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Shadowing a soigneur - Life among the Australians in Thüringen Rundfahrt

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Earlier in the week I told you about how I spent the morning of Thüringen Rundfahrt Stage 2 with Nico, the Jayco AIS Australian National Team mechanic – and that afternoon I continued my Australian theme by shadowing Liane Wild, one of the two team soigneurs, and saw what happens once the race is one the road.

I’ve already told you about the HTC-Highroad soigneurs’ pre-race preparations – and I loved getting to see more of the "backstage" action – including all the little touches that spread the love for the Aussie team whenever they race!

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The 2011 season is Liane’s first year with the team. She’s a trained massage therapist, and had her own business in Townsville, Queensland. She’d worked on sports events before – on the Disabled Water Ski World Championships in 2007, and through that, with the Australian Wheelchair Basketball teams. A keen cyclist herself, when the national team were looking for a new soigneur, and rider Ruth Corset suggested Liane, she jumped at the chance to try something new. She put in her application, had a phone interview, and after a trial period with the team at the Bay Crit series and the Australian National Championships, was offered the job. She sold her half of the business, and set out for Europe.

Leaving the business she set up and moving to the other side of the world from her friends, family and two grown-up sons is a huge thing to do, but it means Liane can relate to the riders, if they have periods of doubt or home-sickness. She’s also given up a lot to follow herImg_2383_mediumdream, and her sunny personality and attitude of taking opportunities whenever they come, and "If things are meant to happen, they will!" is something that I know I found inspiring to be around.

Before the race, Liane’s job is to set up the home-from-home in the car park or road-side allocated to the teams, with fold-out chairs, food, clothes and everything the riders need. She’ll give final leg rubs, and come to the start of the race to take wind jackets, and provide extra reassurance, if it’s needed, staying by the start-line until the race begins. Once the riders are off on the road, it’s back to the base to pack everything away, double-check that the van is prepared, the satnav programmed, and then it’s off to the feedzone.

With the stages no longer than 140 km, the riders carry their food for the day, and the feedzone is for passing out bottles only. Any extra food or gels are provided by the team car, so there’s none of the musette swinging that you see in the men’s races. The feedzones are set up on hills – not the decisive climbs, but somewhere where it’s less fast when the riders pass through. Finding the feedzone can be a job in itself - in Germany, everything was very ordered – well-signed, and with organisers who’ll order a team off if they try to feed the riders outside the official zone – but it's not always like that, and still can be hard to find the right spot, especially with roads c17_mediumut off for the racing. When one vehicle is parked, the other teams will stop around it, so there’s always a chance that half the teams will accidentally set up in the wrong place, if they’re not careful!

Once they’ve found the site, the soigneurs scope it out to see where the best place to set up will be. They then get a rare chance to relax, and get ahead with preparations for later on, like mixing drinks for after the race. They start their mornings early, and are "on duty" all day, so it’s only while the racing is taking place that they get some time to themselves. Most of the teams had two soigneurs - and the teams all seemed very friendly, laughing and joking with each other as they waited – with a culture of helping each other out – much less cut-throat than the men’s world.

One of the nicest things about spending time with Liane (apart from her excellent company, of course!) was seeing all the little things she did that were above and beyond the call of duty. Her van has a stack of Australia caps and rider cards, and every time sh18_mediume stops, she gives some out, especially to children, and to fans on bikes or in cycling kit. It’s a really nice touch – showing the people by the side of the road that they’re appreciated, and giving riders signs of support on the hills where they need it most. Conversations in a few words of German and English - and sign language (kids doing kangaroo jumps to show what they know about the Aussies!) - and above all, big smiles, meant everywhere Liane stopped, she won new fans for the team, and if the riders looked up, they’d see supporters cheering for them. Even when driving through the villages, she’d beep and wave at the people waiting for the race who recognised it was a team vehicle – and it adds to the atmosphere. As a pretend Australian for the day, I got to help out, and it’s a lovely feeling – mutual appreciation and friendliness, making fans and kids happy. It’s this kind of thing – not to mention Liane’s willingness to give up her precious free time to answer all my stupid questions – that make it really easy to love this team.

