Life as a ‘soigneur’
Back in September 2005, RIDE Cycling Review published an article about the life of a soigneur. It was a contribution from Robyn Taylor, an Australian girl who worked for numerous pro teams over the years, including a few seasons with CSC. She is no longer working in the pro peloton but she maintains contact with numerous riders and now works with her husband Henk van Lijsdonk in their business called ‘Body 2 Bike‘. Here is a flashback to RIDE #30 – the day in the life of one of cycling’s ‘carers’.
Things have changed a bit over the years and there are always refinements, like in any job, to the routine of the soigneur but much of what ‘Robbo’ did back then still applies today…
“Help!” The life of a soigneur
- By Robyn Taylor
Treating weary legs, tending to nasty wounds, feeding on the fly and offering moral support… these are just a few of the tasks a ‘soigneur’ performs on a daily basis in the pro peloton. Black eyes from photographers are also part of the package, but what is the job all about?
If you had asked me what a soigneur is 10 years ago, I would not have been able to tell you. I may have guessed that it was a place in Europe or perhaps some sort of food. I would have been completely wrong. It’s actually based on soigner, a French word that means ‘to care for’. And it’s a broad description for the job I’ve done for over six years.
These days I care for the riders on Team CSC’s roster. This is one of the most professional units in the peloton and it’s my responsibility to ensure that guys like Ivan Basso, Jens Voigt, Dave Zabriskie and Bobby Julich are able to do their job. I must make certain that they can race to the best of their ability. And although I’ve had the pleasure of being involved with several successful racing campaigns, winning is not my driving force.
My aim is to keep the riders injury free. If this helps these guys with their performance, I’m happy. For me it doesn’t matter if they win or lose, as long as they are safe and in the best shape possible. I do care for them. And it’s when they show their appreciation for my work that I feel rewarded.
I never knew much about cycling before 1999, so how is it that a girl from Queensland’s Gold Coast ended up working for Bjarne Riis at Team CSC?
It all began when I was studying to become a remedial massage therapist and was introduced to Sara Carrigan. We began working together; she rode her bike and I gave her some treatments during the early days of her career.
I had applied for a post-graduate position at the AIS in soft tissue therapy but was told that I needed more experience in sports. This led me to do some volunteer work at the Tour de Snowy where I met James Victor, the national women’s coach at the time. After a few more races with the team I was offered an extended trial in Europe in the lead-up to the Olympic Games in 2000. The team was short on staff so I packed my bags and flew off to Italy for 10 weeks. Once there I worked on a number of races including the world championships in Plouay, France.
The extra experience was gained and I was granted the position I’d applied for earlier at the AIS. When I was in Canberra I worked on all sports; in Europe the cycling was my focus. I gained an intimate understanding of a variety of events and disciplines on both the road and the velodrome and began to fall in love with the sport.
After two years with the Australian team I was poached by the British track squad. This was meant to be a 12-month contract but when Scott Sunderland called and asked if I wanted to work on the Giro d’Italia, I couldn’t say no. His Danish-registered Fakta team needed support staff and I was only too keen to expand my knowledge.
Although this time I’d been involved with cycling for over three years, my exposure to the men’s pro peloton was limited. There’s no doubt that this is a male dominated domain; ProTour teams employed about 275 support staff in the inaugural year of the series, only five were women. It just so happened that Team Fakta didn’t mind who treated their riders, so long as they were professional.
A goal of mine was to work with a team during the Tour de France and the Giro opportunity would take me a step closer to that ambition. I resigned from the British team and started with Fakta, not knowing what I would do after the race in Italy. My contract was extended to the end of the season and when that team folded I was recruited by CSC.
A soigneur’s job is to take care of all the cyclists’ needs. We look after everything except their bikes. The daily routine can include massage, the treatment of injuries, transport of riders and equipment, food for before, during and after the race… plus a whole lot more. There are usually four of us with the team at races like the Tour de France, but CSC has six soigneurs on full-time contracts.
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To help give you an understanding of what goes on behind the scenes, here is a summary of the duties a soigneur performs on any one day of the Tour. (Of course there is never an ‘average’ day but these are the main tasks which need doing.)
6.30am: Wake up and pack my suitcase and massage table.
7.00am: Gobble down a quick breakfast before setting the table with a selection of food for the riders. This can include any number of requests from individual riders as well as the standard fare – muesli, condiments, soya milk and a special wet muesli that we make the night before.
