A while ago, a user on the Bicycling forum of Reddit posted a request for an “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) interview with someone working in elite or pro cycling. I thought it would be a fun opportunity to get a little more involved in the Reddit community, and to talk some about my experiences as a rookie soigneur this year with USA Cycling. If you aren’t familiar with Reddit, it is a vast website where users post links, pictures, questions, and information, which other users can then comment and up-vote or down-vote to determine its page rank and impact. It’s actually a fairly useful way of getting a pulse of the Internet and current affairs. It’s also a great vehicle for the dissemination of cat pictures, so there you go.
The following is a slightly edited transcript (only for syntax, not for content) of the questions and comments I received in my AMA. It was a really low-key, fun experience and I was pleased with the reception. Most of the questions were more about training and recovery, and how regular recreational cyclists can benefit from the concepts used in elite cycling. I was impressed with the questions (plus, this saves me actually having to write an original blog entry). Without further delay, my AMA:
User JurreNawijn asks:
Which races did you visit in my beautiful country, the Netherlands?
USA Cycling is based out of Sittard, in Limburg. I really fell in love with the area and all of the Netherlands. My favorite race we did was the Koga Ronde van Zuid-Oost Friesland in May with the juniors team, where three of our riders went off the front of the breakaway for a spectacular 1-2-3 podium sweep finish.
I’ve also had the pleasure of working Three Days of Axel in Zeeland, the Bavaria Ronde van Lieshout, Math Salden and Heerlen Klimcriteriums with the juniors teams, and Ronde van Gelderland with the elite women. I was lucky to take in (as a spectator and cycling fan only) the Ridder Ronde post-tour criterium in Maastricht, and the final stage and finish of the Eneco Tour in Sittard.
User velohead2012 asks:
What are some things that athletes could do on their own to better help with recovery in regards to stretching and body work?
Anything you see people neglect that should also be addressed?
What are good resources and tools that every cyclist should have or know to get the most out of their recovery?
I find the contrast between the elite riders I work with as a soigneur and the athletes I see in my private practice back home to be very telling in terms of attention to recovery. Cycling at the elite level is a sport of marginal gains, where the best riders emphasize everything they do from the very moment they wake up to make them faster on the bike.
The biggest aspects of recovery that the USAC program emphasizes are nutrition and hydration, muscle tissue recovery, and periodized training. The moment a rider finishes a race, their soigneur will typically hand them a tiny can of Fanta (the tasty little shot of sugar seems to improve glycogen deprivation and aid rehydration), a fresh bottle of cool water, and a bottle of recovery shake. My guys love OSMO Nutrition recovery mix with chocolate almond milk. The first 30 minutes following intense riding are critical for replenishing glycogen and protein. One of the the directors is fond of saying “race for today, recover for tomorrow.”
The muscle tissue recovery component includes massages, Podium Legs pneumatic boots, compression clothing, stretching/foam rolling, and appropriate rest. Riders get a massage every day during stage races, and usually every other day during training. When athletes get massage that often, I find that they acclimate to the bodywork really quickly and 30-45 minutes is generally ample time to accomplish my goals. The pneumatic boots are big favorites in the rider’s lounge while they are hanging out; these are medical-grade compression boots that strap up the entire leg and use air pockets to gently massage the tissue. Compression clothing is not used during training but socks and leggings are useful at rest and especially while traveling to promote circulation. Stretching is huge, and a lot of the young riders who come over to the program are not familiar with it. Prior to riding, shorter ballistic stretches that prime the muscle tissue for warming up are commonly overlooked but a great tool to speed up the warm-up process and prepare for activity. After riding, riders spend a long time doing deep static stretches and yoga poses with therabands and foam rollers. They often integrate some core exercises in with this. For regular recreational riders, a big stretching routine isn’t always practical or possible, so in my private practice I like to tell people to think like a cat: every time they get up, sit down, jump, run around, they are constantly stopping to stretch for a few seconds. If you make stretching a habit throughout the day instead of a huge production, it’s more likely to get done and also helps to combat the physical stresses incurred with everyday things like driving and sitting at a desk.
The last component is integrating recovery into the training schedule. Total rest days with no riding are very rare, and a recovery ride usually consists of an hour to 90 minutes of high-cadence, low-power output spinning. Recovery days sometimes include a few very small jumps or efforts with the goal of activating sore tissue and promoting circulation. Mostly, it’s important to keep everything moving with active recovery. It’s a misnomer that the day before a big ride or race has to be a recovery day; it really depends on the type of riding and the entire mesocycle of training period. Each coach approaches it a little differently, but the goal is the same: to integrate high-demand days with low-demand days to keep riders fit and fresh when it counts.
User kytap22011 asks:
are there any massage techniques you can do yourself after or before a ride?
Before riding, a lot of elite riders like to use a light leg oil or embrocation (even on relatively warm days) to work into the muscle and wake up their legs a bit. It has more of a sensory effect than anything, but it feels nice and makes your legs really shiny!
After riding, I am a big advocate of foam rollers. These large, dense cylinders come in a variety of shapes and sizes but the basic inexpensive ones work great. They are particularly effective for lateral hip, glutes, quads, and hamstrings and you can find lots of Youtube tutorials that give good techniques for use. There are a number of commercially available products like TheraCanes and trigger point balls that work very effectively, but I’m a fan of inexpensive or free alternatives like tennis balls (great for getting hard-to-reach knots) and frozen water bottles. Probably one of the best things you can do is to lay with your legs straight up a wall so your back is on the floor and your legs are straight up (putting a pillow under your hips can ease back tension). This is a great method to help restore circulation, ease local inflammation, and bring tissues to a healthy resting length.
User sjg91 asks:
In your opinion, do foam rollers make any difference?
I worked on a study when I was in grad school on self myofascial release using foam rolling. There is a paucity of research on the subject, so most of it is inferred from normal sports massage and deep tissue research study methods. The study was small-scale but one thing we noticed was that people seemed to have more appreciable lasting results when foam rolling was performed a bit longer — about 10 minutes per leg was the sweet spot. I think that’s the biggest mistake people make; they lay on the foam roller, it does its searing agony work, and they let up too quickly. It’s more effective to ease into it gradually over a long period of time.
Another mistake I think people make is when rolling the IT band. The illiotibial band itself doesn’t have a lot of vascularization or contractility on its own; it is simply the long tendon tail of the tensor fascia latae muscle located on the side of the hip. Rolling the IT band doesn’t really do much to relieve IT band tightness or attachment point pain, but gentle, progressive rolling on the TFL muscle is quite effective.
Thanks for the insight. I’m going to try rolling the TFL: I have hip pain on the right side during my rides – the kind that makes me stand up and pound my fist on my hip while cycling. Maybe this will help.
One thing that I think cyclists are really notorious for neglecting is deep lateral rotator strength and balance. I did my master’s practicum on motion-capture bike fitting as a diagnostic tool for unexplained lower extremity pain, and we found that the vast majority of it can be traced back to insufficiency of the piriformis, gluteus medius, and deep six to stabilize hip balance and knee tracking. This frequently precipitates IT band pathologies because failure of the piriformis to support hip stability throughout the pedal stroke recruits the TFL and lateral hip to compensate. In addition to foam rolling, you may want to try incorporating clam shell exercises, glute bridges, and tri-planar hip mobility in the quadruped position (good explanations of all these exercises are a Google search away). Good luck!
User AlvaSt-Snow comments:
That may explain it: I’ve had problems with weak piriformis … I thought I had nailed that issue; I will look up those exercises (I know clam shell already…)
User 1138311 asks:
How does one become a professional soigneur? My girlfriend is an LMT who would love to start working with/building her business with local teams in our area but so far while people express interest she’s been having trouble helping people follow through on their interest – any advice?
I found my way into it partly by chance, and partly by doggedly pursuing every avenue I could. I really wish there were more training available, but it’s still very much a “who you know” kind of ordeal. My best advice would be to try to get into a volunteer opportunity, which was what I did my first year of working the Tour de l’Abitibi. It’s the most work you’ll ever do for free, but it’s an excellent way to make connections and start to learn the expectations and nuances of the job. Another suggestion is to look for races in your area with elite/continental pro teams competing, and see if their soigneur will allow you to shadow him or her.
I actually lucked into my involvement with USA Cycling; I had applied to a soigneur training program offered by the Union Cycliste Internationale that was unfortunately cancelled due to lack of applicants. I had already taken the time off work and started sending emails to anyone I could think of pleading my case. My resume eventually got in front of the VP of Athletics at USA Cycling, who forwarded it on to their European operations manager.
The bulk of soigneurs are basically freelancers who find the work when they can, which is kind of where I am in my career right now. It has the advantage that I can keep my home base here in the states and my private practice, but I am interested in moving more toward a steady gig with an elite, continental pro, or world tour team (every soigneur’s dream). I’ll keep you posted!
I think the main thing that I didn’t know going into the job was that massage is pretty much the easiest part of it, and not necessarily the biggest or always the most important aspect. Big teams expect soigneurs to have a lot of experience with food prep, knowledge of sports nutrition, navigating race courses, driving team vehicles (including large vans), and to work in Europe it is almost compulsory that you speak at least one other language apart from English (I’m working hard on improving my French and German). I really didn’t know what I was getting into and there were a lot of parts that came as a bit of a shock! I’ve found other soigneurs to be wonderful and open about explaining their methods and expertise though, so I would really encourage her to get a taste of it.
User deaconwillis asks:
How do the elite cyclists you work with treat the off season differently than the race calendar? Any running, swimming, etc. to mix things up?
Several of the U-23 and juniors riders also participate in cyclocross during the off-season, which has the benefits of high-intensity anaerobic demand and improving handling skills in tough conditions. One of the U-23 riders, who was a junior last year, won the cobblestone jersey at Three Days of Axel and credited his success to his cyclocross racing. It was a huge deal to post the fasted times on the gnarly pave amid a field of the finest Dutch and Belgian riders!
Most will incorporate more strength training during the off-season and I know several who ski (both Nordic and Alpine) for fun and fitness. Some of the Southern California guys love to surf, which I think contributes to their core strength and fantastic laid-back racing attitudes. Not a whole lot of swimming (unless a coach prescribes deep-water running for fitness or injury rehab, which is awesome exercise that everyone hates), but a few have said they like to run because it’s such an efficient way to keep off weight, and many came from cross country running backgrounds before they became cyclists. Everyone rides through the winter, but they back the intensity way off for several weeks before starting to add in the top-end fitness fine-tuning just prior to the start of the season. I think with the juniors, it’s more important to have other activities in the off-season just to keep them mentally fresh and motivated. With the U-23 riders, they have gotten to the point of cycling being their vocation, not their avocation, and they become much more serious about only pursuing other forms of activity that directly benefit their riding.
User AlvaSt-Snow asks:
Any advice for sore feet? The balls of my feet start to ache during my rides. I’ve swapped out the cheap foam liners in my shoes and put in stiffer ‘superfeet’ insoles (the green ones) and it helped a bit… but can foot strengthening exercises help? Some kind of foot massage?
Several of the elite riders I’ve worked with have trouble with foot pain. Massage seems to help stretch the plantar fascia — the connective tissue and ligamentous tissue bundles that run lengthwise along the sole. I’ve had issues with foot pain while riding off an on through my own cycling career and stretching the sole surface out by rolling on tennis balls and frozen water bottles does seem to help.
Shoes and pedals make a big difference, and using Superfeet insoles was a great idea. Very stiff soles help, but make sure that the shoe actually fits your foot and doesn’t cause pressure points itself. I’ve cut up foam makeup wedges to help with shoe fit in the past; it’s tedious but actually works pretty well. Be sure your shoes are the right size — cycling shoes should not allow much movement of the foot within the shoe and your toes should be pretty close to the end of the toe box. A deep heel cup will help with foot stability.
