On tour with Sophie Chavanel: Tales from the 100th Tour de France

While our thoughts are turning towards the final grand tour of the year, we’re still keen to hear about the Tour de France from the perspective of Sophie Chavanel, physiotherapist at FDJ, who shares her experiences and insights from a challenging and ultimately disappointing Tour for the team.

I’m back from the Tour! A little delayed. Sorry!

As you know, for a French team the Tour is the most important race of the year! For us the objective was clear and had been for a while – there was only one leader and it was Thibaut Pinot. We also had Nacer Bouhanni as our sprinter for the Tour.

Sophie's boys (image: Sophie Chavanel)

Sophie’s boys (Image: Sophie Chavanel)

I was lucky I went to the start in Corsica by plane. It was my first time there. All the team arrived at Porto Vecchio on Wednesday and we were sharing out hotel with Sky. At that point we didn’t know that they would win. But we could observe their excellent organisation and their professionalism. And they were all very polite to us, very nice.

Sophie and her colleague, the bus driver. She's never got it stuck under anything! (image: Sophie Chavanel)

Sophie and her colleague, the bus driver. She’s never got it stuck under anything! (Image: Sophie Chavanel)

The three days before the start are always a little bit special, especially at the Tour. For me they are very, very important. It’s my time to get everything and everyone organised. We have to think about the entire Tour and to anticipate every eventuality. If we begin well, if we are well organised, we will have no problems with the workload. So we begin with distribution of duties between the team manager, two directeurs sportifs, one doctor, one PR person, three mechanics, one bus driver, four physios and an assistant physio.

For the Tour, I was responsible for two riders I know very well: Thibaut and Arnold Jeannesson. I shared the workload with my colleague Thierry. I like him a lot and we work well together. We also had to prepare the food for the riders after the race and the staff lunch. During the first ten stages I was at the start, in the feed zone and at the finish.

Great working relationships are important (image: Sophie Chavanel)

Great working relationships are important (Image: Sophie Chavanel)

I discovered that Corsica is so beautiful and really liked the third stage between Ajaccio and Calvi. After this stage, the team went back to Nice and I was in the feed zone with team manager Marc Madiot. The start in Corsica was very scenic but it wasn’t so easy for the team to get around as there are not a lot of roads. So it was almost impossible for the bus to be both at the start and the finish. It was also a lengthy trip to get to Nice. Luckily, I went back with the riders by plane. We arrived at the hotel at 20:00 then we massaged all the riders and didn’t finish until 23:00. The hotel restaurant was closed, so we went out for sushi.

Sophie at team time-trial in Nice (image: Sophie Chavanel)

Sophie at team time trial in Nice (Image: Sophie Chavanel)

We were in the south of France, not far from my home. So my husband Sebastien was there, all the way to Montpellier. It was so nice to see him! In Montpellier we held a big barbecue for all the staff. It was lots of fun and so nice to sleep in my own bed. Unfortunately we lost Nacer who had suffered in the heat since Corsica and finally gave up in Marseilles.

Sophie and her one true love, Sebastien (image: Sheree)

Sophie and her one true love, Sebastien (Image: Sheree)

Then we arrived in the mountains: first big appointment and our first disillusionment. Our leader Thibaut couldn’t follow the first group during the descent, so he lost six minutes. It was a big disappointment, but that’s sport. You have to do everything you can to be as well prepared as possible and hope you will succeed, even though you are not sure you will. You need everyone’s support and belief and have luck on your side. Sometimes you do it all and even so you don’t succeed.

It was my eighth Tour with the team and though it was the most beautiful one, it was the most difficult and our least successful. Last year everything was beautiful, successful – it was easy. But that was last year. It’s during the difficult times that you learn. And I think Thibaut has learnt a lot during this Tour. That evening, when he was so disappointed, I don’t think I will ever forget his massage. I was there last year when he won his stage, I remember when he arrived for his massage, it was an unforgettable time. He still hadn’t realised he had won. He was the same as usual, always joking. But it was special when he arrived and I took him in my arms to congratulate him. It was an unforgettable moment for me, I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.

Sophie in action with those healing hands (Image: Sophie Chavanel)

Sophie in action with those healing hands (Image: Sophie Chavanel)

But this year, when he arrived for his massage, he was so sad, so disappointed. During the whole hour, I tried to help him. He is very passionate, he lives everything at 100%. And I love that! So I understand how he could be so disappointed. But this massage too I will never forget. I can’t explain but, when you do this job, you are not there just to fill bottles or to put oil on their legs. For me you have to be there for them, to listen, to feel, to say the right things or maybe just say nothing. It’s the most important, the most interesting aspect of our jobs but also the most difficult because it’s the most emotional.

The stage after that was a nightmare. Thibaut was at the back but he succeeded in finishing. I’ve  known him since he arrived in the team and I know it was not always easy for him, but he is a fighter and I knew he would succeed in this new test.

Almost Home Sweet Home (image: Sophie Chavanel)

Almost Home Sweet Home (Image: Sophie Chavanel)

After that we had the first rest day. We were at Pen Born in our training camp hotel. So we were at home! It was very nice. The families of the riders were there, all the wives and kids.

In the second part of the Tour, we had to search for a stage win. William Bonnet was fifth in one stage and Arnold was fourth on one of the stages Rui Costa won. We were always near the front but it wasn’t a Tour for a baroudeur. The last week was hard for us. In the Alps, the truck always left the hotel early, at 07:00, so we woke up at 05:30. And we finished late every day! Thibaut and William were both ill and retired.

On the last day we went to Paris by car in the morning. The race was during the evening. It’s always special when you arrive there and you see the Champs Élysées and then you see your riders finishing the last stage, finishing the Tour. You are happy for them and proud. Arthur Vichot, who fell on Friday and punctured twice on the last stage, had a very difficult time. When he finished he was devastated: so much suffering.

Sophie's reward for the riders and team: pancakes! (image: Sophie Chavanel)

Sophie’s reward for the riders and team: pancakes! (Image: Sophie Chavanel)

We all finally finished at 00:30 and went to a restaurant to party! But I was so tired I couldn’t wait to go to bed!

To the winner the spoils! (image: Sophie Chavanel)

To the winner the spoils! (Image: Sophie Chavanel)

On the Monday morning we were at the service course to prepare the truck for the next race. I got back home during the afternoon and went straight to the beach with my love!

The Tour didn’t bring good results for our team but every time it’s a human adventure. It’s always beautiful to be there. A kid’s dream. It was my eighth but for me it’s always as if it were the first. I still remember the first time I saw the Tour as a child with my family. We handed a bottle of water to a rider in the mountains and I dreamt that one day I would be in a team. And now I’m there. So even if it’s sometimes more of a nightmare, I’ll always cherish the memories never forgetting that it was always my childhood dream. See you soon …

What Sophie had to say about the disappointments for the team at the Tour was very much in line with the perspective given by our guest sports psychologist Nathalie Novembrini in her four-part Tour analysis.

After a few weeks at home during which she celebrated her 30th birthday – belated congratulations from all of us at VeloVoices – Sophie’s embarking on a whirlwind Tour of largely one-day races and, of course, the World Championships.  

2 thoughts on “On tour with Sophie Chavanel: Tales from the 100th Tour de France

  1. Thanks so much for a fantastic post. What a great insight into the travails of a team up against it in the tour – a view from the inside – such a warm and personal perspective too. More like this please.

  2. Sheree says:

    Thanks! I’ll pass on your kind comments to Sophie. The reports are all her own work. Don’t forget to check out her previous ones on the blog from the early part of the season and the Giro.

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