This excerpt is from American Pro: The True Story of Bike Racing in America by Jamie Smith.
THE FRIENDS AND FAMILY PLAN
IN THE COURSE OF A SINGLE CYCLING SEASON, riders experience euphoric highs and soul-crushing lows. What keeps riders from becoming manic are the people that fill in the range of emotions located between those two extremes. Without them, the season would destroy everyone before nationals. Riders are forced to be friends with their teammates; it’s the other people who keep them human.
The person who is most critical in keeping riders on an even keel is the soigneur. WT and PCT teams are required to have full-time staff, so the inclusion of a soigneur is pretty standard. Conti teams aren’t required to have any staff members, so it’s not a guarantee that they’ll hire a soigneur. If they do, it will likely be on a freelance or “as needed” basis. Astellas didn’t have enough work or money to justify having a soigneur on staff, but they needed a trained massage therapist to provide massages to riders competing at multiday stage races. Whenever Deb Rawluk or Paige Alexandra showed up at a race, the riders enjoyed the added luxury of being relieved of laundry and cooking duties.
A hockey-playing, marathon-running massage therapist from Edmonton, Alberta, Deb didn’t know much about cycling. She came on board for Redlands and the Grand Prix Cycliste de Saguenay, and quickly learned how to hand up bottles in the feed zone and set up the campsite in the team parking lot. Her counterpart Paige was well-versed in the cycling scene, having worked with the US National Track cycling team, Kenda/5-Hour Energy, Cylance Pro Cycling, and the Trek Factory Racing mountain bike team.
Being a soigneur requires an eclectic set of skills, a nurturing personality, and complete willingness to work outside a well-defined job description. The most important task is to help tired legs recover, but the job goes well beyond that. Soigneurs prepare and organize the food to be handed to the riders during the race. They fill the water bottles, mix the powdered sports drinks, replenish the ice, and pack it all into one cooler that rides with the team director and another one that travels to the feed zone. At the feed zone, they will hand the food and bottles to the riders passing by at 27 mph.
Heading into a weeklong event, soigneurs will easily drop $1,200 at Kroger, Albertsons, Meijer, or Food Lion. They will fill up two carts with a collection of items ranging from rice to nylons, confusing even the most seasoned checker. How the food is prepared depends on the agreed-upon tastes of the team. Bars and gels are staples, but the riders typically settle on a particular food to be handed up over the course of each season. One year it might be Hawaiian dinner rolls filled with bananas and honey, wrapped in aluminum foil. Another year, homemade rice cakes. Once the order is in, there will be those riders who approach the soigneur with their own special requests, such as waffles with Nutella or peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat.
On race day, the soigneur drives the van to the starting venue while the team rides their bikes from the hotel to the venue. The swanny arrives early to set up the team’s basecamp in the team parking area and set out each rider’s backpack, taking into account who likes to sit where. In hot weather, the nylons are filled with ice so they can be easily packed into riders’ jerseys to keep them cool later in the day.
Once the riders head to the starting line, the soigneur repacks the van and prepares to leave for the feed zone. This effort is often interrupted by a rider who comes back to look for something that he can’t live without, maybe a different pair of sunglasses with either darker or lighter lenses. Chances are good that it’s buried in his backpack under 50 spare wheels and a pop-up tent.
A loosely organized caravan of team vans departs for the feed zone, hopefully led by experienced team soigneurs who remember where the feed zone was in previous years. Amateur team soigneurs desperately try to keep up with the caravan so as not to get lost, all while thinking, “This is insane,” and “It’s completely unnecessary to drive so fast.”
The caravan arrives at the feed zone somewhere between 30 seconds and one hour before the first riders arrive and stand just meters apart from one another without speaking. They’re not unfriendly; they’re just too tired. After handing up the bottles and musette bags, the soigneurs drive to the finish, where they essentially do the same thing all over again.
After the race is over, it’s time to return to the hotel, clean out the van, and begin massages for each rider, which take another 2.5 hours. Having eaten breakfast and lunch on the go, the soigneur will eat dinner out of a takeaway container while doing laundry.
It’s a hard job on game day. Non-race days are only slightly less busy.
The soigneurs are trusted with the inner secrets of the peloton. Gripes and complaints that can’t be voiced elsewhere are shared openly. If a rider is unhappy, the swanny will know it before the team director. As a rider bounces from hotel to hotel, from van to train to plane, the soigneur is the friendly face that riders look forward to seeing, showing up just in time to make things better.