One of the U-23 riders this spring was having a lot of issues with pain right on the ball of his foot; his trade team rode Speedplay pedals and he had just switched over from using larger platform Look pedals. The smaller pedal platform and “free float” skating action of the cleat/pedal interface didn’t distribute the pressure across his footbed as well, resulting in hot spots. He vowed to write his own choice of pedals into his contract for next season. Making sure that your cleat is positioned in line with your foot, not with the line markings printed on the bottom of the shoe (these are usually bogus and arbitrary), and moving your cleat back so the center is right below the widest part of the ball of your foot will help.
I think the biggest thing to look at with any pain on the bike is your fit. Foot pain often comes from exerting uneven force laterally across the foot, and poor knee tracking caused by improper saddle height or fore/aft can impact the angle of contact. Sometimes people with musculoskeletal abnormalities (such as internal tibial rotation) have a lot of trouble with foot rotation, and in this case shims beneath the cleat can be useful. You can do some exercises with light ankle weights and flexing the foot to either side (pronation/supination), which will help activate the peroneals to support your lower leg stability. Good luck!
That wraps up the AMA. Do you have a question to ask? Post it below and I’ll continue to add!
First, a disclaimer: this post is going to be a self-congratulatory/self-flagellating exercise in navel gazing, although I hope not entirely devoid of insights. If that’s not your thing (and it’s totally cool if it isn’t!), it’s probably best to skip over this one. I promise to get back to bicycle racing soon. Without further delay, I present my latest Soigneur’s Diary entry.
This is a really flippant, privileged, entitled-white-girl-from-the-suburbs thing to say, but rings true: I’m not used to not being good at things.
I’m a little bit on the type-A side in that respect. I tend to pick up new things pretty easily — new sports (with the notable exception of inline skating), artistic pursuits, academic skills, clinical skills, using technology, and so forth. I try to embrace the “see one, do one, teach one” approach to learning and it generally serves me well. I take pride in mastery of processes and making meaningful contributions through my work. I learn best when I can take a methodical approach and clearly see how all the moving pieces fit together.
So it’s absolutely driving me crazy that I’m not a great soigneur already. I feel like I have about 1 out of every 10 days of total competence versus completely screwing up and getting in the way. There are a few things I’m doing very well, like therapeutic massage and first aid management, but it seems like such a small percentage of the job. It’s the part that the director rarely sees, which really shouldn’t matter — performing my job expertly is its own reward and if I’m doing it right, my part should be relatively invisible as athletes recover from racing and heal from injury easily and rapidly. I would never presume to take credit for their achievements, but I am keenly aware that poor clinical reasoning on my part will inevitably impact them negatively.
But that’s the tip of the iceberg; the other 90% of unseen lurking mass is the part that consistently trips me up and makes me feel foolish at best and incompetently negligent at worst. Part of the challenge is the rest of the job should be more or less invisible too: the best soigneurs get noticed by going unnoticed. Everything is immaculately prepared and arranged when it needs to happen without question or hesitation. All the details are managed to make a perfectly smooth big picture. All this is done without the expectation of thanks; at the end of the day, the things that matter are that the riders are cared for, and the rest of the staff is happy and never inconvenienced by a task left incomplete.
I am working so hard to get to that point. I had a long phone conversation with my mentor yesterday, who likened my situation to being thrown into battle on the front lines without basic training. (I have a hard enough time justifying a career in something as “trivial” as sports to my Quaker Meeting; the military metaphor might be enough to get my Friend card revoked!) It does feel a bit like that sometimes, but I think of it more like a counter-terrorism squad: people only notice the superb work they do when they let that one-in-a-million slip through the cracks and horrors ensue. (I’ve been watching Homeland in my spare time before bed; ugh, my Quaker card is definitely in serious jeopardy now). Obviously, forgetting a chair or mislabeling a supply box doesn’t have quite as serious repercussions, but it shows that I’m not performing at the high standards to which I hold myself. I feel like 5 months of doing this job should be enough time to achieve proficiency; I mean, seriously, sure there’s the sports medicine bit, but mostly I wash vans and fill bottles and make sandwiches. How hard can it be?
I’m not a dumb person. I’m comfortable solving calculus-based biomechanics problems, I know all the bones in the human hand and nerves in the brachial plexus, I play half a dozen musical instruments, I got a perfect score on a section of the GRE, I can still recite the first canto of Dante’s Inferno in Italian that I memorized in college (which is probably why I have trouble remembering phone numbers). I’m a serial enthusiast and when I get really excited and into a particular topic, I read everything I can get my hands on to amass a near-encyclopedic knowledge about it (my mom sometimes calls me Cliff Clavin and I don’t think it’s a compliment). Emotional and social intelligence…maybe not so much. I have a hard time fitting in and perceiving social cues. I get so excited about successfully navigating a social interaction when I meet a new person that I invariably immediately forget their name. I don’t have a strong personality, and I think that causes me to come off as aloof, shy, and boring. In reality, I usually just have no idea what to say. I don’t think of myself as particularly cute, funny, or interesting, so I tend to discount and discredit the qualities and contributions I bring to the table. I am less shy than just painfully introverted, and I recharge with alone time and spending one-on-one time with close friends. I expend so much energy trying to be liked that I make myself wholly unlikeable. I’ve come to grips with the realization that I’m kind of weird and have weird interests, but I lack the confidence to fully own my weirdness and instead fall firmly into the awkward zone. I haven’t really found my people, so I make up for my difficulty forming friendships by throwing myself into work and dramatically overthinking everything. It’s pretty exhausting, actually.
I’m a worrier. I was in therapy specifically for aviophobia last year, and I realized that air travel was hardly the only time I experienced overwhelming anxiety. The psychologist I worked with appealed to my academic tendencies and gave me an array of articles and chapters to read about how the brain processes threat. Fear is hardwired into the prefrontal cortex “lizard brain” as an important survival tactic. When we receive a sensory stimulus like a sabertooth tiger crouching in the grass, an ancient programmed circuitry fires into action, engaging the sympathetic nervous system to divert all energy to escaping the danger. It is an evolutionary advantage for the brain to perceive a threat where none exists — if we assume that every rustle in the grass is a tiger, we are more likely to survive rather than if we incorrectly identify the rustle in the grass as just the wind when a tiger is ready to pounce. This tendency toward hypervigilance is the reason our species has been able to survive, proliferate, and evolve. It also causes an awful lot of problems in the modern world. When the amygdala receives signals that a threat is present, it floods the blood stream with stress hormones that activate the sympathetic nervous system, stopping metabolic processes and heightening sensory input to prepare the body to face or flee from danger. When a specific, discernable threat is present in the environment (the tiger, to continue the example), the system functions as designed. When there is not a threat readily identifiable, the amygdala looks for other environmental cues that could signal danger, and even cues within the body such as elevated heart rate and respiration. A panic attack is, in essence, crippling fear of fear itself. We then spin “what if” stories that have no actual basis in reality, taking us out of the moment to exist in an imaginary realm of fear and dread. Even though the conscious mind knows it isn’t real, the prefrontal cortex has no way of differentiating and responds to the imagined fear stimulus just as if it were a tangible threat.
My biggest fear is shame, and I am tremendously good at inducing it in a variety of situations. I think this is true for most people, and definitely for me: if I’m given a list of a hundred things I do well and one area in need of improvement, I obsess about the shortcoming and discount all the proficiencies. I dwell on my goof-ups and allow them to overshadow my talents. I walk around like a puppy that’s just been beaten with a newspaper, afraid that my coworkers are going to yell at me the way I am mentally berating myself (usually they don’t, but I live in terror of their disapproval). I parked a van in the wrong place yesterday and I spent the rest of the day in a funk when one of the other staff pointed out my error in an effort to help. It’s an attractive quality, no?
It’s also absurdly unproductive, and I know it is. My guilt and fear that I will never measure up is probably my biggest obstacle to competence. How do I possibly ask others to put their confidence in me, when I lack confidence in my own abilities?
While I was bemoaning my plight to my endlessly indulgent mentor, my mother sent me a TED talk that spoke to the heart of the matter.
In the video, researcher-storyteller Brené Brown explores the link between vulnerability, authenticity, shame, and courage — spoiler alert: she finds that the ability to embrace imperfection and celebrate shortfalls with successes alike is at the core of successfully finding fulfillment in all our relationships and endeavors. Yikes. The very idea makes my throat tight with the first inklings of panic. Wouldn’t putting my vulnerability on display counteract all the effort and energy I put into appearing like a pillar of confidence and strength?
Writing this post to go in the public sphere is my first step toward a healthier exploration of vulnerability. I don’t have to turn into a scared child to accept the fact that I will fail in life, sometimes often, hopefully not too spectacularly, and that’s ok.
My mentor had some great advice that is already helping me to feel more secure about my abilities. His first piece was to stop assuming logical leaps and to be more pedantic about questioning each procedural step. I love this approach; I learn best when I read the directions completely before assembling an appliance, so I have a thorough understanding of the process timeline from start to finish, and a discernable checklist of items that assure the task has been completed correctly. He told me to let go of my concern that people will judge me for insisting on a detailed explanation of mundane things, because an excellent end product at the expense of taking a little more time with the process is better than struggling as I go without a clear vision. The same concept applies to the challenge of dealing with cultural differences that I face with working in Europe — it is always preferable to spend more time hammering out details ahead of time than to assume we’re all on the same page because I don’t want to take up anybody’s time.
He implored me to do one thing at a time. Multitasking is the enemy of process. In science, the most important part of experimentation is the ability to repeat the exact conditions that will achieve a specific end result. Adding too many variables invites error. Accomplish each task completely before moving on to the next, and focus on the task at hand instead of allowing my attention to wander to the next one. Keeping a physical checklist is helpful for me in this area, because it’s one fewer thing to juggle in my mind as I learn a new skill. A slightly slower, more deliberate process is always preferable to hurried neglect.
As I establish processes that achieve satisfactory results, he encouraged me to allow those to become as instinctive as my sports medicine practice has become. He is the only director I have worked with who has actually seen me in action doing sports massage and first aid, and he commented that I am so comfortable in my element that a complex maneuver looks as intuitive and natural as getting out of a chair and walking across a room. I find it a little ironic that I am struggling to make setting out chairs and mixing sports drink as easy a task as performing a physical evaluation for knee pathologies. On the other hand, it’s good to remember that the hard medical part that many soigneurs spend years mastering is already more or less second nature for me.
One piece of advice that struck me at first as a little counter-intuitive was to apologize less. I have always tended to show profuse contrition over even relatively minor offenses, or those that are not even really my fault but I appeared in the wrong place at the wrong time. He told me to quit taking ownership and responsibility for things that are out of my control — not to be an excuse-maker, but also not to saddle myself with the burden of every mishap. Sincerity comes less from expression guilt and more from the actions taken to not let the same mistake happen again, and that’s what’s really meaningful to other people.
He instructed me to let mistakes go immediately. Every time I allow some part of my mind to linger in the past and obsess about a mistake, I am diverting attention from the task at hand and making another mistake more likely. It is always more productive, and often safer, to take a lesson and whisk away the rest. Mistakes in and of themselves have no value — the value comes from learning to approach the situation differently next time for a successful outcome.
Finally, he cautioned me against comparing myself to others. This is a pretty tall order, as I tend to evaluate the world around me through judgment rather than perception. There was a beautiful blonde Australian soigneur here this spring who was also a first-timer, and I was in awe of her skill. She was such a natural at every part of the job, and her extroverted effervescence and gregarious personality endeared her to the rest of the staff quickly in a way I admired and even envied. I have come to realize that she made just as many mistakes as me, but the biggest difference in her approach was her ability to laugh it off and hop right back on the horse. She seemed a lot less stressed than I feel most of the time, and I think her resilience was a huge part of that. I have been racking my brain for ways to develop the same resilience myself; it hadn’t occurred to me that perhaps it already exists within me and was waiting to be tapped.
I cash in another night feeling just a little better about my work today than I did yesterday. I gave a director a bad driving direction today, and I forgot that I had promised a rider to change his wound dressing when another director asked me to make a gas station run for diesel in the van. I didn’t let go quite soon enough on a water bottle feed and the rider knocked it out of my hand. But nobody died. We even won our race. And I am coming to realize that today was a job well done, even if it wasn’t a job done perfectly. And that’s ok.
