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Drops-Le Col prioritizing health before results with groundbreaking wellness program

The British women's squad hopes to end cycling’s obsession with the weighing scales in favor of 'whole health.'

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These days there’s more to being a professional bike racer than just riding the bike.

Riders are not machines one can just plug numbers into, and teams are increasingly working on the “whole” athlete, and not just the data on the power meter, the weight on the scales or a fat percentage.

A growing trend in elite racing is that overall athlete care is becoming just as important as who is first across the finish line.

On the frontlines of this new shift, British women’s Continental squad Drops-Le Col s/b Tempur has launched a “rider wellness program” that is breaking new ground inside the women’s peloton.

The up-and-coming team is putting health above short-term obsession with results, and is betting the long-term payout will be happier riders and improving results on the road.

“You want athletes to realize that being healthy is important, not just for being an athlete but for life,” said team doctor Claire Rose said. “A lot of it is just around the education, educating riders and making sure that health is one of their priorities.”

You may recognize the team from their standout, colorful kits, or from Maria Martin’s podium at the Ronde de Mouscron, or their recent top-5 performances at Scheldeprijs with Emilie Moberg or Brabantse Pijl with Joscelin Lowden.

The program is designed to address riders’ long-term physical and mental health.

General manager Tom Varney is hoping it will help cut the ball-and chain between a racer and the scales.

“The long-term benefit will be to get rid of the obsession that the only way to get quicker is by losing weight. I think that is a mindset in cycling in general, whether it’s male or female cycling. It needs to change,” said Varney.

“There are some examples in the team where a rider thinks that they’re overweight, I have no opinion on it, she is superb at what she does and there are other ways to get quicker and improve than just lose weight.

“The mental gains can far outweigh any weight loss. If you feel great in a team then the performance goes up 20 percent straight away.”

Educating riders

The rider wellness program is a new initiative for the team that encompasses many strands, including monitoring sleep, assessing historical health problems, tracking riders’ menstruation cycles, working with a mental coach, and developing a blood profile for each rider to monitor overall well-being.

Racing bikes should make someone healthier, not push them to the edge of physical and mental exhaustion.

The team has several apps, which the riders update regularly – sometimes daily – and it hopes to be able to use them to empower riders to make their own health choices as well as identifying issues such as stress early on.

“It’s about being able to help them use it, to see where they can make those gains in performance or where they can make improvements to be fully healthy,” team doctor Rose said. “It’s finding a balance because it can be stressful if you feel like you have to keep putting in this data all the time.”

The overall health of riders has been pushed to the forefront in recent years with male riders Marcel Kittel and Tom Dumoulin stepping away from the peloton for their own well-being.

Rose knows all about what it like to be a professional cyclist and the health challenges that come with it. She raced for various teams for the best part of a decade,and was crowned British time trial champion in 2017, until health problems forced her into retirement.

Today, Rose works with the British Drops-Le Col s/b Tempur team, which is run by Varney and his father Bob, as well as providing her medical expertise to the rider union The Cyclists’ Alliance.

“I have had my own experiences in cycling with poor medical cover at races and within teams, and also experienced the good side of it and having some really good team doctors,” said Rose.

“I think it’s just identifying that need for teams to have some good medical input.”

Until recently, a dedicated team doctor and health program was a rare thing in women’s cycling with most squads operating on a shoestring budget.

With the advent of WorldTeam licences for women’s teams for 2020, medical staff are now a must.

It’s not yet mandatory for those without WorldTeam licences as they operate under the same rules as the men’s Continental teams.

However, Drops has its eyes set on reaching the upper echelon of the sport and the implementation of a rider wellness program is an integral part of that.