The racing at the Tour of Qatar is so fast, and the desert winds so ferocious, that often the riders will carry extra food in their pockets, rather than risk their position in an echelon, even to snatch a musette.
This has not prevented the soigneurs who line a silent stretch of desert road an hour before the arrival of the peloton from preparing a precious cargo of snacks and drinks in case today is one where the wind is kind and the riders can proceed in a pack rather than scrambling in the gutter.
Lucky that they have. After the ferocity of stage two, when Etixx-Quick-Step attacked from the gun, smashing the pack into echelons, and the wind-whipped, sand-blown individual time trial a day later, stage four is comparatively relaxed.
It is hot inside the car of Giant-Alpecin soigneurs Patrique Högemann and Michal Szyszkowski, but outside it is hotter still, and they make the most of a rare moment of relaxation from a list of duties that it is seemingly endless, and which begins even before the event.
The soigneurs are the first of the team to the hotel. Collect the room key for each rider. Check the room of each rider, ensuring that it is away from the noise of the road and from smokers, and that the air conditioning works. Deposit the luggage of each rider inside. And always, always, always ask the concierge for the wi-fi code. “The first question the riders used to ask was, what’s my room like?” Högemann remembers. “Now it’s, what’s the code for the internet?”
If this sounds busy, but routine, think again. “Of course, the lift will be broken and the rooms won’t be ready,” Szyszkowski laughs, “which means the lobby will be filled with the riders’ suitcases.”
Luggage, laundry, shopping, preparing food and bidons, cutting hundreds of sandwiches for staff, riders, and guests, transferring all of the above to giant coolboxes and loading the car, driving to the start, then to the feedzone, and finally to the finish - if the soigneurs are lucky, they will have time to watch the finish. Once the riders cross the line, their work begins again, distributing recovery drinks, sandwiches, and towels, before driving back to the hotel to prepare for the following day and to give massages.
Högemann is skeptical about the physical benefits that might accrue from the massage. It is the rider’s mind that benefits more than his legs, lower back, and occasionally his shoulders, he believes. The massage table, however, is sacrosanct. “I am not only the soigneur, I’m their mother, father, preacher, and their psychologist,” Högemann says. “Sometimes they’re grumpy, sometimes they want to shout it out, sometimes they want to tell you a story.” Trust is critical, Szyszkowski adds: what is said on the massage table remains on the massage table. It is another routine that binds the team.
“I hear outside that there are stars at Giant-Alpecin, but I never hear that inside the team,” Högemann reflects, “only that we have 27 riders.” While some of the champions at other squads have personal soigneurs and mechanics, Kittel, Degenkolb, Dumoulin et al cannot expect special treatment. Nor, to their infinite credit, do they demand or expect it. Talk of spirit in the camp prompts Szyszkowski, a man whose default setting is ‘cheerful’, into a rare moment of seriousness. “I cannot speak about other teams,” he says, “but I am sure there is something special at Giant-Alpecin.”
The team races on a German licence, but is multicultural, with Brazilian, Chinese, and a Malaysian among its riding and support staff. Its lingua franca is English, and another unifying theme, preventing factions from forming in the paddock, on the road, and at the dinner table. The last is the team’s unofficial reconciliation centre on the rare occasions where issues arise. Minor disputes, scarce but inevitable among a workforce that spends more time together than with their families, are resolved the same evening.
If the soigneur is most often pictured at the massage table in the public imagination, it is inside the team car where he spends the majority of his time: up to six hours a day. How far does a swanny drive each year? Högemann and Szyszkowski estimate around 25,000km, with La Vuelta accounting perhaps for 10 per cent of that by itself. The soigneur has a detailed knowledge of the best parking spots at every airport in the world, Högemann deadpans.
The quiet time at the roadside passes quickly. The pair make a final check on the musettes, each containing two bidons, two gels, three bars, two rice cakes, a fizzy drink and an energy shot. When the police motorcycle outriders arrive, they take up position, standing about 400 metres apart. Soon the riders arrive, and it becomes immediately obvious how difficult and dangerous it is to pass a small bag to one rider in a pack of 200 travelling at more than 40kph.
For Giant-Alpecin, the feed is only a partial success. Normally, the soigneurs will wear team gilets, but today their black t-shirts, similar to those of Bora-Argon 18, make them difficult to spot. Szyszkowski, the first of the pairing, ends the feed with the same number of musettes with which he started; Högemann has been more successful, but the strap broke on some of the musettes he handed out – information to be fed back to the service course. The mechanics’ truck pulls out of the following convoy and collects those that remain in the soigneurs’ possession: the riders will be able to drop back from the peloton to collect them.
An unusually quiet stage, slowed by a headwind, springs to life in the closing 30km with a series of crashes and a determined pursuit by the sprinters’ teams of an early, three-man breakaway containing Dmitriy Gruzdev (Astana), Jarl Salomein (Topsport Vlaanderen), and MTN-Qhubeka’s Jaco Venter. With 10km remaining, they are caught, and a bunch finish at Mesaieed becomes inevitable. Szyszkowski turns up the race radio, but only to hear “Kittel dropped. Kittel dropped,” from the commissaire. Niki Arndt takes up the challenge for Giant-Alpecin and finishes a creditable third behind Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo).
When the soigneurs arrive, it is to find a disconsolate Kittel sat in the open boot of a team car, slowly changing from his team kit while a group of reporters await his response. The German admits that he is struggling for form after suffering a cold in January. He will doubtless say more on the massage table, but we will not trespass on his privacy, or the soigneur’s.
Does the swanny have to raise his rider’s spirits when things do not go to plan? “They do it almost by themselves: ‘This is my job; this is what I do,’” Högemann explains. “There’s going to be a next day, and the next day there will be new chances.” Kittel says he is looking forward to finishing the Tour of Qatar, but will back himself on Friday, at the pan-flat finish of the final stage on the Doha Corniche.
Winds are expected on the 153km fifth stage from Al Zubarah Fort to Madinat Al Shamal. Should the peloton respond by forming echelons, Giant-Alpecin’s riders will load their pockets with the snacks prepared by their soigneurs. Nothing is worth the sacrifice of shelter from the wind - not even a musette.