Life on a Bike Race

Some of you may have noticed that I’ve been a bit less available since March, and that I put this down to “working at bike races”. I thought I’d write this post to clarify that I am actually working and not holidaying (!), and to explain a bit about what I do when I’m away.

This is my second season working with Team Wiggins, the cycling team set up by Sir Brad himself, partly in pursuit of Olympic gold in Rio, partly as a development squad of younger riders. This is NOT the same as Team Sky, for whom Bradley Wiggins used to ride, although Sky do sponsor this team too.

In cycling terms, Wiggins is a third-division or “Continental” team, behind “World Tour” teams like Sky, and second-division or “Pro Continental” teams such as One Pro Cycling. This means that we won’t be competing in races such as the Tour de France any time soon, but we do get invites to some high quality races such as the Dubai Tour and Tour of California, partly on the reputation of the team name! Despite being a third division outfit, the team has some superb riders who are starting to make their names known in mainstream media as well as among cycling fans. Owain Doull took third overall at the Tour of Britain in 2015, Jon Dibben has recently become a world champion on the track and finished second in the U23 Tour of Flanders, while Scott Davies is the national U23 time trial champion. Wiggins riders Doull, Dibben, Steven Burke, Andy Tennant and Chris Latham are all competing for a spot at the Olympics, and you should be hearing a lot more about them come Rio 2016!

My role in the team is soigneur, which means ‘carer’ in French, and is invariably shortened to ‘swannie’. It’s a traditional role in a cycling team, and the cycling equivalent of a roadie for a rock band. As well as looking after the riders, ‘swannies’ work with the rest of the team (mechanics and sporting directors) to make sure that all the riders have to think about is racing.

A typical day starts early. Like 6am early. Before the riders have woken up I’ll have made up the drink bottles for the day’s racing and rice cakes, gels and bars to go in a musette (feed bag) to be handed out at the feed zone; I’ll make sure that there’s a box of familiar food on the breakfast table in case the hotel doesn’t provide some things that the riders like before a race; I’ll pack out the race cars with coolers crammed full of drinks and door pockets stuffed with gels. The actual racing is pretty relaxed for us, as we hang out at the feed zone with drinks and musettes waiting for the race to pass. At the finish we need to make sure that the riders have food and drink, and that they have space to get clean and get changed. Unless it’s a stage race the staff and riders disband pretty quickly, otherwise it’s on to the next hotel, setting up, and getting everything ready for the next day. On arrival at the hotel it’s straight to work, massaging the riders through the evening, washing their kit, shopping for food for the next day, making race food…If I’m done working and get dinner before 9pm I consider it a great result!

I don’t have a problem with debunking the myth that working in sport is glamorous – being a swannie is real dogsbody work! That said, I consider it a huge privilege to work with Olympic gold medallists and world champions, as well as young, talented and motivated riders hoping to make it as successful professionals, and I think this informs my clinic work, too.

So next time you see a swannie at a bike race, handing out a bottle to a famous rider, remember this – as glamorous as the tan, Oakleys and team issue t-shirt might seem, they’re worn by a kit-washing, sandwich and rice-cake making zombie who slept for 4 hours the previous night!