After a lifetime in cycling – first as a racer and then as a DS – it’s probably fair to assume that Brian Holm has seen most things.
But Enric Mas being dropped by Elia Viviani? That’s a new one on the Dane.
“Today I saw things I thought I’d never see. Viviani dropping Nibali? Viviani dropping Mas?
“What the fuck is going on here?!” he chuckles as we speak on Sunday night after another breathless stage of this year’s Tour. “We’ve been here for more than 100 years and we still get things that surprise us!”
We’ve just witnessed Julian Alaphilippe lose time to Geraint Thomas but, crucially, not the yellow jersey as the race headed into yesterday’s rest day in Nimes.Embed from Getty Images
Holm is a casual observer rather than part of the Deceuninck Quick-Step team at the Tour this year but to say he’s enjoying watching Alaphilippe – who he affectionately calls Begbie because of his resemblance to Robert Carlyle’s character in Trainspotting – surprise a few people is an understatement.
He said: “I heard some rumours, and I saw even Jakob Fuglsang mention it, that we had a plan to do it but I think if we were really going for the yellow jersey in Paris our team would look slightly different if I’m honest.
“The question (of whether Alaphilippe could be a GC contender) has been around for a while but he’s always exploded after a few days in the mountains.
“He’s good at climbs but he’s always exploded. Of course, everybody dreams about winning the Tour but he’s also not had that really bad day where you lose a lot of time.
“He survived today but the hardest part is still to come.”Embed from Getty Images
On that Sunday stage to Foix, the stark reality for Alaphilippe was that he was alone, perhaps an indication that this is unchartered territory for a team which, whilst prolific across the season, rarely find themselves at the sharp end of the GC battle in the Tour de France.
But Holm doesn’t think that poses much of a problem for the Frenchman, who so far has been marking the moves by Team Ineos and Jumbo Visma to good effect.
Holm said: “It’s sort of expected, but that’s us. Stuff like that, you always find a solution. You follow one rider when one team is under pressure.Embed from Getty Images
“There’s always a race in the race. You saw today that (Mikel) Landa could see the eight place of Fuglsang and then Astana started to ride because if not Landa passes Fuglsang.
“The race is always going – a rider fighting for the podium, fighting for the top ten, someone in the break for the polka dot jersey, someone riding for the team classification.
“So even with the yellow jersey, sit down, relax and wait somebody is going to chase because there’s always some interest about some position.”
Many journalists and fans are touting this year’s Tour as the best since the legendary edition in 1989.
One of the reasons is that the race is so open.
Alaphilippe was one minute 35 seconds ahead of Geraint Thomas going into the start at Nimes this morning.
Behind him, the next six riders are separated by only 40-odd seconds.
But after so much Team Sky dominance in recent years, Holm believes Alaphilippe – who has become the first French rider for 34 years to hold the yellow jersey for 11 days – is a popular leader,Embed from Getty Images
He said: “Everybody can see that the Deceuninck Quick-Step team isn’t the Sky team but they can also see that Ineos isn’t the Sky team either!
“And that is good for cycling. Imagine Chris Froome being there now?
“He’s not got too much charisma, Chris Froome if I’m being honest, so I think everybody is happy with Alaphilippe. It’s good for the race, good for the show.”
One notable absence when the Tour rolled out of Brussels earlier this month was Dimension Data’s Mark Cavendish.Embed from Getty Images
Holm knows Cav well having guided his career at HTC before being reunited at Quick-Step.
And the Manx Missile’s exclusion from the Dimension Data Tour squad surprised many, not least Holm.
“I worked with him for quite a few years and even when he won five stages in the Tour, there was
“We always had that discussion. We’d have team meetings and some sports director or team owner would say ‘we’re not taking him, he’s not good enough this year’.
“When he dropped out of Switzerland (Tour de Suisse) when he hadn’t won for months, people wrote him off every year. It’s nothing new.”
It’s been a torrid last couple of years for Cavendish who was finally diagnosed with the Epstein Barr virus in early 2017 after struggling to find answers for his dip in condition.
He suffered the effects of the virus still being active at last year’s Tour and missed the time cut on stage 11 alongside another former Holm charge Marcel Kittel.Embed from Getty Images
It was only earlier this year that Cavendish fell below the Epstein Barr threshold for the first time in two years.
Holm said: “The last three years he hasn’t done very good but we have to keep in mind that he went to the Tour de France with Epstein Barr.
“Last year when he was dropped, I spoke to him and he said ‘Brian, I don’t understand it, I feel alright and then suddenly my heartbeat just blows’. He said it was like taking the air out of a balloon and he just didn’t get it.
“But he was riding with the Epstein Barr – it never went away. If you have it then you have it coming back.”
It’s clear in the two conversations I’ve had with Brian over the last few weeks that he thinks a great deal of Cavendish.
The feeling is mutual – Cavendish had Holm as his best man at his wedding.
When Holm was the guest editor of an issue of the ever-brilliant Rouleur magazine, the undoubted highlight was when the two got together for a chat.
The chemistry between the two was there for all to see and despite the gentle ribbing, it goes without saying that Holm would always have Cavendish’s back.
He said: “After three years he had his plan to come back. Some people might say ‘yeah, he didn’t win anything at Slovakia’ but three years ago he didn’t win anything but then he was in the Tour and won four stages!
“The bottom line is I was quite surprised the team didn’t take him. Even with a broken ankle, he’d have more opportunities than the rest of the team together.”Embed from Getty Images
Holm says he thinks the best thing for both Cavendish and Dimension Data – who have struggled as a team all season – might be a parting of the ways.
“I really don’t know but I think the best advice for him and the best advice for Doug Ryder (Dimension Data manager) is to probably try something new!”
Having been on teams that have struggled for results in the past, Holm feels Dimension Data – and to an extent, Katusha – are just in temporary bad spell and the fog will eventually clear.
He said: “Whatever you say, Dimension Data is a nice team – they have nice kits, they look good – they’re just in a very bad circle at the moment, a bit like Katusha.Embed from Getty Images
“It’s a bit like Astana was a few years ago, like HTC was before Bob Stapleton came in. We’ve all been in a bad circle. You just think ‘fuck’, it’s just a bad spin sometimes cycling.
“You saw Astana two or three years back – they won nothing, nothing, nothing. How though with that budget?
“They just kept on trying. It’s just small things and then when you start winning, it just gets better.
“In cycling, it’s a tough world. It came good with Quick-Step a few years ago but before that, in 2011, we have to keep in mind that we won seven races in the whole year.
“Sometimes you just need something new – it could be a new bike, a new kit, new management. It could be anything.
“If you start the season good, you probably continue that way.”
On Friday we have part two of our exclusive interview with Brian when he talks candidly about his own career, near-death experiences, doping and much more besides.
Main image courtesy of 12.16.