All images: ©KL Photo
When you watch a bike race on television, everything appears to run smoothly. Each day, the riders show up on the start line in fresh kits with bikes that look like they just came out of the box. No one looks too stressed, and they seem ready to take on the day’s stage. But things aren’t always as they seem.
Behind the scenes at a bike race, it is anything but smooth and stress-free. There are a huge number of things that need to be done before and after each stage to ensure that everything and everyone is ready to do it all over again the next day. On the day before the race, the team cars need to be fuelled and washed. The bikes must be cleaned and serviced. Riders generally receive a massage to ensure that they are ready for the race start and managers need to attend pre-race briefings.
Then on race day before the stage begins, the soigneurs organize water bottles and race food. Feedbags are prepared, and one or two staff members must be transported to the feed zone before the race starts. Breakfast is prepared for the riders, the luggage is collected, and the cars and truck are packed. The luggage and truck head off to the next hotel where a soigneur prepares the rooms for that night.
After the stage finish, the bikes are washed and serviced again, and any repairs such as punctures are fixed. The riders receive massages and laundry washed and dried. The cars are cleaned and washed, race reports are written, and dinner is prepared and eaten. On top of this, there may be any other number of things that can come up during or between stages.
All of this takes time, so to make sure it happens, the soigneurs and mechanics are the first ones out of bed in the morning and generally the last ones to sleep at night. They have their race routines down to a fine art and know where and when they need to be. Unfortunately, race organizers don’t always take these behind-the-scene duties into consideration when they are planning events.
At the recent Tour of Croatia, we had some epically long days both on the bike and in the car. Stage 1 was a six-hour day on the bike that saw us cover 236 kilometers. Directly after the stage finish, we jumped right into the team cars for a 500km transfer across the country for Stage 2. The problem was, a snowstorm hit and the highway was closed. The trip was made even longer by having to weave our way across back roads. Eventually, we arrived at the hotel just before midnight, and we were one of the first teams to arrive!
Thankfully, the restaurant remained open for us so that we were able to eat: everything else waited until morning. Needless to say, the mechanics were not happy campers and neither were several of the bus drivers who were stressfully stuck in the snow.
The Tour of Croatia covered over 1000km in just six days, making it a long race by any standard. Over the next few days, teams endured several long transfers both before and after stages. In total, there was around 1200km in transfers, making the race that much longer. Fortunately for us, we had enough staff and vehicles to send luggage and spare equipment to the next hotel before the stage started. However, the smaller teams did not have this option. Many riders arrived at the hotels late at night still dressed in their cycling kit!
At the end of the week, many riders were tired not only from the long stages but also the late nights and early starts. Yet, the people who were the most exhausted were the team staff. Unfortunately, if the stage is long and made even longer by hotel transfers, they do not have the option to finish their jobs later. It just means that they get less sleep.
Fortunately, the Tour of Croatia was only six days long, and respite was not too far away. I could not imagine a Grand Tour where the race starts in a totally different country and then having to transfer everyone and everything thousands of kilometres over three weeks!
Chris Williams rides for Team Novo Nordisk - the world's first all-diabetes pro cycling team.