ONE OF THE CHRONIC LOWS a traveling bike racer will experience throughout the season is abject boredom. And despite having teammates in their space 24/7, there is a degree of loneliness that the sport just can’t shake. Only so much of the week can be filled with races. The rest is spent riding, recovering from workouts, and resting up for the next race. That usually entails watching Netflix, scrolling through Twitter, and poring over power data while sitting in a hotel room, a car, an airport, or on a plane. It’s not an easy life.
In addition to the normal tedium, foreign riders find themselves thousands of miles from home. They must develop an entirely new routine in their adopted American towns. Sometimes fresh eyes and foreign sensibilities can play to a rider’s advantage. For example, Milwaukee or Knoxville are hardly “garden spots” in the minds of most Americans, but these cities were all-new to the international riders who came to race for Astellas. Clay Murfet found Knoxville to be heaven on Earth. Matt Green remains unabashedly in love with Milwaukee. Both riders traveled extensively throughout the country, taking in a wide variety of American towns and landscapes. On returning to their respective cities, they explored what city life had to offer, focused on the good parts, and put down roots.
For most cyclists, the livability of a city is determined by an audit of its roads and coffee shops and whether it can sustain some semblance of a social life. Figuring out the road system is the first priority for cyclists, since that is where most of their time will be spent. Where can they ride safely, without fearing for their lives every moment they are on a bike? Where can they ride far, unimpeded by traffic lights and stop signs? Where can they access decent terrain without having to load the bike into a car to get there? Is the city bike-friendly, with well-enforced bike lanes? Is there an established bike culture? While Chicago and San Francisco rank high on Bicycling magazine’s list of bike-friendly cities, these sprawling urban jungles require a rider to drive out of the city to find decent cycling roads. Smaller cities such as Boulder, Colorado, and Tucson, Arizona, attract riders to quiet roads that are accessible from within city limits.
A city doesn’t have to have all of the accoutrements of a bike-friendly city in place in order to be friendly toward cyclists. That is, lane markings approved by the state department of transportation, infrastructure, and city ordinances. Attitudes toward cyclists vary from city to city and range from loving to hostile, and they seem to follow no sensible pattern. Experienced cyclists can usually spot the telltale signs of a friendly city within a few days of riding. Parts of Los Angeles offer great riding, while other areas are untouchable. Boulder was a bike-friendly town decades before the city committed to additional infrastructure. Detroit, Michigan, however, needed the help of city planners to overcome years of the automobile’s domination.
After the road assessment comes caffeination. The quantity and quality of coffee shops can make or break a town in the mind of a cyclist. Is the coffee halfway decent? Are the shops dispersed so as to accommodate a two-hour coffee break on a long day of training? Do they roast their own blends? Are their scones baked in-house? These are valid concerns.
Coming in third on a cyclist’s checklist is the prospect of a social life. Over the course of the season, cyclists will find themselves in college towns, military towns, farming towns, and suburbia. While there is little time for socializing, they are acutely aware that their peers are attempting to find love. Cyclists are no different, so they turn to the popular Tinder app when they find themselves alone in strange towns.
When Green left England to race for the Astellas team in 2013, he was merely looking to gain experience and results before returning to Europe. About a year into the adventure, he realized it wasn’t as temporary as he had originally planned. The decision to continue racing with Astellas meant that his current relationship with a woman across the Atlantic was doomed. In time, he began looking for an American woman to spend time with.
Green’s British accent siphons all the attention in the room, making him a horrible wingman. His wild shock of hair is hip, and his experience traveling the world makes him a natural conversationalist.
He met a few women in Milwaukee, but he found it difficult to have a relationship when he was never in the town where he supposedly lived. While some actively seek those types of relationships, Green wasn’t one of them.
He turned to Tinder not because he was looking for a casual hookup but because it doesn’t cost anything. That’s the motivation behind a lot of decisions made by struggling athletes. Buying ramen noodles, sleeping in the car, dining out at all-you-can-eat buffets, and using the neighbor’s Wi-Fi to get on free dating sites are standard. As they see it, only royalty, 1-percenters, and the fiscally inept pay $30 per month for a dating site.
A few of Green’s Astellas teammates had used Tinder for hookups, and they assured him that the full range of relationships could be found on the site, so he downloaded the app onto his phone and fired it up. He swiped to the right on the very first picture that appeared on his screen: Tracy’s. Tracy, who had been forced into using Tinder by well-meaning friends, also swiped right on the first face she saw on Tinder: Matt’s.
The two conversed via text and phone for a few days before they finally arranged to meet at a stage of TOAD. Tracy dragged some friends to Milwaukee’s Schlitz Park to watch Green race. She said nothing before or during the race to indicate that she had arrived. After the race, Green got cleaned up and dragged Michael Pincus with him for moral support, carrying him on the back of his bike so that he wouldn’t have to walk—and so he couldn’t escape. When they found Tracy and her friends, Tracy, without saying a word, boldly walked up to Green and put her fingers in his hair. They were a couple from that moment on. In 2016, they became engaged and a year later they were married.
