I have worked with Giant Pro XC Team since January, although I have known the riders a year or so longer. Before this they were the professionals I looked up to, cheered for, was completely star-struck by! Actually, these things still ring true, but now I have the pleasure to work alongside them. To share their stories, to share advice and ideas, to share conversation, laughs and hugs.
My job is only a small one: to manage the team’s media platforms. I can do it remotely – such is the wonder of modern communication – but where possible I have been with the team at and in between the races. This is how I have come to realise that some of the best riders in the World are some of the coolest, kindest and unassuming people I know.
Emil, Maja, Fabian, Michiel, Jolanda and Pauline, along with the core staff of Jan, Leo, Pawel, Oscar, Ed and Marcel are a very cool bunch of people. Let me share with you a few snippets of their life on the road in 2014…
The season started in Cyprus at the Sunshine Cup. It’s a now well-established season opener for many of the top cross-country mountain bikers in the World. It’s also famously relaxed and friendly; a perfect fit with the Giant team.
Have no doubts, though, this is an important race and the riders are here to compete at the front. That, they do. Jolanda and Fabian took the overall stage race wins, Emil got on the podium and Michiel, still U23, was mixing it up with the big boys. Maja, still recovering from injury, would spend the days out training in the beautiful Cypriot mountains. In the lead up to the race and between the stages the team would come together for relaxation and dinner, maybe take a trip to the coast or wander into the village. It’s all a little like a cycling-centric holiday camp, but these riders are going a whole lot faster then you or I, and they have Pawel the miracle worker to get their legs loosened each day, and mechanic Ed to see that their bikes are tip top and ready to race. Ed and Marcel, who joined for some of the later World Cups, are the team’s master mechanics, up all hours and fettling to perfection. Such hard working and lovely people, they deserve a hearty ‘chapeau!’.
Each member of the team has a unique character. I wish I could write a story about each of them but we would be here until Christmas. Let me introduce you briefly to a small man with an especially big character: Pawel.
I first met Pawel in Cyprus in 2013. He was a blur of broken English and laundry bags, nearly accelerating clean out of his flip flops as he sped through the higgledy piggledy streets of Kalavasos village. Having collected the rider’s dirty kit and put it in the industrious washing machines of ‘Tenta Apartment #2’ (roughly a 8.4 second round trip), he stopped where I was chatting with Maja, Fabian and my sister and Father, Imogen and Phil. I was on crutches (following impalement on a bush stump and the subsequent operations) and with an impressive-looking dressing running the length of my right thigh. Pawel’s eyes lit up, the physio in him couldn’t help but be intrigued. He gently felt the scar and the muscles and told me in no uncertain terms that I would be fine, just a lot of work to be done. Once a man has felt your leg it’s rude not to be friends so we have indeed been ever since!
Pawel the marvel came to the team with Maja; they have a fantastic friendship and working relationship which had now grown to include all the riders on the team. Pawel’s knowledge and expertise as a soingneur is second to none, and his incredible work ethic and humble nature make him priceless.
I came home from the 2014 Sunshine Cup with a great sense of contentment and happiness to be a small part of this big team. I also brought home one of Fabian’s winner’s trophies – at the expense of most other things given I only had hand luggage (totally worth it) – and it now sits proudly in my room. A kind gift that means a great deal.
It was a while then until I saw the team again, but we were in contact via email and of course I was keeping tabs on them all through social media. There is no comparison between meeting and spending time with someone in person and following them through the likes of Instagram and Twitter, but you can still develop a sense of character – and whether or not you like someone – from the other side of a computer. Indeed if, for example, you enjoy Emil’s Instagram account (who wouldn’t, frankly?!) then you will, I’m almost certain, like him as a person. He loves his family, he loves riding his bike and he is invariably positive, optimistic and taking selfies! The impression you get of the Giant Pro XC Team through their social media is a genuine reflection of who they are.
Along with the selfies, what never ceases to make me smile is the “thank you”s. To their team mates, manager, mechanics and everyone who contributes and helps them along the way. Even me:
After winning the opening World Cup and then retaining the leader’s jersey following round two, Jolanda travelled with the Swiss National Road Team to England to race the FriendsLife Women’s Tour. I went down to watch the penultimate stage and chatted with Jolanda before the start, and then went out to cheer at the road side. That evening I got a Whatsapp message from her to say it was lovely to see me and thanks for coming down to watch. It was, of course, an absolute pleasure.
