Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Shelley Verses – Pro Cycling’s First Female Soigneuse

"I feel like I worked in the golden era of cycling."


HomeInterviewsShelley Verses - Pro Cycling's First Female Soigneuse

We recently ran an interview with Ms. Cherie Pridham, the World Tour’s first female DS but if we go back a few years to the 80’s, who was the first lady to infiltrate the macho world of pro cycling?

Soigneurs; they shouldn’t be too young – they have to have lived a bit; they should be mysterious; surrounded by an aura of camphor and early season changing rooms; of few, gruff words; have hands like shovels; be prone to random sage pronouncements and should never admit that the current pros are as good as they were, ‘back in the day’ – and naturally everyone should be terrified of them.

Blonde, cute, smiling, chatty, cheerful, Californian – and a woman?

Mais non! Mon Dieu! Sacre bleu!

But that was – and is – Ms. Shelley Verses, the first female to break into the closed world of pro cycling as a soigneur with Motorola, La Vie Claire, Toshiba and TVM.

Here’s just a little bit of her story…

Shelley Verses feeds Andy Hampsten in the 1988 Giro d’Italia. Photo©supplied

Tell us how you got into the sport of pro cycling, please, Shelley.

“I had a really easy entry. 

“I had been working for Eddie Borysewicz the US National Coach at a team camp. 

“I was barely 23 years old back in 1983 when I first met him. He had approached me at a race while I was working with the Centurion Cycling Team in Santa Barbara with my boyfriend at the time, Joe Cate who was a local rider on the team. 

“We were all at a race in California somewhere and “Eddy B” came up to me. I didn’t know who he was, but this guy in a velour warm-up suit comes up to me with a thick accent and says, ‘I need someone like you at the Olympic Training Center, I see you at races.’ 

“Eddy B. told me he hand-selected all the soigneurs to work at the U.S. Olympic Training Center (USOTC) and because of Title IX regulations [which forbid discrimination on gender grounds, ed.] he had to hire two female soigneurs. 

“He said they usually didn’t last long. They were either sleeping with the riders or they couldn’t handle the load. I asked Eddy how much we would get paid and he said, “You work for free.” 

“He was quick to add that I would get free room and board at the USOTC and said if I was good, I could get selected to work big races with the national team and possibly even the 1984 Olympics. I said, “I’ll take the job; when do I start?

“I wouldn’t have made it through without the help of Amos Ottley. He was an African-American soigneur who had worked for the federation for 25-plus years. He was a very important person at the onset of my career. 

“Jim Ochowicz also entered into the picture very quickly;’Och’ was one of the most brilliant people in the cycling world because all those 7-Eleven cyclists were also on the national team. 

“I very quickly realized that the other coaches at the Olympic Training Center – Andrzej Bek, Jarek Bek, Roger Young and myself – were also hired to work with the 7-Eleven amateur team. So the 7-Eleven riders in the juniors program, men’s and women’s track program, and men’s and women’s road teams were being taken good care of when they were away from the USOTC and at national team competitions. It paid off the next year at the Olympics when, I believe, six riders from 7-Eleven won medals in Los Angeles. 

“Our 7-Eleven phenomena was a focused zone of winning.”

Did you have a mentor?

“At the Olympic Training Center, it was Amos Ottley, who I mentioned above.

“From the first day, I barely had my hands on a rider – the sprinter, Nelson Vails – for a massage when Amos yelled at me from across the room; ‘Hey California! Stop working on him and meet me out in the hallway.’

“He took me out in the hall and told me to listen to him very closely and to copy everything that he was doing, just mimic his every stroke. He said the school I went to did not teach me sports massage and he told me he wanted to make me as good as I could be and to learn everything he knew. 

“He said to watch him and learn the rhythm of everything he was doing. 

“So that’s how I started my new path of working with cyclists – it was very hard work, 12 to 14 rubs a day.”

The La Vie Claire and Toshiba teams – How did that gig come about, wasn’t it a wrench to leave 7-Eleven and wasn’t it a huge culture shock, American to French mentality?

“After the 1986 season, 7-Eleven had a lot of big changes going on. We had done our first Tour de France that year. 

“I got approached at the world championships in Colorado Springs by Paul Koechli, who was the famous director of Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond. With Bernard Hinault retiring, he wanted to bring about a big change in mentality from the Hinault reign. So I received an unexpected offer. 