For a second year in a row, I woke up the morning after arriving home from the Tour de l’Abitibi nursing a raging head cold and a spinning mind. These are pretty much the only two similarities between my 2013 and 2014 Abitibi experiences — it was an entirely difference race, both for me and for my team.
I am confining my reflections on the 2014 Tour de l’Abitibi to solely detail my involvement in the tour as a soigneur for the USA Cycling National Team and how it differed from my first year at Abitibi with the Selection A & B teams, with recollections of the race stages themselves as they directly pertain to the role I played at the Tour. As this story unfolds, you will understand why I feel that it is important to provide as impartial an account as possible. I view it as my responsibility to document the events of Abitibi 2014, but also to present a sensitive account that respects the ongoing privacy of everyone who was involved in the race, and to avoid projecting my own impressions or repeating unsubstantiated hearsay. Race reports have already been written and published as a part of the public record, widely available through the official race results and blog.
I was blissfully unaware that I would ever be composing any such disclaimer as I set out in my sardine can-esque packed car headed north for Quebec. I made the drive up in 3 days and met up with my friend and former director sportif, Mark Fasczewski, and his mechanic Mark Bush in North Bay, Ontario. We formed a two-car caravan and made the rest of the journey to Amos, Quebec, the oldest town (celebrating its centennial this year) in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region. I hit the ground running, as most of the team had already arrived and needed some food to tide them over until dinner after their early afternoon training ride. After a trip to explore the local Canadian Tire (the world’s most claustrophobic store) and a grocery, I set to preparing sandwiches and some of the equipment and items I had brought, such as a spare bike, trainers, bottles and my world-famous Sarabars. I arrived on Sunday afternoon and the first stage of the race wasn’t until Tuesday, so I had a little bit of spare time I spent on a bike ride with Mark Fasczewski. It was spectacular to enjoy the open road and fresh air, but three days in the car had wreaked havoc on my legs and I developed painful calf cramps that would plague me all week.
People don’t believe me when I talk about the Tour de l’Abitibi rider and staff accommodations. I didn’t believe Mark Fasczewski when he originally told me what to expect, and his account absolutely could not have been more factual. The Abitibi-Témiscamingue region is relatively recently-settled by French Canadians, with a population of First Nation natives who have been there much longer, and comprised of a handful of small towns spread across a vast expanse of remote Canadian taiga hills and forest, 11 hours of driving north of the Canadian-US border at Niagara. The Tour moves around to different host towns but is always housed in a school — this year, the École Polyvalente de la Forêt secondary school on the edge of the town. I have good reason to believe that the same foam sleeping mats provided for staff and riders have been used since the first edition of the Tour de l’Abitibi 46 years ago. The school classrooms are converted into dormitories with mats on the floor, a fitted sheet, and a pillow (there was a mix-up at the hospital providing the sheets this year, so no top sheets materialized). A bit of plastic sheeting is duct taped to the floor to prevent dirty bikes from soiling the classrooms, and desks and chairs are piled high and shoved to one wall. The Tour mercifully provides a separate room for female staff members, but the sleeping situation is the same (minus the herd of juniors, director, and mechanic). Meals are served in the school cafeteria and consist of nutritionally satisfactory but culinarily dubious fare. My director famously described it as “an epicurean journey through purgatory.” Mechanic and soigneur stations are set up outside in the school parking lot, with a spiderweb of hoses linked together resembling a Griswold family electrical network. Having worked at a healthy amount of UCI juniors races now, I can safely say there was a not inconsequential degree of roughing it.
The team was comprised of six riders. Three were second-year Abitibi veterans, all of whom I had been working with this spring in Europe: Will Barta, Diego Binatena, and Austin Vincent. The other three were juniors doing Abitibi for the first time: first-year juniors Adrien Costa (who was coming off a stunning tour in Europe with a big win at Tour du Pays de Vaud) and Gavin Hoover, and second-year junior and 2013 World Championship time trial bronze medalist Zeke Mostov. On paper, this team had one of the best racing pedigrees in USA National Team Abitibi history and I was eager to see how they would perform on the chip-sealed roads of northeastern Quebec. Our director, Barney King, is the winningest team director in Abitibi history, and mechanic Jost Zevnik has been working bike races since he was younger than the juniors we were supporting. Our staff was reuniting from European racing earlier this spring, including the Course de la Paix in the Czech Republic, another prestigious Nations Cup race.
We spent all of Monday morning doing time trial course previews and I began massages for all six riders after lunch. Monday afternoon held a reception for the team staff, team presentation and photographs, and a challenge sprint prologue in which heats of four riders compete on an 800-meter out and back drag race to award the fastest sprinter. Austin Vincent was selected to represent the USA National Team, and he made it out of the first heat with a blaze of power. In the next heat, he got bumped by another rider who clipped him out of his pedal, and he made the tactical decision to sit up to save his energy for racing later on.
Tuesday brought the first stage of the Tour, a 118-km race from Rouyn-Noranda (last year’s race headquarters) back to Amos. Because the stages this year were especially long and had limited possibilities for feeding from the team car, our director asked me to establish feed zones on the road as soon as possible after the 50-km mark using my personal car. We arrived well before the riders, who take shuttles provided by the race to the start, and I realized I was low on gas. I went to the gas station down the street, hopped out of the car, puzzled momentarily at the process required to get gas (my gas-station-French is particularly useless), and accidentally bumped the door closed with my hip — with the keys locked inside. Crap! I looked for the magnetic key hider under the wheel well, but it too was gone; probably jostled loose on the drive to Canada. I ran back up the street to get help and a cell phone so I could call AAA, and our team sponsor and great friend Nathalie Bélanger helped me translate and get a tow driver out to pop open the lock. The efficient and friendly driver saved the day, and just in time to get all the necessary nutrition locked inside to the riders before they started the stage. I then picked up my feed zone buddy, Thomas Kristiansen from the Denmark National Team, who was also a first-year rookie soigneur and had worked the Course de la Paix, although we never really crossed paths in the Czech Republic this spring. Without further ado we were off to the hills.
Despite the steep grade, the feeding zone was fast and difficult. I managed to feed 3 riders, but they were spaced out through the front third of the pack and not in ideal position to accept bottles or to control the race. The rest of the stage was a sustained exercise in frustration from the swanny side of things — we were denied entry into the caravan because my car lacked team stickers (which was proper procedure but the way they did it was pretty confusing) and we were not permitted to follow the diversion that would have taken us to the race finish, so no soigneurs who were on the road were able to make it to the finish. Even the soigneurs who backtracked on the race route to take a different road into Amos were stopped at the barricades and didn’t make it through — the only soigneur who made it was Sebastian from the Quebec Regional Team, and that was out of luck; the volunteer at the barricade happened to be the father of one of the riders on his team.
I was in constant text message contact with Nathalie while I was stuck in race traffic and asked her how the finish had played out. She said simply, “very badly.” It wasn’t until later that night I found out what she meant: we didn’t even have a rider on the first page of results, and our team rank had fallen to 13th. Barring a crash, it was the worst possible outcome for the stage. Still, my job remains the same whether we’re winning or losing: I got to work administering massages to our six riders, washing bottles, and preparing laundry for the morning.
Wednesday morning I got to enjoy all that the Amos laundromat had to offer: namely, plenty of washing machines and a dearth of working dryers (that would gladly steal all your coins nonetheless). I returned with mostly-dry laundry for the team and staff and dived head-first into bottle duty.
Preparing bottles for a cycling team is a unique paradox: no matter how many I prepare, they will invariably use them all. If I make 6 per rider (which is pretty standard: 2 to start on the bikes, 2 for each rider in the team car, 1 for each for the feed zone, and 1 for the finish), I’ll be left with a cooler of empty bottles at the end of the day. Filling both team car and soigneur car coolers to the brim (7-9 per rider) yields incomprehensibly similar results. It doesn’t even seem to matter the distance they are racing — a 112 km stage with open feeding from the team car and a stationary feed zone on the road uses up just as many bottles as a 55 km stage with no open feeding. Perhaps this is one of the great mysteries of the universe, along with socks disappearing from the dryer and how many licks it really takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop.
Wednesday afternoon featured one of my favorite stage starts in the small town of La Sarre. The mood was good as we assembled for the start, and Canadian National Team director Pat Gauthier joked Barney that he had some binoculars we could borrow to see the race from our position midway back in the caravan. The course featured two large sections of pavement construction with dirt surface, which thankfully caused no problems during the race. Despite the pancake-flat elevation profile, Thomas and I situated ourselves on a small rise around 62 km into the route and waited for the bunch. Their arrival brought great news: both of our teams had a rider in the breakaway, over two minutes ahead of the field. Team USA were redeeming themselves from their Stage 1 performance, and in dramatic fashion. This time we were permitted to pass the police vans and enter the very end of the caravan, just behind the ambulance and neutral support vehicle, which allowed us easy and expedient entry into the finishing circuits. The break stayed away, with Will Barta taking 2nd in the sprint and 2nd overall in the general classification.
The Stage 2 results put us in excellent position going into Stage 3, the individual time trial. Of the six riders on our team, five of them finished in the top 10 spots in the time trial national championship earlier in the month, and we knew a good race would help propel everyone back into GC contention. The race was divided into six waves for the six riders on each team going from lowest in GC to highest, which permitted the team car to follow every rider’s time trial. The course was a straightforward out-and-back 10 km course with a headwind on the way back in and a small hill up to the finish. Time trial national champion Adrien Costa was first off and set what would become an unbeatable time of 12:14 — just shy of 50 kph average. As each rider crossed the finish, it became clear that our team was delivering an unprecedented dominant performance. By the time Will Barta went off for his race, we held the top three spots; Will’s ride came in just ahead of Zeke Mostov for 2nd place and a secure spot in the leader’s jersey. Diego Binatena rounded out the top 4 for an Abitibi first — not only did the USA National Team sweep the podium, but took all 4 of the top spots in the race. This is the first time a team went 1-4 in the 46-year history of the Tour de l’Abitibi in any stage. It was also the second time this season that Barney, Jost, and I had witnessed an all-USA podium, which to my knowledge is a USA Cycling juniors first.
As with many juniors races, the time trial was succeeded by a brief evening road race stage. Our director sent me on a mission to procure binoculars to remind Pat Gauthier of his little jibe, which went over with uproarious laughter. One of the things I enjoy most about Canadians is their great capacity for humor. Since the 55 km race was too short to permit feeding, I got to enjoy the race from the team car. I have ridden in a team car many times during races but never in the #1 position and it made for a tremendously exciting front row seat to a stage that was both scenic and full of nail-biting excitement. About 10k into the race, a massive crash swept through the tightly-bunched peloton like cascading dominoes. Over 50 riders were caught up in the crash, and it took some expert driving on Barney’s behalf to get us through the carnage of broken bikes and downed riders. The pack swept through the plain country of Malartic with astonishing speed and negotiated the hairpin turns like a vast, undulating multicolored snake. The unbridled beauty of a peloton streaking through the sunlit countryside will never grow old for me. Around 10k from the finish another crash occurred — this one smaller than the first, but much more energetic with bikes ejected high overhead at great velocity. This crash did unfortunately result in several race-ending injuries, but our six riders kept out of the fray in the safety of the front of the pack. The run-in to the finish was fast and technical, and the USA National Team riders wisely conceded to contesting the sprint, keeping out of harm’s way and staying in control of the leader’s jersey and best young rider, worn by 2nd in GC Adrien Costa.
