HTC-Columbia team doctor: It’s more than cleaning road burn

A talk with Helge Riepenhof, HTC-Columbia's team physician, about recovery, supplements, racing jersey bacteria and more.

By Sarah W. Staber

It was January, the heart of summer Down Under and over 100 degrees F at the Tour Down Under, when HTC-Columbia’s team doctor, Helge Riepenhof, proposed wiring up the team with full heart monitoring equipment while racing. We’re not talking a simple Polar strap, here, but an array of stickers and wires like you’d see in the ICU.

Helge Riepenhof
Helge Riepenhof

In retrospect, Riepenhof admits he was pretty relieved that the team had a good race despite the equipment, which produced a wealth of valuable data that he is using to tailor the team diet and recovery process at races later in the season.

“If the team didn’t do so well, they could have blamed me, saying they couldn’t ride with stickers all over their bodies in such a heat,” he said.

“We wanted to see exactly what the heart does when the racing conditions are really hot outside,” he said, saying that this greatly influences how the riders sleep at night and recover. “There are no studies on this yet and the results we are looking at now are giving us clues as to how we can change things to help our boys ride better,” he concluded.

Riepenhof, a German trauma and orthopedic surgeon based in Hamburg, began his career in the cycling world back in 2002 when he was doing research about accidents and injuries of pro riders. Team boss Bob Stapleton pulled him on board as the full-time team physician in 2007. Since then, on top of providing the normal medical expertise common of a team doctor, he has continued his passion for research, looking for solutions and improvements for the team, through sometimes unlikely methods.

Bacteria patches — on team jerseys?

Case in point. During the Tour Down Under Riepenhof put a 2.5cm patch on the back of the riders’ jerseys – on it: bacteria.

“We were recording UV amounts that riders were subjected to while racing, to determine what kind of sunscreen they should be using. Research shows that if you have a sunburn your performance might suffer as your skin has a disease and is trying to fight it,” Riepenhof explained.

The patches were treated with bacteria that grew when subjected to UV from the sun. These amounts were then analyzed to help the dermatologist who works with the team to decide on the proper sunscreen.

“We don’t do research just to get information, we are trying to change things on the team,” Riepenhof said.

Recovery is key

A typical day for Riepenhof, who travels with the team about 140 days a year, has him overseeing the rigid schedule he has put in place.

“We wake the guys up in the morning, see that they have their breakfast three hours before the race, taking care about what they are eating based on their energy output from the day before.”

He is on the bus to handle any problems riders might have and escorts team members to doping controls. After the race he oversees the handout of proper recovery drinks, supervises cold plunges and leg compressions, lymph drainages, massages and stretches — making sure each rider gets what he needs for optimal recovery. Riepenhof, whose personal interest lies in the area of proper recovery, is adament: “These days in cycling the most important thing in three-week races is recovery. The guy who will do the best is the guy who recovers the best.”

Nutrition, a complicated balancing act

During the races, especially longer ones, providing proper nutrition is a tricky job – one suited perfectly to Helge, who loves the challenge.

”One main difference when comparing cycling to all other sports in the world is that these guys are competing every day for such a long periods of time and this effort weakens the immune system. Everything the body uses to get calories in the first week changes in the second. In the third week, when everyone is throwing up and having diarrhea, it is really hard to maintain proper nutrition.”

So, what does Riepenhof do? “We work with probiotics and different types of food. The food in the first week is totally different to that in the second week. In the third week we just hope everything goes all right! We change vitamin intake and the amount of probiotics, trying to keep everything more or less in good balance. Acid is really a problem due to so much lactate, stress and the high energy food that isn’t really good for the stomach,” he continued.

When it comes to the musettes, Helge runs a tight ship. “The soigneurs have a list of everything which must go in the bag — that is my German behavior coming out,” he laughs. Each rider gets the same food; drinks are rider-specific.

“We have bars and gels, depending on the heat and the length of the race. A Belgium bakery makes a really nice cake specific to our needs and the riders really enjoy that, but that’s a treat. On hard stages we stick to bars and gels.”

Riepenhof with Tony Martin at at the 2009 Tour de Suisse
Riepenhof with Tony Martin at at the 2009 Tour de Suisse

Supplements by the book

HTC-Columbia riders each have a small handbook about supplements written by Riepenhof himself. “Here they can find out what they need and when. If they are racing in three days they look it up and find out they have to take this and this supplement.” This keeps the process straightforward and manageable for the team members.

Riepenhof insists that control is vital. “Bob (Stapleton) doesn’t have a lot of rules but one is that; whatever the rider takes, it has to be tested beforehand.”

Therefore, Riepenhof doles out all supplements that the team members take. “Everything is tested before to ensure it is pure and there are no risks.” Riepenhof runs tests in the hospital and also talks with companies to find out how they produce the various products HTC-Columbia wants to use.

Supplements aren’t just for races. “When the riders travel and meet a lot of people they have a high risk of infection, so I have them taking a vitamin C mix.”

Heads up

Always on the lookout for an unnecessary risk, Riepenhof must have his eyes and ears open.

For example, three team riders were invited to a “Right to Play” event in Peru. The charitable trip could have been a major career set back for the riders.

“In Peru, they have a traditional tea ceremony for special guests. If our riders had partaken in that, as one would do to be friendly, they could have been tested positive for cocaine!” Luckily, I knew about this tradition and I called before and asked them not to offer the ceremony.

“At each camp we talk to the team and emphasize that they have to be careful about what they eat and things they take.”

Feeling safe

Riepenhof’s dedication to detail has paid off in many ways. When asked what the most satisfying part of his job is, his answer comes quickly. “Three years ago I would have said winning races. But now I’d say it’s the trust of the guys. One of the guys recently became a father. When there are problems with the baby, he calls me for advice. Others tell me they believe in my methods. This is the best part of the job. That trust is amazing. It’s perfect.”