Tales from (just outside) the peloton, September 6, 2004
Guest diarist Vince Swann takes over from Trent 'Willo' Wilson for this installment with a peek into one of the hardest jobs in cycling, that of a team soigneur.
For those of you thinking of a career path as a soigneur, here's an insight into the life from the other side of cycling.
When you leave to go on tour, depending on where you go and presuming you're based in Europe, the first day or two are comparatively relaxing; simply driving to the start which may be up to three or four countries away. This is in itself an experience and each European country has a way of its own, when it comes to driving habits, some important tips to learn when regularly traveling:
Holland: Everyone's impatient and if you don't sit on the bumper in front, someone's bound to cut you off and sneak in. You'll also find yourself in several traffic jams for no apparent reason, it's just accepted in this small, heavily populated country.
Germany: Stick to the middle lane of the highway; right will get you caught behind a train of trucks and buses cruising at 80 clicks, while left will put you in the path of Porsche, BMW, Mercedes and Audi test pilots attempting to break the sound barrier.
France: The signage tends not to make a lot of sense, especially in the bigger cities. DO NOT ask for directions.
Belgium: Nothing really makes a great deal of sense, or really even matters.
Italy: Two words to paint a picture - corruption and disorganisation. You must drive the exact same way just to survive, there are no enforced road rules, just make your own. For example, overtaking around a double-lined, blind corner is acceptable, especially when driving through long tunnels; and patience is no virtue, any oncoming traffic will move over or stop for you to let you through. The speed limit signage is really a test to see whether or not you can actually double or triple that speed, without taking off and flying into a nearby house or paddock. If there's a traffic jam, be the first to drive on the wrong side of the road until someone stops you or you can't go any further. Fight fire with fire, Italians are well known for their hot-headedness and hurl abuse with abuse, learn the hand signals and a few swear words and you'll go a mile further.
Once you've mastered the driving, you need special personal qualities to be accepted as a soigneur.
Firstly and foremostly, you've got to have a good sense of humour and be able to take things lightly, otherwise the riders will drive you round the bend and off to the funny farm.
Self motivation is extremely important. Don't forget that your work is never done until around midnight most evenings and you begin again at about half past six or seven o'clock in the morning. So in a nutshell, (or inside a cement mixer, depending on your analogy), while you're awake, you're working. You'll also need to be or have:
Thick skinned - learn to take all insults, personal or impersonal with a grain of salt.
Unshockable - there is no limit as to what a group of riders are capable of which undoubtedly can and will shock you.
Leadership skills - otherwise the riders will take total control of you and treat you like a puppet.
People skills - the people skills and personality of a washing machine will get you nowhere.
If you feel that you have the above qualities and are prepared to learn the crazy ways of European driving, this is how an average day pans out:
7.00: Wake up, then wake up the riders
7.15: If they're still asleep, shake them up
7.35: Pack the van with all riders' required bags etc
7.45: Return to breakfast table with alfoil and plastic bag, where copious amounts of coffee will be consumed in order to start the day and keep on your toes, whilst preparing after-race breadrolls for the riders.
8.00: Ensure the riders have everything they need, then round them up and herd them towards the van just like a Blue Heeler herds the sheep. Bite them if need be.
8.15: Head off and drive to the start.
10.00: Make sure the riders know exactly what time the start is, where the feeding zones will be and how many, then prepare their race food for them.
10.30: Warm up their legs using pre-race sport massage techniques and the appropriate oil, or if it's hot weather, rub that sun cream in.
11.15: Ensure, once again, that the riders have everything they may need from you in the way of food and drink; that the team car has also sufficient bidons and food; that their jackets are in the van, or that they know that you will or won't be there for them at the start to collect their jackets from them, then leave for the feeding zone.
If you're in a foreign country and don't know your way around, pick a reliable-looking local, (difficult in Italy of course, but do your best), and simply follow them. If they stop to pee, so should you, if they stop for diesel, so should you, if they pretend to stop or do so for no apparent reason, so should you and if, (especially in Italy), they drive like maniacs and disregard every road rule, so must you.
12.00: Find a suitable spot for the feeding zone, where the van is well in sight for the riders, plus well positioned so you can easily make a quick getaway to either the following feed zone, or to the finish.
2.00: Feeding time.
2.15: After they're all gone, their food and drink's been grabbed, jump in the van, hightail it outta there and go for gold, 'cause it's a race to see who can be the first soigneur back to the finish. He, you didn't think it was just the riders who raced did you?
3.00: You're back at the finish and it's time to ready the van and the environment for the riders' arrival. Bags in line next to the van, chairs in a semicircle, drinks and food at hand.
4.00: Ensure you're standing within 100m of the finish line to collect the riders then show them the way to the van. Check if someone has to go to the doping control, if so let them immediately know, otherwise just go yourself for the fun.
4.30: Finish. Wash their face, neck, arms and legs with water and Refresh Fluid and once they're all showered and changed, there's no time to sit around and chat, just repack the van and head straight back to the hotel.
5.30: Back at the hotel, find out exactly where the rooms are, organise who's sharing with who, unpack the bus, find out what time dinner is, then get busy with massage ASAP, as the more you can do before dinner, the better.
8.00: Wash the bidons, do any laundry that needs to be done, then clean the van inside and out if need be.
9.00: Refill all the bidons, prepare the food for the following day, work out where you have to be for the start of the following stage, where the feeding zones are, where the hotel is situated and anything else that needs to be dealt with.
11.00: All going well, your work is done and it's time to reward yourself with a glass of wine or three.