mind is that those wheels did miss my head, so I always count myself lucky. It could have been so much worse. I was pretty fucked up for a while, physically and mentally – I struggled for a long time, but I made it back. Around a year later I won a race. It was an incognito criterium in south Holland, nobody was there and I only just won it, but I won it, and I knew from that day the doctors were wrong: I could get back and I would get back. To this day that has been my biggest win in my career.”
Encouraged by this low-level road to recovery, he continued racing, to become Irish National champion in 2010, and again in 2011, prompting an offer from HTC-High Road.
“Of course, I jumped on it. I was back riding with Cav, one of my best mates. I couldn’t have been happier and I’m still truly grateful to the team for giving me that chance. I was still suffering some after-affects of my accident, so it was a bit of a gamble for them. I think they will join me in saying it paid off well. I fitted into the team perfectly, was part of the best group of guys I’ve ever worked with, and I lost count of the amount of races we won. It was one of the best years I could have hoped for, we had so much fun on that team. The winners were rewarded just as much as the lead-out men and domestiques. I was offered an extension of my contract for two more years with a decent little pay rise too. I was like a pig in shit!”
But just as the Irishman seemed to be settled, the team unexpectedly folded in 2012. “I got the call from Brian Holm telling me my the dream was over. ‘Start looking for another job, sailor,’ he said.”
Like the little-known start town of this race, the Tour of Poland all but disappears from view on occasion. Due to the Olympics, it is shifted into July each four years, taking place during the Tour de France. The startlist might suffer a bit, but the racing does not. Some of those on the longlist for the Tour who do not make the cut end up in Poland. It’s WorldTour points up for grabs and racing is skin to teeth. It’s an opportunity to prove yourself against TDF non-selection. For the mass of riders, the chance to ride for oneself, to not just be a lieutenant to the general, and to not get lost in the oblivion, is worth the risks.
In the turmoil of an over-subscribed transfer market, Brammeier spent a few years looking for higher ground before finding a more stable home. Quick-Step, a great team for many, was the wrong environment for him. “It was a great team and we won a lot of massive races. The guys were amazing and we had so much fun, but I just wasn’t appreciated at the team. You have to be either world champion or Belgian there, or you’re quickly used and abused.”
A year at Champion Systems and another with Baku kept Brammeier in the game at a time when teams were folding and riders forced into early retirement. Finally, in 2015 he landed his dream gig with MTN-Qhubeka – now Dimension Data.
“The team had always been on my hitlist. I was always in contact with Doug [Ryder] and the more I learned about Qhubeka, the more I wanted to be involved. I had a couple of lesser offers that season, but I knew there was a chance I could go to MTN – my dream team and number one choice. I went all in and waited until the last minute. It was December by the time I actually signed up and just a week or so later I was on the plane on the way to the first training camp and stage race in Australia. I knew immediately that I’d hit the jackpot. It was pissing rain that January in Majorca. Every day it was cold, wet and shitty, but the morale was strangely sky-high. All of the guys were constantly fucking about and having a laugh, but getting up the next day and getting stuck into training, full gas. It was a totally different environment I was used too. Gone were the days of stress and mundane cycling. This was a freshness I’d never experienced before.”
August 2015: Utah. Battle lost. A collision with a car on a steep descent sent Brammeier back into the hospital with fractures of the sacral and pelvic bones, rib fractures on both sides, a bruised liver and a broken tooth. And it had all been going so well.
“I managed to win myself too, which showed the difference in morale and the ethic of the team. Everyone got their chance some day, and when I got mine I grabbed it with both hands. I was building up well for my first Grand Tour at the Vuelta. I was in an awesome place. Lightest I’d ever been and ready to hit the Vuelta at full speed. My flights were booked, everything was going perfectly and then I got a little stroke of bad luck.
“I’d been riding within myself all week, my trainer didn’t want me to kill myself at altitude before the Vuelta. Toward the end of the week, he gave me the green light to open up a bit and try and see what I could do in the big mountains. I went full gas on that penultimate climb and managed to stay within fighting distance of the front group – something I’d never done before. Natnael Berhane was in that front group alone. Natu is for me the biggest talent we have in the team. He oozes class, but his biggest asset is he wants to learn: he listens and learns so fast. I wanted to get up to him and help him into that final climb. I kept on racing over the top of that climb and into the downhill. I won’t go into the details but I feel like I was let down pretty badly that day by the organisation of the race. The conditions where just not a safe playing field and I stood no chance of making it down that descent.”
Choose your battles. Wise words to live by in professional cycling.
Stage Four in Poland: Alex Sans Vega sits behind the wheel of the second race car. He’s calm and collected, noting the numbers in the breakaway and doing the math for the virtual leader.
“There are so many different personalities on the team. Kosta [Suitsou] is a stoic Belarussian. Then you’ve got Kristian Sbaragli, an Italian who talks with his hands. Omar and Songhezo: laid back. Then there is Matt, the moderator of the mix. He brings everyone together, despite their differences. Maybe Matt is the head of the UN.”
The break goes: and builds to six minutes. No Dimension Data riders in it. Today’s stage has 2,400 metres of climbing over 206 kilometres. We watch the team car in front of us. The race is too far away to glimpse even the rear of the peloton.
“He has the personality for a road captain, and the skills to teach and lead many of our global riders. He’s very calm during races. More than calm, he keeps control in any situation.
“Today is going to be difficult to bring back the break. Two strong riders, a tailwind, the teams must organise.”
Forty-five kilometres in a voice comes over the radio: “Alex, please pick up Youcef.” He crashed badly the day before. And in a simple moment, devoid of fanfare, a race is over. Youcef Reguigui, the Algerian rider waits on the side of the road. The bike is quickly mounted on the top of the car, he climbs in, and we carry on. Not many words are spoken in the car now, a passing sigh, a comment on the scenery only. And at 20 kilometres to go, one lone rider from the breakaway remains, with a mere 30 second lead. For the heroes and the hardest workers, the wins are few and far between.
Brammeier persevered. Come the 2016 season, and the team’s jump to WorldTour status, and he is back alongside his old friend Cavendish. And with a new outlook post-Utah, he is turning the pedals with a continued resilience. Taking time to sink his teeth into projects like the Africa Kit Appeal, and as a vociferous supporter of the Qhubeka charity, the infantryman has now become decorated on his own accord.
“Again, I was in a mess. Another near-death occurrence almost cracked me. I was in a pretty dark place there, but it didn’t last too long. I learnt a fair bit after my run in with the cement truck and was well enough to begin my season at the start of 2016. I’m not going to make out it was all plain sailing, but all I can say is, I think I did all right. I appreciate the small things in life a lot more now and my mindset has changed a fair bit.
“It’s hard to explain exactly how or why, but I just feel more compelled to help people now. I want to make a difference and do my bit: put a little bit back to the sport that’s given me so much. Somehow after all the shitty cards I’ve been dealt, I’ve come out a better person and, in a strange way, I’m grateful for that.”
Stage five: The rain begins to fall as the riders cross the start line. The road traverses into the mountains across the southern border of Poland. The temperature drops as the road climbs and the abandons pile up. One hundred kilometres from the finish there are more than 25 riders in team cars and the broom wagon. Three from Dimension Data. Four remain. The winner crosses the line alone. Forty-five minutes later the last few roll in. 185 riders started the stage, 100 finished. Half of the peloton gone in a single day. Eventually the remaining riders from the team come in. The stands are empty; the barriers are being packed away. Their lips are blue, their teeth chatter. But the day is over. Three will start again tomorrow.
Laura Fletcher, The Peloton Brief