Tales from the women's boot camp peloton, January 3, 2005
When the women get together
From driving blind, to climbing poles, to handling spiders and snakes, Team CSC really knows how to put its members through their paces. But this year was different, when the spouses and girlfriends of the riders were asked to get involved. Team DS Scott Sunderland's wife Sabine Sunderland filed this special report from Denmark.
It has become something of a tradition that Bjarne Riis, manager of the Danish CSC team, gathers his troops for a survival camp in early December. The formula has proven so successful that other teams have adopted the team bonding idea, and over the last few weeks we have read about cyclists running around in woods, playing games of paintball, hanging off cliffs, or just enjoying some quality time together in spa-resorts without race-stress.
Bjarne Riis is known to possess an innovative mind, so we were waiting for him to pop up with something new and interesting. Already being comfortable with putting his riders to the test, military style, this year "general" Riis decided to take it a step further.
Not long after the dates for the first training camp were sent out to the riders and personnel, another invitation was dropped into our mailbox. Bjarne was giving the partners of all team members the opportunity to get to know each other during a three day meeting in Århus, Denmark. A dinner and party would take place over the last weekend of the riders' training camp.
It was a fantastic opportunity to meet the girlfriends and wives! There's very few possibilities to get together like this so I immediately accepted the invite.
Scott told me a few days later that I needed to take my walking boots and warm outdoor clothing with me, and that actually got me a tad worried. Still vividly remembering the tales of the riders' boot camp last year, I almost chickened out.
I'm not really the sporty type, believe it or not. It's not because I am married to a sports addict that I feel the need to work up a sweat in the gym or go running or cycling for miles every week. Ok, I often get disbelieving looks when I am asked if I like riding the bike myself and I give a negative answer. For some people, because your husband earned his living riding a bike, it seems that you're considered to be abnormal if you are not a sports maniac.
Surely, many cycling spouses can tell you that running after the kids and taking care of business at home when hubby is away racing keeps you moving enough to retain good health and fitness. Especially because my youngest son Tristan still tends to wake me up once or twice about every other night, there is no need for further physical torture in gyms or on bikes as far as I'm concerned.
But, I do love a good walk and I even had a pair of hiking boots hidden somewhere in the storage room. So even though I wasn't really savouring the prospect of being put to the test in a physical way, I threw them in my port. Having packed a warm ski jacket and hat and gloves, I considered myself well prepared.
On the Thursday morning, I met up with Dr. Danneels, his wife Winnie and Vera Hoffman, wife of former pro Tristan, now also a director with the team. Vera and I go back a long way - from Scott's and Tristan's TVM days. I've always found her so easy to have a conversation with and although we are very different, it's so natural for us to find topics to discuss.
It was a very relaxed and enjoyable but long trip up to Århus in Denmark. We had a great time catching up and I guess the subjects we talked about were sometimes a bit spicy, as we got some amused looks from the two businessmen sitting in front of us when the plane touched ground in Copenhagen. Realizing that we must have animated some of the other passengers' journeys, we decided to limit further conversation to "household and kids" on the flight from Copenhagen to Århus.
Most of the team was waiting for us in the SAS hotel when we arrived. It was evening by then and after a brief hello, we went up to the room to freshen up and get ready for dinner. The drink before was ideal, as it put everyone at ease, and as I hadn't had anything much to eat all day, the aperitif lightened up my tired spirit straight away.
I warned B.S. Christiansen, the military expert who assists Bjarne all year round, that he'd better be good to me the next day or that I'd get back at him in the story I was asked to write after the weekend. He was greatly amused by my obvious worried expressions and him and Bjarne who was sitting across from B.S. at the dining table, shared some great laughs. I don't understand Danish too well, but I get the context of most conversations and from what I could make up from the gestures, they had something crawly and scary in store for us.
Well, that didn't make me feel too sure about the next day. I don't know if it was because I was away from the kids for the first night since so long, the different bed, or the thoughts about the next day that kept me awake. Honestly, I didn't sleep at all!
The next morning at 7:00am I decided to go down for breakfast. Scott joined me and I thought that was pretty cool of him, as he didn't have much sleep either during the hectic two weeks of meetings and mental and physical efforts, so I forgave him for having a good laugh at my expense.
