Bend, OR – While Felice Beitzel was working toward her PhD in Muscle Physiology at the University of Melbourne in southern Australia, she stumbled into cross-country skiing more or less by accident. But after being talked into participating in the “Joey” race at the Kangaroo Hoppet in Australia and then attending the XC Oregon fall camp in December of 2005, she knew that skiing was for her.
Five years later, the Australian is balancing racing with the Bend-based team XC Oregon and the unique job of soigneur with the Giant professional bike team. Her goal is to represent Australia at international events in the future.
Landing on XC Oregon was also pretty much an accident. Beitzel was surfing the Web distracting herself from her PhD work when she found a link to the 2005 XC Oregon fall camp on the AXCS web site. Beitzel was already going to America to present her PhD work at a conference in California, and was planning to go snowboard with a friend in Canada, so she decided to make a stopover in Bend for the XC Oregon fall camp. And there she was, hooked on cross-country skiing.
Taking the leap
Beitzel came back to Bend in the spring of 2007, and XC Oregon director John Downing mentioned that she was definitely not too old to become a ski racer, and if so, there was a spot for her on the XC Oregon team. At first Beitzel was skeptical about taking the plunge, but the idea grew on her. She finished up her studies, and in 2008, she made Bend her home and XC Oregon her club.
“I just couldn’t get (ski racing) out of my head, so I finished my PhD, and now I’m here, and I have to see how far I can take it. Every year, I’ve kept improving,” said Beitzel, who considers herself better in the shorter events. In the early season, her main focus is on the sprint races on the Nor-Am circuit. Then she moves into the marathon events.
“In February and March I turn up the fun factor and do some marathons, although I know that I won’t be a great marathon racer,” Beitzel said.
This season, the XC Oregon girls are skiing the Gatineau Loppet in Quebec, then head over to Europe to ski the Engadin Ski Marathon in Switzerland and top it off with the Norwegian Birkebeiner in March.
“I am so lucky to have such a great group of girls who are my friends and that I get to travel and race with,” said Beitzel.
“And I cannot emphasize enough how great JD is. His encouragement and support makes my lifestyle possible,” she added, explaining that Downing is always available for training questions on email and helps her adjust when life turns plans upside down.
Turns out, Beitzel has become an integral part of XC Oregon as well, her presence enjoyed and her absence noticed.
“Felice is a fantastic person and a very positive part of the XC Oregon family. Her enthusiasm and good spirits are contagious such that the only pity when she’s out of town with the cycling gig is that we miss that extra bit of energy when she’s away,” said Downing. “Helping skiers is always special when people not only have motivation but also give back the level of positive energy that Felice does.”
Perfect match in Giant
Like most aspiring cross-country skiers, Beitzel needs a job to support her passion. And a job she found, but certainly not your run-of-the mill sports shop variety that is common among athletes. A soigneur with the Giant professional mountain bike team, Beitzel now mixes two sports of the endurance world.
Beitzel was working part-time with Therapeutic Associates in Bend, when in the winter of 2009 she connected with Giant team member Adam Craig, who was looking for a local masseuse.
While making inquiries, Craig, who raced at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and was the 2007 singlespeed World Champion, kept coming across Beitzel’s name. Craig emailed Beitzel, told her about the job, and asked if she would meet him and see if they got along.
“I was thinking ‘who is this guy’? But I like traveling, and I’ll consider it if we get along,” Beitzel recalled. “As soon as I met him and Carl Decker (another Bend-based Giant cyclist), I was thinking that even if I don’t get this job, I’ve just met some of the best friends in my life.”
But the boys and the Giant team managers were happy with her work, and it was a done deal. In April 2009, she was on the plane with the team to the World Cup in South Africa starting a road trip that lasted until September.
“I am really lucky to work with Giant – they are great and pay my salary all year. So even though it is tough only having 4 weekends at home between late February and September, it definitely pays off when I get to ski all winter,” said Beitzel, who just completed her second season with the team.
