It’s not all about the food, even though cyclists eat — a lot. Reed McCalvin is a physical therapist, masseur, nutritionist, sandwich-maker, bottle-filler, van driver, launderer and shepherd. He also makes a lot of runs to Chipotle.
McCalvin is a large man with an infectious ebullience. When we meet, he’s talking to a family that hosted him here 11 years ago, and as we sit in the dining area of the Marriott downtown, one of the UCI organizers stops by to say hello as a rainbow of cyclists passes by. After a only a few minutes, you realize why his team has such affection for him, and why manager of communications for USA Cycling calls McCalvin the best in the business.
He grew up in Lake Placid, New York, and after a stint in the Army, he graduated from Duke University with a business degree. And he realized he had no use for it. When he started thinking about jobs for which he was qualified, he knew he couldn’t stand sitting behind a desk.
But he’d always loved cycling.
“I had a problem — I’d had injuries, I was mechanically ‘declined.’ Other positions were coach and manager but I had no experience,” McCalvin says. “That just left the soigneur role.”
He moved to Boulder, Colorado, a city where most of American pro cyclists live and train.
Usually a soigneur job is a part-time gig, but after massage school and then a physical therapy degree, he was hired full-time. In 2010, he switched from working for pro teams to work for a development team. Soon he was head soigneur for the Axeon Cycling Team. There, he takes care of young male riders — juniors and under-23-year-olds — and helps them get to the big league of pro cycling.
“I could work with teenagers — not always an easy thing,” McCalvin says. “And it turned out I was really good at it.”
For Team USA — and for his young riders on the development team — his role is more of a compassionate parent than stern taskmaster. “You can’t be the hockey dad — that doesn’t help anyone,” he says. “You need to keep it light and funny.” When one of riders gets a spot on one of the big teams, he says, he wants them to be ready for it and know how to take care of themselves. “They achieve their dream [when they sign with a major international team] but then they founder. They can’t cook — they can’t even do their laundry. I want to give them life skills.”
On a typical day, McCalvin arranges breakfast at the hotel, sets the cyclists’ GPS devices on their bikes and gets a brown bag lunch ready — usually a turkey sandwich with a little olive oil and lettuce, applesauce, chocolate milk, fruit. “I’ll put a tiny piece of chocolate in the bottom. They have to eat the rest to get their reward.”
He’ll fill water bottles and ice down extra. He’ll hand mix a special electrolyte blend and pass out steel-cut oats with fruit and nuts. When I mention that I had pretty much the same thing for breakfast, McCalvin laughs: “Not as much as these guys.” Each rider will get approximately six packets of instant oats mixed with fistfuls of nuts and fruit.
I don’t eat that much for breakfast.
I also don’t consume 1,000 calories during a ride either. That’s how much the contents of the feed bags contain that McCalvin provides at the halfway point of the race. As the riders go by, they snatch the bag out of his hands without slowing down. They’ll eat two snack bars, two packets of electrolyte-filled gels packed with sugar, a couple of easy-to-eat snacks, and drink two electrolyte drinks during the rest of the ride. “You just can’t make up for the calories the guys lose during the race,” he says.
At the end of the race, and after a recovery shake and a shower, the riders go to McCalvin for massages and any physical therapy they might need. Then, it’s time to wrangle dinner.
A restaurant has to be willing to make a few concessions: first, to set aside a block of time for the riders to come in and then modify their offerings to match the heavy carbohydrate diet they need. “We once went to an Olive Garden. I said, ‘Hi. Don’t do anything you normally do’ — and then ordered pasta without the two cups of sauce they put on it and a lot of other things they weren’t used to.”
It’s been called one of the 10 worst jobs in sports. After McCalvin takes the guys back to the hotel, he preps for the next day and will wake at 6 a.m. to get ready to do it all over again.
But McCalvin has no complaints. “I love this job. I’m perfectly suited for it. There’s a lot of ego around, but you have to step back,” he says. “You have to understand that this is for the greater good of the kids … it’s helping them achieve their dreams.”