The peloton is 15 minutes behind schedule on the third stage of the Ladies Tour of Qatar as the soigneurs wait patiently at the feed zone.
After the first hour of racing, they have completed just 25km. “Headwinds,” says Gerard Spierings, RaboLiv’s man with the bidons. Dutch by birth, formerly a gas engineer in the hot and dangerous potash mines of New Brunswick, Canada, and still a croupier in a Florida casino during the off-season, when cycling does not dominate his life, he believes the soigneur’s art lies in supporting the athlete, while remaining in the background.
A latecomer to the sport, and a career-changer who traded a welding torch for a massage table, Spierings has worked for Skil Shimano and with Team Sky, but turned down a permanent berth with Dave Brailsford’s team, despite incorporating a philosophy of marginal gains in each of his duties (RaboLiv’s riders will snack on rice rather than pasta once the stage has ended for its greater carbohydrate content).
By midday, and the roll out from Souq Waqif, Spierings has been to the supermarket to buy turkey, pesto, spinach leaves and sesame seed buns for rider snacks, Greek yoghurt (for its superior protein content), filled the car with petrol, given treatment for a stuck vertebrae to Moniek Tenniglo, prepared the bottles, tapped up the hotel staff for ice and loaded the car with drinks.
He leaves before the riders depart, deviates from the course, crosses a section of desert after missing a turn from the motorway and pulls up at the side of an empty desert road, ready for the feed. “They all follow me,” he laughs, and a glance in the wing mirror reveals a following convoy of six, identical white VW Passats, each containing a soigneur. They park at regular intervals, positioned almost equidistantly, perhaps from instinct.
Spierings is parked among them, sensibly (and with relief on 1’s part) in the shade of a wall, but as the soigneurs start to ready themselves for the arrival of the riders, he walks smartly away from them, positioning himself as the last of the carers.
This too points to an aggregation of marginal gains: RaboLiv’s riders will have both hands on the bars as they navigate the often treacherous feed areas, where the least desirable scenario is to snatch a bottle while slaloming around the inevitable slew of dropped bidons with only one hand available to steer. They will find Spierings clear of the hurly burly and grab the bottles he passes in comparative safety.
Spierings is a self-confessed adventurer who, fearing that he would still be in the pub with his friends in 30 years time, left Holland as a 19-year-old to travel the world, settling in Canada, where his plumber’s training earned him a job in a potash mine, welding gas pipes. He estimates the fatality rate at one a year from fallen roof space and miners trapped in the hot, dark voids a thousand metres below ground.
Returning to Holland to visit his family, he discovered mountain biking and became so enraptured with the sport that he decided to stay, working by day as an industrial engineer while re-training as a physio. It was while addressing a conference with a speaker from Skil Shimano that the door opened to a career in cycling. Two months later, he was discussing salary terms with the Dutch team’s top brass. “Money is not my motivation in life,” he says of the pay cut taken to work in the sport. “I could have retired, if I’d stayed in the mines welding pipelines.”
The Qatar desert is barely more hospitable, but his duties there are brief. The entire peloton passes in less than 10 seconds. It is not quite gruppo compacto, but even including riders fighting to regain contact, the feed is completed in the blink of an eye. Bottles skitter across the tarmac and roll on to the surrounding scrub: empties discarded, some of their replacements dropped. This will be the only feed on today’s 93.5km stage and with empties collected, we head to the finish in Al Khor Corniche.
The RaboLiv squad in Qatar is without its shining stars: world road race and cyclo-cross champion Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, and Marianne Vos, winner of more titles than there is space to recount here, have been absolved from duties in the desert, following their performances at the ‘cross world championships in Tabor; so too, Sabrina Stultiens.
Spierings turned down Team Sky to work again with Vos, having been part of the Rabobank team, the progenitor of RaboLiv. “She is very focused. She never blames other people if things go wrong. She never looks for excuses. She always looks within: what could I have done to avoid that situation? She never complains. Never.”
As the peloton races on to the Al Khor Corniche, there is another RaboLiv rider in the thick of the action: Lucinda Brand. Now in her sixth season, the 25-year-old Dutchwoman has ridden strongly in this seventh edition of the Ladies Tour of Qatar, finishing fourth on the opening stage. As stage three reaches its denouement, she is again at the forefront. Spiering is an interested spectator, but as Brand crosses the line third behind stage winner Lizzie Armitstead (Boels-Dolman) and Shelly Olds (Bigla), he is preparing for his next round of duties: ensuring the riders receive recovery food and drink in the narrow window when the body is most receptive to carbohydrate.
It will be another long day for the soigneurs. At Souq Waqif, Spierings lobbied the UCI commissioners for earlier starts. Rolling out at midday may suit the well-resourced men’s teams, but the women’s squads are likely to have only one soigneur and one mechanic. The workload for each is greater, and the days longer. RaboLiv is one of the bigger teams in women’s cycling, and Spierings is fiercely proud of its team ethic, one where he will help to wash the bikes when his work at the massage table is done. But it does not compare in scale to the better-funded men’s teams he has worked with.
While the riders drink and change beneath a sun setting rapidly over the beautiful Al Khor Corniche, Spierings again takes up a position in the background. The soigneur must offer his riders support and enthusiasm but never attempt to claim centre stage, he believes.
RaboLiv has no GC ambitions for the Ladies Tour of Qatar, but with Brand having finished third and fourth in the bunch finishes that have marked two of the three stages completed, the Dutch team will fancy her chances on the following day’s closing stage: an 85km canter along the Qatari east coast, likely to end at a gallop on the Doha Corniche.
For Spierings, it will be another long day, but, like Vos, he is not apt to complain. “I don’t think of it as a challenge,” he says. “I think of it as fun.” He hands 1 a RaboLiv cap by way of farewell and continues to pack the car. He is unlikely to finish at the massage table before 10.30pm, but he has had worse jobs. It is another day above ground, practising the art he has trained for and enjoys.