After the stage, we had to wait a particularly long time for anti-doping protocol for Will Barta (overall race leader) and Adrien Costa (stage winner from the morning time trial). Mark Bush, the Flagstaff Selection Team’s mechanic, pulled me aside to ask a special favor for a rider. Tommy Lucas got caught up in the first crash and although he only had a couple bumps and scrapes, his derailleur hanger had snapped off, rendering his bike unrideable. Tommy thought his race was over, but Mark pulled off a MacGyveresque feat of roadside mechanic work, removing the derailleur, breaking the chain, resizing it with a new link, and forcing it onto the 52×15 gearing (which I don’t know how he did without losing a finger) thus rendering Tommy’s bike into a singlespeed — on the second to hardest possible gear. Team director Mark Fasczewski told Tommy they would accept any penalties they might incur for sheltering a rider in the slipstream (normally a 100 Swiss Franc fine) and they were off — six minutes behind the peloton. Tommy gave it his all, delivering a stunning ride; the team car’s white bumper had the tire marks to prove it. Tommy made it all the way back to the caravan, at points exceeding 70 kph on a singlespeed, and was a hair’s breadth away from making it back into the bunch when the second crash happened, causing the team cars ahead of him in the caravan to brake. Tommy had to hit his brakes and didn’t have the power to get back up to speed in his huge gear. Mark Fasczewski and Mark Bush found Tommy after the race finish collapsed in the grass in tears — lamenting that he had let the team down. This was the part of the story that made me tear up too; after giving the most amazing, dedicated ride of the Tour, Tommy was worried that he had let the team down with the few seconds he lost behind the main field. I said that of course I would do anything I could to help him recover from the effort. Tommy’s recovery had to wait, as the team staff of several American teams’ staff kept up with tradition by going out to dinner after the double day. By the time I made it back to the school it was 11 at night and I thought they might be asleep, but when I checked in the Flagstaff Selection team room, they had already made a makeshift massage table out of teacher’s desks and a foam pad. I pulled out all the stops with elbows, thumbs, and stretches that would make most people beg for mercy, but Tommy was grateful for the relief. I knew he responded well to deep tissue massage from the spring racing block I worked with him in Europe. When I asked him why he didn’t throw in the towel during the stage, he said that he couldn’t stop thinking about a conversation that he and I had in the Czech Republic. Tommy had been dropped from the main group on the first stage of the Peace Race and didn’t make the time cut, so he spent the remainder of the week as a soigneur-in-training helping me with bottles, feed zones, and all of the behind-the-scenes minutiae of stage racing. After a particularly long day, I told him that if he took anything away from the experience, it would be to never give up in a race because he now had firsthand experience of how awful it was to have to sit on the sidelines. It was extremely gratifying to know that I made even a little bit of impact that helped him suffer through 40 km of motorpacing torture — and an important reminder that everything I say to juniors might come back around, for better or for worse!
After another morning of laundry and shopping runs, we assembled to make our way to the next stage. Team morale was high going into Stage 5, a windy run-in from Val d’Or to Amos. At the feed zone, the team looked excellent, decisively controlling the peloton with a quick pace to discourage breakaways. I proceeded back to the finish, got on the course for the circuits, and saw the pack come through the first two passes under the finish banner. Things were still looking good. Then the words that made my heart stop: “The brown jersey is down.” The announcer gave no further information and I scrambled for my phone to see if I had any messages. Nathalie wrote: “Will crashed. Getting back. Try to take time.” I got ready for the finish and hit the plunger on my stopwatch; I didn’t see Will for nearly 40 seconds until he finally rolled across, scraped and bleeding.
In the minutes, hours, and days that followed, a lot of accounts emerged of the crash and the circumstances surrounding it. All that I can really say is that crashes happen in bike racing, particularly at big races like Nations Cup events where many teams have a lot at stake and everyone is a little more on edge than usual. This year’s Tour de l’Abitibi had already been heavily marked by crashes (Tour commentator Olivier Grondin called pavement “the most visited tourist attraction in Abitibi”) and with so many riders on rough roads, crashes are hardly surprising, if not inevitable, and it’s nearly impossible to assign blame to any one specific precipitating factor. The crash involved riders from the lead GC group, who were lining up to maintain their position and contend for the time bonuses that come with a stage win. One of the highly-ranked Danish riders broke his nose, and a Canadian rider severely fractured his clavicle. Will Barta and Adrien Costa both went down, with Adrien getting the worse end with road rash on his arm and hip and hyperextended knees from being stuck in the pedals as he was launched forward. Will, for his part, had seen the lead group beginning to get twitchy and unpredictable and sat up to stay out of the fray; he very nearly avoided the crash and got through unscathed until someone fell across his back wheel and pulled him down. The toughest part was that the crash occurred with just 4.6 km to go — the UCI rule dictates that crashed riders in the final 3 km receive the same finish time as the lead group, but crashes outside of 3 km must chase to catch up and do not get the luxury of any extra time.
The team meeting that night was an intense experience, with a sense of determination slowly but surely supplanting the attitude of frustration and despair. Being a fly on the wall when great coaches discuss tactics is one of the benefits to my job, and I find it as deeply fascinating as a beginner coach and student of sport psychology myself. Being a part of the team staff makes these meetings even more engrossing and inspiring, and I noticed a palpable change in attitude. Riders who are on top of the world with positive race results makes for a great, energetic atmosphere, but it is often when teams encounter adversity that a real sense of community begins to develop.
The mood was grim going into Stage 6, which featured 10 circuits in the city of Amos. The USA National Team, Canadian National Team, and Danish National Team all had profound reason to blow apart the race and launch attack after attack, which very nearly materialized. Unfortunately Mother Nature had other plans; just as a break was starting to get away, the first few fat drops of rain fell and unleashed a torrential downpour, rendering the course into a veritable skating rink and demolishing any chances of a fast-paced getaway. The pace slowed as the riders negotiated the course’s many turns. The circuit stage at Abitibi always establishes a feed zone on a hill, and the feed zone in this year’s edition was so short, crowded, and populated with novices who fanned way too far out into the road that I only managed to get one bottle to one rider in 4 laps of open feeding, which happened to coincide with the heaviest part of the rain storm. With feeding over, I headed for the finish, hoping for a breakaway that never came. We finished the stage with Zeke Mostov holding onto 2nd in GC, but unable to gain the time needed to reclaim the leader’s jersey.
That evening at dinner I got a serious life lesson in international relations. The French soigneur, Denis Villemagne, was heading to the cafeteria at the same time as me, and smiled and exclaimed, “Our race, now it is won!” I was abashed and thought it was a strange comment to make, particularly considering the well-documented controversy surrounding the French taking control of the leader’s jersey. I kept thinking about it and how out of place it seemed, until I finally asked the Canadian soigneur, Delphine Leray, if I had misheard or misinterpreted what he said. She quickly cleared it up — Denis’ English skills were limited and he had meant to say, or had said and I misheard, “Our race, now it is run,” referring to the fact that although the stage was over, the soigneurs’ day was just beginning. I immediately felt terrible and asked for Delphine’s help as a go-between to smooth over my misunderstanding. It was an important and much-needed reminder to approach every situation with an open mind and without preconceptions, especially when tensions are running high.
It was about time for a serious staff kick-back. Tour de l’Abitibi is a bit of a unique race on the UCI calendar for many reasons, not the least of which is its feature of an official “VIP Room” in the school where race lodging and permanence is housed. This is generally a teacher’s lounge transformed into an ’80s dance club using a combination of dim lighting, decorations purloined from the art teacher’s private stash, and generous libations priced to sell. The VIP Room is open to all staff over the age of 21 and provides a unique opportunity to mingle and get to know other teams’ staff in a relaxed and fun atmosphere. The old Las Vegas ad campaign proclaiming “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas” can be equally applied to the VIP Room, so I will leave readers only with this: you can sure bet the promoter and chief commisaire of the Peace Race would not be found in white hazmat suits and aluminum foil covered motorcycle helmets dancing by the light of many disco balls singing karaoke to Daft Punk. Many a happy (wee) hour has been spent in the comfort of the VIP Room. Of course, I wouldn’t know anything about that.
Stage 7 dawned cloudy and cool, and after an early-morning run I prepped the last round of bottles and race food for the afternoon. I made another store run to pick up ice for our team and several others, and to gas up cars. I did as much packing as possible to streamline the process for the next morning, as time would be at a premium after the end of the stage. Adrien Costa was still experiencing knee pain from his crash, and I applied kinesio tape to give him some joint support and pain mitigation; as is usually the case when I break out the tape, I ended up taping various body parts for most of the team and for a couple riders on other teams too. I picked up boxed lunches for the riders and staff, and we headed out to the stage start under ominous clouds and gusty crosswinds. I puzzled over the course profile; the only hill on the course after 50 km was the King of the Mountains points competition, and usually race organizers don’t permit feeding on KOM slopes. We decided to chance it since it was the only show in town, and it turned out that so many other teams made the same decision that the point was moot. On this stage I had a second guest passenger: Kathleen Dreier, professional photographer and mother of El Grupo Selection team rider Logan Boyd, who had gained press credentials to document the Tour through her many exquisite lenses. The extra company made the drive and the wait at the feed zone go by quickly and happily. The KOM was situated on a long straightaway, and flashing blue police lights were visible several minutes before the caravan passed. Those are some of my favorite kinds of feed zones — when the peloton is visible miles away in a valley or plain; they offer lots of visibility and preparation from a logistical standpoint, as well as an arresting and dramatic visual effect.
Kathleen’s images are an extraordinary photojournal of the Tour de l’Abitibi and I encourage everyone to look through them all here! (While you’re at it, follow her on Facebook at Kathleen Dreier Photography too, because awesome people deserve awesome support.) Cycling race photography can easily turn into monotonous montages of the peloton sweeping by, filling the entire frame; Kathleen did an excellent job capturing the spirit of the race in a unique and engaging way, showing a lot of behind-the-scenes aspects that spectators rarely get to witness. The album is a real treat and helps bring the race reports to life.
With riders fed, we entered the very end of the caravan and proceeded back into Amos for the finishing circuits. Zeke managed to take a few seconds’ worth of time bonuses, but not enough to overtake the GC lead, ending the Tour with Zeke Mostov in 2nd, Will Barta in 4th, Adrien Costa in 7th, and Austin Vincent, Diego Binatena, and Gavin Hoover rounding it out in 21st, 43rd, and 63rd. The French maintained control of the leader’s and sprinter’s jerseys, the Danes took Best Young Rider, and the Moroccans gave an untouchable performance in the King of the Mountains competition. Most gratifying, the USA National Team won the Team General Classification competition for having the most riders at the top of individual GC — a sometimes overlooked award that shows tremendous commitment to teamwork and all around excellent riding.
It was time for the awards ceremony, which was significantly longer and less comfortable seating than last year, but nevertheless a worthwhile event to honor achievements of the week. Particular highlights were the awards for best director, bestowed upon the Danish National Team’s Henrik Simper, and the most courageous rider award. We thought Tommy Lucas would be a shoe-in until Arizona Selection Team’s Daniel Yakushevich had an unfortunate high-speed encounter with the back of the ambulance, but soldiered on to finish the Tour despite the considerable pain he must have been in. When Daniel went on stage to accept his award, he turned around to shake the promoter’s hand and back the other direction to accept the award, giving the audience a 360-degree view, and I realized there was literally no angle from which several bandages were not visible. I would have felt really bad for him, except his great attitude and sense of humor lightened the mood, not to mention the cacophony of his teammates cheering him on — it was quite possibly the biggest response for anyone recognized at the ceremony.
I scrambled to clean as many bottles as I could to be left at our Canadian “service course” (in Nathalie’s garage) for next year, and packed up most of my gear to begin the drive home early the next morning. Now it was time to hit the VIP one last time, saying goodbye until we meet again to friends new and old. A few hours later, I was back on the road, and in 21 hours of driving over 2 days flopped into the comfort of my own bed.
