Inside the bubble at the Tour de France: How team staffers are adapting in the COVID era
Soigneurs, mechanics and press officers find positives in the life of face masks, gloves and hand sanitizers at the 2020 Tour de France.
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For a team staffer at this year’s Tour de France, if you’ve not washed your hands in the last few minutes, you’re probably doing it wrong.
Just as an external view of this year’s Tour has been altered by riders sporting face masks at podium ceremonies and racing playing out in the long shadows of September rather than high sun of July, life behind the scenes has a whole new look in 2020.
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With the UCI and ASO establishing its “bubble” concept for teams and staff, the dozens of mechanics, soigneurs, chefs and media officers keeping a team’s wheels turning are living a Tour like no other.
Life on the team bus, inside hotels and on the massage bench has been turned upside down as teams implement both the strict protocol decreed by governing bodies along with their own further measures to ensure no stone is left unturned in protecting staff and riders’ health, and the team’s very place on the race. Along with the personal loss should a rider contract coronavirus and have to leave the race, teams are at threat of expulsion from the Tour altogether if two of their entourage test positive at one of the mandatory rest-day checkups.
While the daily rituals and routines so engrained in stage race life carry on, face masks and hand gel are kept at reach at all times, everything within touching distanced is sterilized, and fans and the media are kept at arms’ length. For Trek-Segafredo staff, it’s a case of small changes to make big differences.
“There are a lot of new health and safety measures we do this year,” team soigneur Anthony Lafourte told VeloNews. “It does mean that everything takes longer and it feels like we’re in a mask all day, but we know that it’s just like for the good of everybody. It’s not been that hard to make happen, they’ve just been small changes, but the new way is sometimes frustrating. But we know it keeps us safe and on the road at the Tour.”
One of a crew of Trek-Segafredo “helpers” for the likes of Richie Porte and Mads Pedersen, Lafourte is charged with preparing scores of race bottles, setting up hotel rooms, doling out massages, and any other duty that lands on his plate in the melee of the Tour.
The Belgian, now in his sixth year as a team staffer, explains how his day-to-day duties are largely the same as they have always been, save for the addition of a face mask, a pair of gloves, and a big bottle of sanitizer.
“When I prepare the rider’s race bottles, I’m in a mask and gloves, the bottles are sterilized,” Lafourte said. “The guys preparing food, they disinfect their hands before making the food, and again if they have to go in and out of the bus. For massages, we wear a mask, but not gloves – it compromises the treatment. We swap all the towels and sheets between every session and sanitize our hands. Everything takes longer now.”
The biggest change Trek-Segafredo and many other teams have implemented is the creation of a “shopper” role. With teams needing fresh daily supplies for race musettes and staffers’ and riders’ meals, venturing out of the bubble into the wider world of local grocers and markets is an unavoidable task, but one that would burst the COVID sanctuary of the team unit.
“All the shopper does is shop,” Lafourte explains. “She has no contact with riders and staff in the bubble. We never see her, and she never sees us. She just goes to the stores and then leaves the food somewhere for us to collect. It’s hard for her – she never sees anyone – but it’s a good system to have, otherwise she could bring risks in from outside.”
Lafourte, now working his fifth Tour de France, points out that teams, and the world at large, are well set up to manage the world’s biggest bike race in the coronavirus era.
“So much changed in lockdown already that made things easier for us,” he said. “When you go into a hotel there’s hand sanitizer at the door, at the lifts, everywhere. We also have it within the rooms, and we also got a team face mask from [clothing sponsor] Santini, and a bottle with hand sanitizer that we can always refill.”
“Also, we already did a few races like Dauphine and all the French program [of early-August races], and we did all this [protocol] there too. So at least we didn’t start the season back with the Tour, and it was not too much of a surprise. It’s not been hard to get used to.”
While Lafourte has found it relatively easy to get into his COVID Tour groove, Trek-Segafredo press officer Jacob Kennison and the riders he looks after are actually finding benefits from the new methods imposed on the race. Rather than the past norm of media loitering around team busses and start areas waiting to pounce on unwary riders for interviews, journalists and video crews are now corralled into pens, and rider pass through to take requests before the race.
“The new system actually made our lives easier in some ways,” Kennison said. “I think riders are happier and more prepared to stop for an interview on race days when they’re already passing by in the mixed zone rather than having to specifically come out of the bus.”
“It’s the same with our press conferences,” he continued. “We did our rest day conferences just in our hotel, which the riders prefer. They don’t have to drive for an hour away to some fancy location.”
While the controlled access to riders poses a range of problems for media to gather unique content and insights, Kennison said reporters are also finding benefits. “They get almost more guaranteed access with a mixed zone rather than being told ‘Yeah, give it 5, 10 minutes and then you can have your interview,” he explained.
Team mechanic Jeroen Heymans is also finding advantages to the new measures. With the public barriered away from Trek-Segafredo’s trucks and hotels, his day-long duties of tinkering, fixing, cleaning and fettling with the squad’s fleet of bikes has become a lot more efficient.
“It’s more relaxed like this,” Heymans said. “We get a lot more done and are less distracted without being interrupted by a fan every two minutes to give them a bottle or a gift. In a way, it’s a shame to not give people things, but it takes all our time.”
Lafourte points out that months of living in a pandemic hasn’t deterred the public from searching for souvenirs, but with the team doing all it can to not let its bubble burst, fans have to go home empty-handed.
“People don’t really understand when they come to you at the hotel in the morning and they keep asking you for bottles and caps and stuff like this,” he said. “Some don’t get it that with corona we really try to avoid contact with people out of the bubble. It’s frustrating having to turn them away, and they should know anyway, but it’s just the way it is.”
Top brass at race organizers ASO have suggested that even when the world returns to a COVID-free “normal,” life inside the Tour de France may never be the same again, with some of the sanitary methods put in place for this summer’s race becoming a fixture.
From his press officer perspective, Kennison would be in favor of some sort of hybrid system.
“I feel like in the future, we should keep some of these measures, or adapt them,” Kennison said. “It’s a lot less stressful for the riders to do it the way they are now. They can get frustrated being hassled before a race.”
Soigneur Lafourte agreed.
“10 years ago, people would think like it’s crazy to do all these kind of things, but I think now we’re used to doing everything we can to be safe, it’s just normal,” he said. “All this is new in cycling, but honestly, I just hope when this pandemic will be over, we just keep the same system. It just feels normal now in 2020 to do all this, and it makes a lot of sense. If riders get sick because of anything, it impacts the whole team, and, well … the Tour is vital.”
The bubble will burst eventually, and the world will be without coronavirus. But life behind the scenes at a grand tour may never be the same again.