“When the mountain bike race season is over I don’t work much. Once the riders finish the cyclocross season in December, they take a break too, so I do just the occasional maintenance massage for them. I also try and help the team managers organize things for the next race season, such as nutrition product orders and race schedules and so on. That works out well because I can focus on skiing, and I travel to ski races instead of bike races,” she said, adding that all the frequent flyer miles come in handy for travel during the ski season.
However, it is no cake walk to care for a whole bike team.
The mountain biking season starts in the end of March and goes to September. During the team race season, her life revolves around the bike team and the cyclists.
“I’m a massage therapist, a general physiologist, assist them with recovery and nutrition, help with training and coaching, and then I’m a jack of all trades. I cook, I clean, I run errands, I stand in the feed zones. I’m on the go the whole time,” she said.
What is a soigneur anyway?
Typically, Beitzel’s day starts the minute she wakes up. She goes into the kitchen and makes sure the dishwasher is empty and everything is clean, that the athletes have all they need for breakfast.
Then she heads to the race venue and picks up race numbers before spending the rest of day in the feed zone. At the end of the day’s competitions she gets ready to help with recovery, do massages, get groceries and cook dinner for the team.
Beitzel is responsible for both the cross-country cyclists and the downhillers. Last season was the first year that Giant added a downhill team. And in addition to the athletes, Beitzel is also responsible for the mechanics and team managers.
“The mechanics work all the time, so if they get sick or grumpy, that’s not good for the team. So I need to make sure they eat too,” she said with a grin.
On a given trip, Beitzel has anything from two to 10 athletes to to cook for and massage.
“Often I cook for up to 14 people in a small kitchen. It’s almost like catering. Sometimes the athletes will offer to help, and I really enjoy that, but then something comes up with their bikes…and they’re off,” she said, explaining that help is always a bonus but never expected.
Most of the time, she tries to sit down and eat with the team, and she believes that team meals are important for anyone who spends so much time on the road.
“We all eat together, the athletes, the mechanics, the managers, everyone. It’s good for the team environment and a good environment is important. I’m not homesick very often, because the team is my family. Everyone is super good people. I couldn’t do it if they weren’t so nice,” she said.
And the cyclists in their turn said they can’t imagine traveling without her.
“She is just super-dedicated to what she does, in every capacity with the team,” said Craig, noting that her delicious meals are only part of the equation.
“She’s eager to help, eager to learn, and she helps us learn. I think that’s partially a cross-over from her skiing. She knows what it takes to succeed, and she knows what we need,” said Craig.
Plan ahead and deal with whatever
During the bike season, Beitzel’s own workouts are not on the top of her to-do list.
“I definitely need to be flexible with what I can achieve, but I’ve learned that I need to prioritize doing something for myself. If I get to train, I am a happier person; I’m nicer and more relaxed about helping others,” Beitzel said.
Beitzel’s dryland training hours fluctuate hugely from week to week depending on where she is, whether the team is competing or traveling, or if she’s off. So she has learned to make the most of it. Sometimes she barely gets 30 minutes to herself, while when she is away from the team, she can put in up to 25 hours in a week.
During a week when the team is training, she can usually fit in her own training either in the morning or during the day. On race days, she rarely has a chance to work out, but she is on her feet all day.
“The first thing I do when I get somewhere is to sort out what my training options are. Mountain biking venues are good, because there are usually good trails,” Beitzel said, noting that it is useful for her to have run through their race courses before the competition. That way, she can better assist the athletes on race day.
Living her dream
Beitzel doesn’t have a detailed long-term career plan, but she enjoys working with the Giant bicycle team and the athletes, and knows that she wants to stay in this field.
“I want to continue to work with elite athletes to help them achieve their best performances while always having fun in their sport. I would love to combine research in recovery or performance physiology with practical implications for elite athletes,” Beitzel said, adding that she has also toyed with the idea of running a training and recovery center.
“But I guess that would require me to stay in one place for more than a week at a time.”
Now, regardless of long-term plans and goals, Beitzel has learned that everything needs to be kept in perspective.
“I have learned from my mountain bike team athletes that the pursuit of sporting success still needs to be fun. So I aim to always enjoy skiing.”