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I just watched a team director hang his underwear to dry along the balcony of the Copper Manor Motel. From this vantage point, I count three team trailers, one U-haul, four team vans, three team cars, and a few dozen bikes. Soigneurs are carrying bags of laundry and washing coolers and bottles, while mechanics service bikes and reload trailers. Motel room doors are propped open and I can see a few riders sprawled out on beds or slumped in chairs.
Lindsay Bayer / Images: Justin Weeks
It’s mid-afternoon in the middle of Tour of the Gila in Silver City, NM but this scene will unfold a hundred more times at stage races around the world. This is like going backstage at the circus. This is where the lions and clowns sleep at night.
Cycling media shows you the surface of stage racing; the scenic photos, the results from each day, the shifts in the General Classification results and the passing of leader’s jerseys. What you don’t see is everything that happens before and after the stages, the routine of life in the traveling civilization of professional cycling.
A few days before each race begins – maybe longer, if the race is at altitude and riders need to acclimate – the teams roll into town. The wealthy teams show up in buses and vans and trailers; those with smaller budgets cobble together the vehicles needed to move the basic equipment. Riders arrive in the vans or team cars, driven over from a race that just ended or collected from the local airport. Luggage and bike bags spill out into parking lots and the first things you hear are, “Can we do a grocery run?” and “I need to go for a spin.”
(The local Whole Foods braces for impact. Or, in the case of Silver City, the local Walmart.)
Everybody settles into race housing, whether that is host housing in local homes set up by the race organization, or the race hotel. Sometimes, like at Amgen Tour of California, you’re living the good life in a fancy hotel. Sometimes, like at Tour of the Gila, you’re just excited to see a mini fridge in your motel room. My room didn’t even come with a clock. But it was clean and within an hour, I’d spread out my cycling gear and electronics and coffee brewing equipment. This exact scene played out in dozens of rooms around town as riders and staff tried to replicate “home” for the week.
On the eve of the race, sports directors attend race meetings and report back to their teams with notes on the stages and schedules for the days ahead. Riders pin their numbers. No matter how high up you get in this sport, there is nothing so egalitarian as the ritual of pinning numbers.
The race days fly by in a blur. Morning starts with coffee and everybody has come prepared with their French press/AeroPress/pour over. Breakfast is an avalanche of food – oatmeal, Greek yogurt, fruit, avocado toast. Riders pack team-issued bags before every stage, roll out with our teammates on bikes or in team vehicles, and huddle in circles of folding chairs in team parking to discuss race plans. Notes are taped to stems listing key points of the stage parcour. Jersey pockets are filled with food, bottles are topped off, tires are checked one last time, and everybody visits the port-o-potties like we’re trying to earn reward miles.
After signing in for the stage and last-minute preparations (“Arm warmers or not? Does anybody have chamois cream?”), we roll to the start for staging and pre-race announcements from the officials. Dave Towle tells the crowds that we’re about to “hit out for the prairie” or “launch this group into orbit.” Sometimes the National Anthem is sung. Sometimes the singer actually hits most of the notes.
You know what happens next; that’s the stuff that makes it into cycling media. The race unfolds. Somebody wins. Everybody else loses. Podiums, flowers, jerseys, elation, tears.
After the stage, there’s a second race to get a recovery drink, get out of your kit, eat the post-race meal you brought in your bag. The team debriefs on the race, talking about what went right and wrong and how the stage played out. The folding chairs get packed away, sweaty kits are tossed into bags, and riders are loaded back into the vehicles to return to team housing. If they’re lucky, a soigneur is waiting to do their laundry and rub their legs. If they’re not, there’s always the foam roller and the hotel sink.
Hours after the race ends, the mechanics finish washing bikes, checking wheels and storing equipment for the night. Teams meet for dinner and talk about the next day’s plans. Soigneurs refill bottles, riders repack bags, and finally the work is done. If it’s night, team staff might meet at a bar for Union Night. Don’t make the mistake of wearing sponsor-branded apparel or you’re buying the drinks. Meanwhile riders hole up in their rooms to call their partners, clog the wifi bandwidth streaming Netflix, or pull on compression tights and call it a night early.
The next day will be the same, and the one after that as well, until the race is done and the circus leaves town for the next event.
Right now I’m in the middle of the race in the middle of this scene and while it’s far from home and the challenges of the race are far from over, it’s still comforting. Wherever I travel, I can count on this same routine and these same people. It’s a family when we’re all far from our own families. It’s familiarity in unfamiliar places. It’s a life lived outside of what happens between the start and finish lines.
A game of pickup football starts up while some riders drag chairs outside to out their legs up in the setting sun. I hear somebody crack open a few beers. Two mechanics in the parking lot just played the PENIS game (if you don’t know how to play, you’re missing out). I didn’t make the podium today but you can’t tell me this isn’t living the dream.