Tracy became part of the Astellas family.
Clay Murfet has an almost identical story. After shattering his wrist in a crash at San Dimas, he spent several weeks recovering at a home he shared with teammate Thomas Brown in Athens, Georgia. Assured that Tinder would help him find someone to listen to his cycling stories, if only temporarily, Murfet created an account.
Minutes after launching the app, the very first photo that appeared on his phone was that of a very attractive woman named Hannah, who was studying social work and public health at the University of Georgia. He nervously swiped the screen to the right with his finger and sat at his kitchen table, anxiously staring at his phone.
Hannah also swiped right.
They met at the Allgood Lounge, a bar located on the Athens Twilight course between the final turn and the finish line. To Murfet’s good fortune, Hannah noticed his quick wit and big heart.
Hannah and Murfet spent three solid days together, during which he became smitten and then hooked. When he went in for the first kiss and missed, he nearly chipped a tooth. He was that much out of practice.
Upon graduating from UGA, Hannah took a job in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Murfet followed. Two years later, they were married. Were it not for a broken wrist sustained in a crash on the other side of the country, their romance might have never happened. The forced time off the bike gave him time to commit energy to something other than racing.
Monk’s story is completely dissimilar. He didn’t need Tinder, Bumble, or any other app. He met his future wife while they were in kindergarten. Lyss was his biggest fan from day one and willingly showed up at every race. Their relationship spanned several race seasons, culminating in an engagement during the 2016 season, proving that true love transcends the Pro Road Tour.
ANOTHER SOURCE OF LOVE in a bike racer’s world is the strong bond that’s formed with host families. A completely random connection often turns into lifelong friendship when people volunteer to let total strangers—bike racers, no less—live in their home for several days.
Admittedly, it sounds like an unlikely recipe for success. But taking into account the type of people who open their homes and the type of people who travel across the country pursuing athletic glory, it begins to make sense. A spirit of community makes the host family program work because the families recognize what an event does for the fabric of their community, and they do their part to help it. And events that provide housing for out-of-town racers raise cycling’s image within their community by integrating the families into the bike race. For example, it all but guarantees a larger crowd because the host families are invested in seeing their guests compete. Some of cycling’s highest-profile races attribute much of their success to the hospitality of their host families.
Every neighborhood in the vicinity of the Redlands Classic becomes an ad hoc hotel for wayward bike racers, and team cars and vans litter the neighborhood streets during race week. More than 100 homeowners sign up as hosts, the majority repeat customers who host the same team year after year.
The Jelly Belly team has returned to the same home for more than 15 years. They know, without having to be told, that you have to jiggle the handle on the bathroom door to get it to latch or that the larger remote controls the volume while the smaller remote changes the channel. They know when the line at Crepes of Wrath is at its shortest and when to avoid it altogether.
Redlands residents Jeff and Raelene Fulford placed their names on the list in 2014. An avid cyclist, Jeff had raced in the amateur ranks at the Redlands Classic, so the idea of hosting pro cyclists didn’t seem farfetched. Raelene was also swept up in the excitement of the event, having been known to rally a friend to stand alongside the course in costume, ringing cowbells and carrying signs. The Fulfords were given the Astellas assignment.
In advance of the team’s initial visit, Jeff made room in the garage, and Raelene filled the pantry and hid all the good silverware.
During the team’s first year, the Fulfords’ experience was typical of a host family. They were excited to have their routine turned upside down, fascinated with the riders, shocked and awed by how much cyclists eat and how much they lie around the house, and dismayed to find that they never had enough toilet paper on hand.
Subsequent years were much easier. When race week arrived, Jeff and Raelene were eager to catch up with “their team,” and inevitably disappointed to learn that some riders had left the sport or had been cut loose. Every year, they purchased one more air mattress to make room for yet another rider. The pantry was fuller, the water heater had been upgraded, and there was a stockpile of toilet paper.
For 51 weeks out of the year, Jeff’s garage looks like any other cyclist’s garage, with a handful of bikes hanging from hooks and a clean and organized space with a Park Tool work stand ready for action at a moment’s notice. When Astellas rolled into town, his garage was stuffed to the rafters with 10 road bikes, eight time trial bikes, a stack of spare tires and a larger stack of spare wheels, an air compressor, a garden hose, trainer stands, shipping boxes, shoeboxes, time trial helmets, and boxes of hydration mix and sport gels. And Jeff, a self-proclaimed bike nerd, was in heaven. Amid the chaos, he had the chance to learn tips from pro racers and a pro mechanic. When the team rolled out of town, all his bikes were in tiptop shape.
