These Guys, These Effin’ Guys.
Taking One for the Team. These words could never find a greater embodiment than in the daily role of a soigneur. Talk about taking one for the team.
Soigneurs might possibly be the most invisible characters in a bike race – after the riders, the Directeurs Sportifs, the mechanics, the organizational manpower, the press, the fans… most people have no clear idea of the what-all that goes into their day. They are often the first ones up and at ’em at the team hotel. They set up the riders’ special breakfast, prepare the staff lunch-packets, finish the laundry, do the grocery shopping, collect the suitcases from 30 rooms around the hotel, pack the cars, the bus, the truck, prepare the rooms at the next night’s hotel, do the massages, assist the riders with their kits, their physio, and their morale. They are the ones at the finish line – with fresh towels, cold drinks, and hugs of celebration or, at times, simple compassion. They watch the final KMs of the race play out and can often intuit when one of their riders will win. Or… need consolation later on.
Get to know a World Tour soigneur and you get to know a lot about the machinations of a bike race. My introduction to pro cycling very quickly led me to a heightened awareness of what unsung heroes these guys (and gals!) are. So much of what makes a stage race of this magnitude work is the support structure in place within the teams. Of course, a strong bike racer can go hard, and win, on high-performance gear with good training and a lot of motivation. But… can he and his teammates do that day in and day out with all the pressure of travel, demanding fans, urgent press requests, long hours on the team bus away from friends and family, super hot days under the unrelenting sun or in the wind or the rain or even the surprise snowstorms of the 2013 Giro d’Italia? This is where the support really makes a difference.
Soigneurs don’t just attend to the physical needs of the riders, of which there are many, but they nurture the emotional and psychological sides of the athletes as well. They know when a disappointed rider needs quiet and space or when they need to vent and talk through the day. They know the special foods and skin creams and hairgels that make the riders smile, and feel that much more understood and cared for. They know when to give a hug, a pat on the back, a high-five, or a passing wink to surge the spirits after 15 hard days on the bike… and 6 more still ahead.
The soigneur pool is made up of folks from over 3 dozen countries, many of them carrying on conversations in multiple languages, and having extensive backgrounds in sport – many having raced themselves – and in sports medicine and physiology. They can handle most any situation that presents itself during a 3-week race. They understand the nuance of what it takes to survive a Grand Tour – and they somehow all seem to be exceptionally trained in stoicism. In five years I have never heard or overheard a soigneur whine.
It’s a rare race day when either Jim or I get to ride-along with a team’s soigneurs. Not because the invitation isn’t there – but because it means taking one of us “off course” for the entire day of race action as the soigneurs leave the start at least an hour prior to head to the feedzone. So, we take the opportunity rather seriously when we dedicate those 6 hours with these guys. And, these guys – they always make it worth it.
Heading to the feedzone with Frits and Peter, Team Saxo-Tinkoff soigneurs, on stage 12 was a highlight of this Tour de France. It wasn’t my first ride with the soignies, nor my last. It wasn’t even an exceptional day in that anything out of the ordinary happened. In fact, it was the normalcy of it all that is remarkable. We’ve known Frits since his HTC – Highroad days and came to know Peter when Frits joined the SaxoBank team in early 2012. They are friendly, jovial, energetic characters that make us smile every time we are reunited at a bike race. And they have become our friends.
When we raced to the start, so I could jump into the awaiting Saxo-Tinkoff soignie-mobile, I was greeted with the customary Fritsy-grin as he called out C’mon Iri! in his lyrical Dutch accent. This warmth that you feel when entering the inner-circle of any team’s soigneurs is part of the fabric of their being. It’s who they are. And as we drove along the course making small talk, rocking out to their CD collection, and laughing about sights spotted at high-speed as we flew by, I chuckled to myself at how both Frits and Peter seemed to just enjoy having me as a guest in the car and not at all that interested in the images I might capture of the experience. As with much of this sport, it’s the relationships that matter. Entering the feedzone is no exception.
On this day, the feedzone was rather small and packed with fans. There was one narrow section that allowed space for a few vehicles and, as soon as Frits jumped out to (politely) shoo aside a family of picnickers, several other team cars pulled in. Thus, we had a gathering between Saxo-Tinkoff, Team Sky, Garmin-Sharp. Lotto-Belisol, Cannondale, and Vacansoleil-DCM. As soon as we parked, all the soigneurs made haste at prepping the bottles and musettes for their riders. But once done, there was time enough to sit, have a snack, and most importantly catch up. It became a kind of story-hour with the group that hovered around the back of the Saxo van. Frits spinning yarns and Maarten (Vacansoleil) making everyone laugh as the self-proclaimed comedian of the group.
In a short time this camaraderie would be broken up by 189 hungry, thirsty, tired riders blowing through the feedzone in a blur of bodies and bike parts and discarded bidons. From that instant the soigneurs would all jump into their vehicles and commence a breakneck-speed convoy to get to the finish. An energy of intensity, of duty calling, of another 5 or 6 hours of work still ahead would disrupt the laconic ease that I was privvy to in the FZ.
And, like all things bike-race, the cycle would continue. These guys, these fucking guys. They are the heart that keeps this crazy life going. Glod Bless them.