While the mechanics keep the Garmin-Cervélo bikes performing, a special group of people keep the riders performing, the soigneurs. This is their story.
Two groups of people keep the Garmin-Cervélo riders going at the Tour de France: the mechanics who keep the bikes singing and the soigneurs who keep their bodies fueled and supple.
Soigneurs are versatile staff-members who do everything from massage therapy to food preparation to on-the-road bottle handups to clothes washing. Without them, the team would halt.
To find what goes into this job, we spend stage 10 of the Tour de France, a 158-kilometer race through the rolling, sunflower-field covered landscapes of the Aveyron and Tarn regions of France, with Sophie Roullous and Josep Colomer, both four-year veterans with the team.
After eating breakfast at 8:15 a.m. at the team hotel, the pair prepare the day’s bottles. Of the 150 CamelBak Podium bottles, 75-percent are filled with energy drink. The rest are water. Other soigneurs make lunches for the team cars, VIP vehicles and prepare the riders’ feed bags.
After bringing the riders’ suitcases to the team truck, Josep and Sophie caravan with the team bus and four other team cars to the race start in Aveyron. When the bus pulls into the team parking lot, it is mobbed with fans hungry for a photo or rider signature.
30 minutes before the 1:30 p.m. race start, Sophie and Josep hop in their car, identified by a pink, blue and black sticker across the windshield that reads “Tour de France Equipe 253.” We ease through masses of fans onto the race course.
10 minutes down the course, it starts to hail. Marble-size ice pummels the car. Outside, fans scramble under trees and the eaves of stone barns. “Today is not a good day to be a bike rider,” Sophie observes in the lilting accent that comes of her upbringing in France.
We are headed to the day’s feed zone, a Tour-appointed location 77.5 kilometers into the race. Along the way, every kilometer is populated with fans. This is rural France, and minuscule roads wind us through wooded valleys, along rushing streams and past countless stone villages and fields dotted with France’s omnipresent cylindrical hay bales.
We also thread past white flotillas of motorhomes parked on the side of the road. These rafts of moving houses come from all over Europe to follow the Tour each summer. (Note to self, that is the way to watch the Tour!) Though they have been doing this for 10 days now, the motorhome campers agitate flags and smile as we pass like they have never seen a Garmin car before. In villages, watchers spot our car and excitedly yell “Garmin!.”
We stop for gas at a Total station. It costs over 100 US dollars to fill a car in France. A techno pop song comes on the radio: “Every day I’m shufflin’” It’s followed by another that refrains, “Johnny, la gente esta muy loca, what the…” then slips into language that would never fly on American radio. “It’s the same songs every day at the same time,” Sophie says.
At the start of the feed zone, Josep stops and chats with a soigneur from the Euskaltel-Euskadi team. Josep is Catalan, and the Euskaltel staffer Basque, so they speak in Spanish. Then, in French, Josep and Sophie discuss where to park. We drive a kilometer further down the road. After parking next to a RadioShack car, Josep and Sophie pull out folding chairs, open icy bottles of water and sit down to eat wraps.
It’s hot and humid now. The staff wearies of sandwiches made of bread every day, so they mix up their road diet by making wraps. Every three days or so the soigneurs go grocery shopping for fresh food for the lunches.
Sophie and Josep discuss upcoming work schedules with the RadioShack soigneurs,: Clásica San Sebastián, Utah, Colorado, Tour of Spain, Lombardy, China, Australia; a carousel of international destinations.
Two-minutes after 3:00 p.m., Josep pulls on a Garmin-Cervélo jersey. Sophie dons a team wind vest. These are so the riders can identify their soigneurs. The pair pack up their folding chairs, Sophie holds the chair bags while Josep folds the seats; even small acts a team effort, without hesitation.
Sophie opens a cooler in the back of the car and pulls out eight cloth musette bags. Each one contains two water bottles, two Clif Bars, two Clif Shot Bloks, two Clif Shot Gels, a panini sandwich and a small can of Coke. “Baby Cokes,” Sophie calls them.
A swarm of helicopters on the horizon is the signal to move onto the road. The helicopters are like a pack of black gnats, but as they grow closer they take on the presence of five thumping, bladed reptiles.
Sophie takes four food bags and heads up the road a few hundred meters. By separating, the two ensure the riders have two chances to grab a musette.
The field appears. With his right hand Josep holds a musette bag high in the air. Like his jersey, the bags are are printed with Garmin-Cervélo colors, which makes it easier for the riders to distinguish their food.
Josep hands off bags to Christian Vande Velde, Tyler Farrar, Julian Dean and Tom Danielson. When Ramunas Navardauskas appears, Josep is out stock. He shrugs his shoulders and says “Je suis désolé” to the young Lithuanian, who, as usual, is broadly smiling. Ramunas looks back for a second, then pedals up the road to get a handoff from Sophie.
Past the end of the feed zone, fans descend like locusts as riders jettison their used bottles. And the supreme prize of the day is one of the rider musette bags riders toss after filling their pockets with its contents.
Now begins the “race within the race,” Josep says. The soigneurs have to get to the finish before the riders. And since today’s stage is held across tiny, tiny back roads without a motorway for miles around, this drive soon takes on the appearance of a pro cycling motorcar rally. Following our Garmin Nuvi’s instructions, we twist through quaint villages. Ahead of are RadioShack, AG2R and Europecar vehicles. Behind us the parade continues with Euskaltel, Katusha, Lampre and more.
We scream into the finish while the riders are only 15-kilometers out. French policemen wave us onto the course, we drive under the finish banner and park next to the team bus. Josep and Sophie grab soft red coolers filled with carbonated water and sodas. Sophie puts on an enormous North Face backpack filled with towels and warm clothes and they run to a point about 50 yards past the finish line.
After the riders storm past the finish in the 11,000-person town of Lavaur, a line of French gendarmerie create a corridor for riders to pass through. At the end, the soigneurs hand drinks to the riders and point them toward the team bus.
The riders are swarmed by photographers and TV cameras. Sophie says this is one of the hardest parts about the Tour. While the race is so well organized that it generally a pleasure to work, the intensity of the media presence creates a level of stress unlike any other race, especially for a soigneur whose job is to protect riders from inconvenience once they are off the race course.
Then, with the last rider is accounted for, Sophie and Josep head to the team hotel. There, they collect all the riders’ wet clothing and wash it. Next it’s massage for all the riders, which is probably their most important task on a three-week Grand Tour. Once the last rider is off the table they have dinner, go to sleep and repeat it all again tomorrow.
More photos from the Tour de France:
In 2011 Mark Johnson is writing and photographing a book on Garmin-Cervélo to be published by VeloPress in early 2012. You can follow his travels with the team on Twitter @argylearmada