My first few days of working with the USA National Team riders, I found myself missing the attitude of novelty that the Selection Team riders had last year, most of whom had never had a soigneur or a massage before, whereas the National Team were veteran European racers for whom cycling is beginning to come less avocation and more vocation. I also found myself second-guessing their requests, unsure of whether I was failing to do things that are expected of soigneurs, or if they felt a degree of entitlement that wasn’t realistic given the length of my work days, the dearth of facilities in the small town (laundry, for example), and the potential benefit to their racing experience. Pro riders expect to be waited on hand and foot by their soigneurs, but I don’t think that level of attention is necessarily beneficial to the development of juniors racers or to their efforts. As I become more experienced as a soigneur, I hope to have a better sense of my role as well as authority in my assertions of what is and is not necessary. I also found it a little tougher and that it took a little longer this year to form a rapport with the riders, but that was probably partly from being used to spending a very long period of time with the group I had been working with in the spring, and a week seemed incredibly brief by comparison. The dynamic of working for a team that was contending for the GC win created a very different environment than the teams last year who were racing largely for the experience of doing the race and to get a smattering of good results in stages — it created much greater intensity and focus among the staff. I found that I worked much harder this year and was given a huge amount of responsibility, especially since I had my own car instead of relying on rides from everyone else. That said, I really enjoyed the greater degree of involvement (pretty much identical to my soigneur work in Europe, minus the rider transfer in a van), and I actually found that even though I had more work, I was less busy this year because I am starting to amass the experience necessary to be efficient at many aspects of the soigneur’s job. I hope that Abitibi is a Nation’s Cup for many years to come and that I get to go back with the USA National Team; if not, I will certainly find work with someone else, as this is a can’t-miss event on my swanny calendar.
Cheers to everyone for another Tour de l’Abitibi on the books and all your hard work — riders, staff, volunteers, parents, and everyone involved. After a couple days at home, I’m back in Sittard, Netherlands at the USA house until September working with yet another crop of juniors; look for more dispatches to follow.
A month ago, I was engrossed in packing all the supplies for a stage race that usually fit into a truck in the hatchback of a Volkswagen Passat — no easy feat! We were preparing to head out to Zeeland, the coastal westernmost province of the Netherlands made up of several islands and a narrow strip of land bordering Belgium for the Junioren Driedaagse Axel: Three Days of Axel. Axel is the kind of race that riders treat with equal parts love and hate: the road conditions are narrow and uncompromisingly rough, the wind is constant and punishing, and the huge field of riders makes the competition fierce and dangerous. We started 5 riders who would take on a 100 km road race the first day, a technical time trial the next morning followed by another 100 km road race in the afternoon, and another 100 km road race the following morning with 3 circuits featuring 6 major climbs. Axel is like hitting your toe with a hammer to quell a hurt thumb; it will make any other race seem mild in comparison.
As soon as we arrived at the race lodging in Sas van Gent, I went to work finishing up bottle prep, making some race food, and dishing up the enormous pot of pasta salad I had made the night before. Having a captive audience of perpetually starving young elite athletes is a really great way to boost one’s self-esteem as a cook — there isn’t much that they won’t inhale with considerable gusto, especially when it features a high percentage of carbohydrates. The first stage was a late start in the nearby town of Sluiskil. The mechanic and I drove together while the riders made the short 7 km trip to the start by bike. I had been studying the technical guide for days and had a rough idea of where the race route would progress, although it was by far the most incomprehensible race bible I have yet to encounter (in Dutch and Flemish, with some sections helpfully translated into French…provided that one actually speaks French). I had a suitable feed zone picked out that would permit me to feed the riders twice, after the 50 km point and again when they looped back around 68 km — well within the UCI permissible range for feeding. I found my way with the Hot Tubes Development Team race support vehicle in tow, which was wonderful to have a feed zone buddy (and she gave me the best almond cookie I have ever tasted!). We fiddled with the race radio on my car and tuned in, which was really neat to get an idea of where they were on the course in real time and every move afoot in the peloton.
I headed out on the course with a musette full of bottles ready for the first time riders would come through, and was stopped by a race official on a moto who emphatically told me that I was outside the feed zone and that our team would be disqualified if the jury or commissaire caught me feeding my riders. It was a confusing claim, because no allotted feed zone was marked anywhere on the course map in the race bible and not wanting to be the reason our team encountered a problem with the race organizers, I withheld bottles from my riders as they passed (who gave me some very confused and abashed looks).
I headed back to the car so I could find this mythical feed zone for their next pass through, and was shocked to discover that running the race radio, even for a relatively short time, had sapped the battery and I couldn’t start my car. I quickly improvised by throwing all the riders’ gear, chairs, and nutrition in the Hot Tubes team van and getting a ride to the feed zone (which was in a terrible spot, just terrible!), and then back to the race finish.
For a less than smooth race on my part, we got it done — all 5 riders finished with one contesting the sprint for top 10, found their way back to their chairs and their bags, and the mechanic and I got back to my car while a really nice Dutch family came out with jumper cables to help us out (I gave them as many bike bottles as I could spare!). With relatively minimal chaos, we made it back to the race dinner location — another “epicurean journey through purgatory,” as our director so eloquently described it — and I told the director about the feed zone confusion. He informed me that it was a totally bogus threat the official had made and that teams were feeding all over the course, even before it was officially open for feeding, with no repercussions from the jury or commissaire. It’s hard to say whether the official was just being overzealous, or if I was possibly targeted for being a non-European; it does happen, although less often now than in the early days of US racing in Europe. Whatever the cause, I vowed to be exceedingly diligent with feeding in race-approved areas for the remainder of the race.
The next day was another double stage, with a short but highly technical time trial in the morning and a long road race stage in the afternoon. Our best-laid plans to arrive in ample time before the first rider’s start time were somewhat foiled by a bridge closing; the only other possible detour route crossed a drawbridge, which had just gone up to allow a ship to pass when we got to it. We still arrived at the start in enough time for the first rider to warm up, and he posted the fasted time on our team of the day: 7 km in 10:04.
Double stages usually don’t feature a road race long enough for a feed zone, but Axel was an exception; at barely under 100 km, I would have 2 opportunities to feed the riders before the finish. The course looped down the same road several times, so I got a chance to take a few pictures before feeding was open (and inadvertently caught a crash on film).
After the second feed zone, one of my riders rolled up bleeding and shaking his head — he’d had a crash on the cobbles and hit his knee and shin hard, unable to finish the race. I patched up his cuts and we loaded up his bike to head back to the finish. When we arrived at the van, another rider was already there — huddled up against the side of the wheel well against the cold damp wind. He didn’t have any visible injuries but reported that he had crashed out on a cobbled section and bagged it after the first lap through the finishing circuit. I’ve started to learn that a crashed rider doesn’t need sympathy; he needs care necessary for cuts and bruises but painful emotions are often better when given some space and interaction with the rest of the team.
That evening held massages and recovery for the three remaining riders who would be starting the race tomorrow, and a bit of personal good news. I had been doing everything I could to stay focused on the job at hand and not become discouraged that this would be my last race day working with USA Cycling in Europe. That night I got an email from the director with an official invitation to work the Tour de l’Abitibi in Quebec in July, and to come straight back to Sittard for the kermesse racing block and stay through Grand Prix Rubiliand in September. I was ecstatic, with the only caveat of having to break the news to my boyfriend and my mom/dogsitter (they took it really well though!)
The last stage of Axel was a three-lap course with three major climbs and four sets of cobblestone stretches. With only three riders starting, I had two helpers to hand off bottles and a lot of down time for more pictures on the first non-feeding lap.
The remaining three riders fought it out and finished strong, with our top placed rider coming in at 14th in overall GC. One rider crashed on the cobbles in the last 3k and rode in with no broken skin but with bruises starting to blossom; he lamented, “I don’t even get a cool scar!” After much scrambling around exchanging riders and equipment with the Hot Tubes team, we were on the road back to Sittard.
This was a moment I had been dreading for weeks, because it marked the end of my last race with USAC in Europe and I was sad to see this amazing chapter of my life come to a close. Instead of melancholy, it was relief and joy that I would get a bit of a respite and time with my loved ones before heading back for another round of racing in July. I have found a career that feels more meaningful than anything I have ever done in my life; this is a feeling that can’t be replaced, and I am committed to chasing it to becoming the best soigneur I can possibly be.
I am so excited about this amazing opportunity to continue doing this crazy job. I could never have dreamed that I would become so taken with a career that could take me from washing a truck to 50 kph feed zones to emergency first aid and cooking dinner all in one day. As I write, my living room is full of boxes of bottles and nutrition products to transport to Canada in my little Honda Fit mobile service course, as we embark on the next great race adventure.
I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my family and my friends, whose tremendous support has made this journey possible for me. My mother and my wonderful boyfriend held down the fort at our house, kept my dog entertained, watered my garden, and sent their love over Facetime (when the wifi was good enough). My friends checked in and kept in touch, lifted my spirits and gave me confidence on the rough days, celebrated with me, and laughed along with me at my stories of surreal experiences. My employers at E3: Elite Human Performance have been incredibly supportive of my pursuits, and I have enjoyed sharing my insights into elite sports with my coworkers and clients.
Next stop: Amos, Quebec! Watch this space for more reports of the outrageousness of the Tour de l’Abitibi, coming up July 21-26.
It’s a pleasantly steamy early summer evening in North Carolina and I’m enjoying a glass of wine on my porch and watching the fireflies dance in my yard. The relaxation and leisure of my life in this moment makes my life in Europe the last couple months seem like a dream. But I loved the thinly veiled chaos of my work in Europe as much or more than the luxurious Sunday afternoon nap earlier today.
To bring this blog back up to speed, we have to go all the way back to the Koga Ronde Zuid-Oost Friesland in the middle of May, a one-day interclub road race in the beautiful verdant farmland and pristinely groomed villages near Appelscha, Netherlands. We had all gotten a few days to recover from the Peace Race and legs were primed, injuries nearly healed. This was a new race on the calendar, and a dream-race for staff — spectacularly comfortable nearby accommodations (with an equally spectacular breakfast buffet), a non-UCI race with no caravan and no designated feed zones on the course, minimal gear, food, and prep necessary. Our seven-man team lined up with the directive of racing forward, getting at least one rider in every breakaway move, communicating with one another, and staying out of trouble. Easy enough.
Once the riders were off, the director, mechanic, and I made our way back to the team car and proceeded to the first point in the race for open feeding, a picturesque tree-lined lane just after a section of pavé. These were not the helter-skelter cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix, but had enough of a crest in the middle to scrape against the undercarriage plate on the team car (which had been installed before Paris-Roubaix for that very reason). Coming off the first stretch of pavé, our smallest, lightest rider who was crushing cobbles for his first time ever streaked off the front of the peloton like a rocket. We knew already that we were in for a show.
We wended our way through the course circuitously and managed to feed the riders at 4 different places before feeding was closed. By the 3rd time we passed out bottles, a dozen or so riders had broken off the front, including 4 of our team. They were doing exactly as their director had instructed: racing forward, being conservative but appropriately aggressive, taking the race in exactly the direction they desired. After the last open feeding, we proceeded back to the finish line. Our director reported that the Dutch race organizer had actually expressed that he wanted the Americans to win, that it would be good for the sport. This attitude is wholly unprecedented in European racing; American riders have almost always been viewed as relatively unwelcome outsiders.
We waited at the finish line, getting bits and pieces of race reporting in Dutch that bode well for our team. I left my cooler bag of water and soda at the end of the barricades, strapped a podium bag with a fresh kit, wet wipes, and recovery mix to my back, and staked out a good position to get some photo ops. Soon we heard that a single rider had broken away off the front, and it was indeed our incredible time trial master who performed so spectacularly at the Peace Race. Minutes later, the race radio reported that two more riders had broken away while the fourth remaining USA rider blocked to let them ride. We realized we were about to see something incredibly special: a 1-2-3 podium sweep team victory.
It was breathtaking to see, made even more special from the Dutch race organizers and fans who said things like “magnificent!” The riders had truly raced forward, communicated with one another, and put on one heck of a race. Even at relatively small races like this, outstanding performances are widely recognized and not quickly forgotten — every other race I attended with the juniors team, someone mentioned the 1-2-3 podium sweep in Friesland.
After that, the team was on cloud nine. I had made a nice selection of sandwiches and race food goodies the night before, and had stopped at a roadside stand in Germany to buy several cartons of field-fresh strawberries as a special treat. Their excitement and satisfaction was as palpable as it was infectious; being part of the staff behind a big team win is almost as exciting as being out there on the road.
