The Soigneur Diaries: Race Days in Bretagne

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Photo by Sara Clawson.

Soigneurs may very well have the most thankless job in professional cycling. They take care of the grunt-work details necessary to keep a pro team running smoothly while remaining mostly anonymous. Sara Clawson is a sports massage therapist in Greensboro, North Carolina who’s making inroads to a soigneur career. This spring, she spent two months working as a soigneur with the US elite junior team at USA Cycling’s training center in Sittard, Netherlands. Over the next month, Sara’s writing (originally posted on her blog) will shed some light on the “swanny life” as she recounts her experience traveling around Europe working with the next generation of American professional road cyclists. In part three, Sara explains the nitty-gritty of a race weekend in France as the juniors and U23s do their best to perform at pro-tour level.

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, two: 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 seven stages between 145 and 200 kilometers over challenging terrain in the rural northern coastal country of France. The six USA national team riders selected for the race were charged with two major tasks: return some good results and, perhaps more importantly, to learn the skills needed to race at the level 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.

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 two days before the race began, which gave me a day to prepare and learn the ropes.
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 seven years and have taught seminars at the graduate level for the last three. It was honestly a relief to focus my energy for a couple hours on something in which I am well-versed and experienced. It’s also hard work, 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
  • Prepare bottles
  • 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
  • Program start parking into the GPS
  • Pack 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

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

Feed Zone

  • 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
  • Jump in van 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
  • 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.

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 frequently found myself wondering what I had gotten myself into.
But there were also 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!

One Response to The Soigneur Diaries: Race Days in Bretagne

  1. Absolutely brilliant series! I would love to see a documentary film on this subject. Thanks much!

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