A relapse of the sinusitis, the accompanying headache and the puffy eyes could have spoiled the rest of my day. But I made the conscious choice not to let it get to me. A couple of coffees and aspirins later, and I joined the rest of the women in the lobby. The bus trip lasted almost an hour and by the time we got to the Ebeltoft Zoo in the Eastern part of Jutland, I was feeling more or less human and actually looking forward to a day out in the open air. The weather report had promised a dry but cold day. Everybody was chirpy and smiling, wild assumptions were made and I was trying to calm a few of the worried minds... Yep, me, the previously anxious little woman!
There is something so unwinding and socially enjoyable about a bunch of women meeting up for a day of sports and fun. No make-up, no designer dresses, no Gucci shoes or Louis Vuitton handbags. Just thirty something positive women, wanting to support their husbands or boyfriends and going all out to understand what it is like to be part of this team.
Bjarne and B.S. welcomed us and gave some more information on why and how the day had been planned. Bjarne explained that he finds it important for the partners of his personnel and riders to know what the CSC team is about. He spoke enthusiastically about how he grew in the job of managing a cycling team, but most of all how he wants to create a different team.
"First of all we train how to be a team," Bjarne told us. "Because it is often difficult to really be a team. The time we had with the guys during this training camp has given us some very valuable information and it will definitely benefit us later on when we hit the roads. We do this with a specific goal in mind: to improve. Improve the way we work together, the way we communicate as well as how to gain the maximum from our potential.
"Cycling is a hard sport and sometimes it's not that nice. It's hard and demanding. Your husbands are away a lot, training and racing, they are away from home a lot, and they are missing out on a lot of important moments with the family. I know that this is sometimes hard on them and on you. I had a lot of success and nice moments in my career but I also had the other experiences. We all know how though this sport is, how much sacrifice it asks.
"I want to bring something more positive in the lives of those connected to this team. I can't change cycling completely but I can make the experience of being with this team as positive as possible. A happy and peaceful home-base makes a huge difference in how the athlete performs. We know that if our guys are happy and supported at home, it will reflect in the riders' performances on the bike, so we definitely value your contribution and support very much and we want you to know that, that is why you are here today.
"B.S. helps me in giving the guys something extra, something which they can use in the life after cycling. We want to give them something to think about. I want to give them some different values. We have a special philosophy in this team. I believe we are the only cycling team in the world to work with values.
"It's easy to have values, you'll say. Yes, it's easy to create them; many companies do that, but it's very difficult to follow up on them. We train the riders to work with those values. For example, we work with openness and consequence. We want the riders to be honest and open to us. If they choose not to be, naturally there will be a consequence."
Everyone was listening attentively. As far as I can remember, in the thirteen years I have been involved in cycling, I had never heard a team manager speak to the women like this. It made the women feel appreciated, and above all welcome. I can assure you that sometimes the wives have been made to feel very different by a lot of team managers in the past. Even today, while we have moved into the 21st century for some time now, there are managers who wish to see the least amount possible of the spouses and girlfriends.
As BS and Bjarne explained their point of view, I felt the atmosphere in the room relaxing. Anne-Dorthe Riis did an excellent job in translating everything for Michaela Basso and Laura Peron, and the Spanish girls were getting help in understanding the details from one of the other female polyglots.
Then it was time to get a taste of what our men had experienced during their three day outing in the Danish countryside. Each assignment would teach us something, about ourselves, or about how to deal with a situation. The big group was split in three and we all went to different areas of the zoo.
There were snakes and spiders for my group to start with. Now, being an adopted Aussie country girl, I had no trouble with that. Heck, just before we left Australia in November, my nephews had caught a baby brown snake in the garden, and my sis-in-law Donna was recalling the time a funnelweb spider stood up on its back legs and spat acid at the kids in the sandpit...there's not much that can scare me out of my wits nowadays.
Few women in our group had problems with holding the creepy crawlies and later we found out that many were persuaded to give it a go by the other team members. So I guess Bjarne and BS's intentions were fulfilled in that way.
Then the next assignment: the pole.