The next day we headed back out to the small Dutch village Lieshout, home to the Bavaria brewery, for an inter-club circuit race — something of a cross between a Belgian-style kermesse and an American-style criterium. The course was surprisingly challenging: hot and sunny with paver brick road surface, lots of turns and chicanes, and several raised roundabouts in corners. The juniors completed 65 kilometers, which is too short to permit or necessitate feeding, giving the staff a break and me a chance to indulge one of my other passions: race photography.
It was a heated race with an early two-man break by one of our riders and his trade team teammate from Hot Tubes Development, which the pack brought back until a bigger bunch got away and stayed away. It ended with a bunch sprint in which another of our riders gave it his all for a hard-fought 2nd, and our 4th podium in 2 days!
The team had such an outstanding, intense weekend that I got permission from their director to take them on a field trip to the nearby city of Maastricht, capital of Limburg with ancient roots dating back to Roman times. Today Maastricht is known for its vibrant city center shopping and dining district, with several beautiful churches and medieval structures still intact. Most of the riders had already visited on other trips, but it was the first trip for several of them, as it was for me. It was a great opportunity to have a nice lunch away from home base or racing with the guys, and to turn them loose while I did a little shopping and sightseeing.
The next day I had to fetch two more riders from the airport in Brussels, one of whom would join us for the upcoming Three Days of Axel race and the other who would ride Axel for his trade team, Hot Tubes Development, and join the USA team later in the season. After a nasty taste of Brussels traffic (some of the worst in the world; I got charlie horses in my legs in my sleep for days after riding the clutch for so long!) we packed up a truck and took the group to Zeeland, on the Dutch coast, to get a first taste of cobblestones and to deliver a couple riders to Hot Tubes.
It was really neat to see such a large group of the best juniors in the United States in the same place at once. (If the one in the middle looks a little old to be a junior, that’s because he is our intrepid program director, William Innes). Cobblestones, sometimes called pavé, are a classic hallmark of northern European racing and riders who handle them with speed and agility forever have their careers defined by their excellence in “cobble crushing.” Nearly all of the famous spring classics feature sections of cobblestones, which range in difficulty from patio pavers to mud and moss-slick rock gardens more appropriate for mountain biking than road biking. Axel is known for its rough field cobbles with soft, grassy, muddy shoulders; they are as difficult to ride at high speed as they are dangerous, especially for riders without experience or proper equipment.
With the team prepped and ready, it was up to me and our mechanic to get the bikes and remaining equipment shipshape. The courses of Axel are notoriously hard on wheels, so all the bikes were equipped with our special “Roubaix” wheels: aluminum Easton tubulars with heavy-duty puncture-resistant, wider tires. The wheels were an abnormally heavy setup for racing, but would give our riders the best possible chance at avoiding flat tires or crashes due to poor traction.
Unlike the Peace Race, the race organizers at Axel provide somewhat more edible food options, so I didn’t need to cook. From that standpoint it made the race logistics a bit easier on me, although I packed double of everything in the medical kit in hopes that it would be like carrying an umbrella when rain is in the forecast: preparedness would stave off necessity.
Prepping for Axel also gave me time to reflect on the weeks I had spent traveling to races in Europe, and I was truly sad that this would be my last race with the team. I knew they would get excellent care from other soigneurs as they continued their racing season, but the infectious excitement of racing had done its work and I was hooked. Had it been any other kind of hard work, I would have been looking forward to a respite, but I found soigneur work inspired an ethic and passion in me that I had never experienced to that extent.
The hour has grown late, my candle has begun to flicker, my laptop battery is waning and (most upsetting of all) my glass of wine is empty; we’ll pick this up next week with the pavé pandemonium of Three Days of Axel!
We’re back home in Sittard after a whirlwind tour of Bohemia with another race on the books, this time the Course de la Paix, or Juniors Peace Race. Litoměřice, where we stayed, was a rather beautiful old town with a definite feel of old-world European grandeur reemerging from the Soviet era drabness. The area has a rich history as one of the oldest Czech towns dating to the 2nd century and served as a major trading capital of the region in medieval times. More recently, the whole region underwent German occupation during WWII and the nearby walled city of Terezín, where the race was headquartered, was used as a Nazi concentration camp, crematorium, and Gestapo prison. The Peace Race was originally established after WWII as a symbol of international goodwill and sportsmanship.
We were housed in the hockey training center, which was a perfectly convenient and serviceable facility with dormitory-style living arrangements and an eating area for meal, bottle, and race food prep. The hockey facility housed our team as well as the British, French, and Russians. A total of 23 national teams competed from Europe, North America, and the Middle East. The Peace Race is part of the Juniors Nations’ Cup races, a series of events all around Europe, one in Kazakhstan, and one in Canada in which national teams of 17- and 18-year-olds compete among the highest-level junior road cyclists to earn Union Cycliste Internationale points for World Championships entries. Of the 11 races in this year’s Nations’ Cup, the Peace Race is considered by many to be the most challenging.
This year’s edition certainly proved a challenge for everyone involved. We had mechanical issues with the team car halfway across Germany, and the mechanic and director ended up having to send me ahead with all 6 riders while they got the car towed for repairs. The one rider on the team who had been to the race the previous year alerted me to the getting an entry permit sticker for the van and helped guide me through the tortuous single-lane mountain road to Litoměřice. The director and mechanic arrived shortly thereafter and we headed to dinner in the beautiful and expansive cobbled city square.
The next day held a training day for the riders to preview the time trial course and part of the first road race stage for the team riders, and a trip back to Germany with the director to retrieve the repaired team car for me. We had hoped that my basic, broken German would be somewhat helpful in negotiating the transaction; it turns out “diesel filter” in German is “dieselfilter,” so no obstacles there. We headed back to Czech where I cooked one of my many variations of rice for the team (I think it was red curry rice that night?) and did sports massages for each rider.
It’s no surprise that the United States national team selects only the best of the best junior riders, but I am constantly impressed with the young people I have encountered in my involvement with juniors cycling. Their unbridled passion for the sport transfers into a conscientious approach to all aspects that will potentially benefit their racing. They are a kaleidoscope of personalities, from boundless effervescence to the strong, quiet, old-soul countenance. Watching them interact with one another was fascinating to see the mutual respect and recognition of strengths develop among the team, and they began to strongly identify with their established roles as the race progressed. Their reverential respect for their director reflected their confidence in his unparalleled expertise as a coach of champions. These are the kind of young people who will lead future generations to thrive and flourish, whether they continue to pursue sports as a career or take the lessons in leadership and teamwork they are learning into other avenues of life.
My role with the team was similar to the work I did in Bretagne, except for being their only soigneur and also responsible for preparing all their meals and race food. The Peace Race is notorious for providing borderline inedible meals for riders and staff, and having meals on site instead of having to travel to the primary school in Terezín made for a much logistically smoother experience for the riders and staff. All I had to work with was a rice cooker and an electric kettle, so I drew largely from my camping cooking repertoire. I figured out how to hard-boil eggs on the first day, but dumped half the pot of boiling water on my foot and developed a nice collection of painful blisters. Other dishes included Mexican, Thai, Persian, Asian, and Italian-inspired incarnations of rice and quinoa. To say that young cyclists eat like horses is to seriously overestimate the amount that horses consume — next time I have to cook for a team and staff, I will have a more realistic expectation of the quantity. If it’s enough to feed an army, you should probably add at least 3 servings to be safe.
Stage 1 was an exercise in persistence for everyone involved, with pitted pavement, steep skyward climbs, narrow roads, dangerous descents, buffeting cross-winds, and energy-sapping cobbles. When they passed through the feed zone, 5 riders were with the main group and the mechanic in the team car alerted me to wait for one rider who had been dropped. Nearly 15 minutes after the peloton had passed, he came heaving up the hill alone. I passed him a bottle and yelled at him to keep fighting it, knowing that he still had another mountaintop climb ahead of him. The race organizers establish a time cut of 20% of the winning time and I was concerned that he wouldn’t make it. The best case scenario at that point would be that he would be the “lanterne rouge,” the last rider in the race (named for the red light at the end of a train caboose) and he could serve as a domestique for the others, fetching bottles and using his position to advance the race for his teammates.
The team made it back to the finish with 3 in the main pack, one trailing behind after a poorly-timed flat tire on an inaccessible stretch of road where the team car couldn’t execute a proper wheel exchange, a third limping in after a crash (no broken skin but a very sore and battered body) and the dropped rider far behind crossing the line last. I forgot to start my stopwatch at the leader’s time and didn’t find out until the next morning that he had failed to make the time cut and was out of the race. The rider who crashed was also randomly selected for anti-doping control and had to be ushered off for testing.
The second day consisted of a double stage, which is common in major juniors stage races. A short but difficult morning time trial ended in triumph when the team captain posted the 2nd fasted time of the day, securing a spot on the podium and 2nd place in overall general classification for the race. The afternoon road race was too short to permit feeding, so a challenging day for the riders was actually the easiest day for me.
The third day was a queen stage: the most demanding mountain stage of the race featuring long, steep climbs and a mountaintop finish. This type of stage is intended to separate the strongest riders and provide opportunities to make up significant time and open gaps — or to lose time if disaster strikes. I set up the feed zone at a small, gently uphill section in a huge mountain meadow just past the major climb, and it was one of the fastest and best feeds I have done. They were easily exceeding 45 kph even on the incline. All the riders spotted the van and my wind vest, and spaced just far enough apart that I was able to get a bottle to every rider. That kind of thrill just doesn’t get old.
Coming up to the mountaintop finish at a ski resort just over the German border, four riders managed to sneak away ahead of our team leader and took out just enough time to bump him down into 3rd general classification position. I have been going to bike races for a decade, and I have seldom seen a rider bury themselves that deeply. Rarely do most people have the opportunity to witness that kind of dedication to anything, and it is extraordinary to see.
The fourth and final day featured a course similar to the first day, but with three laps of a smaller but by no means easy mountain climb before the run-in to the finish. I staked out my position on the climb for the feed zone early enough to see the pack come through the first lap before feeding was allowed, and I was delighted to see all five riders hanging in there with the group and looking strong. On the second lap I passed a couple of bottles and everyone was still with the group, so I packed up the van and drove directly to the finish. Minutes later, one rider crashed hard on the descent when the Hungarian in front of him slipped out on a wet patch of pavement and he plowed into the fallen rider at high speed. The director and mechanic put him into the team car battered and bloody with the intent of handing him off to me on the next lap but I had already left. Four riders remained with the pack as it roared through a curve and into the finishing straight, but another rider hydroplaned on a puddle and crashed out to come limping across the finish line. He was lucky — his shorts were shredded and he had patches of road rash on his hip and arm, and a small cut on his leg that bled profusely and looked much worse than it was. His heart rate monitor saved his chest; his jersey was completely torn away but the protruding heart rate monitor sensor on his sternum took the impact and was ground down on the pavement like a rough belt sander. I was patching him up when the race medic came over and said the other crashed rider would need a team staff member to accompany him to the hospital to treat his injuries. I grabbed his passport, ran to tell the director, and hopped in the ambulance with my rider.
They say that mothers, in extenuating circumstances when their children are in harm’s way, can pull off superhuman feats to protect their babies. The closest thing I have to a child has four legs, a tail, and fur, but after that ambulance ride I can understand the impulse. He had suffered a nasty scrape and gouge to his hip, cuts and road rash on his arm, a skinned knee, and a blunt impact to his thumb which was swelling up like a water balloon. The race medic had already taped over the majority of broken skin so I couldn’t see the extent of his injuries, but they were clearly more than a minor crash and he was in a lot of pain. The first thing he asked me was if his teammate still got third — what a true competitor.
The Czech ambulance was a Soviet-era minivan with peeling exterior paint, a backboard on a gurney, and a couple bucket seats with split upholstery and no seat belts. I crouched next to the gurney and held onto the rider’s seat, who in turn held onto a door handle with his uninjured hand. The driver put on the siren and we whizzed by a long line of stopped cars stuck in race traffic into the lane of oncoming vehicles. I briefly considered the irony of meeting my final reward in an ambulance crash.
