Hello from the other side: struggles and frustrations of a budding Director Sportif

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An Ella contributor since our early days, Loren Rowney is a South-African born Australian currently living in Belgium. After five years in the pro peloton, Rowney retired from professional cycling in January 2017, and has stayed active as in the sport through media, coaching and team management. She is currently a Director Sportif of the Trek Drops women’s pro cycling team and reports from the other side of the sport.

It’s been a while since I last wrote but it’s been a busy winter and exciting early season. I’m currently the Director Sportif of Trek Drops and by now, I’ve got our first few months of racing and camps under my belt. I have learned a lot about the challenges of being a DS and, on a more personal level, the struggles of letting go of my old bike racer habits as I’m transitioning into this new identity.

A few months into the new gig, here are the old habits, struggles and frustration of a budding Director Sportif.

Breaking old habits

In the past few months, I have become acutely aware that I am still caught up in some of my old habits as a bike rider. They’re silly habits, mostly, but as it tuns out, bike rider habits aren’t common in the real world.

Pro or not, any bike rider who reads this will surely relate to what I am about to list off.

Habit one: Hoarding

As I sit on the plane back to my home in Belgium, I find myself wondering why my back is so sore, and how my muscles could possibly be so tense. I know that my time at races and team camps these past few months was spent sitting in a car for more hours than I can recollect —and that is certainly no good for my back —but my shoulders are aching, too.

Ah! The penny drops as I open my backpack.  Now I know why, it’s all the fruit, snacks and other random stuff that I hoarded through the week. Why? Well, who knows, you may need that piece of fruit at the airport hotel because the breakfast is sub par, or maybe I’ll get hungry on the plane, and airport food can be horrible. This certainly explains why I have four kiwi fruits, two apples, two bananas, one of which is going brown, half a bag of nuts, some random seeds, some cutlery (just incase), oh and countless bottles of water. Not to mention everything else I could want to do on the plane if I should get so bored. Habit one I can’t break, is hoarding. Did I mention all the salt packets in my pocket of my jacket? I seemed to take two or three at dinner and breakfast every day… you know, just in case. The race car is full of snacks shoved everywhere that has been hoarded from breakfast. What normal person does this? I sure hope this is a habit I can kick!

Habit two: Constantly thinking about my next meal

I am constantly worrying about the next meal. Will I be hungry, will I be satisfied,  is the dinner buffet going to have the things I want. I mean, I HAVE to get my greens every day, god forbid I miss one day without my salad leaves. On tour, I only get to exercise maybe 30 minutes to an hour every day yet for some reason, I still seem to constantly think about meals and whether I’ll be hungry, whether I have eaten enough. Maybe not all athletes think this way, but I surely did as an athlete. The fact I am a foodie probably doesn’t help with kicking this habit or the aforementioned one. However, now as a DS, calorie counting is entirely different. I used to worry whether I had enough fuel in the tank, now I sometimes if I over fuelled on the pastries hoarded from the breakfast buffet.

Habit three: Going in public (number ones of course).

I think once you become a female professional rider, you lose all self-consciousness when it comes to peeing in the wilderness, the side of the road, between parked cars, etc. When you gotta go, you gotta go, and missing the start of a race is not an option, so sometimes you pee in between two parked cars and see a couple of nonnas peering over the balcony tisking and shaking their heads at you in disapproval. You shrug and shake it off, quite literally, because quite often it is more hygienic to pee on a street than some of the filthy toilets we encounter.

And strangely, this peeing-in-public habit is one I have not kicked yet either. I pee at will when I need to go. My boyfriend has become quite accustomed to be “popping a squat” as Aussies would say, in the wilderness. No doubt he was scarred at first, but now it’s something we laugh about. I have to remember that not everyone does this, however, and my new friends in the real world will likely frown upon me if I randomly pop a squat between two parked cars.

There was always going to be new challenges that came along with transitioning to being a DS. Some expected, and some not so much.

DS Loren Rowney

Struggles of being a female D.S.

Struggle one: Needing “to go”

Relating to my rider habit number three, the biggest struggle as a female DS for me has been needing “to go” and having to find a suitable area where I can run into a bush out of sight. I know that most of the girls who pop a squat during the races don’t care that 95 % of the race cars contain men driving past (men we have to see on a regular basis, I might add) but it’s different as a DS.

As a racer, I never took a pee in the middle of race. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it, at the risk of being seen. I think I would get stage fright anyway, and not being to do the job. I also hated the idea of having to  chase back on — unnecessary energy expenditure in my humble opinion.

Now as a  DS, I spent the entire race in a car. And it took me a little while to get used to the idea that I would inevitably have to wee during the races, which are sometimes four or more hours. So I braved it, and took my first wee in the vine yards of South Australia. I’ve gotten quite good at picking a good location now, and getting the job done. The fun fact to stopping for a pee? Well, you get to hit the accelerator and make your way back up to the field. Sometimes a nice feeling when the pace has been slow.

Struggle two: Earning respect

I may be sensitive, and this is a thought completely of my own, but I know I will have a battle on my hands to earn respect from other directors in the peloton. I’m new, I’m young, I wasn’t a pro racer for very long, and oh yeah, I am a woman. I’m not going to play the feminist card here, but, I could definitely relate to Jose Been’s recent post on Cycling Tips about being a female in this industry. Even whilst this is the women’s side of the sport, the majority of staff are still men. Men who have been in the game a long time, are set in their ways, and have a bit of an old boys’ club mentality. I’m not necessarily wanting any part in that club, but do however want to earn respect, and prove my worth in this sport.