As the feeding time drew nearer, things moved up a gear. The soigneurs separated, pulled on their team vests, moving to the right-hand side of the road, and taking up position. The first vehicle to pass is the car with the radio on top, explaining the race and giving some updates in German - then traffic stops, and it’s game on. This race has a long wait behind the cars – everyone steps forward, craning necks to get the first glimpse of the race, soigneurs already in the road, a bottle in the air, so their riders could see them as soon as they turn the corner.

On this stage, there was a breakaway, two small groups, with Vicki Whitelaw and Shara Gillow from the Australian team. With the chance to get precious time bonuses, the break didn’t stop to feed – they shot straight past us.

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Even on a hill, going relatively slowly, it’s hard, as a fan, to immediately recognise the riders as they fly past. The soigneurs are totally focussed on their own six riders, though, and after the second group had passed, Scott and Liane came back together to swap notes on who they’d definitely seen. All six Aussies were accounted for in the break and the main peloton, so they could pack up and head off – Scott to the airport to collect Martin Barras, Liane back to town, to meet the riders at the finish.

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Getting back can be a bit more complicated than getting out – the roads are full of team vehicles turning, and with the Germans keeping the roads shut for longer than most, it’s lots of turning round and improvising a route – especially when, like on that day, the race looped around narrow, parallel roads. We had to stop for the race, but once again, Liane put the time to good use with caps, smiles and cheering her riders.

Once we were back in Greiz, the start and finish town of the day, there was time to get everything perfect for the finish – electrolyte drinks, water and protein shakes, and the podium bag, just in case – full of babywipes, towels, a fresh jacket and food. With the DS in the cars, directed off the course for the end of the race, the soigneurs are the first people the riders see – to celebrate with, if the race has gone well, or to commiserate if it hasn’t been so good. The riders cluster round their swanny, and it’s all gestures as they describe the key moments of the race. For this stage, it was huge smiles – the break had stayed away, and Vicki Whitelaw had finished in second place, with Shara Gillow in 4th, on the same time – the podium bag definitely needed today!

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After the race, there’s a twenty-minute turn-around time, as riders change, grab a drink and a sandwich, their bikes are packed, and they’re on the road. Back at the hotel, depending on what time the race ends, there might be time for massages before dinner, or it could be afterwards. Then it’s cleaning the bidons, starting the day’s washing, and getting as much preparation done for the next day – and maybe a de-brief or planning meeting with the other team staff. The day runs from 7.30am, often ending after 11pm, and a good soigneur is always on the clock, ready to drop everything if a rider needs them, and always projecting an aura of calm, control and good-humour. It’s a real skill – no matter what’s going on around them, keeping everything relaxed helps the riders.

The soigneur may be a highly trained massage therapist or physio, but they also have to do everything from rally driving a van to washing kits, to being able to provide anything a rider asks for at any time of day or night. As riders get stressed if things aren’t going right, or tired in the busy racing period, being tolerant and unflappable is a must. It’s a busy job – but in this team, gives a lot of satisfaction.

I asked Liane what the best part of her job is, she had a huge smile to go with her answer: "It thrills me to be able to help people have a happy day!" Watching her use her skills to help riders achieve their goals, and supporting the team in a myriad of different ways, she always seemed happy herself – here’s to her always enjoying her European adventures, I hope she gets all the opportunities she deserves!

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My huge thanks to Liane Wild for her generosity with her time, and her friendliness throughout my time in Thüringen, and to Scott, Nico and Martin for answering all my stupid questions throughout the week – and to DS Dave McPartland for letting me take up his staff’s valuable time! Good luck to all the riders at the Worlds next week and in all the seasons to come - go Aussie!

Photos and article: Sarah Connolly