We have a chef who travels with the team. He is with the riders while they eat and caters for their requests, often making omelettes and rice and pasta dishes. There is also a particular kind of porridge that helps stop the stomach from becoming too irritated by all the sugars the riders need to consume.
7.30am: Go to the team truck which has a kitchen where we prepare food for the staff and riders. A typical day will include: 20-30 sandwiches for the staff lunch packs, fruit salads and rice cream for the riders after the race.
8.00am: Prepare bags of pre-race and feedzone food for the riders. The musette, the cloth sack that is handed to the rider during the race, usually contains: two energy bars, two gels, muesli bar, small cakes from the local bakery and sweet bread with Nutella. All these are fairly standard because you never know who is going to grab the bag at 40kph…
We can get specific for the pre-race feed and individualise the contents to keep the riders happy. Ivan only likes waffles and protein bars or gels. Bobby prefers the energy bars… it doesn’t take long before you discover their favourite things.
Food preparation can take up to two hours for two people. While this is being done, the other two soigneurs make up the drinks for the race (60-70 bottles with water only and 40-50 with sugar and supplements) and get the cars ready.
There are two cars with spare bikes and wheels per team in most race convoys. The directeur sportif drives and a mechanic sits in the back seat. Occasionally they’ll also have a guest like a sponsor or someone from the media. There’s also a car that is driven ahead to the feedzone. Of course there’s the team truck and a bus which need to be prepared for the journey to the start and, eventually, the chaos of the finish.
10.00am: The soigneurs collect suitcases from the riders for transfer to the next hotel and load in the truck.
10.30am: Two soigneurs go directly to the next hotel and make it ready for the team’s arrival. This can include moving approximately 90 pieces of luggage to the rooms for riders and other staff, as well as checking in for everyone.
10.45am: The team leaves the hotel in the bus and drives to the start of the stage. (Transfers can vary from one kilometre up to 200km or more.) Before the race we help get the riders ready. This can include an acupuncture session, putting oil on their legs, making certain they’ve got their start food, ensuring they’ve got the right clothes for the conditions, or just finding something they’ve lost… some days I feel like I have nine children to look after; surely one of the reasons why Giovanni Lombardi calls me Mum.
The soigneurs leave the site of the start about 30 minutes before the stage begins. We drive the race route until the feedzone. On the way we call the team directors to tell them about the course and advise on any peculiarities like an oil patch on the road, what the wind is doing, if there’s rain falling or large crowds, etc. We normally have a bit over an hour to wait before the bunch speeds through and this is the only time we have to ourselves all day.
1.30pm: Full-on concentration is required in the feedzone as the peloton arrives. A good job is one done without any incidents, but it’s not easy handing nine bags of food to riders in a big bunch. Get it wrong and there could be carnage!
When the team cars come through, we hand them our extra bottles and additional food for the second half of the stage. Then it’s a race against the clock for all the soigneurs to get to the finish line before the peloton. Some days this trip can be downright scary, but it can be a bit of fun as well… as long as you don’t get lost.
4.30pm: Arrive at finish and get the bus ready. This involves anything from preparing protein drinks to laying out food. The other soigneur stays in the bus while I go to the finish line with the team doctor who checks the numbers to see if anyone from the team has a medical control. I carry a full change of clothes with me. If a rider from our team wins, he needs to go to the podium and must be clean for the photos. I also have a bag of cool drinks.
5:30pm: The end of the race is always frantic. There’s no real routine because anything can happen, but I’ll talk you through the events of the day Jens Voigt inherited the yellow jersey in Mulhouse at this year’s Tour…
If there’s not a bunch sprint looming you have an idea of which riders are coming in and what the status of the race is. Five minutes before Jensie arrived I was so nervous; we already knew that he was likely to take the overall lead but there was a chance he’d also win the stage.
This is when the media starts to gather around me as they all want the first words or photo. You’ve seen it on the television screen and I can tell you it is rough; it’s like being in a football scrum!
Once Jens crossed the line he wanted as much space as possible and to get behind the podium as quickly as possible. He’d been racing for over four hours and needed to collect himself, but this is exactly the time the media wants as much of him as they can get. The team and sponsors always want exposure, but my thoughts are only with the state of the rider. Remember, it’s my job to care.
The doctor finds the other riders and gives them their drinks and directions to the bus while I help Jens. I change his clothes, and wash the dirt from his face and legs. After the presentation the doctor returns to sit with Jens in the doping control caravan while I get back to my other duties.