Mountain biking seems an individual sport but I think each of the Giant Pro XC Team riders would tell you that they are part of a team and that they wouldn’t be as successful without the people around them. And it wouldn’t be some sponsorship spiel, but a genuine sentiment.
As May drew to a close the World Cup drew up in Nove Mesto Na Morave, Czech Republic, and then a week later in Albstadt, Germany.
In a highly competitive and stressful environment the team remain calm; travelling, working and relaxing in sinc with each other and the World they find themselves in. There are no prima donnas among these World-class riders, just friendships. As she joined from an early season of road racing, Pauline said, “In Czech I felt immediately at home, like I had been together with the team for a long time”.
Onto Albstadt. It is Saturday. Race day minus one. Lunchtime.
The riders and staff come into the hotel restaurant in dribs and drabs, greeting the proprietor with a cheery ‘hallo’. The owner brings us water and coffee and asks if everyone is happy with salad, beef brisket with spatzel and vegetables, and fruit and yoghurt. Pauline asks if it’s possible to have no dressing on her salad. I think it’s a little lost in translation – French to English to German and back – but I gather that it wouldn’t be too great a problem for Pauline if she got just dressing and no salad! There’s no fussiness, calorie counting or food snobbery here, just a sensible approach.
The food is basic but nice. Leo, the team manager, speaks with the staff at each hotel and restaurant they visit to come up with a menu suitable for the riders. Always extra vegetables, often some more pasta or rice, and usually some fruit and yoghurt for desert. Sometimes lunch is eaten at the team tent at the race course and everyone gathers round or eats when it fits with their training, and sometimes the riders sort themselves out; when accommodation is self-catering shopping and cooking can offer a nice alternative activity to bike riding and resting. Either way the portions are pretty big; the riders haven’t an inch to pinch but they can tuck away the food no problem at all!
So what is it like to have hotel food cooked for you for a week at a time?
The general consensus is that it’s pretty okay. Like everything else on the road, you get used to it. Maja says that it’s nice not to have to think or worry about cooking. Michiel keeps quiet, perhaps because, although I know he is more than capable of whipping up a tasty meal, his Mum is still in charge of his kitchen!
The attitude to food is reflective of the overall feeling in the team. They say it’s a European, rather than a US or British, environment. It’s hard to put into words the differences, but everyone seems quite sure that the fact they are all European (Dutch, Swiss, Polish, French, Swedish) helps to create the feel of the team: nothing is too formal, too structured, too strict, yet everything is done, and done well. It’s a delicate balance but no one seems to be wobbling on the fine line.
Emil speaks of time riding on Italian teams where the atmosphere was fierce, competitive and often strained. Every second of the day was about racing. “They would wear compression socks on their ears if they were told to”, and wrists would slapped if you were caught with your hand in the biscuit tin. On cue, Leo munches into a cookie: “cookie stop”, he says, and everyone laughs, rolling their eyes. Here the management are relaxed and friendly and there is no real division between riders and staff. They know each other well; what makes each person tick, when to joke, when to be supportive. Being on the road with Giant Pro XC Team constituted everything from the very serious to the faintly ridiculous, evidenced here at lunch by the conversation which ranged from French politics to ‘What if Shimano XTR Di2 was about giving you the power, and all the rider had to do was change gear’ to hilarious YouTube videos.
Fabian’s comments go some way to explain the team’s atmosphere I think. “To start with everything was super exciting. Now it is normal. But you must still get excited because we are very privileged and get to see the World and do what we love. You shouldn’t take this for granted”.
Or, as Emil put it, “I only do this because it’s like a holiday!”
Travelling the World, riding bikes and hanging out with your friends does sound like a perfect holiday, but I assure you that these riders turn themselves inside out when it comes to training and racing. The physical prowess, technical mastery and emotional strength I have seen of each rider in this team is really beyond explanation and understanding to us mere mortals.
For me, the year with Giant Pro XC Team was topped off by two World Championship titles in Hafjell. Jolanda could not hold back her tears on the podium as the pressure of expectation was finally released. A third U23 World title: a superb achievement and wonderful to watch. And then Michiel. What can I say? I consider Michiel a brother and to see him cross the line hands aloft, to see my sister – his girlfriend – in tears, to watch his proud parents hug their son. Quite simply incredible.
And then came the congratulations of their team mates, a flurry of tweets and messages expressing their happiness and pride for the young guns of the team. It was a very happy family.
2015 will see a lot of change for the team and its riders, but the family of 2014 will undoubtedly remain close.
Thank you all for a wonderful year!