EF Education First is one of the revelations of this cycling season. The US-based formation already won more races this year than last year’s total and are still counting. They look more sparkling than ever and are often found in the front of the peloton. What did they change to get this done and what are their hopes for the upcoming Tour de France? We spoke to Peter Schep, the new kid in town, but tipped as one of the key figures for this success.

Change of worlds

Schep was one of the driving forces behind the very successful Dutch track cycling armada that has won numerous championships and titles. By the end of last year, he decided to make the switch to the WorldTour series where he started as Performance Manager for EF Education First. Explaining his move, he said, “This series is bigger and wider than the world of track cycling.” “We clearly discussed with the technical staff last winter who got which role in the team. You then focus on your speciality where you can put in all your energy and time. At the track I had to do more jobs. This makes it sometimes more versatile, but it also causes you to not be able to do everything properly all the time.”

He obviously noticed that there are some differences between track cyclists and WorldTour cyclists, but that there’s some overlap as well. “Road cyclists are used to extreme training volumes compared to track cyclists. But it’s nice to see that they use more and more aspects from track cycling, like certain types of training and aerodynamics. So, my experience comes in handy! But generally, the training volume is higher and the peak periods are longer. Therefore, you can only do a limited number of high intensive training sessions. Although this brings you more opportunities spread over a few weeks.”

Big step forward

EF Education First made a major step this year in the peloton. Where they only won six times last year, they have now already claimed seven victories. Does he have some kind of magic touch on this team? “I don’t know exactly how things have gone in recent years, so I can only say how I experience it now. But I got to know my colleagues as enthusiastic people who work for this team day and night. We have in-house specialists in many areas and above all I mainly see a good cooperation. We regularly meet with the technical people and discuss what we should continue or improve. My task is mainly the structure in online programs and the time trial specialty. We have clear ideas together and stick to them.”

The team has been strengthened with Tejay van Garderen, Alberto Bettiol, Tanel Kangert and Moreno Hofland. Did they contribute to this success as well? “Each of these riders has a different specialty. This means we’re stronger in terms of breadth at the start of a race and this brings more opportunities to compete for a victory. The number of victories from last year may already have shown that there were few chances of winning. Now there are more opportunities, but the great team spirit also causes that others stand up. The overall quality of the team is very good!”

“I enjoy seeing when riders get better. Results are nice and necessary, but my role in the team comes in before that achievement,” Schep said when looking back at the season so far. “Our team management at the races has a wealth of experience and they make sharp strategies for the races to achieve the best results. We perform on level and I’m proud of what the successes do for the entire team. Every race I see the pink jerseys competing in the front. Everyone is super motivated! Both riders and the staff. Of course, I am also disappointed when riders suddenly see all sacrifices going up in smoke due to heavy falls. Such as with Vanmarcke, Uran and Martinez, among others.”

Besides the performance, the team seems to have gone a different way. Take into consideration their striking team kit or the off-road challenges they participate in, such as the Garmin Dirty Kanza. Do things like these also give the team an extra boost? “Rapha made a fantastic outfit and I noticed the enthusiasm among the riders from the start. How cool is that?! And as for the off-road challenges: many of our riders already ride off-road during the altitude training sessions. The roads on top are not asphalted on every mountain and our riders are happy to ride on these.”

Tour de France

The biggest Grand Tour of all starts this weekend and this is quite a contrast to what Schep was used to during his days in track cycling. He explains what’s expected from him and how they all prepared for this. “My role in the Tour is mainly behind the scenes and focusses on the preparation for the time trials. In consultation with the team management, we set up the training sessions and make the race strategy. Therefore, I use as much data as possible from the past three years of all riders. You don’t ride 10 team time trials per year, so you sometimes have to dig deep to get all the info”.

The training programs for the Tour have largely been worked out by the team since this winter. “Of course, you never have certainty, due to illnesses, injuries and changes in shape. But a Tour plan always includes a focused competition program. So, for each rider there was a conscious choice for specific races. One needs Switzerland and the other, for example, Occitanic. The latter is slightly shorter and this offers more room for training.”

Compared with the Giro d’Italia, the team had to approach this Grand Tour a bit differently. “The Giro had three individual time trials this year. The Tour only one, but then you have the team time trial. Furthermore, it is mainly periodization and the temperatures that differ. But a climb of up to 2000 meters is tough in both tours and requires a lot of climbing kilometres you have to train for.”

The week before the Tour most riders are recovering from stage races like the Dauphine, Switzerland and Occitanic. “In addition, some riders were riding the national championships. To ride a year in a national jersey is also a great ambition of course!” Because there’s a team time trial on the second day of the Tour, they also use this week to sharpen their team time trial skills. “You have few chances to train a lot together for this kind of training because of all the different programs they have. But all trainers plan specific exercises in the training schedules of the riders, where the intensity is comparable to a team time trial.”

Will Uran strike again?

The big question is, of course, what their chances are for this edition of Le Grand Boucle and which stages they’ve circled in red. “Uran was already second overall in 2017 and is back in shape on time after a setback due to a hard crash and an operation. Hopefully he can strike again like two years ago! The team will have to support him wherever they can. But, of course, we have many more qualities, so we can also go for stage wins. These will have to happen in the difficult stages. You can circle them, but above all you have to seize the opportunities when they come your way. But there will be more competitors on the horizon.”

Of course, the team would be delighted to win some stages and to see Uran back on the final podium again, but when would they look back with satisfaction to when the Tour is finished? “Speaking for myself, I would like to see the positive line of this spring back in the Tour. And I know how our riders are preparing for this race, so I wish them a stage win or an overall top 10 ranking. I am already proud when I see the pink jersey’s competing in front and that the fans love our riders. I do think that Carthy’s last win in Switzerland is an example of our team and experience. As a cycling fan, you must enjoy a guy who rides away solo with three giant cols in front of him. If he had passed Bernal on the last col it would be heroic…. now it was legendary!”

The Tour de France starts this Saturday in Brussels and after 21 exhausting stages we will see if there’s one of the riders of the pink squadron on the final podium. On behalf of Tacx, we wish EF Education First a lot of success in this major tour. Don’t miss it!