When I get back to the bus most of the riders have already showered. During the transfer to the hotel I stay on the bus. I pass around drinks and food and if there’s been a crash, I’ll start to patch up the riders.
6.30pm: Arrive at hotel and take riders’ clothes to truck to be washed. Then it’s up to my room, where I set up the table to massage Kurt-Atle Arvesen, Bobby Julich and Giovanni Lombardi. I use a range of techniques on the guys, from normal sports massage to acupuncture and laser treatment. I will spend 45 minutes to an hour with each of them.
9.00pm: This is dinner time but I often escape and go for a run. You’ve got to take the opportunities to clear your mind when they arise.
10.00pm: Laser treatments for Dave Zabriskie, Giovanni Lombardi and Ivan Basso. Then the final job of the day: take some yogurt up to the room for Ivan.
11.30pm: Time to squeeze in some rest so that I have the energy to get up and do it all again the next day.
Massage is what got me involved in cycling & it’s still a very important part of my job. It’s difficult, however, for me to explain what I do to the riders when they’re on the table because everyone has different needs. But there is one component that’s consistent, this is the time when relaxation is the key.
The massage is a moment for the riders to retreat from the public, the media and the pressure of performing. And I handle most sessions with the same approach. I find that the guys will talk for the first 15 minutes or so. When they do, I try not to ask about the race or offer any opinion on their ride. If they’re chatting then I’ll ask about their family or anything other than their job to help them relax. Then I stay quiet so that they can sleep or just float through their thoughts.
If they can’t relax on the table, I cannot move and manipulate the muscle as much as I may like. And the whole idea is to bring the muscles back to a pre-exercise state.
I don’t have a standard massage. Instead I focus on the individual and try to work with the muscle. I find I get the best results using a combination of techniques, not just rubbing up and down the legs.
Each massage is different and it depends on the rider’s needs. Lombardi, for example, likes a deep massage with trigger points. Bobby needs more work on his neck and lots of attention to his calves. With Kurt-Atle, I have to go easy on the muscle otherwise I just create spasms. Ivan doesn’t respond well in a static position so I sometimes use acupuncture to release some energy… but really it’s not as though there’s a set routine for climbers and another for sprinters.
A soigneur is also a lot like a nurse. Team CSC has its own doctor, he calls the shots and I am under his direction. There have been many times when I’ve needed to clean up a dose of gravel rash, but any painkillers or anti-inflamatories are given by the doctor. The team also has an osteopath who travels with us to the big races. I work closely with him so that we get the best treatments for our riders.
We have to be very careful with any ointments or creams we use and each soigneur’s first-aid kit is checked (and the contents listed) by the team doctor before each race.
Although a large part of my job is helping people relax there’s a lot of stress involved. This year I’ll have done all three of the Grand Tours and seen my apartment in Belgium for only a few nights during the season. I live in hotel rooms, skip dinners and often end the season so fatigued that I can barely make it down to the surf during my off-season.
Maybe this is why I often get asked why I do the job, especially when I had no real interest in cycling beforehand. I’ve been lucky because all of the riders I’ve worked for have been dedicated and kind. And I care; that’s my job.
The professional attitude of the athletes I’ve worked with inspires me. Whether I’m there or not, they will still ride their bikes. I just hope that I make their racing a little bit easier.
Of course there are moments when you can’t help but feel a warm buzz of pride for a job well done. When Bobby crossed the line at the end of Paris-Nice and won the race he put his arms around me and said, ‘Thanks, you helped me win.’
Last year Magnus Backstedt called me late the night before Paris-Roubaix and asked for some treatment because his back and neck were all out of whack. I was at the finish the next day and watched him win with goose bumps running up my spine… 45 minutes later I received a text: ‘Thanks Robbo. I felt great. Talk soon, Maggie.’
At the Tour in 2004, Kurt-Atle crashed three times and had virtually no skin left on his body. Each night I tried to help cover him up enough so that he could get back on his bike again. To see the damage he did to himself only to keep on riding day after day is what helps me do this job. You can’t buy feelings like that! These are the things that make me work 17 hours a day for nine months of the year. It’s why I have skipped dinners and driven over 80,000km during a season.
With all that said, I’m going to take a break. I’ve had a great time with the pro peloton; I’ve worked alongside some of the world’s best sports physicians and I have collected some great stories over the past few years. The time has come, however, to put some roots down at home and start my own clinic on the Gold Coast. But I haven’t yet finished with cycling, because once you’re involved it’s impossible to turn your back on this sport.
– Robyn Taylor
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