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If Paris-Roubaix is a long day in the saddle for the racers, it’s even longer for staffers working the French monument.
The race might only last six hours — Sunday’s edition was the fastest on record at 5 hours, 37 minutes at 45.792kph — but it’s at least double that for the mechanics, soigneurs, sport directors, and others working behind the scenes at WorldTour teams.
From an early start in Compiègne to a wild day on the backroads of northern France to the finish on the velodrome in Roubaix and a late-night dinner back at the team hotel, there’s never a dull moment.
“Everything starts with a good breakfast,” said Trek-Segafredo‘s Kenneth Van Impe, one of the team’s staffers working at Paris-Roubaix. “We usually wake up at 6 a.m., and from there, it’s busy all the way into the night.”
For the support staff, the day usually starts well before breakfast. The soigneurs and mechanics all have their designated tasks, and it usually starts at 6 a.m. for a big race like Roubaix.
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There’s a frenzy of activity on the morning of Roubaix. Staffers load up the cars, packing them with extra wheels, clothes, food, equipment, and other gear and necessities the riders will need in the six hours of racing that lies ahead.
“We have to prepare the food bags and make sure we have plenty of gels and bars to make sure the riders are covered with their nutrition during the race,” Van Impe said. “We load up the cars with a lot of extra water bottles. At a race like Roubaix, the riders lose their bottles a lot on the cobbles.”
After breakfast and a final run-through, everyone packs into the team bus and cars, and heads to Compiègne for the start. The entourage is larger at Roubaix, with extra VIPs, sponsors, and technical personnel coming in for the race.
Once at the race start, the nerves ratchet up as everyone lines up. The riders have to deliver, and the staffers have to be ready and at the beck and call of the riders to make sure things go off with as few glitches as possible.
“We double-check everything and make sure we are covered,” Van Impe said. “We don’t want to take any chances on a big day like Roubaix.”
For a race like Roubaix, Trek-Segafredo brings an extra fleet of vehicles to post up at different cobblestone sectors with extra wheels and bidons.
Van Impe heads to the day’s two feed zones, loaded with bags and water bottles to pass up to the riders.
“We pack 14 musettes for the race, two per rider,” he said. “They are filled with energy bars, gels, and some homemade stuff like pastries and gluten-free cakes. A soft drink might be in there and two bottles of energy drinks.”
Despite the intensity and punishment of Roubaix, somewhat surprisingly there’s nothing special when it comes to feeding the riders during the race. The race is unique in many ways, especially when it comes to bicycles and tech, but when it comes to nutrition, things largely stay the same as any other major one-day monument-level race.
The definition of Dirty Thirty 😅
Happy birthday Jappe!
— Trek-Segafredo (@TrekSegafredo) April 17, 2022
Handing up the musettes might not seem like much when seen on TV, but passing up water bottles and feed bags with the bunch rolling through at 40kph is a learned art.
“You have to know what you’re doing when you pass up a food bag,” he said. “It’s not that it’s rocket science, but if you do it the wrong way, you can cause a crash. There is a technique to it, it’s something you learn.”
Van Impe and the other staffers know the backroads and access points to arrive in time for the feed zones, and then they will beeline to the finish line in Roubaix. Staffers will be at the ready on the finish line with drinks, towels, and fresh clothes for the exhausted riders as they cross the line. A backslap, hug, and moral support also come in handy, too.
Unfortunately for Trek-Segafredo, there wasn’t much to celebrate Sunday. Mads Pedersen abandoned along with every other starter except Jasper Stuyven, who suffered a late-race puncture that took him out of contention for the podium. He fought on to cross the line with seventh on a day that looked like it could deliver more.
Working with Mads Pedersen: ‘If something is off I can feel it’
Van Impe is no stranger to the peloton, and he’s lived the highs and lows of being alongside some of the biggest stars in the bunch.
He started in 2010 with the former Saxo Bank team and joined Trek-Segafredo five years ago.
“My father has two brothers, and they were both soigneurs. Ever since I visited the races as a boy, I said I wanted to be a soigneur. Now here I am,” he said. “It’s a good job. I enjoy it. If you do not love it you cannot do this job.”
He’s worked with some of the biggest names in the sport but has worked as a personal soigneur for Pedersen the past few seasons. Van Impe started working with the Dane in his first season at Trek-Segafredo, and they’ve worked together ever since.
Pedersen, 26, said he knows that Van Impe will have his back before, during, and after a race.
“In general, it’s good to have the right people around you. And that’s from your coach, to sport director, teammates to sponsors, to the guy who is giving you massage and building your bike. It is important because I know everything is 100 percent as I want it,” Pedersen said.
“It’s small details, and I like his message, and it’s always nice to have the same massage every time. Is it necessary? I don’t think so, but it’s nice to have it in that way, and it makes me more confident in the preparation for the races. So that’s why it’s important.”
With his experienced hands, Van Impe can immediately detect if something is not right with one of his riders. He typically works closest with Pedersen during the classics period and can sense if something is amiss.
“You can feel it basically right away if they have a lot of tension in the legs, and if something is wrong,” Van Impe said. “You are working with their muscles every day, and feel their bodies. If something is off I can feel it.”
Massage is an essential part of recovery and racing. Supple legs are fast legs.
Communication is key as well. Van Impe said he refuses, on principle, to work with riders who show up to massage with headphones.
“Mads is a guy who likes to talk a lot,” he said. “We talk about a lot of things, more than just about cycling. About family, life, home, mostly about cars and motorbikes. Never anything too serious.”
So how harsh is Roubaix? Pedersen said it all depends on how the race goes.
“It depends if you crash in the Arenberg, it takes more than a couple of days to recover,” Pedersen said. “Normally for us, we take a good break after this race. This is the first part of the season for us. We don’t know if it takes two days or four or five days to recover because when we start to ride the bike again it’s normally after five or seven days. By then you are quite OK by then.”
Paris-Roubaix comes at the end of a busy spring
Somewhat surprisingly, Van Impe and the other massage therapists have the night off after Roubaix. Most riders go directly from the velodrome to a nearby airport to try to get home as soon as possible.
“The riders are pretty beat up after Roubaix,” Van Impe said. “You can see that the race is the most brutal and the body absorbs a lot more shocks on those sectors of pavé. It’s the last race in the long period of the classics.”
“There’s no massage after the race,” he said. “Most of them have a break after Roubaix, so there is no special treatment or massage directly after the race. The Roubaix riders have a resting period, and they might take a week off the bike.”
The same goes for the hard-working behind-the-scenes staffers. After Roubaix, there’s a team dinner, ideally to celebrate a big success, and everyone quickly scatters. Staffers will help disassemble the bikes and equipment and off-load everything at the team’s service course.
For the soigneurs, Paris-Roubaix is the last big day at the end of a long period across the entire spring racing calendar.
“A holiday starts for us as well,” Van Impe said. “I have been going since the Volta ao Algarve in February. I haven’t been home much during that time, mainly due to the COVID rules that we have to respect. After all of that, we can use a break.”
Van Impe will spend a well-deserved respite at home, and return to racing in early May at the Eschborn-Frankfurt race.
“I spend about 180 days on the road. The whole season last 10 months, from the training camps and the early races all the way into October,” he said. “If you do the math, it’s more or less three weeks a month on the road with the team. The spring classics are the busiest period. It really pushes you to the limit, being away from home so long, and having the pressure on everyone to perform.
“The reward is when the team does a good result. That’s why we do it.”