On the penultimate stage of the Tour Down Under I was given the chance to experience the race from a totally different perspective, from inside the Skoda VIP vehicle.
My driver and guide for the day was John Robertson, who is flown by Skoda from South Africa to drive the vehicle for them at both the TDU and the Tour de France.
John was formally the manager of Barloworld, who were the first African team to compete in the Tour de France. A true cycling aficionado, he has been driving for Skoda for the last three years and it was soon apparent why the moniker the Skoda Stig fitted.
His role within the race and his opinions on the cycling in general made for a very interesting day.
Q – So John how did you end up doing this job and why are Skoda paying so much to fly you around the world?
JR – To be honest, I really just stumbled upon the role. A mate of mine was driving for Skoda in the Tour de France and he told me they were looking for another driver for the VIP program.
I think my role at Barloworld and familiarity with driving around cyclists was key to be honest. I had to do an advanced driving course in preparation and then away I went.
Q – Is the driving tough?
JR – Not really but I have been driving around cyclists for many years and knowing where to position the car in relation to the peloton comes very naturally. It’s not rocket science but the incident with the press car running the breakaway group off the road in 2011 is testament to what can happen if you’re careless.
Q – And what did happen there? I still remember those images of the guy with all his clothes ripped off by the barbed wire – it was shocking.
JR – It was one of the press cars that basically didn’t have a clue. During a race there are handful of cars that are allowed to ride alongside a breakaway group – the Skoda VIP car is one of them – and so too are a couple of press cars.
In the Tour Down Under it is all a lot more manageable but at the Tour de France there are more cars with permission and hence the potential for collisions increases.
Q – Fair enough. But what was the press car doing overtaking them the way it did?
Well, typically, and this goes for the VIP cars too, you stay behind the breakaway but if the peloton is about to catch them or we’re approaching the finish you try to get past them. In this case we were close to the finish and the press car wanted to race ahead to get a good position to see the race coming in.
In her haste though she got it all wrong and she had a choice between smashing into a tree or taking the riders out. The tree was fine.
Q – What was done in the aftermath?
JR – Well obviously she won’t be driving in the Tour again! The most interesting aspect though was how quickly the whole thing was swept under the carpet which says a lot about the power of ASO who run the Tour.
Obviously the teams and riders were outraged but nothing really hit the press and indeed after it was initially reported it quickly disappeared. The ASO are amazingly efficient at managing the Tour’s image.
Q – And have you ever got on the wrong side of the ASO?
JR – Personally, no, but my co-driver at Skoda seems to get dragged up in front of the gendarmerie at least once every Tour. Basically ASO has a panel system that is managed by the gendarmerie that calls you to account if your driving is deemed to not be up to scratch.
If on any given day you get reported you have to sit in front of a panel of gendarmes at the end of the race who basically give you a bollocking and at best make you promise you won’t do it again. All too often though they just kick you off the Tour, so it is pretty nerve wracking.
Q – So the Tour Down Under must be a breeze in comparison?
JR – In many ways it is and since they put us up in the Hilton the accommodation is certainly a step up too. That said yesterday I took a client off the course for 20 minutes to grab a bite to eat and when I tried to get back on a Australian policeman was adamant that I wasn’t getting back on.
It soon became clear that the Aussie police weren’t to be messed with either so I had to take my medicine and look to take a few back roads to get back in the race. It took a while but eventually I got back on.
Q – And how does the Tour Down Under VIP program compare to the Tour de France program you run?
JR – Well, in essence it is a lot more low key. In the Tour de France Skoda have three VIP cars on the go for every stage, one of which is driven by Stephen Roche who won the tour in 1987. Stephen takes the guests for spin in the morning before the stage and all the guests are kitted out in personalised kit.
Once the race begins we drive the guests for about 50km where they are met by a helicopter that takes them for a birdseye view of the race before they rejoin us for the last part of the race. Their whole day is captured on a DVD which is handed to them after a gala dinner at the end. Our VIP program in Australia is a lot more basic in comparison.
Q – Must be pretty expensive?
JR – Yep, it is, but most of the people who come along are on corporate jollies so not sure they pay for it themselves. I think it costs around 2000 euros per person if you did have to pay though.
Q – Presumably you get some pretty wealthy people in the car with you then?
JR – Hard to tell most of the time but yes I figure most of them are pretty cashed up. I had one guy in the Tour last year for example who was some super rich Czech industrialist. He’d never been to a cycle race before and really only came because of the links between Skoda and the Czech republic.
Well, he had a ball and decided by the end of the day that he had found his sport. Within a month he was the majority stakeholder in Quikstep team. I’m expecting some pretty sepcial treatment from the Quickstep guys when I see them at the Tour later this year.
As far as jobs go I was intrigued by John’s role and I enjoyed hearing about what the job involved and how it varied between the Tour Down Under and the Tour de France.
I also found it very enlightening getting his views on cycling from when he was running a pro team, Barloworld, at the height of what we now know to be the drug years.
Rather than turn this interview into an essay, I thought I’d split the interview into two parts as the two parts are very different. Stay tuned for part two.