161-k: LIFE IN A PROFESSIONAL CYCLING TEAM – PART 2

Earlier I wrote the following:

Hilaire van der Schueren, Daan Luijkx en Michel Cornelisse  exponents of the old school

Along with the team leader the manager is decisive for the atmosphere in the team. Both are mostly from the old school and that does not mean much good. Team leaders of the old school adhere to tough methods because they believe that riders in that way will be maximally motivated at the start. The conflict model they call it. It is a way in which each and every means of pressure is permissible, the more villainous the better. So always that quarrel-like atmosphere.

Left – Hilaire van de Schueren
Middle – Daan Luijkx
Right – Michel Cornelisse
Leaders of Vacansoleil, old school exponents. Really bad people that should be excluded from cycling.

They were never satisfied and a compliment was never given. A total lack of understanding to create a normal pleasant working atmosphere prevailed. To impose extra large pressure, some riders were tackled unreasonably hard while other riders never got any criticism. Logically riders became demotivated and secretly went looking for another team.  This kind of people should be excluded from cycling, which would give the sport a boost and give back the enjoyment of cycling to the riders.

Another point of criticism and eternal debate was about money. A portion of the income of the team is from contracts that the team leader concludes with the organizers of the many different criteria. The team leader signs the contract for the riders. That saves a lot of time and work in case each rider should sign individually. The problem is that the riders never get to see the contract and that allows the team leader to put a large part of that money into his own pocket.

And always the same story. The rider who demands his money can forget about his money and a new contract for the next season.

I hope this story makes it clear that riders are totally dependent on the abuse of power that prevails within many teams. For that  the leadership is responsible because when they give the wrong example the rest of the team is rotten too.

At the end of the season, each rider should give back to the team all the stuff that he has received at the beginning of the season. That is about the racing bikes, racing apparel, helmets, shoes, bags, suitcases but also the extensive leisure clothing. The team sells this stuff and I wonder where the money goes. Even heard that sometimes full containers are shipped to other countries. You can imagine that this is about a lot of money. 25 riders with four bikes per rider alone is a huge amount.

In short, the life of a professional rider is not always easy. The list above naturally gives a one-sided gloomy picture, but it is reality. The main problem is, as is obvious,  the difficulty to grasp the system of sickening abuse of power in cycling together with a climate within which only achievements or performances are important and where, if you want to succeed, the only option is to keep your mouth shut. 

If you want to reach the top, the only option is to keep your mouth shut.

TEAM DOCTORS AND SOIGNEURS

When I was asked in 1986 to work as a team physician for a professional cycling team; I was one of the first team doctors in professional cycling. In cycling the medical care of the cyclists was entirely owned by the soigneurs.  And in 1986 still nothing had changed since 1964. The soigneurs completely ran the show in that area.

1964

In the early sixties, the first measures against doping were taken, especially because of the use of doping by professional cyclists. But at that time there was still considerable uncertainty about the harmfulness of doping to health. That was in 1964, the conclusion of an international conference held in Belgium: the  “International Seminar on Doping” attended by many eminent scholars came with the following conclusion:

 ….. “there is no evidence to support the proposition that small amounts of stimulants such as amphetamines, 14 mg per 70 kg body weight as used by Beecher, have toxic effects in combination with heavy sports effort.”

Tom Simpson, 1967. Mont Ventoux                          Knud Jensen, 1960 Rome, Italy

The role of doctors in the medical supervision of riders became more and more important. That meant the fight against doping, conducting sports medical examinations, treatment of injuries, the making of training schedules and nutrition instructions and testing for physical fitness and condition was done by doctors. More and more doctors became also involved in professional cycling. There they were confronted with the widespread use of doping and with soigneurs who were involved in its administration. According to Jacques Anquetil, five-time Tour de France winner, each cyclist used drugs for enhancing the performance and those who claimed they were not doing it to be regarded as liars. Dutch doctors as J. Rolink A. Rozijn, P. van Dijk who got involved in cycling, saw the use of doping in the first place as a matter of cowboy operators. Not the soigneurs but the doctors themselves would have to administer the drug. Van Dijk wrote in 1960:

“The task of us, doctors, in the coming years must be: to get the administration of stimulants out of the hands of the soigneurs and other unauthorized persons.”

The death of Tom Simpson, who died on the slopes of the Mont Ventoux on July 13, 1967 due to a combination of warm weather, a heavy exertion, alcohol and doping, ensured that doping came increasingly the focus  the attention of policymakers.

 In 1965, the UCI introduced the first doping controls.

The soigneurs were medically uneducated people who usually learned the trade from another old experienced soigneur who had earned his renown in cycling. They were a kind of magicians, witch doctors and sect leaders who occupied a very important place in the team. Their knowledge and experience was judged very high by the riders but also by the team leaders who, when they still were cyclists themselves, were cared for and prepared by the same soigneurs for the important races.

Furthermore, most soigneurs had a number of tools that enabled them making themselves even more important. One was the ability to manipulate the rider under his care so that he became fully convinced that he would never be successful without his help. After that the soigneur could do with him what he wanted convinced as they were that you could not win a race without his powders, pills and piqûres.

In the team the soigneur had an important place. He was highly regarded, far above the remaining staff of the team. His prestige and status were large and his ego increased with each victory of one of his riders. At the end of the story the soigneurs were increasingly convinced themselves that it was they and not the riders who won a race. I heard them say enough times, “I won today.” As one of his riders came first across the finish line.

Especially the fact that riders were massaged after the race for one hour made the relationship between rider and soigneur stronger. During that hour not only  the tired body was  kneaded and rubbed until all juices of fatigue were gone but even important was the massage of the mind that caused that  the rider was also mentally  fine again  and ready for the next race.  The relationship between soigneur and rider was very strong and personal. There was nobody in the team who was so well acquainted with the inner life of the riders. It was striking that these relations were never equal. At best, it was a father-son relationship, but often the rider was an under-age infant who had nothing to say.

SOIGNEURS  AROUND 1988

Bertus Fok                                                 Rudy  Jongen                                     Ruud Bakker

But the soigneurs also made abuse of their dominant role. A soigneur had to take care three riders during a stage race. After an extensive massage the rider was finished by a piqûre that the soigneur conjured up from his magical drug case. That ritual was so well established that a massage without a piqûre felt like a sexual act without orgasm. What was in the syringe was not discussed by the soigneur. That would indicate distrust.  His hands could feel   exactly how it was with the muscles and what they needed. Later, the soigneur explained to the team leader about the condition of the rider’s legs: that could be good, exceptional, bad or very bad.

The whole ritual was repeated daily and when the cyclist performed well than it was customary that he handed out of gratitude an envelope with content to the soigneur. But if the soigneur felt he was not sufficiently rewarded the rider was assigned during the next course to a lesser soigneur who has not yet mastered the intricacies of the trade.

That is what the cycling world looked like when I made my entrance.  It then took me several years before, after endless fights, I conquered my position. Currently soigneurs have disappeared  from cycling and  cycling doctors have  completely taken over their position.

Cycling is a caricature of normal society. Cycling is no worse or better than normal society. The big difference is that events in cycling are magnified much more.