Although Ted King is not racing the Tour de France this year, the Cannodale-Garmin cycling team rider was kind enough to provide us with a perspective on how things really work in the peloton.
The collection of actions, people, and moving parts — both literal and figurative — that compose a bike race is like that of a circus. However elegant a well composed solo victory looks, or how gracefully poetic a peloton appears from the vantage point of a helicopter view, that’s just a passing glance relative to what goes into an entire single race…
Multiply by X days to compose a stage race or raise to the power of infinity for the circus that is the Tour de France.
On the bike, it all begins in the late months of the calendar year with sufficient pre-season training. We’ve worked out any kinks or nagging, chronic injuries from the season before. Prior to that, of course, the mechanics have laboriously pieced together our bikes from end to end, from saddle to brake lever, so that we can play princess and the pea, noticing even the slightest thing that’s askew to our normal position.
Meanwhile, the race organization has chosen a specific route, meticulously decided upon by local officials and occasionally professional riders’ insight. Hotels are booked and staff from each of the 20-odd teams drive to the race in order to pick us up from the airport when we fly into town. Race bibles are produced and pored over by our directors so that the evening prior’s pre-race meeting digs deep into the nuances of the course. Numbers are pinned to jerseys and clothing is packed into the race bag. Massage the evening before is performed by the selfless soigneurs followed by a carbohydrate rich meal for dinner and another for breakfast on race day. One last inventory check — helmet, glasses, jersey, shorts, socks, shoes, gloves — and then it’s off to the bus and off to the start venue. At the start, mechanics inflate tires one last time and goodness gracious, at last it’s time to race!
Sixty, eighty, even one-hundred race days per year isn’t out of the ordinary for a cyclist, and in truth this above list of what goes into the day-to-day of a race is hardly glancing the surface of the what it truly takes. So much of what composes a race is rote, simply going through the mindless motions, that it’s no wonder riders occasionally try to seek a modicum of ritualized individuality in this otherwise monastic lifestyle. Let’s touch on some of the above and extrapolate on others.
I have friends and former teammates who pack their bags as neatly and daintily as if they’re practicing acute, arthroscopic surgery.
Every jersey is folded just so, every sock looks identical to the next, so that even their hair-dryer fits perfectly into the mix like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. One might call it OCD; others call it superstition.
I consider myself 0% superstitious, but when it comes to pinning my numbers I’m certainly a creature of habit. Seven pins per number, two numbers per jersey, three placed horizontally across the top, and two vertically down each side. Each pin is hand stitched into my jersey exactly like I did last race and precisely as I’ll do next race. The same orientation, the same direction, each and every time. I frequently re-use pins, but if there’s any sign of rust, that pin is immediately destined for the trash. Funny thing is, I specifically remember thinking a dozen years ago in my first year of amateur racing that surely when we get to the super duper pro ranks of this sport, there will be a person employed by the team who’s job is eponymously titled Number-Pinner. For all you go-getters out there looking for a job in the professional cycling biz, here’s my contemporary, twelve year later update: no such job exists. Yet.
Next let’s delve into Bel-logic. These are the legendary patterns passed down within the sport, generation after generation, in and among Belgian cycling culture. The American fraternity of cyclists roughly my age was espoused this information in our under-23, espoir years when we cut our teeth in unadorned Izegem, Belgium.
One, don’t even consider shaving your legs the day before a race. The micro wounds you endure sap healing energy that would otherwise go into a peak performance. Food seems to be an important issue so at number two: mushrooms. Always eat your mushrooms, because they’re “fat burners” and magically rip through fat stored on your body. (Is it any wonder that magic and mushrooms are in the same sentence?) At number three, and somewhat contrary to that, the inside of bread is like a sponge and consuming that weighs you down, whereas the crust is perfectly acceptable. Four: melted cheese has twice the calories as it’s non-melted brethren. The elementary school hot-lunch favorite of grilled cheese and tomato soup never quite made it to Belgium. And to round it out with five: no hot water, i.e. showering, shortly before a race. Hot water seeps into your legs and will make them heavy and tired.
While professional American sports are ripe with superstitions, examples range from football players wearing the same (ripe) undies to baseball pitchers not stepping on the foul line, cycling is a sport that takes in so many variables on the open roads, the pure number of cycling superstitions are fewer and further between, so that the ritual of it all is much more a result of habit. Have you consciously thought about what side of the bike you get on? I’m comfortable guessing that you’re more comfortable getting on from one side then the other. Shoes? I do right shoe first, every time. It’s not a ritual, just a hard to break habit. Kind of like coffee. I always have a coffee before a race, but I call that a deliciously compulsive routine rather than superstition.
…oh, but don’t ever wear a brand new kit for the first time in a race. You’ll crash and tear it.