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Beyond the call of duty

Being the physio on the tour de France may sound Glamorous, but it’s not all about fame and glory, as Graham Clews finds out

The physio treating Olympic gold medallist Bradley Wiggins and the rest of the Sky cycling team found himself going far beyond the call of duty at this year’s Tour de France.

Not only was Bob Grainger part of the clinical team providing support when Bradley went out of the event with a broken collarbone. He’s also been lugging the team’s bedding, filling water bottles and dismantling and reassembling his treatment table throughout the three weeks of the competition this month.

Bob has been treating some of the world’s best cyclists in the calendar’s most prestigious bike race.

Among them is Sky team member Juan Antonio Flecha, who was involved in a crash as the TV car covering the event managed to hit him. Days after the accident, Juan Antonio was receiving massage, joint mobilisation and acupuncture.

‘The riders also like to use Kinesio Taping,’ says Bob. ‘It’s lighter than zinc oxide. We use it to help reduce swelling and to provide support when they’re racing.’

Bradley, for instance, uses it on his neck and back muscles.

As lead physiotherapist for the Team Sky pro-cycling team, an ability to muck in and be a team player is vital, even at Bob’s elite level.

‘You’re part of a team, and if there are jobs that need to be done, you have to do them’, he says. ‘You can’t say “I’m the physio, I’m not doing that” if there are drinks bottles that need filling. You have to help fill them.’

And that’s what Bob does every day, as the ‘travelling circus’ of the Tour de France snakes its way around the country, moving from town to town on a daily basis.

On the move

One of the biggest differences between Bob’s routine and that of other elite sports physios is that in other major competitions – such as the Olympics, Wimbledon or a football World Cup – teams and individuals tend to be based in one place.

Team Sky, on the other hand, moves from one hotel to the next almost every day. And that means Bob has to take down his portable treatment table and fill his physio bag with as much equipment as it can hold, every time.

All the riders on the Sky Tour de France team also have their own mattresses and bedding, and part of Bob’s job is to move that every morning.

He also works in conjunction with the team doctor to ensure that all riders are bed at a decent hour every night.

‘That is where the bulk of their recovery takes place’, he says.

As well as Bob, Sky’s Tour medical team includes a doctor, a sports scientist and four carers who provide sports massage.

Bob will treat the riders for obvious injuries from falls, but as a long race develops, repetitive injuries begin to affect riders as well.

‘A bike is built symmetrical, but there is asymmetry in the human body’, he says. ‘Riders are clipped into their pedals, they are pretty much fixed on their saddles, and with their hands on the handlebars, it’s a pretty restricted system to be working on for six or seven hours.’

He has to think on his feet. As the riders’ immune systems start being affected by fatigue, for example, Bob can end up providing chest physiotherapy, sometimes in order to keep a rider in the race.

‘It’s something I got from my hospital rotations, and I always carry a stethoscope in my bag,’ he says.

 

Fresh eyes

 

This kind of solid background in physiotherapy, and an ability to think innovatively, are key for young physios wanting to follow in his wheel trails. In fact, Bob was selected by Sky, after answering an ad in Frontline, partly because he had no specific background in cycling and so would bring fresh eyes to his practice.

Bob says he wanted to be a physio and work in high-level sport since he was a teenager. But unusually for a physio treating elite athletes, he had limited experience of working with top-class sportspeople before joining the Sky team.

He did, however, work with local running and cycling clubs, treat players from a semi-pro ice hockey team and work closely with military sports teams.

Team players

After graduating from the University of East London in 2001, Bob worked for two years at Ipswich Hospital, and then two years for Suffolk PCT. After that he joined the military, treating staff at Wattisham airfield, near Ipswich.

Bob also holds a masters degree in sports therapyand performance.

And he urges aspiring elite sports physios to get as much education as they can.

‘Do as many courses as possible and get as much experience as you can in different sports – it doesn’t really matter which ones,’ he advises.

‘But you have to be a team player, and you are going to have to help with lugging bags if that’s what needed.’

Like treating injuries to big-name competitors, it’s all part of the job.

Bob will be supporting Bradley as he recovers after an operation in the UK to fix his broken collarbone. Within a week Bradley should be back on the treadmill, specially designed to take a cycle, which can replicate the mountain climbs of the Tour de France,

‘Working with them and seeing them getting back to racing, and winning, is great,’ says Bob. ‘You feel as if you are part of that win.’ fl

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Article Information

Author(s)

Graham Clews

Issue date

20 July 2011

Volume number

17

Issue number

13

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