Bike racing is a tough game to play. It’s about pushing your body to the limit, not just physically, but mentally. Most of the time what happens in a race is out of your control. Stage racing means doing this day to day, repeatedly. It’s harsh, it’s brutal and it’s so darn enticing, all at the same time.
With the Vuelta and following Spanish stage races behind us and the heavily prestigious tours of the Giro Donne and Tour de France to come, let’s take a dive into the nooks and crannies of stage racing.
Whilst on a daily basis it lacks the compact intensity or high stakes of a classic or one day race, stage racing makes up for that fact by compiling multiple days together. Forcing the athlete to adapt to various different terrains, weather conditions and race intensities all while recovering wherever, however and as much as possible between each startline.
Perhaps what an observer would fail to notice about stage racing is the race outside of the race. Transfers between each finish and start location can be long and time-consuming endeavors. For us riders it can mean a hurried cleanup after the finish of each stage to ensure that we are in the cars as soon as possible, in order to start the journey to our next sleeping location. Usually cramped up in a car (or a bus if we are super lucky), the trip can often be an uncomfortable one with a hard days racing in the legs.
Kudos goes to the staff for this part of stage racing. Their job doesn’t end with the race, rather it only begins. Post race we, riders, are tired and hungry. Staff run around us laboring to make things as easy as possible for us. Meals and snacks are immediately displayed on the bus once we arrive back in. All we have to do is take off our dirty kit, shower (quickly) and leave our piles of washing out to be dealt with. Never mind the fact that the bus also must undergo quite the race from the starting location in order to greet us over the finish line each day (courtesy of our bus driver of course), the ‘buske’ is never late.
Then we are filed into cars and the ‘swannies’ (soigneur) drive us to the next hotel location. At the hotel another member of staff, usually our cook or our mechanic, will have checked in to all the rooms and put our suitcases in each room ahead of us. All we have to do is get out of the car and walk to our room. Ahhh a simple life huh!
The rest of the day is about relaxing, often with stage races (especially in Spain) the races will start in the afternoon so post race there is not so much left of the day. Usually a massage schedule is crammed into this time and if there is a long transfer on the agenda this small snippet of recovery time is shortened even more. In a way it can be nice, the hustle and bustle of a stage racing schedule – you get on a rhythm and live a bit like a robot, always from one appointment to the next.
The in-between moments are spent lying in bed usually, taking an opportunity to reflect on the day’s stage or prepare for the day by studying the weather, racebook and Veloviewer.
It is not just the body that fatigues as the race goes by, but also the mind. It can be easy to fall out of rhythm and stay disciplined as well as focus on recovery. It’s important to keep a clear enough mind to forget about a bad moment one day and instead focus on correcting it the next day. Bad days are more than often unavoidable, that’s the whole essence of stage racing. It’s the athletes that can get up, move on and correct their fall backs who are the most successful. Stage racing is not about executing the most seamless and uninterrupted plan as possible, because that’s just not realistic. Perhaps the most challenging thing about this sport, the ability to be adaptable and strong enough mentally to accept that racing is largely out of our control.
To give an example (close to home) we at team SD Worx didn’t exactly have the Vuelta Feminina we wanted and on a personal level, neither did I. Stage five saw me barraged out of the race, beyond my control. I was upset, but I did everything I could to feed that burdened energy into the next stage. Except my streak of bad luck was to continue and in stage six I found myself again in barrage, chasing a minute behind an attacking peloton, this time with my whole team – including the red jersey we were defending on Demi Vollering. However on this occasion it was in fact our mistake: an untimely nature break.
Anger and adrenaline in these situations can be so high, your legs do things you could never expect. Pain escapes you. But what comes after is a huge low point, physically and mentally. That evening I felt myself laying in bed, empty. Playing things over and over in my head. Getting sucked into the rabbit hole of reading twitter and media statements about our ‘wrong doing’. With a mind so busy, recovery becomes inhibited, sleep becomes difficult and ultimately that ‘rhythm’ is thrown to a point that performance may be compromised. This goes both ways, for good and for bad. A win, for instance, can be such a high but in a stage race there is no time to celebrate, stay up late or obsess on social media. Instead you must refocus on the next day. That’s the most testing thing about stage racing, your emotions must be shoved aside (until the final day at least).
Racing, travel, mental stress, it all saps energy – a lot of it. This is where food and nutrition is crucial in stage racing. Keeping on top of the energy intake means eating at most free moments of the day, even when you are perhaps not the most hungry. Whilst it may seem natural to want to eat after exercising, towards the end of the week of back to back carb loads, it’s often the last thing you want to do.
Pre-race we will eat large breakfasts, usually consisting of rice, sweet or savory (I lean towards sweet), sometimes combined with oats and eggs… pancakes if we are lucky! It’s a meal focussed on getting in the carbs that we need for the day ahead. Post race we will eat as soon as possible, usually during the transfer to our hotel and a lunch box prepared by our chef, consisting mainly of carbs and some protein (presented prettily, always!). Eventually dinner rolls around, normally later than a usual supper at home, in order to fit in massages and simply because stage racing generally means we are in Spain or Italy; whereby you must adjust to the late cultural schedule. It’s usually a combination of plates made by our chef as well as what the hotel will provide. Again, it’s a meal centered around replenishing carbohydrates and protein for recovery, while getting in the occasional vegetable(s). The thing is, aside from the odd desert from our chef, food intake remains fairly constant and monotonous throughout the race. Food to fuel, simply put. Mealtimes provide nice moments in the day to collect with the team and reflect on the days in a less formal setting. Perhaps escape from cycling talk, chat a little, laugh and just be normal people for a glimpse of time.
I hope it’s clear by now, the importance of our teams in a stage race. No leader would ever be able to do what they do without the support of other riders on a day-to-day basis. Nor would any domestique be able to do what they do without the motivation and instruction from their leader. Each of us enters the stage race with separate goals and ambitions. A good team will find a way to satisfy all those as best they can. Each day is a new opportunity. The cool thing is that no matter what the result, a team will almost always come out of a stage race even closer as one collective unit. We each witness each other at our most vulnerable and its teammates that lift you, inspire you and encourage you to go on. This bond is something unique to stage races, it’s a dear and special feeling extending between riders and staff.