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Over the past few years CyclingTips has been lucky enough to visit the service courses of some of the biggest teams in the world: Sky, Orica-GreenEdge and Trek Factory Racing. During a recent visit to Belgium for the Spring Classics, CyclingTips’ roving reporter Dave Everett went along to check out the headquarters of a quintessentially Belgian team: Lotto Soudal. Here’s the story and the photos Dave brought back.
Lotto Soudal is one of the longest-running teams in the pro peloton. In 31 years the team has seen many rival teams come and go, all while transforming from a local kermesse team into the WorldTour team it is today.
The day I visited was the Monday after Paris-Roubaix, clearly a busy day for the mechanics. Bikes covered in dirt sat scattered about the premises, the dust thrown up while pounding the broken cobbles having found its way into every nook and cranny.
Each rider had three bikes at their disposal for the race; a total of 24 bikes and roughly 50 pairs of spare wheels for the mechanics to clean. Even though they cleaned the team bikes and wheels straight after the race, they’re all cleaned a second time and given a thorough check over.
As for the race itself the team had a relativity quiet day with few mechanical problems and only five punctures in total.
The service course sits in an industrial estate on the outskirts of Herentals, nestled among other factories, warehouses and garages. It’s easy to miss, as I did on my first drive past trying to find it. The only giveaway that it’s home to one of the best cycling teams in the world is the bright red team cars sitting outside.
There’s no name plate on the door; it’s all hush hush from the outside. If you didn’t know better you’d think it’s yet another nameless factory. And that’s deliberate — it would be a field day for some unscrupulous sort if they knew where many thousands of euros worth of bikes and kit were stored, year round.
Inside it’s a pretty simple affair, no super-flash fittings or expensive layout design. It’s clear that the history of the team has shaped the layout and the way the work areas are defined. Behind the two enormous main roller shutters sit the teams trucks and buses.
Alongside the team mechanics’ first truck — itself a very impressive vehicle — lie all the team bikes and wheels. Row upon row of Ridley bikes litter the walls. Each of the team riders’ bikes hang from the wall via a fork mounted system, all named and with the rider’s national flag. Each rider gets at least five bikes throughout the year, though this can easily change if they end up on the Classics or Tour de France roster.
Time trial and race bikes are kept by the team and taken to the race in the truck. Riders keep their own training bikes at home.
On the day of the visit, local team member Dennis Vanendert had swung by with his training bike to get a bit of servicing done. It was interesting to watch him help out with the problem, not leaving the mechanic to do all the work.
A mind-boggling number of team wheels hang next to the bikes. With many from past seasons hanging next to the 140 pairs the team received from Campagnolo for 2015, it’s a wall of high gloss carbon and rubber.
The service course is very simplistic yet well thought out in many ways. The mechanics’ work area is behind where the trucks reverse in to, which obviously helps with the quick loading of bikes and gear. The workshop itself is like any good bike shop work area, though obviously with plenty more tools and many, many more high-end components filling draws and boxes.
The amount of kit and components the team goes through a year is surprising. Spotting the recycling bin overflowing with packaging that once housed everything from Deda stems to Campagnolo parts has the geek in me gawking.
In one corner a small pile of the 1,000 tubulars that the team will use sits waiting to have yet another layer of tubular cement applied. Each tubular takes a total of five days to prepare. With three layers of glue applied and cured, it’s a long-winded process but one that clearly leaves the mechanics proud of their meticulous work.
When you consider the number of wheelsets and tubulars used for the year, 150 sets of brake pads and 400-500 chains a year doesn’t seem so many. The team mechanics replace chains every 1,200km or sooner if the weather has been grim. This reduces the need to replace the more expensive cassettes. The life span of a tyre or tubular differs — 4,000km for a front and just 1,500km for a rear.
The parking takes up most of the space within the building. The full fleet of team vehicles wasn’t present the day I visited and rarely is, though I’m guessing you’d need a multi-story carpark to house the eight Skoda Superbs, six Skoda Octavias, three VW Caravelle mini buses (for shuttling VIPs and riders about), two bike vans, three buses and two mechanics’ trucks. The team leases the cars on a yearly basis, yet the buses and trucks are either owned by the team or by sponsors, such as the new team bus that we got to check out at last year’s Giro.
Changing the team’s secondary sponsor from Belisol to Soudal this year meant rewrapping the cars and buses with new logos and decals. This in itself was a massive undertaking by one of those partners that only gets noticed if you look at the smaller logos stuck on the team vehicles: opticom.be. It reportedly takes two people three days to wrap a bus.
The decals on the truck display every sponsor or partner somewhere, be it the chamois cream the riders lather on, or the logistics and management computer program that the administration staff use. In the case of the latter it’s logiscycle.com, a program that Adam Hansen built; just something he threw together between stages of a Grand Tour no doubt.
The remaining room in the service course is filled with racking spaces that hold everything from nutrition supplies to bidons (of which 30,000 are used in a year) to palettes of mineral water. This year’s nutrition sponsor is the Belgian brand 3Action. The team receives as much as it needs — no defined number is given at the start of the year — with restocks as and when the team needs it. Huge, 4kg tubs of powder and boxes of gels are crammed into the shelves.
In other areas, wet bags for the riders are stored alongside spare helmets and time trial lids. Propped up in one corner of the space near the administration office are several cardboard boxes, each with a rider’s name on it.
Inside is a supply of extra clothing that Vermac, the team’s clothing sponsor, has sent over to keep the riders warm in the spring months. Rummaging through one of the boxes reveals as much kit in one box as the average Joe would dream of buying in multiple seasons.
As a fan of the sport it always amazes me how much clothing a rider receives at the start of the season. I asked the team’s administrator, Sarah Van Dingenen, about this and she kindly gave me the full breakdown:
- 15 pairs of race shorts
- 15 race jerseys
- 3 long-sleeve jerseys
- 3 technical vests
- 5 body warmers
- 4 different rain jackets
- Arm and leg warmers
- 2 sets of winter tights
- 30 pairs of socks
- 5 helmets
- Winter and summer gloves of multiple styles and thicknesses
- 2 winter vests
- 8 undershirts
And that’s just for starters; this is the stuff that’s to get the riders looking good at the start of the year. More will be delivered to the riders throughout the year.
As well as Sarah and the three mechanics working in the building on the day I visited, there were also a few other staff members milling about the place. This got me wondering about how many people it actually takes to keep a team like Lotto Soudal on the road throughout the year.
From managers to administrative staff there’s a staggering total of 34 individuals:
- 7 directors sportif
- 10 mechanics
- 4 doctors
- 2 osteopaths
- 1 full-time bus driver
- 5 hospitality/media staff
- 4 administrative staff
- 1 CEO
It’s no small operation. Seeing the goings-on behind the roller shutter reminds me just how much goes in to keeping a team competitive. It’s a staggering amount of infrastructure that not many will see — even the riders on the team may only get a peek at the start of the year when they visit for the annual team launch.
So next time you see Andre Greipel or one of the other Lotto Soudal riders take a win, give the guys and girls at the team service course a brief thought. Much more goes into taking part in and ultimately winning bike races than just the riders on the road.