Monday, 27 December 2010

The unsung heroes II

Is there no I in team?

Riders always get the most attention, at least in most teams. During the Grand Tour TV-viewers, at least the most eager ones, turn on at 11:30, just in time to see Christian Prudhomme waving the flag to the riders. Then of course, you don't think about the riders' freshly washed bibs and jerseys, the perfectly balanced food and liquids you see the riders receive food in he feed zone. You probably don't use much energy thinking of the soigneurs who prepared it in the morning under the chef's watchful eye.
In the last blogpost I stated that cycling indeed is a teamsport. This post is about them you don't often see, but their role in the team is of most importance.

Who are these people? 

Gerard Vroomen's Cervelo Test Team consisted of 85 individuals, whereas 39 of them were riders including men and female riders. That is 46 soigneurs, masseurs, mechanics, race engineers, marketing people, chef(s), bus driver(s), sports directors (DS), doctors, physiotherapists, coaches, sponsor liasons and the list goes on. 
These guys work when the riders are sleeping. Everything from washing bikes and jerseys to mixing liquids for the next day, that's their job. Do you think riders carrie their own luggage to the hotel room? At least not after 5 hours on the bike in hot conditions mid-summer. Riders are still responsible to pin their own number before start, most do so on the actual race day, some do so because they are superstitious, others because that is just how their ritual is.

Before the race, some soigneurs prepare their rider's legs, a rub down with oil, softening the muscles while the riders cope with their own nervousness their own way. The strokes are unique to each rider, the soigneurs know exactly how each rider prefers his massage. After a race, the soigneurs take care of the riders, making sure they are well hydrated and fed a small meal to help recuperating. Later the they put up their massage table and works the knots and stress out of the rider's bodies, making the muscles regain their softness. Basically, a soigneur makes sure that the rider only has to think of the upcoming race. Everything else the soigneurs take care of.  

The chef along with the soigneurs have prepared today's meal which will be handed out to the riders in the feed zone. There will also be a back-up some kilometres up the road if a rider would miss the bag. Carefully put together founded in nutrition but put together to the different riders' best. Also some bags are placed in the DS' cars along with coke and cookies in addition to the bottles, spare bike parts, wheels and other necessities.    

Picture by clarkmaxwell

During the race, the DS governs the team using the two-way radio as well as the pre-planned tactics ruled out earlier that day, giving information to the riders of breakaways, any obstacles ahead of the peloton like a narrow brigde, how long to the next climb and so forth. In the team car he follows the live television feed as well as the official race radio if there are any.

Immediately after a race or stage is over, the rider's bike is taken from him, hosed down and thoroughly examined by the mechanic responsible. They work efficiently while the riders walk stiff and sore to the teambus. Most times a rider doesn't even see his bike before the next day, unless there is a discussion about whether to use a different chainset for the next stage. Every detail counts, from seat height and type of saddle to distance saddle behind braquet are important as every rider have their own opinion of how this should be and the mechanics have the data on each rider stored. If they experience a problem or wish to discuss a matter, they might call for support from the i.e SRAM or Shimano, they of course are present at every race. 

After the riders have received their massage, the mechanics have stored the bikes in the truck there is time for dinner. Normally they all eat together, sharing a large meal with perhaps a very small glass of wine. 
People following a team during a GT will see the difference as time goes by. The happy, nervous chatter will not be there at the end of a three week tour, the riders still eat but they "force" the food down rather than enjoying the taste.

Sponsors are circulating the team constantly, trying to get a picture and a few well ment words with the stars.

The riders turn into a team on the bike. The sporadic chatter amongst the riders bring them together, their weaknesses as well as their strengths are invertible revealed during the training rides together at camp. There is no way of hiding, and the riders can after the first camp figure out those who will sacrifice their chances for the team benefit and those who will not.

The team hiding behind the spotlight turn into a team off the bike. Having devoted their life to other's well being, they rarely are given appreciation for what they do. But one thing is clear; a good soigneur will be missed.

Leading a professional cycling team today is difficult. A dynamic, complex structure, lots of logistics and tiny details people normally don't even think of, become critical in order to succeed. After all, a team win together, but loosing is still something you do on your own.

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