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Tales from the peloton, January 16, 2005

More than just sandwiches

The life of Barloworld soigneur Hanlie Perry

The world of professional cycling remains very much a male domain, from the cyclists through to officials and even much of the media. Slowly, though, a female presence is emerging in the sport. Hanlie Perry is one woman who does not feel out of place amongst her mostly male colleagues. As a soigneur for Team Barloworld, she has one of the hardest and certainly least recognised jobs in cycling, but it's a role that she enjoys nearly every part of. Just don't mention septic tanks, writes Rebecca Sullivan and Tom Connell.

The workload of a soigneur is an arduous one. Essentially it involves organising every element of a team of riders' lives on race day, meaning that Hanlie Perry typically rises at 7am and may not get to sleep until well after midnight. Mornings are spent setting out breakfast for the riders, pre-making their sandwiches for the day, organising water bottles, packing the team cars and then being at the start to oil their legs and check their radios. A quick drive on the alternative route ensures she is at the feeding zone before them, hopefully in one of the prime positions that are taken early. She then has to beat the riders to the finish in order to provide them with drinks, energy bars and, all going well, fresh clothes for the podium. At the hotel afterwards, she puts up the room lists and washes the myriad clothes the team goes through, before giving each rider around forty-five minutes on the massage table. Hanlie and fellow Team Barloworld soigneur Graeme McCullum then stagger to bed with their alarms set, tiredly calculating how many hours before they must get up and do it all again.

So why on earth would anyone submit them selves to such a punishing schedule? "Because I love the sport," explains Hanlie. "It's a constant challenge. I used to race at pro-level so I do like to have a challenge in life." It seems that the masochistic nature of cycling provides a perfect background preparation to the gruelling job of looking after riders, though the outdoors oriented Hanlie is motivated by the dreaded thought of getting an office job. "It's flexible in that I'm not stuck in one place every day, nine-to-five. I don't think I could do that."

Like most occupations, looking after a group of professional cyclists has its drawbacks. "At the end of the year, you have to say goodbye to some team members. It's unavoidable. You build up friendships much like a family, then come October some people leave. It's a sad time. Then there's cleaning out the septic tank in the toilet in the team truck. That's not a lot of fun."

Her time off is very limited, leaving her to juggle the demands of life with those of work. This can be most difficult, as Hanlie is at the beck and call of the riders; "It doesn't matter if you have to pick up a rider at 3am, you still have to get up the next day."

Hanlie is under no illusions as to the male-dominated nature of the sport, though she hopes the feminist movement can make more inroads into cycling in the future. "Let's face it; there are not many women in cycling. But gender doesn't determine who can make a sandwich better. At the moment, cycling culture is that the women are there for looks, so as a woman you really have to prove yourself. I don't know that it will ever change, but I hope it does." Indeed, her tireless efforts in support of Team Barloworld may help pave the way for other women in the sport.

Whilst constant travel constitutes one part of a dream job for most people, Hanlie explains that it can take its toll, particularly on her marriage with pro-cyclist James Perry. With Perry's switching from Team Barloworld to Konica Minolta earlier this year, their time together has been severely reduced. "Well, it's definitely long-distance! It's built completely on trust, but we get by. Both of us are away a lot so it's not too bad, it's not as if one of us is at home whilst the other goes globe-trotting."

It may be her dream-job, but Hanlie is well aware that the life of a soigneur is only for the very enthusiastic. "I wouldn't get into it unless you are passionate about the sport, very passionate. You have to be versatile, have a thick-skin and be prepared to give up a lot; obviously within that you need a very understanding partner. You have to love travel! People in it are usually in it for life."

Despite the rigours of her occupation, one gets the impression Hanlie Perry will stick at it for some time. She is clearly passionate about cycling and her involvement will no doubt be life-long, hopefully helping increase the presence of women in the sport.

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