161-j: LIFE IN A PROFESSIONAL CYCLING TEAM – PART 1

In advance, a rider cannot imagine what it means to live in a professional cycling team. About that, a future professional cyclist has absolutely no idea. The only learning school is in fact the pro cycling sport itself. Professional cyclists live, 180 to 200 days per year, close together and far from home.  They always go from hotel to hotel with the same people of the team because the next race is waiting again.

Teammates always sleep two in one room, eating together every day and night and of course racing together.   The lack of privacy is great and definitely one of the reasons why some riders prematurely stopped cycling.

Always being away from home and living in a cycling team has something like a cult. A social life at home with family and friends is impossible. In addition, the riders themselves in the team usually cope well with each other but good friends they will never be. I often heard claim ‘in cycling it is not possible to make friends ‘. To be a cyclist is socially a shabby existence that comes with loneliness and homesickness.

Not for nothing the use of Prozac was large a few years ago. The number of riders who commit suicide is remarkably high. The number of riders who are derailed during or after their career because of alcohol and drugs is also significant. The high number of divorces of professional riders after finishing their career is remarkable. From one of the top teams, for which I worked, every cyclist was divorced 5 years after the end of their career.

The relations within a cycling team are such that the ordinary riders, in the jargon ‘servants’ or “water carriers’ cannot make too many demands because the team leader will certainly take action against them with a harsh hand. These are rightly the real slaves of the road. The only one who has, with regard to his demands, his wishes fulfilled is the team leader who is at the top of the pecking order of the team. The servants know their place and the servile behavior which goes with it.

So within every team a strict hierarchy prevails. The top riders earn much more money than what a servant deserves. When a top rider makes one million Euros* a servant maybe gets 40.000 Euros*. They are the riders around which everything is centered. The leaders are responsible for impressive results so that the sponsor is satisfied. Indeed, with impressive results the name of the sponsor will extensively appear in newspapers and on TV and that is the reason for the sponsors to invest in sport.  Brand awareness, exposure, attention that is the key making them doubly earn back every invested euro.

1 million Euro =  38.000.000,00 THB

40.000 Euro    =     1.500.000,00 THB

Gert Jan Theunisse after the Tour the France of 1988. His sponsor PDM was very unhappy with this photo on the cover of an important magazine.

Gert Jan Theunisse and Thomas Dekker failed careers

The biggest mistake that the leadership of some teams made, was that they could not keep the major leaders of their team under control and gave them far too much power and influence. One example was Gert Jan Theunisse of PDM who did exactly what he wanted and by his behavior he alone was responsible for the entire sick atmosphere within that team. The team management was not able to correct him. Consequently he thought himself to be able to get away with everything which ended in three positive doping tests for testosterone. In that way he killed his own career and he gave the team a very bad name.

Example two was Thomas Dekker who could choose his own way at Rabobank. He moved to Italy where he was attended to by Luigi Cecchini, an Italian sports doctor with a bad reputation. While uttering the threat that he would not renew his contract in case Rabobank would demand of him that he had to end this collaboration.

Within a team you have the leaders; one layer below them are the riders who might develop into leader, then soon the servants or water carriers who do the dirty work in the races and ride around anonymously. They possess little status; they never win because they are never allowed riding  for their own opportunities. This category of cyclists is great and their earnings are minimal. They are the real slaves of the road.

To become a servant or water carrier you have to have a certain character and really look forward to be a cyclist. Often they get their motivation from the appreciation, also financially, which they get from the leader they are working for. Appreciation on behalf of the manager or the team managers is rare. They share the view that every servant can be easily replaced by ten other riders.

So if a servant is too demanding or is not performed his task correctly or as a team leader just does not like him his contract is not renewed. For every servant there are indeed 10 in the queue in order to be a professional cyclist for a pittance. Doing so team managers often violated the rules of the UCI by contracting young new riders in the team who pay their own contract. With money that goes directly into the pockets of the manager. These are practices that even now occur regularly.

The average rider must realize that he has nothing to say and that he therefore should do exactly what a manager or team leader tells him.

Managers and team leaders realize perfectly well that they, from their dominant position,  are all decisive. They possess the absolute power. And there is widespread abuse of it.

 If a servant is instructed to assist his leader the first 150 kilometers of the race and he still ends up as 7th in a fairly important race, he has a big problem because he could never have carried out his task properly.

The reasoning is: “you did not help your leader well because if you did you could never have finished   7th” The conclusion is obvious. “He rides for his own chances,” and that’s one of the mortal sins of cycling. If the leader has no good result in the same race the servant is designated as a scapegoat. And he runs the risk of riding no races for some time. And that is killing for a pro rider because they need to race to keep in shape and in the picture of other teams.  Such is cycling together. Examples as above are encountered daily.

  • What is being expected of a servant? Firstly that he submits to the discipline in the team and acts submissively. A difficult servant, even though his comments might be critical but nevertheless right will certainly not be a professional cyclist for long. During the race he rides completely for the service of the leader so that he can begin fresh in the final. Not a moment the leader rides with his nose in the wind. Riding in the wind will cost extra energy which should be saved for the end of the race. He also supports the leader whenever possible.
Left: I gave my bike to the leader!!!
Right: A servant or water carrier brings water to his teammates.

Whenever the leader’s bike breaks the servant gives him his bike. He rides a puncture then he gives his wheel immediately to him. If he is hungry or thirsty then the servant gets provisions in the team car and with bag and baggage he passes the entire peloton to provide the cock of the walk again with the needed energy. When it rains the same way to the team car is made to get rain jackets. During climbs, which cost extra energy, the leader regularly receives a push of his servants. That obviously saves heaps of energy but it’s against the rules since Jan Raas with that approach became world champion in Valkenburg . A victory of the leader is based on the work of the servants at the beginning of the race. A leader who wins usually appreciates it, the thing is: I’ve never seen a team leader or manager thanking a servant for his work.

Left: Jan Raas world champion with the help of his teammates
Right: The early breakaway

Servants especially from the lesser teams often are instructed to go with an early break. These are always attempts are doomed to fail and only able to run the team in the spotlight. If such a leading group still exists at the time the TV broadcast begins then the plan succeeded completely, and the team and the sponsor are happy. In the teams where I worked the atmosphere among the riders was usually good. But every rider was still on guard and never showed the back of his tongue. Even every teammate was in fact a competitor or a potential adversary. Your success might be a threat to him. It happens frequently that a breakaway with perspective was caught by the initiative of the own team.