Teamwork is essential
At Tour de Georgia, Fraser couldn't get it done without Health Net mates
Posted: Wednesday April 21, 2004 2:19PM; Updated: Wednesday April 21, 2004 5:42PM
MACON, Ga. -- Standing on a makeshift stage in the city center, adorned in the leader's yellow jersey, Gord Fraser sang the praise of his Health Net cycling teammates. And well he should.
"Teammates are everything is this sport,'' Fraser said. "They do everything for you. Without them, I would have thrown in the towel.''
During the first stage of the Tour de Georgia, I rode shotgun in the Health Net support vehicle, lined up among the caravan of station wagons trailing the cyclists over the 82.1-mile trek through the countryside. Trust me, the 35-year-old Canadian is one hellacious sprinter, but he -- just like Lance Armstrong, Mario Cipollini and the sport's other big guns -- wouldn't catch a sniff of the lead without the help of a pack of incredibly unselfish teammates.
If you think offensive linemen are unappreciated, you need to check out pro cyclists. The team has but one preordained star. The other seven riders function as grunts, worker bees doing whatever it takes to get their guy up front and across the finish line first.
The team needs water or sports drinks? No problem. Health Net riders Greg Henderson, Scott Moninger and John Lieswyn fall off the pace to stock up on plastic bottles from the team support vehicle, and spend the next mile or so sprinting to catch up with the pack. This happens four or five more times during the course of the race.
The top dog, Fraser, never has to peel back forany of these "feeding'' runs. Like the other stars, you won't see him sprint until the closing few miles, unless he stops to relieve himself along a country road and is hustling to rejoin the pack.
During the first stage, Fraser's bladder held up just fine, thank you. But to someone foreign to the sport, it's comical to pass by riders, off their bikes, uninhibited about relieving themselves -- particularly early in the race. The only glimpse I caught of Armstrong was 22 miles into the race, as he took a break on the road to Milledgeville.
The sight moved Health Net support car driver Jeff Corbett to crack, "You know they're gonna put up a sign, 'Lance Armstrong pissed in my yard.'''
Corbett is the team's "directeur sportif," a fancy way of saying he runs the show. He's the equivalent of a crew chief in NASCAR. He uses a radio to stay in contact with his eight riders, offering regular updates on stuff like how far in front the lead back is, a sharp turn in the road that is ahead or a dicey railroad crossing.
But Corbett is actually out on the course, wheeling around in the team's support vehicle, which happens to be a small Ford station wagon. So when a tire blew on Lieswyn's bike, Corbett floored it, and sped past the caravan to provide roadside assistance to his fallen rider.
Later, just before the race turned into a sprint for three two-mile downtown loops in Macon, Corbett reminded everyone why they're on the team -- to get Fraser to the front. That meant moving riders out of the way, clearing a path so that Fraser could sprint his butt off the last few hundred meters.
As the pace built to a frenzy, the chase vehicles sped through city streets lined with spectators, braking at the last second to make 90-degree turns. While attempting to negotiate a curve on the last loop, Corbett knocked over the radio and lost communication. He had no clue what was happening ahead. Not until five minutes after the finish, still stuck in post-racce traffic, did he hear over a walkie-talkie that race officials wanted Fraser to go to doping control -- which, in this case, is a positive sign.
"Did Gord win?'' Corbett barked into his radio.
"Yeah, he won,'' came the response.
Once again it was the worker bees -- the unsung guys in the trenches, if you will -- that drove Fraser to the front. They nurtured him on the long ride to the final sprint. And when he was tired and ready to bag it, teammate Chris Wherry uttered a brief, final pep talk that kept him going.
"With two miles to go we all got together, and they got me to the front for that last moment,'' Fraser said. "I was suffering -- my arms, stomach, my legs. It gets in your head. I figured they got me this far that I had to go for it.''
That's about as pure as teamwork gets.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.