We arrived at the hospital and he limped into the ambulance intake waiting room, a naked cinder block structure with concrete floor and a few plastic chairs. It was absolutely surreal, like something out of a movie. An orderly ushered us into the intake room and instructed me to wait while the rider proceeded to the treatment room to have his wounds cleaned and dressed, and I once again experienced that feeling of a mama bear wanting to rush in and take care of him. Despite the eerily institutional feel and padded doors, the nurse’s methods were thorough and modern as she irrigated and dressed his cuts and scrapes. Another hospital staff told me in broken English that I would need to produce his insurance card, or pay at the time of treatment. I explained that I had the USA Cycling credit card and was good for any charges he would incur, and that seemed to satisfy them. Once he was bandaged up, he was wheeled into radiology for x-rays and while we waited in the dimly lit waiting room, he seemed to perk up and joke about the whole experience. He had turned 17 the day before and was glad not to have crashed on his birthday, and he mused that on the bright side, his injured right hand might get him out of doing homework for a while. Once the x-rays were read and he was cleared of any fractures, the staff released him and sent me to pay his bill — at the same moment, the mechanic and team captain arrived and greeted us. The mechanic accompanied me to the front desk and we viewed the final tallied bill: 302 Czech koruna, or about 11€. The fine he had incurred the previous day for riding on a sidewalk during the race was more than 10 times his bill for an ambulance ride, triage, and x-rays. Say what you will about second-world medicine; if I need a minor medical procedure, Czech hospitals are looking pretty appealing.
With everyone taped back together in mostly one piece, we proceeded to lunch at the primary school in Terezín, which was every bit as appalling as I had been told. I found the only products that didn’t contain some form of unrecognizable meat: stale bread and a cup of weirdly brown but fairly tasty applesauce and a glass of incredibly weak Tang.
With lunch accomplished, we loaded up and drove halfway home to Kassel, Germany, about 4 hours away. The lodging and food experience was a night and day stark contrast, almost shocking to the system. I had an excellent dinner of herb crepes stuffed with locally grown white and green asparagus, new potatoes, delicately poached pearl onions, and a luscious cream sauce. I can only describe it as euphoric. Breakfast was a similarly enticing buffet of homemade fruit jams, artisan breads, exotic juices and delicate smoked salmon and speck. It was definitely in my top 10 breakfasts of all time.
I set about changing bandages and Tegaderm, loaded everyone up, and we made it back to Sittard in the early afternoon. By 5 I had finished cleaning up the van, restocking supplies, and doing laundry. And that brings us up to now — the first time in a week I’ve had time for a blog entry!
The juniors have a few training days this week until we leave again on Friday for a couple of one-day races in Belgium, and Three Days of Axel in two weeks. I may actually get some time for a bike ride, and lots of time for recovery massages and continued treatment of healing scrapes and bruises. I’m grateful for a few days of slower pace, but I am surprised and delighted at how much I find I thrive in the hectic heat of a stage race. I am learning quickly to keep a mental checklist of every responsibility and getting much better at thinking on my feet with the situation calls for improvisation. I got a great taste of minor crisis management and as much as I hate that any of my riders were injured, I’m glad that their injuries were relatively minor and I was able to get a good look inside the drama of cleaning up a crash. I am sure that I am getting a much more thorough, educational experience in soigneurdom than I would have at the UCI soigneur training program.
This is truly an outrageous career and the people who are exceptional at the job, I think, must have a little bit of loose screws to handle the absurd amount and type of work all for the love of bike racers. But maybe I have that tiny touch of crazy myself?
Sometimes in life, I have found that intense, completely immersive experiences often need time to be processed before I can appreciate the content with a more objective, analytical attitude without the haze of emotional exhaustion. A slower Saturday morning today has given me that valuable time for reflection and organizing my thoughts.
Working a major race as elite cycling team staff is not for the faint of heart, and I am coming to understand why the turnover in the industry is comparatively low: people who aren’t up to the rigors of the work for whatever reason burn out quickly, and the few who make the cut tend to become career team staff. I’m not sure who works harder: mechanics or soigneurs — both jobs require long hours of exhausting work.
The Tour de Bretagne was a UCI 2.2 stage race, which means a limited number of national teams were invited (in this case, 2: the USA team, and the Australian national team) along with European continental teams, pro development teams, and pro tour teams. It’s a very high-level race in which stage winners and riders high in the overall finish ranks have historically continued on to successful professional careers. The race consisted of 7 stages between 145 and 200 kilometers long over challenging terrain and road surfaces in the rural northern coastal country of France. The six USA national team riders selected for the race were charged with two major tasks: to ride hard and return some good results, but perhaps even more importantly to learn the skills needed to race at that level which professional teams look for in prospective riders. To paraphrase their director, former pro rider Michael Sayers, racing at events like these presents a goal that isn’t necessarily meant to be attained, but for learning to occur in the process of striving toward that goal. Bringing away a couple good results and a wealth of experience constitutes success, and in that respect the Under-23 riders of the USA national team were very successful.
As for my part, my role was to serve as an apprentice soigneur to Robert Grabowski, another alumnus of the pro leagues who worked for Liquigas-Cannondale and BMC world tour teams. We arrived at the first host hotel in the evening 2 days before the race began, which gave me a day to prepare and learn the ropes a bit.
My first task the next morning was bottle prep. The general policy is to distrust drinking tapwater in many parts of Europe, so I had to make a grocery store run to purchase bottled water for drinking and food supplies for the next few days. Every part of the process involved some unforeseen complication; nothing was easy. I drove the van, an enormous Fiat Ducato, down winding narrow French roads (having to turn back twice because the GPS wanted to take me under bridges too short for the van’s height) only to find that the grocery store had underground parking also too low for the van, so I had to parallel park it on the street. For comparison, I drive a compact hatchback Honda Fit back home — the van is roughly 1.5 Fits wide, 2.5 Fits long, and 2 Fits tall. I’m just relieved my parents insisted on me learning to drive a stick shift as a teen; that was the one part of the whole process I felt competent doing. I managed to park the van without running into anything, popped a couple of coins in the locks to retrieve shopping carts (that part I remembered!), and ascended the escalator. An hour and a half later, I had collected 250 liters of bottled water in various sizes of containers and enough groceries for a small army. It took me a long time to identify the translations of food products in an unfamiliar store layout; my basic French vocabulary got me only so far. I negotiated the transaction in my nonexistent French and haphazardly wheeled about 300 kilos’ worth of water and food back down the escalator (a feat in and of itself), drawing copious weird glares from onlookers. With water and food loaded up, I made my way back to the hotel to wrap up race food and bottle prep and begin with rider massages.
The one part of soigneur work I feel thoroughly comfortable performing is sports massage; I’ve been doing it for 7 years and have taught seminars at the graduate level for the last 3, so I feel like I have that part down. It was honestly a relief to be able to focus my energy for a couple hours on something in which I am well-versed and experienced; it’s hard work of a different kind, but work where I don’t feel like I am constantly questioning myself and I take solace in that practice. I am told that coming from a sports medicine background is surprisingly uncommon among beginner soigneurs; many come from another aspect of sport or industry and have to learn the bodywork and recovery component as they go. Having extensive training in what is ostensibly the most difficult and most important part of the job gives me time to iron out the rest of the details, which are complicated to learn but easy enough to perform once routine is more established. It didn’t feel like it at the time, but in that respect I am very fortunate.
The Tour required several hotel transfers, so the plan was for me to get the riders to the race, do the feed zone, and get to the finish to bring them back to the hotel while Robert drove the box truck to the next hotel and prepared all the details. The first stage didn’t require a hotel transfer, so I was able to shadow Robert and learn the responsibilities and layout of a race stage. I wrote this list up during the week, and it is a pretty darn accurate characterization of most of the stuff a soigneur needs to keep in his or her head at all times:
Before the race
- Up early, shower and pack, breakfast
- Prepare race food
- Get baguettes from hotel
- Make sandwiches for soigneur(s), mechanic, and director. Pack in musettes with goodies
- Make post-race sandwiches and rice for riders. Also fill a musette with fruit. Pack condiments, tuna, oil, and utensils for the rice
- Make 2 thermoses of coffee and one of hot water for tea. One coffee for team car, one for riders. Pack cups, sugar, creamer, and stirring things
- Make snack sandwiches with milkbread for riders and pack in aluminum foil. Do one savory variety (ham and cheese is good) and several sweet ones (Nutella, honey, jam, etc). Make 1 per rider with some extras for musettes
- Wrap cake or waffles in aluminum foil for riders
- Restock race food bars and gels
- Prepare bottles
- At least 5-7 per rider — 2 for musettes/feeds, 2 for the bike, and 1 for every half hour of racing. More is better and topping off the coolers is recommended
- Pack water and fresh mix in the cooler for the team car. Include some mini Cokes and Fantas, some sparkling water for director and mechanic, and any other goodies they request
- Rotate the previous day’s mix from the car cooler to the van cooler and put it on the top row to go on the bikes and in musettes first. Put fresh mix as needed on the bottom row.
- Dump mix after day 2; it’s no longer good
- Pack mini soda in the gaps and include a bottle of ice if necessary
- Make sure the van is stocked with water, empty clean bottles, chocolate milk, and plenty of mix for hydration, preload, and recovery mixes
- Mark mix with an X and recovery with an R
- Bring a large bag of clean empty bottles to fill during the race
- Fill empty 1.5 L bottle with tap water and put in the freezer to use for ice
- Pack gels and bars in the team car as per director preference. Some use a box, others just stuff them in the door pockets
- Clean and stock the van
- Vacuum and sweep floors, wheel wells, bike area, etc
- Wash the exterior and Windex on mirrors and windows (this can also be done the night before)
- Program start parking into the GPS
- Pack the following race items in the main compartment:
- Towels and washcloths for each rider plus spares
- Podium bag with bottle for recovery
- Race food — bars and gels
- Spare clothing bag
- Supply box with chamois cream, massage creams and oils, baby wipes, sports wash, embrocation, sunscreen
- Medical box
- Finish cooler bag with bottled water and Fanta for each rider
- Spare musettes
- Food box of snacks, coffee, race rice, tuna, bowls, utensils, condiments, etc
- Folding chairs for each rider
- Wind vest for the feed zone
- 2 helmets (small and medium) in the van, 2 in the team car
- Pack in the bike compartment:
- Trash bags
- Spare bottles
- Aluminum foil
- Mixes and hydration supplies
- Extra water
- Extra soda and juice
- Milk/soy milk/whatever they want for recovery that day
- Black and white permanent markers
At the start
- Drive riders to the race start and park so as to make a nice area for them
- Put out folding chairs (under the awning, if necessary)
- Put out cooler, race food, regular food box, supply box
- Offer pre-load and put 2 bottles on each bike of whatever the riders want to start
- Massage legs/apply embrocation as needed
- Program feed zone location into the GPS
- If time permits, go to start line with riders to top off bottles and take extra clothing
- Drive to the feed zone
- Stop for gas on the way if necessary and time permits
- Find a good, visible parking place near the end of the feed zone
- Program the finish line into the GPS
- Prepare musettes for each rider
- 1 bottle each of water and mix on opposite sides
- 1 bar
- 1 gel
- 1 bit of cake or Nutella sandwich in aluminum foil
- Tie a knot at the top of the strap
- Prepare recovery, mark bottles, and place in the cooler
- Prepare 1-2 dishes of post-race rice for riders taking the team car instead of the van
- Fill bottles for the next day if needed
- Pass musettes to riders on the right side of the road
- Step into the road no more than 1 meter and face riders fully. Hold the tab straight up so it presents the bag at hand-level to the rider. Let go quickly and gently
- Pass any extras to the team car
- Jump in and proceed to the finish location post haste
At the finish
- Park the van near the finish line in a good location for getting out after the race
- Prepare an area for the riders
- Folding chairs out for each rider
- Bottle of recovery, towel, and washcloth on each chair
- If in a safe location, put out food box and supply box
- Riders bags out if someone is there to watch it, otherwise locked in the van
- Program hotel address into the GPS
- If there are multiple circuits, take a musette with bottles to feed
- If no circuits (or time doesn’t permit), also take the finish bag and podium bag with a bottle of recovery inside
- Set up at a visible location well past the finish line and flag down riders. Give water and Fanta, give directions to the van, and give the first rider the key
- Check anti-doping at the finish line, and take a picture of it if possible
- Head back to the van, do first aid if needed, and pack everything up
- Give post-race recovery food to the director for riders going in the team car
- Put dirty bottles in a bag or another cooler. Throw away bottles used for recovery; they will always have a weird funky sour milk smell
- Pack everything up and head out
At the hotel
- Unload and tidy up the van while riders are getting showered
- Put perishables in the refrigerator
- Start a load of riders’ laundry
- Set up massage table and supplies, overturning furniture or using a hallway if necessary. Try to get linens and towels from the hotel, if not use stock and wash daily
- Massages for all riders, ~30 minutes each
- Put riders’ laundry in the dryer or on drying racks
- Go eat dinner
- Leave dry clothes in the hall with bottled water for the riders
- Wash van and team car if weather/time permits
- Wash dirty bottles if needed
- Go for a run or straight to bed. Or beer, this is a good time for beer too.
