By Julien Pretot
PARIS (Reuters) - They tend to wounds and provide much-needed mental support all year around, yet the wives and girlfriends of professional riders often feel left out in the sport's male-dominated world.
Cycling WAGS emerged into the public consciousness during last year's Tour de France when Chris Froome's partner Michelle Cound engaged in a Twitter clash with Bradley Wiggins's wife over Team Sky's tactics.
For once, pro riders' partners took a seat at the table without asking permission, which is not always welcome.
"The teams are not really partner-friendly," Cound explained.
"I was fortunate enough to join the team at Criterium International last year, because I was still living in South Africa at the time.
"I understand there was a management meeting held to approve me being there, and even so I wasn't allowed to have dinner at the 'riders table', I was only allowed to sit with the staff," the South African, who also handles Froome's personal communication, told Reuters.
"I got some rather strange looks from the staff and riders in the other teams staying at the same hotel.
"I do think it's a little archaic. It is very much a male world. Also, I get the impression that people expect me to 'know my place' as a partner, I should be 'seen and not heard'."
Cound's experiences are echoed by Australian Kaitlin Bell, who is Dutchman Koen de Kort's partner.
"I personally do feel left out," Bell said.
"I just wish the whole sport of cycling would make a little more effort for wives, girlfriends and family. And just realize we play a major role in what our partners do.
"We are the ones who support them on all levels, look after them when they have broken bones and road rash. Put up with them being away so much, and a lot of the wives are being 'single mothers' really."
MAKE IT WORK
Bell said having a family in Australia and a Dutch partner made things difficult.
"The best time is the off season and that's about it," she said. "But we make it work."
They make it work so well that the pair have just got engaged, Bell disclosed.
Following your partner around on races is not common even if riders spend most of the year on the road.
"People always ask me if I follow Stef around but that's not really 'done' in this world," said Cindy Gabriels, partner of Dutch rider Stef Clement.
"I never stay at the same hotel and never eat with them. And I always make sure Stef asks if it's ok for me to be there because I don't want any hassle."
"Pretty strange if you think about it because we are so involved in what they do, people seem to forget that we are the ones that pick up the pieces when things don't go as planned," she added.
The women find the best way to cope with their partners' absence and the feeling of isolation is to stick together when they can.
"We do support each other and give info when someone is 'live' at the race," said Gabriels.
"When a race comes up we try to travel together or try to meet. We always say it's such a shame we live so far apart from each other because it's so nice to be with them, seeing as we understand each other in the lives we lead."
It would be nice to think that once the riders are back home from a race, or during the off-season, it is finally time to relax and enjoy being together.
Anti-doping controls, however, make sure everyone remains on their toes.
"The one time he'll have the day off, the doorbell rings. One time Stef just left for training and they were at the door," said Gabriels.
"Rules state that he has one hour to return home so he finished his round and in the meantime I had to entertain them. When Stef came home he had to wait another two or three hours so they could do the tests.
"In the mean time they have to stay with Stef so they had to follow him anywhere he went in the house...shower, bedroom etc."
Froome's partner Cound has a simple way of dealing with it: "I just pull the covers a bit higher."
They are all happy to deal with it, though, seeing it as part of the effort cycling has made to clean up the sport.
"It's proven to be necessary," said Bell.
While happy to share some short moments together in a season, the women do not share everything when at home. With cyclists renowned for shaving their legs, razors, for instance, are often off limits.
"We don't share a razor! He (Stef) has his own Venus," said Gabriels. "Takes him forever in the shower but he has the smoothest legs."
"Chris usually waxes or uses an epilator," revealed Cound.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Alison Wildey)