“I also had an offer to go to the Panasonic team, and I began negotiating between La Vie Claire and 7-Eleven. 

“Andy Hampsten had already left 7-Eleven after 1985 and gone over to La Vie Claire. Andy and I were switch-hitting back and forth; he had left and gone to La Vie Claire and was there when LeMond and Hinault were battling it out. 

“When Hampsten was done with the French, he went back to 7-Eleven. I left 7-Eleven and went over to the French, leaving my American brothers and going to a place where I didn’t speak the language was a total culture shock. 

“I thought Roy Knickman is there, Thurlow Rodgers is there, Steve Bauer is there, Greg LeMond is there – I will be fine! 

“Paul Koechli was such a brilliant scientific mind, the first thing he did at the Tour Tour Méditerranéen was to put me with the French entourage… I was put with French Sport Director Maurice Le Guilloux.

“Greg wasn’t there, Steve wasn’t there, Thurlow wasn’t there and Roy wasn’t there. Not one person spoke any English!”

Shelley Versus massages the Estonian rider with La Vie Claire, the late Jaanus Kuum. Photo©Graeme Watson

How blatant was the “male only” culture back then?

“I had a taste of it in high school. I played street hockey in a men’s city league. They signed me up as a guy. One day, I screamed when I got checked and slashed…

“They wanted to kick me out of the game because I was a woman. 

“But the captain of our team went up to the referee and told him Title IX was already up and going, so if he wanted to be on the front page of the newspaper, to go ahead and kick me out. He said the only foul there, was that I was slashed, not because I was a woman.

“Like I said earlier, I never had problems with the riders, but I certainly had problems right off the bat with one of the soigneurs, Joel Marteill. 

“Joel was a wealth of knowledge but he was also the first of many European colleagues who despised me; I was American, I was a woman and I was brought onto the team to make change. 

“Paul Koechli wanted me to change the race food of the riders, as well as add variations to their daily regime and I did just that. 

“During Tour Méditerranéen, I prepared the start food and the food for both feed zones, only to find our crazed head soigneur, Marteill, driving over the musettes with our 45-foot team semi… back and forth like a madman. 

“I remade everything all over again and silently dealt with him until he was canned during the next training camp in Spain.”

Shelley Verses
Jean-Francois Bernard gets the Shelley Verses warm-up treatment. Photo©supplied

What was Paul Koechli like?

“I adored being on La Vie Claire with Paul. He was a mastermind, a technological trainer. For him, everyone was capable of being a team leader. 

“He didn’t hire specialists like sprinters, climbers or time trialists. Whoever was the best in that race was the team leader. He believed that cycling was like a wave… whoever was riding the wave the best was the one who was going to take it to the finish. It was an honour to work on his team. 

“He believed in science. He believed in cleanliness. He believed in respect and honor and he also believed that the soigneurs and mechanics and the way we kept our trucks and our team cars was a reflection of the team and our sponsors. 

“He had amazing notions. At any moment, he could go to the service course and inventory expiration dates. So you knew you had to keep things current! 

“He also had no patience for doping. He had no room for behaviour like that. 

“He loved me and did not want me to leave his team. I was always offered a contract back.”

How did TVM come about – French to Dutch mentality, what was that like?

“With La Vie Claire, we had a lot of intensity on that team because Jean-Francois Bernard was supposed to be the next Bernard Hinault; ‘Jeff’ chose me to be his soigneur, so I have a soft spot for him but when I was with La Vie Claire, I always used to have to promise Paul Koechli to never, ever tell Phil [Anderson, her boyfriend who was on rival teams, ed.] if Jean-Francois was not going well. 

“So I never told Phil if Jeff wasn’t going well or wasn’t having a good day, I was “sleeping with the enemy,” so to speak, but that was one thing where I never crossed the line. I was so loyal in that one arena because I was so privileged to be where I was.

“Phil Anderson wanted me to take an offer from TVM and go with him so I had to make a choice: Phil or Jean-Francois. I took Phil – and went on another adventure and I finally was on a team with him. 

“The mentality at TVM was nearly the same – I wasn’t wanted by the staff, but the riders loved me and everyone loved Phil, of course. I felt at home, especially with the riders, on what was a very mixed, international crew. 

“I had a lot of fun with Cees Priem, who was an ex-rider and very close in age to Phil. It was almost like working for a director who was a rider. Patrick Lefevre was the second director and he was really stealthy so that was fun, too. I learned a lot being on that team.”