Words and photos by Emily Maye.
Typically, a soigneur’s day starts early. They prepare food and drink for the riders to take both during the stage and after the finish, organize their luggage for transport to the next hotel, and make sure that each rider has a rain bag, a finish bag and a podium bag (in the case of a win). They map out the route to the feed zone to deliver food and drink and find spots on course to hand out water bottles where feeding from the car my be tricky. After the stage, they collect the laundry from the riders and conduct massages in order to get the riders’ bodies back into proper working order for the next day. Sometimes their work will go well into dinner, and they are always some of the last to eat at the end of a long day.
For development riders, a soigneur can also be a source of knowledge when trying to navigate the complexities of beginning a career as a pro athlete. As Reed transitioned from working with World Tour riders to Development riders he noticed the difference in the way that riders sought information and advice from him, and the impact that that advice could have:
“They’re so impressionable at that age. You give a kid one bad piece of advice and you can ruin him. You can tell a kid he needs to lose four kilos and all of a sudden he can’t put out power; then he gets sick and doesn’t get selected for the next race; then this other kid is in better form than him—and all of a sudden he’s lost a year and maybe even his chance of moving up at all. Of course that’s a simplified scenario but you see it happen all the time.”“I want to be in a position to make sure that they get the right advice at that age so that their career isn’t over before it even starts. It matters to them and it matters to me.”Reed McCalvin
In 2009, Reed was working at then Garmin-Slipstream, moving between all levels of the program. One day he would be with the World Tour team, then with U23s and then the Juniors. In this time, the differences between the levels of professional cycling became glaring. It was after this that Reed realized development teams provided a unique opportunity to work in an environment he craved. (What follows is in Reed’s words.)
We had a full-blown chef following us for the Tour of California and all of the staff and management and sponsors were there. It was just balls to the wall. Long, long days with everyone working as hard as they could. But that stresses everyone out, of course. All the pressures that arise at the professional level were evident.
But a month earlier we’re at Redlands staying at a host house on Sunset Loop with a guy that owns a chain of pizza restaurants in the area, and the riders would just hang out at the pool all day and try to help each other in the race. Like really try to help each other win, as if it was the biggest race of the year.“They’d slay themselves for the other guys. An hour later they would be back at the pool.”Reed McCalvin
And the Juniors are there and they’re soooooooo excited because someone has a disc wheel. All of the kids just keep coming up and spinning the wheel when it’s on the stand. Just watching it spin, round and round. ‘Cause everything is new to them.
It was eye-opening. The Development Riders are at just the right age to work hard, absorb everything and to still be people. They make mistakes and they figure things out. It’s a great time in their career. And when they win it’s that much more exciting. I feel like I haven’t slept since 1989 or so, and what makes it worth it is seeing a kid win or get offered a contract to the team they want to get on. I can’t even explain how much that means to me. I want them to be successful.
Everyone wants to move up as fast as possible. They want to ride on the Sky bus and eat from the Garmin chef and have a BMC bike. But wait. Wait as long as possible. Just wait. At the development level, riders are in a closer age range and so their training ability is a little bit closer. It’s easier to have a group that’s closer in age. You see it when guys move up: all of the sudden you have a 21 year old with guys that are 29, 30, 33 on the team, and what they do for training should be quite different. It might work if the kid is a big enough freak but most times it won’t.“If that 21 year old was given the same training schedule as a 28 year old GC guy, he’d be out for the rest of the year after the training camp. Just because you were great as a 20 year old doesn’t mean you can do what the guy who has completed 7 Tours, 9 Vueltas and 5 Giros can do.”Reed McCalvin
One of the best things the UCI ever did was say that every Neo-Pro gets a 2 year contract. That changed the way the sport operates. Before, if you were one of these super star kids and you came in with a huge contract but under performed in the first year, you were a disappointment. They would offer you a quarter of the amount the next year; or you could go to a lesser team that wouldn’t get invited to the big races and your career is over. Or even if you got injured in year one, that was it. The situation was stacked against you. That change was really important, it gives riders space to continue their development once they do move up. You are not a complete rider until your late 20s.
I tell them they’re like water bottles—they’re full now but when they’re empty they’ll be thrown away. They laugh and think it’s funny, but it’s true. When they stop working, stop riding on the front, stop winning stages, they won’t be kept around. It feels like forever away to them because they’re young, but they have to grasp that now. It’s hard for them to measure their worth as a rider and to a team. They want to be a cyclist, but their actual value and contribution to a team is a different concept. It’s especially tough for the American kids.“Here we are given participation ribbons; everyone is taught they are exceptional. But in cycling, you’re just a guy.”Reed McCalvin
They’re working so hard to get to a certain level, but they need to understand what it’s like once you get to that level. Not everyone is going to get picked for Paris-Nice. Americans want it to be that way, so they think they deserve it simply because they want it. The foreign kids see it more clearly. They have examples in front of them at home, guys that rode alongside them as kids and were really, really good—but now work at a local store. They weren’t needed when the time came. They know that it’s possible to not make it.