Last week I was at the Thüringen Rundfahrt, one of the biggest stage races for women outside of the Giro Donne. I was there because Horizon Fitness-Prendas Ciclismo had taken me along with them, but I wanted to use the opportunity to see what goes on behind the scenes, enabling the cyclists to race - so I was very grateful indeed to have the chance to shadow Arkadiusz Wojtas, one of the two HTC-Highroad soigneurs, as he prepared for Stage 3 of the race.
Arkadiusz is a former professional cyclist from Poland. After he finished his career on the road, he never lost the love for the sport - he trained as a physiotherapist, and joined Nürnberger as a soigneur, moving to HTC-Highroad four years ago. He’s had a lot of experience on both sides, and the biggest difference between riding and the work of soigneur, he told me, is the tiredness, he told me – as a rider, it was the mental exhaustion that was most difficult to deal with, while as a soigneur, it’s the physical tiredness of a long race.
There are two soigneurs for the HTC-Highroad women’s team, Arkadiusz and Beth Duryea. When the team is only riding one race, they'll both be with the team, but when they are riding at two races at the same time (eg when they had a team in the USA and one in Europe earlier in the season), they'll have one soigneur at each. The men’s team has four or five soigneurs, and a team doctor – "But we do the same work", Arkadiusz said with a smile.
Their race will start at the HTC-Highroad service centre in Belgium (or in the USA when the team is racing there) where they’ll prepare their truck and get everything ready for the race. They’ll then drive one of the race vehicles to wherever they’re racing, pick up riders from the airport, and get to the hotel to set everything up. One of the first jobs is to check out the food situation – from whether there will there be a proper breakfast for the cyclists (it’s not unusual to be initially offered just a roll and coffee at some hotels), to details like wheat-free options for any gluten-intolerant riders – and if the hotel won’t provide it, the soigneur will.
HTC-Highroad had probably the second biggest set-up at the race – their giant truck, with separate compartments for all the bikes at the back, and room for two soigneurs to work together at the front. This stayed in the hotel car park all week, while the other vehicles went to the races – two vans, two cars and a motor home. It’s a very professional-looking set-up – and with all the staff wearing their t-shirts with the names of both the men’s and women’s teams, everything about the team projects that this is one of the best teams in the world, and both sides of the team are equal. I’d always got that impression from the website, but it was great to see it confirmed in real life as well.
Arkadiusz Wojtas and Nicole Faust (helping out with the Russian National team - usually works for Germany)
I'd spent the day before with the Australians, and seen how the soigneurs from different teams help each other out at the feedzone, and it doesn’t stop there. Arkadiusz works particularly closely with Tomasc Czapelski, the Polish soigneur for AA Drink-Leontien.nl – every day they take it in turns to drive to the supermarket for the first job of the day - buying the day’s food.
If the riders need internet to keep them happy, and the mechanics need water pressure, one of the key things a soigneur needs is a good source of food, and water – a reliable supply of drinking water, to make ice, and for their washing machines. The fact this race spends the whole week in the same hotel makes the soigneur’s job so much easier, on so many fronts. Once they're plugged into water and electricity, they're set up for the week, and they can find the best supermarket, which is important not just for food, but so they can be ready if a rider has forgotten her razor, or needs something at short notice.
Every day they buy fresh bread, fruit, lots of meat, yoghurts, and regional treats like waffles for the road. I wondered if it wouldn’t it be easier to buy in bulk for the whole week, but it turns out it’s much better to get into the habit of shopping every day – then if there isn’t electricity for the truck’s fridge, there isn’t a problem, and everything is guaranteed to be fresh. It’s very important that the riders can trust everything they’re given – for health reasons, and to be sure they aren’t accidentally eating something banned.
Back at the truck, it was clear how much the equipment - and especially the storage space - helps the staff. There’s a place for absolutely everything, clearly labelled, with room to work. Having a dryer as well as a washing machine really helps – in other teams, drying space is at a premium, and looking out of my hotel window, there were always jerseys and towels hanging out of riders’ rooms. Staying with a very small team, where riders (and hangers on!) have to wash their own kit in the shower every night, I could really appreciate the dryer – and I can’t imagine how anything ever dries without one, when a team has to move out of the hotel every morning. HTC generally run four lots of washing a day, just for the riders – two of colours, one white, one of towels – and then the staff’s washing on top.
The truck is equipped with absolutely everything, ready for any eventuality - if an HTC rider arrives at the airport and her bag has gone missing, the truck can provide her with everything she needs – from clothing to her bike gear to toiletries – everything except for underwear and cycling shoes. A good rider always carries her shoes, I was told!
After the shopping, the next job is food preparation for before the race. The hotel provided breakfast from 8am, then lunch at around 11, so sandwiches and fruit are provided for the riders and team staff (staff get salami, riders have turkey or tuna). Watching Arkadiusz work, I was struck by how methodical he is – everything calm, slow and steady, cleaning up as he goes. It’s surprisingly mellow in the car park before the race – people walking past with armfuls of bottled water, washing vehicles, teams helping each other out, and calling greetings to each other.
After the sandwich prep, it was time for coffee in the camper. A good coffee machine is very important, and the HTC-Highroad camper had this fantastic smell of coffee all the way through it. While it brewed, everything in the camper was checked, so it was all ready for the race – there are definitely rhythms to the work in the top teams, another little sign that this is "pro".
After coffee, it’s time to make the in-race food – little sandwiches of waffles (or rice cakes for wheat-free riders) filled with jam or nutella, carefully wrapped in special paper that’s grease-proof and won’t cut the riders’ mouths as they rip it open mid-ride. Little details like this make racing for HTC easy for the riders – as does having three different food sponsors for in-race food and gels, so riders don’t get bored with the same three flavours over and over.
After the food was ready, everything was packed into the cars – and later I went to the feedzone with Arkadiusz and Beth, to see them in action. They ended up with two of the race photographers around them – it’s always a pretty sure bet that the team will do something on the stage, and this stage was no exception. At the feedzone, Highroad's Adrie Visser and Amanda Miller were in the breakaway group, and you can read all about how the stage played out in my report from the stage.
Different teams are like different countries, according to Arkadiusz – each one has a different culture. But to be a good soigneur, you need to like all parts of the job, and like cycling. The hardest part, he told me, is balancing his love of cycling, and his love of his family. With two small children at home in Poland, he misses his home when he’s on the road.
But he loves what he does – the best thing about it, he says, is working hard for all the riders, and celebrating when they win. Sometimes, he said with a smile, it can feel like the team wins so much that they forget to celebrate – but seeing him later on after the stage, after HTC-Highroad’s Amanda Miller had won with a spectacular attack from the breakaway in the final corner, I knew that it wouldn’t be the case! Watching his extra little attention to details – putting down a folded towel, so that Miller wouldn’t catch cold from the canvas chair that was damp from the rain – the pride in his work, and having the chance to contribute to such an amazing team, was clear. It must be a fantastic feeling – and proof once more, how much cycling is all about the work of the entire team around the riders.
I’m very grateful to Arkadiusz Wojtas and Beth Duryea for letting me shadow their work – and to HTC-Highroad’s DS Jens Zemke, for letting me take up his team staff’s time. Thanks very much to all of them – and good luck in the rest of the season and the future!
Words and pictures: Sarah Connolly - all photos copyright