Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The one who cares for others. Being a Soigneur.

I was editing my resume today and decided to google the term "soigneur" (swah-nee-ehr) to see that I was spelling it correctly, since I was a soigneur, in many respects, for a number of races this year in both Italy (for Amore & Vita) and Canada (for the Garneau team at the Tour de Beauce and for Phil at the Canadian Nationals).

When I saw this article posted today that had been published in USA Today back in 2005, entitled, The 10 Worst Jobs in Sports, I burst out laughing and had to read it top to bottom. Although I did not act as the massage therapist, as most soigneurs do, I had the task of filling 75 water bottles each evening before bed and making thirty jelly buns folded in specially-crafted aluminum paper shells - that were easy for cold fingered cyclists to open - each morning before and in a frantic rush during breakfast. I was also the one rushing with Lorek, the actual soigneur/massage therapist of Amore & Vita, from start line to feed zone in a top-heavy camper, zipping through the backroads of the Italian, Slovenian, and French countryside based on a weathered old European atlas. And after feeding the riders, we would shoot through the fields of cows and mustard to the finish lines where we'd feed again during the circuit as the intensity either faded out completely or was amplified by the finish line, depending on who stayed in the front. After each race, our job continued, just as you'll read in the article I've copied below. Needless to say, being an assistant soigneur was like nursing people whose day jobs work their muscles, lung and heart strength, and mental endurance until there's literally nothing left to give...

#9: Soigneur for a professional cycling team

Long, hard, tough ... 'and wonderful'

By Sal Ruibal, USA TODAY

Soigneur is a French word that means "one who cares for others." In the case of a soigneur who toils for a professional cycling team, caring for others includes responsibilities that would make even the most doting mother cringe.

"The worst job in sports? That sounds about right," jokes Shelley Verses, a brassy blonde who became the first female soigneur on the elite European racing circuit in 1985. "There's so much more than giving a massage after the race. We're valets, cooks, washers, drivers, wound cleaners, psychiatrists and confessors. It is long hours, hard days, tough conditions and a wonderful way of life."

Dave Bolch, who worked as a soigneur for the Saturn women's team and the U.S. Postal Service squad, likens the work to "being a roadie for a heavy-metal band."

A typical European circuit professional cycling team employs a handful of soigneurs, with each aide caring for three or four riders. Star riders may have a personal soigneur, but he or she is paid by the rider instead of the team.

"For me, it is a lot like being a road mom for the boys," says Alyssa Morahan, soigneur for the TIAA-CREF/5280 cycling team. In her case, they are boys because her team is a mostly under-23 developmental squad. "Other than the team photographer, I'm the only female they might talk to for three or more weeks."

Long, busy days

A typical soigneur's day begins before sunrise, preparing breakfast for the riders, making sure the team cars are loaded with dozens of bottles of energy drinks and water, race snacks and spare clothing.

Then comes the application of special lotions and potions called embrocations, which warm up a rider's muscles.

In cold or rainy weather, a layer of petroleum jelly is applied over exposed leg for warmth and waterproofing.

During the previous night, riders' clothing has been washed and dried. Their personal gear must be packed and readied for transfer to the next stop in a multiday stage race or for travel back to the team's home base.

Post-race sandwiches and drinks must be prepared and packed, as well as extensive emergency medical kits. The ability to perform roadside first aid is mandatory.

Dede Barry, a recently retired pro rider and wife of pro racer Michael Barry, will never forget how U.S. Postal soigneur Elvio Barcella took care of her husband after a horrific crash.

"Michael crashed in the Vuelta a Espana in 2002 and was then dragged by a motorbike which screeched to a halt and landed on his chest," she recalls.

"He was covered in road rash head to toe and was bleeding everywhere. He managed to remount his bike and pedal to the finish where Elvio began to clean his wounds. It took an hour and a half and they had to clean out road grit from every wound in his body while he was squirming in pain, sweating profusely and biting a pillow."

Before the start of the race, a few of the team soigneurs must rush to the designated "feed zones" where they are permitted to pass musettes, cloth bags filled with energy bars, cookies, fruit and drinks. It takes courage to stand inches away from zooming bikes as riders snatch the musettes from the soigneurs' outstretched arms.

Other soigneurs then drive a team van to the next hotel, where they check in and move the riders' luggage to their rooms.

At the end of the race, they meet the exhausted riders with cold drinks and clean towels to wipe away the grime. In the team bus, they break out sandwiches and snacks the soigneurs prepared that morning.

After dinner, the riders relax and get massages. It is during those intimate moments that many riders bare their souls to the soigneurs, who often know more about a riders' psyche than the team director.

And boys being naughty boys, sometimes they bare more than their souls.

"Another soigneur gave me a big ol' pair of bamboo toaster tongs," says Verses, who has soothed the sore muscles of such renowned riders as Lance Armstrong, Greg LeMond and Davis Phinney. "If they got frisky, I'd just bang those tongs on the table and things would settle down quickly."

Soigneurs also are the first line of defense against a rider's worst enemy: saddle sores.

"They're riding six, seven hours a day in the grand tours," Verses says. "A lot of damage can occur."

That means keeping tender parts clean and dry in a bacteria-laden environment of sweat, friction and pressure.

"I look at it as teaching boys how to care for their bodies," Morahan says.

Close contact

In some cases, soigneurs have also become enmeshed in the doping scandals that have plagued professional cycling.

The infamous 1998 Tour de France doping disaster began when Willy Voet, a soigneur with the French Festina team, was arrested at the Belgian border with a trunk-load of illegal doping products.

Former U.S. Postal team soigneur Emma O'Reilly made headlines last year when she alleged in the book L.A. Confidential that Armstrong used the banned drug EPO in 1998 and 1999. Armstrong has denied ever using any doping products and has aggressively pursued a libel suit against the book's authors.

Verses and Morahan say that while there is an informal understanding that what is heard or seen in the massage room stays there, the use of doping products is highly unethical and betrays their mission of caring for the athlete.

"Most of the riders are really good guys," Verses says. "I've given massages to Lance, and I can assure you that I've never seen any sign of doping."

The bond between riders and their soigneur is a strong one. Verses, 41, has retired from the pro circuit but still attends to her former charges when they visit the Santa Barbara, Calif., area.

Morahan says the offseason separation is difficult. "I missed it," she says. "Not being with the team is the hardest."

And the riders share that closeness. When Bolch left the Saturn women's team for a job with U.S. Postal, four-time U.S. national champion Barry says, the riders saluted him when they stole his camera for a few minutes and posed for a team "moon" photo.

"Needless to say, he had a little explaining to do to his wife upon returning home," Barry says.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Sonja!
    I just came across your blog while researching soigneurs. Helping riders of a team sounds like a blast. Ever since I was little, I've wanted to be a personal assistant. And though the position of soigneur is more intense and difficult, it sounds like a dream!

    I was wondering if you could give a newbie any advice about the industry or how to get involved. Any advice you would give would be most appreciated!!