This wooden stick, 15 metres high, had hand grips stuck to it, the same you find on the indoor climbing walls. I had accompanied Saën and Scott before when they went to train at the gym, and I always stood in awe how my little man could get to the top so swiftly and easily. I knew though that there was no way I'd get my substantial behind even only half-way up there, especially not in the jeans I chose to wear that day.
Our group had two of the more sporty women amongst us, and both Carina Ljungqvist and Nina Arvesen had no trouble climbing to the very top, stand up on a rather small metal plate and jump for the trapeze!
Being very comfortable with my clumsy nature but nonetheless on my guard, I jokingly checked with Bjarne if the team's insurance was going to cover any mishaps, and if I broke any nails, would I be able to send the bill for the manicure to him. He suppressed a slight smirk as he tightened the strap on my helmet.
I sighed quietly and started the climb. One metre, two metres...I went ok at first, with Bjarne's help I even managed to get to what was a considerable height for yours truly! But not having a competitive bone in my entire body, I gave in quickly when my leg muscles realized they were making an out-of-the-ordinary movement.
The next day some girls were complaining about aching muscles which would make the trip home less comfortable... Bet Bjarne and BS were suffering too, not sore legs but from a sore neck. After all, they had been the ones having to look up for hours on end. Surely they hadn't expected for every woman to make a least a decent effort to conquer the pole?
Couldn't help being secretly amused; must say, I didn't feel a thing. Surely the lack of pain was directly proportional to the intensity of the effort I made, and maybe I had been the smarter cookie not to overdo things.
After the pole experience, we had some lunch. A typical military style meal, I gathered; something that was prepared to look like chili con carne with rice, but it had a strange taste of oriental ingredients like lemon grass and hot curry to it. We didn't complain. The cold and physical activity had made us very hungry and we ate quickly and in silence. I now also understand why after a race, the riders always eat the food served to them in the worst hotels like they won't get another meal for a week: the taste doesn't actually register until your worst hunger has gone.
After what we thought of as an interesting lunch, we went on to the mongoose hole. A tunnel of thirty metres underground, with faux alleys of approximately two metres which could make the whole experience quite frightening when you don't like crawling around underground in the dark, or in the event you'd suffer from a sudden bout of claustrophobia. This test seemed to be a tough one for some, but we all stuck together and the jokes took the stress of the situation for most.
Onto the driving test - blindfolded mind you. That was an absolute ripper! Carina did a great job behind the wheel of our jeep and we made it through flying colours. Some of the other groups had women expelled from the car as they were making too much of a racket in the back, shouting instructions and pushing the drivers to near madness.
After an entertaining presentation with birds of prey, while warming up with a cup of tea or coffee and a tasty piece of chocolate cake, we climbed into the bus and exchanged experiences and some great laughs. The bus driver took us back to the hotel where the riders and the rest of the team were in a meeting. We were guided into the room under loud cheers and applause and the smiles on the faces of all present must have made it very clear to Bjarne and BS: it had been a good day.
A nice surprise was waiting for us; all women were invited to choose from a collection of five different Skagen watches. Forget the psychological and physical tests, the cold endured that day! As far as we were concerned, they could ask us for more if there was a reward like this at the end of the ride. Our choice of watch would be handed to us later that evening. It was a very nice and unusual gesture from a new team sponsor and definitely very much appreciated by all.
I could tell you quite a few interesting anecdotes about the party afterwards. But I'll wisely keep my mouth shut about how my husband discovered that both Christian Vandevelde's spouse Leah and I have a similar taste in diamond rings. Or how Piilleke and Allan Johansen welcomed the new riders and personnel into the team, how John Axel Hansen and his assistant Troels Johnsen do a mean impression of the Blues Brothers... I'll just let the pictures do the talking there.
All I can add is that it was a fantastic party, it lasted until late, and it was intense. Maybe a bit too intense for some, hey Kurt?
Bjarne said that he wants to continue to bring all of the team together on occasions like this, not only during the winter but also throughout the year, as this is part of how he envisages for his team to grow and improve.
The time together in Denmark surely had presented us all with some challenges but more than anything it had been really, really fun!
Also see: Bjarne's boot camp: Team CSC trains military-style (Decmeber 2004)