The Washington Post

How many people does it take to get on the Tour de France podium?


The Tour de France is a tremendous operation. A team is required to propel an individual to the finish line some 2,277  miles through the mountainous European landscape. But when commentators refer to Team Sky or Team Katusha or one of the other 20 teams in the race, they’re not just talking about each group’s nine cyclists. They’re also talking about the many behind-the-scenes team members, who together make these riders’ journeys possible.

“It’s a hell of a machine,” Tim Vanderjeugd, press officer for Trek Factory Racing, said. Yes, he’s on the team, too, although you’d never know it from watching at home.

(Getty Images)

Vanderjeugd’s role is indispensable. If not for him, who would field journalists’ questions such as mine? Who would handle promotional events during the tour? Who would tweet for the team? If the cyclists were responsible for all that while trying to pedal thousands of miles, no doubt the race would be a lot slower.

The same philosophy can be applied to any member of a team, which tend to number around 30 people. Here’s Trek Factory Racing’s full team list, according to Vanderjeugd, along with their duties:

    • 9 cyclists (although, because of injuries and circumstance, that number is now down to six; the Tour de France allows no substitutions);
    • 1 general manager, who oversees team operations;
    • 2 sports directors, who travel with the racers during the stages in two team cars along the route;
    • 4 mechanics, who are split between the two team cars loaded with bikes and other replacement parts;
  • 1 trainer, whose job it is, is to collect and analyze data off the cyclists computers to help inform the next day’s strategy
  • 5 soigneurs, who not only give cyclists daily one-hour massages, but also prepare water bottles and snacks to hand off to cyclists at the Tour’s designated feed zones. Additionally, the soigneurs man the team’s luggage when it’s being transported between hotels, and basically ensure all non-mechanical operational duties go as smoothly as possibly;
  • 1 doctor, who should not to be confused with the race doctors hired by the Tour de France who tend to injured riders during the race. The team’s doctor may travel along with the riders during the stages. But his main job is to take care of riders before and after the course, unless a particularly severe injury occurs, at which point the team doctor would take over for the race doctor;
  • 1 osteopath/chiropractor, who is hired specifically by the team only for the duration of the Tour de France to help riders maintain their general health throughout the three weeks of hard racing;
  • 1 bus driver, who’s responsible for transporting the team and maintain cycling equipment, such as shoes and helmets that are left on the bus;
  • 1 photographer;
  • 1 technical manager, who oversees all the racing equipment;
  • 1 chef, who caters to the riders needs. He mans a refrigerated kitchen truck and maintains fruitful relationships with the staff of whatever hotel’s kitchen he’ll be making meals out of next;
  • 1 press officer, who fields journalists’ questions, organizes interviews with the cyclists and, generally, handles all communications and media for the team;
  • And a handful of other personnel, such as drivers of hospitality vehicles, a hospitality manager who takes care of guests of Trek Factory Racing and more.

Other teams revealed they have similar structures, albeit with a few variations. They may not have their own team photographer, or they might have an extra marketing official on board. For example, BMC Racing has three sports directors, according to Jim Ochowicz, the general manager and president of BMC Racing Team, and Garmin-Sharp’s team boasts an extra chef, according the team’s communications director Marya Pongrace. The chef duo are husband and wife Sean and Olga Fowler, and they feed Garmin-Sharp riders well.

On Stage 5 this year, teams got even bigger, temporarily adding up to 30 extra helpers to ensure the riders could successfully navigate the treacherous unpaved cobbles and torrential downpours of the day.

“All the teams brought out extra technical people to be on the side of the road with wheels,” he said, in case the rough cobbles blew out a rider’s tire or wheel, Ochowicz said.

Pongrace reports Garmin-Sharp added around 15 mechanics to its roster that day.

“This is by far the largest race we do,” Vanderjeugd explained, adding that Trek also boasts what he says is the most international team in the race. “The staff is from 22 countries.”

The common language is English, Vanderjeugd said, but depending on who’s gathered, a group may slip into Italian, Spanish or French. But before any possible language issues can become a challenge, team members must first navigate location barriers that can make the very act of speaking difficult.

“We’re not meeting in a locker room at a fixed site every day,” said BMC’s Ochowicz.

The team is constantly moving around, handling business where needed. The chef and some of the jack-of-all-trade soigneurs may be heading to the next pit stop hundreds of miles away, while the racers and sports directors might be readying for the start of the day’s stage. Phones and short-wave radios — and their maintenance — become extra important.

But Ochowicz sees the value in having at least a couple of full BMC Racing face-to-face meetings during the three-week tour. This year, he squeezed them in during the tour’s two rest days.

“On those two rest days, we do, before dinner, a half-hour briefing with the whole team: all staff and all riders. It’s the only time during the whole race that everybody’s in the same place,” Ochowicz said. He added that, while the riders don’t get to indulge, the team meetings are accompanied by a tipple of wine and some grilled sausages.

While getting to the team hotel is the team’s responsibility — hence, the need for all the drivers — actually booking them is not. Tour de France operators plan lodging in advance, which can be good or bad.

“We go from nice hotels to average ones,” Vanderjeugd said, adding the worst are when there’s not enough space to unfold a massage table.

That’s the last thing a tired soigneur wants to deal with, after handling all the other unseen details that help propel the team’s lead rider to the podium.

“They’re definitely the hardest-working members of the team,” Vanderjeugd said.

Shh. Don’t tell the cyclists.

Marissa Payne writes for The Early Lead, a fast-breaking sports blog, where she focuses on what she calls the “cultural anthropological” side of sports, aka “mostly the fun stuff.” She is also an avid WWE fan.



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Marissa Payne · July 24, 2014