It's been Tour mania in our household recently! My husband and I are both avid cycling fans and we are teaching our 8 month old son the ways of the peloton and one of the most famous races in the world; Le Tour de France.
I fell in love with cycling when I bought my first road bike back in 2012. As a runner, it gave me the freedom to go further and faster enabling me to explore more of the countryside. I cycled places you never knew existed if you only ever drove a car. But it wasn’t until I started working for a professional cycling team that I really started to grasp and admire the world of professional cycling with its history, culture, colours, cols and the unwritten etiquette that governs the sport. I even started quoting The Rules.
As the team’s soigneur (also known as the ‘swannie’), my role was to look after the team so that the team could focus on racing well and producing results. This meant an endless job role that could include anything from; doing airport runs, food shopping, making breakfast / staff lunches / post-race food, washing kit, filling the bidons and musettes, handing them out in the feed zone, waiting for riders at the finish line with drinks, driving the team cars and, of course, providing massages. It’s not a particularly glamorous, or well-paid, job and it involves crazy hours (we were often the first ones up and the last ones to bed). So, you really had to love what you did. For me, it was an incredible adventure that gave me the opportunity to travel, make some great friends and see behind the scenes of what makes a professional team work. I revelled in the hard work because it brought with it the benefits of a close-knit team. We were all ‘in it’ together and we all helped each other out. I soon learned that this is paramount in cycling; success is never due to one individual, it always stems from the team as a whole.
Providing massages was a major part of ensuring recovery and performance for the next day of racing. Every rider got one before and after every race to help reset their bodies after each race. For some, it was a chance to alleviate injuries or niggles so they could continue racing. For others, it was preventing any injuries from occurring given the strains of training and racing. For all, it was a key means of aiding recovery. It gave the guys a chance to rest and relax (in silence, or with a bit of banter) whilst we focused on flushing blood, water & nutrients into some extremely tired & depleted muscles. It was also a chance to have a laugh, digest the day and give the guys a much-needed boost after a tough day in the saddle.
Many of the riders had a lack of mobility in their thoracic spines due to being bent over in a saddle all day, every day. I find this a common occurrence in people that are desk-based for their work or just sit down way too much. I would use some time to try and restore some mobility here. Even though it was their hips and legs that were the powerhouses, everything is connected, and restoring mobility further up in the chain always helps with overall performance. I was also chatting to one of the guys about an interesting issue he was struggling with. He found that he was gasping quite a lot on the bike and felt like he couldn’t quite get enough air in each breathe. As you can imagine, no one wants to worry about this when you are operating around threshold all day during a race. I examined his ribcage and the tension around his intercostals. With a bit of release work through his diaphragm (not always the most pleasant experience), we were able to release some tension and restore some mobility in his chest. I checked in on him after the race the next day. He felt loads better and was able to concentrate on racing rather than on the lack of oxygen in his lungs.
Regardless of the type of race (crit, one day or stage race), nutrition played a key role in performance. Most people think that a soigneur’s role is mostly to provide massages. This was actually a small proportion of my overall time spent. Most of my time and energy was focussed on nutrition, which involved providing good sources of carbohydrates for racing, protein for recovery and to maximise rider nutrients after races (eating gels day in, day out isn’t exactly a means of ensuring optimal nutrition). This meant creating various snacks for the musettes and developing new and inventive ways to pack nutrients into a post-race meal. This was always a fun challenge when cooking on a team bus, with limited facilities, or shopping in a foreign country and spending way too much time trying to find what you need. You get pretty good at adapting on the fly!
The riders always had their standard protein shake after a race. We would also accommodate preferences, such as almond, cow’s milk or water as well as chocolate, strawberry or vanilla. We created endless variations of snacks for the musettes (essentially a picnic bag for the riders) to keep things interesting. This provided a good source of carbohydrates, using real food rather, than just gels. We would make anything from savoury rice cakes with eggs, onions and bacon to brioche buns packed with cream cheese and jam. The hotel snack box was also another key area. The guys would be hungry at all hours of the night after a race. I used to have a cool box (or eski) outside of my hotel door, so they could help themselves before or after a massage. However, I often heard little rustling in the middle of the night when someone woke up hungry. The cool box would be regularly stocked with easy to store food, such as muesli, yoghurt, bananas, soreen, dried fruit and nuts.
The bidons would be prepped before a race and loaded into the team car for use as required. They would contain either water, isotonic or carbohydrates; the proportions depending on what kind of a race it was that day. On a particularly freezing cold race we would fill them with hot tea, which would go down well when the guys reached the top of a climb, frozen inside and out. Breakfast was often supplied at the hotels but we would also supplement this with some staples to ensure the guys had the same stuff they usually eat at home. You can imagine staying in a foreign country and waking up to find a completely different breakfast spread before a big race; it wouldn’t go down too well! We would often adorn the table every morning with condiments, spices and things like warm porridge or bircher muesli to pad out the breakfast already provided. One of my favourite jobs was always coming up with something different for the post-race meal. After each race, the guys would be served a solid meal whilst they showered and got ready to head to the next destination. I recall brioche burgers filled with pulled pork went down a treat after one race!
In my experience, I find that many athletes invest a lot of time (and money) on training, coaching and treatment (when required). However, they often neglect such a vital area that contributes to performance; nutrition. As Dr. Mark Hyman puts it; “In a lab, all calories are the same when you burn them. But they aren’t when you eat them”. Our aim was to provide the guys with the right nutrients, to race hard, using real food where possible.
Preparation & Planning
Most people only focus on the racing, because this is all they see. But racing represents such as small proportion of these guys’ time. What we don’t see is the countless days of training and the constant need to say “no” to alcohol and refined sugar (to maintain their lean frames) and the relentless need to manage niggles and injuries by looking after their bodies with regular prehab or rehab. These guys invest, day in, day out, to produce a solid performance on the day of the race. The key takeaway for me is that it’s more about the journey than the destination. I know I have definitely changed my own mindset regarding my training and how I approach a race, as a result of this.
Cycling is the epitome of a team sport and strategy plays a key role in approaching a race. Each day would involve at least two team briefings (to plan for the day ahead and learn from the day past). It was critical in ensuring that everyone (both staff and riders) kept communicating. It was essentially a chance for all of us to check in with each other, digest what had played out that day, learn from any mistakes and move forwards towards our main goal. Our DS (the man in charge) always built these team briefings into each day. They formed a key part of the rhythm during a stage race and ensured that we operated to the best of our ability as a team. It also provided staff with a good opportunity to sit down with a beer at the end of a long day!
Whether you’re also an avid cycling fan that enjoys a beach road chain gang or you’re training for your next big race, please get in touch if you need any help around nutrition or massage (anything from prehab, rehab, mobility to flexibility).
In the meantime, happy training all and vive le tour!