On tour with Sophie Chavanel: Tales from Flanders

We’re still not quite ready to say farewell to the cobbles, even though the Ardennes classics are well under way. Here’s another behind-the-scenes report from Sophie Chavanel, physiotherapist at French WorldTour team FDJ, who has kindly agreed to share her experiences and insights with us. Her first report explained how the team coped with sunburn, heat, niggling injuries and the wildlife, her second showed how the team and support staff overcame problems in a rain-soaked Tirreno-Adriatico, and her third focuses on the cobbled classics – hard races for everyone.

Hi everyone. I’m back from one of the most exciting parts of the year for me: the Flandrian Classics.

The anticipation, planning and preparation

For all my team this is a particularly intense moment of the season. Our directors Marc Madiot, Martial Gayant and Frederic Guesdon are all absolutely passionate about these races [Madiot won Paris-Roubaix in 1985 and Guesdon in 1997 – Ed]. They all have very beautiful memories from there so they want to relive their success as directors. All the staff are passionate too! Every year it is nearly always the same staff for these races. For the mechanics too it is a little special. They have to prepare special wheels with very particular and top-secret pneumatic pressures. We have special bikes too for Roubaix. It represents a lot of work for the mechanics.

Mmm, I bet that feels good. Sophie massages Arnaud ( (image: Sophie Chavanel)

Mmm, I bet that feels good. Sophie massages Arnaud ( (image: Sophie Chavanel)

Now I will explain what it means for us, the physiotherapists, and why I like the classics so much. Firstly, the same team spends three weeks all together like during a grand tour! But it is much more convivial – like a big family. During this three-week period I massaged Yoann Offredo and Arnaud Demare, and also sometimes David Boucher and Murilo Fisher.

On March 20th I arrived at the service course to prepare the truck. I had to put into it everything we might need during the three weeks. Each year we stay in the same hotels and it is like we are at home!

FDJ: They're like one big happy family

FDJ: They’re like one big happy family  (image: Sophie Chavanel)

All the team arrived in Belgium in our first ‘home hotel, the Holiday Inn in Gent. The day after the riders trained for three hours to reconnoitre the route of the E3 [Harelbeke]. In these sorts of races it is very, very important to really know the roads. To win you have to know where are the strategic points. You have to memorise all of them so you can to be sure not to make strategic mistakes during the race. You have to know when you can be cool and when you have to concentrate. The Belgians have a big advantage, they know all the roads perfectly!

Let the racing start!

Typical chilly weather for the Cobbled Classics (image: Sophie Chavanel)

Typical chilly weather for the Cobbled Classics (image: Sophie Chavanel)

The first week end was very, very cold! So we had to do all we could to warm up our riders! Hot tea, plastering them in a warming cream like Baume St Bernard: the conditions were very difficult for the riders. They suffered a lot. It even snowed on the Sunday, but the spectators were still there. And so many! It is just incredible! The public there are so passionate. They are knowledgeable. They understand cycling, they love it! They spend the whole day with all the family just to see the race. And it is fantastic to be there where everybody loves cycling.

Sophie applying that magic blue kine tape

Sophie applying that magic blue kine tape. Now, doesn’t that feel better? (image: Sophie Chavanel)

Musettes at the ready

Bidons at the ready (image: Sophie Chavanel)

For us during the race we have to go to the feed zone and different key points. With Gayant and  Guesdon we have three cars and so we try to be at the end of all the bergs and pavé. We are there to hand out bottles and to change wheels in case of flat tyres. For us it is important also to know the road well! Because it is not always easy to find the key climbs! But year after year I get to know them better. Thanks to Gayant who knows the road as well as, if not better, than the Belgians.

Waiting for Arnaud

Waiting for Arnaud (image: Sophie Chavanel)

After the first weekend where Mathieu Ladagnous arrived in the group just behind [Peter] Sagan in Gent-Welvegem, we had the Three Days of De Panne. Arnaud [Demare] was runner-up on the first stage and was leader after the second stage. No overall success but again a very good race by the team.

Swanky lodgings

Swanky lodgings (image: Sophie Chavanel)

Then we went to our second ‘home hotel’, the Lodewig Van Male in Bruges. It’s a very old and charming hotel. The restaurant food is so delicious! We were there for three days so we could see a little of downtown Bruges. It was not the first time for me but it’s always a pleasure to see such a beautiful town. When you have the luck to see all these beautiful places, to go in all these good hotels, to meet different people, for me you have to know you are lucky and you have to always keep your eyes wide open so as to enjoy all these wonderful moments.

Key competence for all team staff: map reading

Key competence for all team staff – map reading (image: Sophie Chavanel)

Ronde start in Bruges. Can you see Sophie or Miss Kitty?

Erecting Ronde start in Bruges. Too early to spot Sophie or Kitty! (image: Sophie Chavanel)

On the Sunday it was the Ronde [Van Vlaanderen]. I don’t know if you have ever been there to see this race. If not, you have to. You have to see all the people in the Kwaremont and in every mont and every sector of pavé! It is a big party in Flanders! And for the riders it is a very hard race, like a war. For us it was not easy as five of our riders suffered from stomach problems. But Ladagnous and Offredo arrived in the first group, with the former finishing fifth. It was a very good performance for him and for all our team. We were very happy! Fifth means WorldTour points for him and for us: very important for the team.

For me it is my favorite race. I did the second feed zone and I was at the end of Jregik, at the top of Kruisberg and at the finish. I adore this race. When you see your riders during the race you understand it is a warzone. The winner is not only luckier, he is also the strongest. They all prepare well during the winter and they all make a lot of sacrifices just to hope to have a result in this type of dream race. Because all the riders at the start dream of winning. There is an atmosphere. It is difficult to explain. You have to come and see! It is for precisely this sort of moment why we do this job. [Okay, sold, I’m going next year – Sheree.]

Hubble, bubble toil and trouble just to make sure the pasta's al dente

Hubble, bubble toil and trouble just to make sure the pasta’s al dente (image: Sophie Chavanel)

We began the last week with GP Escaut [Scheldeprijs] on the Wednesday and then we went on to Roubaix. The day before is spent on preparation. Reconnaissance for the riders, bike preparation for the mechanics and we have to be sure we have everything they might need on D-day: special drinks, special breathing strips for the noses, cake for the race [I hope that’s one of my recipes from The Musette – Sheree], al dente pasta for the night before. We all did our best! For us in every classic we start work at 6:00 and we finish massaging at 20:30. It is hard for us too!

Full-lade Sophie at Paris-Roubaix

Fully-laden Sophie at Paris-Roubaix (image: Sophie Chavanel)

Unfortunately the race was a nightmare. Our two leaders – Ladagnous and Offredo – both fell.

The others did their best but when you work for your leader it is then hard to have a result yourself. Classics are very beautiful but very hard races. The riders did everything to win, they all dream but a lot of them are disappointed. They just have to accept it. You have to give your all to succeed and, even if you are disappointed, you hope one day you might win. You always have to have belief. And it is very difficult for the riders: when you give your all and you fall. It is difficult to accept. But that’s racing. I’m proud of my riders. At the end they had knee pain, back pain, painful hands and feet but they always ride to win.

This year we had a good result with Mathieu’s and Yoann’s places and the leader’s jersey during the Three Days of De Panne. I’m sure we will have more. I hope next year we will win a beautiful Flandrian classic!

Sophie waiting in the Velodrome for her boys!

Sophie waiting in the velodrome for her boys! (image: Sophie Chavanel)

Sophie, thank you for those bitter-sweet memories. Enjoy your well-earned break and we’ll catch up with you at the Giro d’Italia.

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