So that’s it, in a nutshell. In addition, hotel transfers require all kinds of tedious minutiae, like getting room keys and wifi passwords, so those responsibilities are added in with a bare-bones staff.
Murphy’s Law hung like a shadowy specter nearby all week — if something could go wrong, it invariably did. One rider crashed in the last few kilometers of the first stage, a face-first header that left him bloodied and concussed, forcing him to withdraw from the competition. Another rider succumbed to a nasty illness during stage 4 and abandoned the race. On stage 5 I had a fender-bender with the team van when another car tried to pass and cut me off in a one-lane roundabout, and the French police refused to help with the paperwork so I did the best I could with the chasm of language barrier. I fumbled musette feeds and completely forgot to check anti-doping on one stage, delaying the whole team’s departure from the finish site. The sky poured rain and blew gale force winds and baked the slimy, muddy roads and cobbles with searing sunlight. I chastised entitled French sports fans trying to steal bottles right out of my musette for circuit feeds (seriously, guys?). I forced back tears on more than one occasion and struggled with the language barrier and shame over my beginner’s pitfalls with Robert, and his frustration with having to take the time to train a novice when time itself is at a premium. It had its tense and terrible moments, and I found myself wondering what I had gotten myself into frequently.
But it also had its moments of beauty and levity; I made it through the week, and I came back to Sittard visibly changed: more confidence in my abilities, more relaxed around the riders and other staff, with better strategies to ask the right questions and keep track of the answers, and a wealth of notable information in my brain and in detailed notes on my iPad. Serving as an apprentice soigneur helped me understand the structure of an elite cycling race and with the basics established, I can focus more of my attention on helping the riders and the other team staff to have a great race.
Bretagne feels like a distant memory now that I’m packing up and preparing to head to the Czech Republic for the Course de la Paix (“Peace Race”) the day after tomorrow. I’ve graduated from second-string soigneur to having my very own program in my charge: the USA national juniors team, a group of six outstanding 17-18 year old racers, some of whom are on their very first trip to Europe. I’m starting to get beyond my new-job anxiety and excited about what I can teach them and learn from them. Putting oneself wholly in the service of others is a humbling and enriching experience. As tough a job as this is, it really is an honor to be a part of the journey for riders on their way to achieving great things.
Tomorrow we make all the necessary preparations to depart, and adventure again awaits. More dispatches from the East to follow!
We’re in the car on a long drive to Bretagne, so I have a little bit of down time to write an entry — the first down time in a while!
I’m into my second week as a soigneur and learning fast — mostly from watching and doing, but a lot from making mistakes too. It’s a job with long expanses of furious intensity punctuated by periods of absolutely nothing to do, and at first it’s actually difficult to recognize when it’s appropriate to take a break. But I’m learning the general routine of everyday functions at the USA house, preparations for a race, and the things that need to happen once riders return from racing.
No two daily schedules are the same, but we generally start early with breakfast and a trip over to the Service Course, a separate location where all of the maintenance operations take place. If vehicles have just returned from racing, they need to be unloaded, thoroughly cleaned inside and out, and items inventoried. If the vehicle needs to make an immediate turnaround for another race, many of the items are re-stocked as needed and loaded straight back into the truck. If they won’t be used for a few days, everything is put back into stock, including things like sports nutrition products and race food, medical kits, chairs, laundry, and coolers. A running shopping list is kept of everything that needs to be kept on hand in supply and soigneurs shop nearly every day.
We head back to the USA house for lunch and typically start massages early afternoon, after the riders who aren’t away racing have finished their training rides and gotten a chance to shower and eat. I’ve been doing anywhere from 3 to 7 massages every day, around 30-45 minutes for each. Riders who have just returned from races, are heading off to races, or experiencing particular issues are the priority.
If we are preparing to leave for a race, at least one soigneur will make a shopping trip for race food and supplies. We have to prepare food for 5-7 riders each day of a race, which includes pre-race food, musettes during the race, and a post-race recovery meal to tide the riders over until meal time. The soigneurs are also responsible for preparing food for the mechanics and team directors during races. Water can be tricky, especially at races in rural areas, so we have to fill bottles at the USA house and purchase bottled water for the trip. The quantity of food we have to procure is truly incredible; it’s like feeding a small army that eats mainly carbs and sugar!
Bottles are washed and prepared the night before a race with plain tap water and hydration mix. The team is currently sponsored by OSMO nutrition, and they supply a variety of products. It isn’t safe to prepare bottles with mix more than a day ahead of time, though, in case the sports drink grows bacteria. A big stage race may require 500 bottles or more.
On the road and especially at longer tours, the soigneurs’ work increases exponentially. The riders’ every need must be addressed, from minor details like getting the wifi passwords for race hotel venues to treating major injuries. Generally, the team director drives the team car, the mechanic drives a box truck with bikes, laundry, and a full kitchen inside, and the soigneur drives the riders in the team van. There are two soigneurs going to Bretagne today, me and Robert, so we are sharing the driving.
Today is Wednesday and the race doesn’t begin until Friday, so we will have to do some more shopping once we arrive tomorrow. Having two soigneurs will make things much easier once the race stages start ending in different cities, which happens on Stage 3. Instead of one person having to do all of the race operations and hotel transfer, I will take care of the race while Robert drives to the next hotel and gets everything set up. I will have to get the riders to the stage and all set to go, then drive to the feed zone once they depart and get ready for all the food and bottle handoffs. In long stages, riders need to take in more food and water than they can carry in the race, so a feed zone is designated on the course for soigneurs to give the riders a bag, called a musette, containing bottles, bars, gels, a small can of soda, and a bit of high-energy food like cake or candy. These bags must be given to riders on the fly, sometimes in excess of 50 kph. I’ve gotten some practice, but I’m still a little nervous about being fast and accurate enough to feed all 6 riders. The worst thing a soigneur can do is a poor presentation of the musettes bag and letting go too late, which can cause the musettes to tangle in the bike or whip around and crash the rider. I’ll probably get the guys to help me out with another practice run tomorrow so I get really comfortable with all of them.
After the race, the riders need a quick high-carb meal to restore depleted muscle glycogen and help them recover for the next stage. This usually involves cooking white rice in the rice cooker and mixing with fatty sweets, like honey, peanut butter, and Nutella. They also need a high-protein recovery drink with some sugar in it (chocolate milk and almond milk mixed with spiced honey flavored whey are big favorites). Once nice thing about race food in Europe is that much less of it needs to be refrigerated — dairy and eggs are fine at room temperature. The soigneur wipes off legs, arms, and faces with sports wash and does quick first aid on anything that needs attention, and if all goes well helps riders get cleaned up for the podium if they have a top-3 finish! Then it’s back to the hotel for massages, bottle cleaning, food prep, and to bed to get up and do it all again the next day.
Make no mistake — this is a really difficult lifestyle and even the soigneurs working for pro teams make somewhat meager salaries for the amount of work the job entails. Days off are rare during prime racing season and the work isn’t easy to come by. So far I am really enjoying it; we’ll see if I’m singing the same tune in a month! The main thing is that the riders and other staff are all friendly and create a very energetic, positive atmosphere that emphasizes efficiency without frantic urgency. Bike racers have always been some of my favorite folks to be around. For now, a good night’s sleep is in order to prepare for what is sure to be a long week!
The French word “soigneur” literally translates to “one who cares for the troubles of others.” On a bicycle racing team, a soigneur performs a multifaceted job of keeping the cyclists’ bodies and minds optimally primed for competition, doing everything from sports massage and minor first aid to food and bottle prep to tasks like laundry and chauffering riders.
When I was first getting into cycling as a teenager, I read a USA Today article about soigneurs that described it as one of the “10 Worst Jobs in Sports.” The article is a fun read (and to my experience thus far, quite accurate), making the soigneur’s job sound like a lot of hard, thankless work. It sounded exactly like the kind of job I wanted to make my career.
I worked at a bike shop through college and spent a month the summer after I graduated at the Barnett Bicycle Institute in Colorado Springs learning the ins and outs of bicycle mechanics. I gained a great foundation in the fundamentals of bicycle repair, but the greater interest it sparked for me was an appreciation for bicycle fitting and the nuances of changing the equipment itself to optimize the rider’s performance. I attended massage school at the Body Therapy Institute the next year and focused my studies and practicum hours on learning sports massage and the specific needs of athletes. I enjoyed working with an athletic population and approaching massage therapy as a performance and recovery tool.
After being in private practice for a few years, I pursued a master’s degree in sports medicine at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a school renowned for its top-tier kinesiology research as well as its commitment to excellence in education and exceptional classroom experience. I was delighted to find that several of my professors were also cyclists themselves and my adviser took particular interest in the biomechanics of chronic cycling injuries. He and I developed a testing and rehab protocol that became my master’s practicum to use bike fitting and motion capture as a diagnostic tool to recommend rehabilitative exercise and modifications to equipment to improve the biomechanical sustainability of cycling. It was a pretty cool project, and got some attention from the National Athletic Trainer’s Association. I still use the principles of our protocol extensively in my work with cyclists and triathletes.
Last year, one of my friends from graduate school presented me with an outstanding opportunity: her husband coaches an elite junior cycling team and invited me to accompany the team to the Tour de l’Abitibi, a prestigious international race for 17- and 18-year-old riders, in northern Quebec. I took a gamble on the hardest volunteer work of my life and it paid off — not only did I have an outstanding first experience as a soigneur at a major race, but I made some very good contacts with whom I would keep in touch. I enjoyed my experience so much that I applied to a training program at the Union Cycliste Internationale, the governing body of cycling, in Switzerland to be trained as a professional soigneur. After months of preparation and submitting a veritable tome of credential documents, I got a 2-line email a month before the start date saying that the program had been cancelled due to lack of sufficient applicants. I was crushed, and I felt like I was back at square one on my mission to become a soigneur.
After a volley of last-ditch-effort emails to some other contacts in the cycling world, another opportunity arose just a week later: I was offered a soigneur position at the USA Cycling international training center in Sittard, Holland for a few weeks of the spring racing season. So with only a few emails’ worth of information, I stepped on a plane last Monday afternoon bound for Europe to try my hand at being an elite road racing soigneur.
I have a palpable sense that I’m embarking on something very special — few people get to actually follow through on a decade’s worth of dreaming. While I hope for this to be the experience of a lifetime, I also hope for it to be a powerful springboard into the next great thing in my career; I want this to be just the beginning of the story. Above all, it has been an extraordinary lesson in the power of persistence and simply asking for what I want instead of expecting things to fall in line. I’m excited to share my experiences over the next few weeks! Watch this space for an inside look at what being a soigneur on the European cycling scene entails!