When it comes to fuelling world class cyclists, we know how to produce great-tasting performance nutrition, but how do the riders and teams actually make the most of it when it reaches the pro peloton?
We recently went behind the scenes at the UK’s biggest professional cycle race, The Tour of Britain, to catch up with Xenia, soigneur for An Post-Chain Reaction, the UCI Continental pro-cycling team founded by Irish cycling legend Sean Kelly, to ask what it takes to feed a team across eight days of competition.
Photos: courtesy of SweetSpot
Being a soigneur, or ‘swanny’ as they are colloquially known, isn’t for the faint-hearted. Part housekeeper, part masseur, as well as driver, confidant and responsible for fuelling a team of six to perform at their very best against 114 other competitors, there’s a lot at stake.
Often on-call first thing in the morning to last thing at night, no set working hours and huge distances behind the wheel (sometimes up to 1,500k just to get to a race), it’s easy to question what could motivate someone to take on what is arguably one of the toughest jobs in sport.
For Xenia, there’s no doubt. “That’s simple. You have to be passionate about cycling,” she says.
“Right now, the thing I love the most are the races in the mountains, even if I have to be in a car day in day out. The views you have – and that combination with cycling. You don’t become a “swanny” if you want to be in touch with “famous” riders. You do it because you love the sport. If you do it with passion, it’s the most beautiful job in the world.”
Xenia started out going along to races to support friends and became a swanny with the Lotto Ladies’ Team. It was a trip to Liege-Bastogne-Liege in April this year, the infamous one-day classic in Belgium, where she met team managers of An Post CRC and moved into the men’s peloton.
“The way I see it, I take care of the whole team – riders and staff – as if they are my kids,” she says.
“I feed them, take care of them, listen, be good to them but I’m firm when I need to be. I’m the “mummy” of the team.” We’re already sensing her warm and caring approach.
But what might at first sound a glamorous position of responsibility, beneath are endless lists of jobs to be done from driving, washing kit and cars, shopping, preparing bottles, massaging tired muscles, and repairing kit – basically, everything and anything the riders and staff ask for. Incredible amounts of passion and boundless energy are required to ensure her team has everything they need, on demand.
“It can be exhausting, but it never kills you and I just love it. We’re never alone, and most importantly, we’re like a family in this team.”
Despite a network of riders, mechanics and race staff to continually rely on for mutual support, it’s apparent that to be a good soigneur, you’ve got to be the family member with the sixth sense – the ability to anticipate five steps ahead of the game, even when you’ve no idea what the next day is going to throw your way.
What might first seem a simple task, can require meticulous attention to detail. Depending on the kind of race, be it a one-day classic or a multi-day stage race, Xenia’s main task is to prepare the race bottles for the riders.
Over the course of a stage race like the Tour of Britain, she can prepare a staggering 400 bottles or more, sometimes taking up to an hour to prepare the relentless number of bidons needed each day.
“You can never have enough of them,” she explains.
“Before the start, we give every rider two bottles with HIGH5 Energy Source or isotonic. These make sure the riders don’t get dehydrated and keeps their energy levels up. We also prepare the bottles to go in the team car; roughly four spare bottles for each rider. Then we prepare bottles to hand out in the feeding zone, and sometimes add HIGH5 Energy Gel to them.”
That’s on top of making sure there is additional water, HIGH5 Energy Source, and a raft of empty bottles in the team car, just in case.
With up to six riders on the team each day, a complete eight-stage Tour of Britain can require 84 bottles for race start, some 168 in the team car, and a whopping 210 for feeding.
“The main thing is, we need lots of HIGH5 to get the guys energised, hydrated and focused,” Xenia explains.
Even this in itself can be tricky when pro riders have a reputation for being rather demanding on times, albeit understandably when it’s your professional career at stake. What might seem absurd or peculiar to the everyday cycling enthusiast, a good swanny will always generally try to oblige, since it comes with the territory.
“We always try to keep that in mind,” Xenia tells us. “During the race it can be harder, but still, I try to manage!
“Some of them like their energy source to be sweeter and sugary; others just want water with the exact amount of energy that is necessary. I start to know their habits little by little.”
Demanding it may seem, when you’re pushing your body to its limits in racing, it’s important to have nutrition that you can work with.
“The important thing is to make sure it’s good and healthy, so they race well and don’t get sick. That’s why the team loves HIGH5. We always prepare start-bags for the riders, with two HIGH5 bars, two HIGH5 gels and a biscuit that they take with them to start the race.”
We were keen to learn what kind of selection makes it into the mystery musette – the infamous bag of energy-boosting goodies that teams are given permission to hand-up to riders in a dedicated ‘feed zone’ around mid-race.
The feed zone is a precarious place for both riders and the swanny feeding them, usually due to the risk of riders crashing. Indeed, there are cases of relationships having been negatively affected by the failure of the swanny to connect with a rider on the feed in that defining ‘moment’ when the rider reaches for his musette hoping for a reliable exchange.
What’s the secret to getting it right, we ask?
“Is there a secret? I always blame the riders!” Xenia laughs.
It’s easy to tell how her easy sense of humour makes her the perfect fit for the job. Despite the pressure, the ability to laugh and have fun during the process is often essential.
She continues: “Jokes aside, it’s intense, but when they try to grab it too late or another rider is in the way, it’s hard.
“The only trick I think is not being afraid to put yourself out there, but at the same time, not being a dare-all and bringing the guys into danger. If they don’t grab it, try to get to another spot as fast as you can. And always try to say to them before the race where you’ll be standing, and make sure they see you. They will come to you when they need you.”
Despite the risk, she is still busy putting her riders first.
“As long as we can enjoy making riders happy and see them race and shine on the stages, that’s the best thing,” she adds.
What’s clear is that with Xenia’s incredible support onside – and possibly a never-ending supply of bidons – there’s little doubting that we’ll be seeing more of the HIGH5-fuelled An Post CRC team putting in some shining performances in future.
You have until midnight on Sunday 17 September, 2017 to WIN a full set of An Post-Chain Reaction pro cycling team kit in our competition. Enter online here: www.highfive.co.uk/tob-2017