Of course, host families have their own expertise to offer. Jeff’s physical therapy experience was helpful to riders with nagging injuries. Brecht received good advice on dealing with his broken collarbone. When a rider complained of tooth pain, Raelene, a pediatric dentist, was happy to throw on her surgical loupes and inspect the troublesome molar.
Although there was plenty of food in the pantry, the riders were usually on their own for meals because each one had his own caloric schedule to maintain. Consequently, the kitchen was constantly in use. The Fulfords were very accommodating, but they insisted on a family meal on Saturday night, an epic event in which every dish, bowl, fork, knife, and spoon was used. Afterward the riders would insist on helping to clean up, breaking at least one glass in the process. It became as much a tradition as the dinner itself.
Accidents are par for the course. The Fulfords’ neighbors were hosting a popular pro team in 2015. When the van arrived loaded with orange bikes on the roof, it pulled into the driveway, snagged an overhead cable, and ripped the cable TV feed off the side of the house. Unfortunately, it happened on the first day of the visit. The Astellas team chose not to invite them over to the Fulfords’ to watch TV. Community has its limits.
Because bike racers stay with host families, they know dogs in every corner of the country. The Astellas team befriended a border collie named Katy in Silver City, New Mexico, a German shepherd named Kennedy in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a malamute in Yucaipa, California, and in Redlands, Jeff and Raelene’s labradoodle, Montana.
While the team was walking around in downtown Redlands with the Fulfords and Montana, a young woman excitedly approached them to say hello. The riders felt a rush of excitement at being recognized as celebrities, but she was really saying hello to Montana, who has more followers on Instagram than the team.
Because canine memory is tied directly to a superior sense of smell, the dogs remember each rider. When the team returns year after year, being remembered by a canine friend feels like a true welcome. This doesn’t happen at hotels.
In return for the comforts a host family provides, riders bring a sense of adventure to the lives of complete strangers. Not all professional cyclists have an education beyond high school, and even those who do have clearly chosen a different path, which typically prompts the hosts to ask about the riders’ decision to pursue their dreams. The notion is mind-boggling to some hosts and as normal as pumpkin pie to others.
“How do your parents feel about you taking time off to race your bike?” the hosts will ask, often with their own son or daughter within earshot. The question implies that there is something else more important that is being neglected, but the Astellas riders who strung together a few seasons learned to handle this deftly.
Aitcheson, Murfet, Feehery, and Green each developed a monologue to explain their lifestyle. Just as a movie star repeats the same pat answers on a junket, the riders carefully edited and revised their spiel to avoid any tone of superiority. The dinner table conversations revealed that many people harbor envy, regret, and occasionally unbridled resentment at not having pursued their own dreams. Pressure to join the working world may have stymied a dream of backpacking across Europe or studying music. If the riders didn’t play the situation just right, they could be caught in a tug of war between parents and their children. So they diplomatically chose to ride the middle road.
In most cases, host families were rooting for their guests to continue living the dream, which prompted the riders to regale the host family with stories of life on the road until late into the night.
At the Bucks County event in Pennsylvania, Astellas stayed with some empty-nesters who had begrudgingly allowed their neighbors to talk them into playing host for the first time. On the first day, the couple shied away from direct interaction. On the second day, they ventured into the basement, where the team was housed to ask a few questions. Their demeanors softened when they heard the riders’ individual stories. By Saturday, they had a newfound fascination for cycling, and the entire group enjoyed meaningful conversation during a cookout in the backyard. When it came time to say goodbye on Sunday, the hosts had become the type that would convince their doubting neighbors to take in a team, thus extending the circle.
The Bucks County race was a team favorite that year despite its miserably windy, rainy, and cold race conditions due in large part to the community’s support and homegrown hospitality.
In contrast, there are times when a team never even see their hosts. At the Tour of America’s Dairyland in 2014, Astellas arrived to find an envelope containing the house keys and a note that read: “Help yourself to whatever you need! Have a great week!” By the end of the week, they had felt as though they had stayed in a very comfortable hotel, which meant they missed out on the thrill of converting an unbeliever into a cycling fan or, at the very least, mixing with the locals.
Because the sport can offer so many lonely moments, the Astellas riders preferred the sense of community afforded by the host family housing plan. It made life on the road more enjoyable and created lasting friendships. Still today, they receive a pile of Christmas cards and they can recommend a great dentist in Redlands.
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American Pro lays bare the heart and soul of a struggling sport—and shares what’s wrong and what’s right with American bike racing. Bike race announcer Jamie Smith follows a fledgling professional cycling team on its five-season rise and fall, revealing the personalities, passion, and business side of the sport.