Struggle three: Getting my exercise in

This is perhaps the hardest  struggle for me, being a bit of an exercise addict. The fact I can’t exercise at will sometimes gets me a bit agitated, and during the Australian races, I didn’t quite have the routine of the day down yet. Being behind the scenes is very different to being a rider, and I see this now. The staff work pretty much continuously throughout the day. But if you are organised, I believe there should always be time for “me time”. Whether that be a mechanic or swanny or DS, there should always be an hour a day for “me”.

My current approach is picking two points in the day for “me time”. I get up much earlier than everyone, and commit to a minimum or 30 minutes of yoga, core work or stretching. This gets me ready for the day ahead, and I believe helps me with all the driving which I am not yet accustomed to. As soon as I return from the race, I check on the staff, write the race report, check social media, and then throw on the runners and run for 30 minutes. Doesn’t matter how heavy my legs felt, I ran every day at the recent Setmana Ciclista Valencia stage race. This was so important for me, and I think it helped with my refection of the race, and how we could tackle the next day. I would come back from my run and always have points to write down, and just feel better about everything in general. A bit of “me time” is always important.

Struggle four: Diet

This is something I think most riders and staff can relate to. The food thing…I am an observer, I like to watch people. I know it sounds creepy, but it’s what I do and I think it is why I am quite in tune with human beings. The food thing is a big one for me, and anyone who has read my blogs over the years knows I have had food issues, and that I need some control over what I eat. To be honest, I have had no food issues since mid January. I would say I am five weeks “healthy” at least, and I don’t think I am going to have a relapse any time soon. I try my best to eat the best I can in the race car, and I kinda get why DS’s get a bit round around the waist. One, we are driving a lot and not doing much physical activity. Two, diets can be pretty poor, and snack food in the race car revolves around sugar and salty snacks. Three, exercise is not high on the priority list and a beer after the race seems to be higher on the agenda. I skip the beer and the pizza offered by the guys, and throw on the running shoes instead. This is a work in progress, and I’m sure I’ll have it nailed by the late spring.

DS Loren Rowney with rider

Things riders do that frustrate staff

Seeing things from the other side has been eye-opening, to say the least. Here are the top frustrations of staff.

Frustation one: Last minute information

When I was a rider, I at times would get berated by staff for not being more organised. It’s something I fully understand now. Showing up to a race or a training camp only to tell the mechanic, five minutes before training, that your position changed over the winter. It seems minor but when 10 riders all have last minute adjustments, it greatly impacts the stress levels and workload of the staff. I don’t know if this is a sense of entitlement, that when you as a rider ask for something, you snap your fingers and it’s done, or it’s just complete forgetfulness or ignorance. With my girls it is the latter, they simply do not think about those things sometimes, and it is frustrating.

Frustation two: MOVE!

Move to the side of the road! This absolutely grinds my gears, and I remember so clearly the  2015 Women’s Tour of Britain, (which had more motos on course than I can remember) where motos attempted to pass would be blowing the horn, like actually holding their hand on the horn for minutes on end, and the peloton simply would not move to one side. It use to tick me off to no end then — and I’d scream at my fellow riders like a banshee — and it’s an even bigger frustration now.

I understand that when the racing is hard, you have your head down and you’re going for it and you don’t care about what is happening behind you. However, when a motor bike is blearing its horn at you and telling you to move, you move. You might think we are a bunch of aggressive jerks, but what you don’t know is that the commissaire behind you has given us permission to move forward to our lead riders, and that you are required to move to the right side of the road, so we can pass safely. This is a general road rule in Europe , not just in cycling. If you have ever sat your drivers license test, you know that you pass on the left and slower vehicle stay to the right. I’m sorry, but this is just so simple, and what riders don’t realise is how dangerous it is sitting in the way of the cars, this is a sure way to get clipped…

Frustration three: Not listening to instruction

Having race radios is a blessing and a curse, because when you don’t have them, as a DS you’re sitting in the car pulling your hair out trying to understand why the riders are not doing a thing you asked of them. Having been a rider, I totally get when you have bad legs and you can’t do your job. However, if your role is to make sure you are at the front with 50kms to go and I see your bum at the back of pack… well, can you explain that? Because I can’t. Being at the back. Right at the back means you haven’t even tried to move forward. Enough said.

Similarly, chasing when you have teammates present in the front means one of a few things to a DS watching from behind.

1) You have no clue what is happening in the race, because when it split you didn’t see who made the split, and you were probably too far back when it happened.

2.) You have not communicated with other teammates around you to identify the race situation.

3.) You’re being selfish, and are attempting to make amends to the fact you missed the split.

4.) You simply think this is the right tactic in this moment. And you would be wrong.

With all this said, I should end this blog on a high note because I actually very much love my role as DS. It doesn’t matter what profession you are in, there will always be challenges, frustrations and comparisons to previous jobs. The fact of the matter is I LOVE my job, and the long drives and buffet food are all worth it in the end. When I see the smile on the riders faces after a race that we did well, not necessarily always in terms of results, it makes me realise why I accepted this job to begin with. I’m really looking forward to the next part of the season, and I hope to share some tips and tricks for those who also have jobs on the road, or are also starting a new role in their lives.

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