BMC Racing’s troubles with a rogue soigneur are bad news for the team. The casual way which Sven Schoutteten was hired from time to time reflects the way many teams operate, a pro image up front but behind the scenes people are hiring their pals. But the role of a soigneur is crucial to the team and not something to get careless about. Indeed France has moved to regulate their role with a law in 2004.
A soigneur is a team helper, whose job ranges from general dogsbody and factotum to masseur and nutritionist. “Soigner” means “to care for” or “to treat (an illness)” in French and a soigneur is carer, although someone who works helping the sick or the elderly is usually called an aide soignante, the term soigneur is reserved for the cycling world… although it’s used to label someone who looks after zoo animals.
One thing that’s different in France is that any soigneur who practices a massage has to be certified and registered with the French state as a physiotherapist. A law came into place in 2004, forbidding anyone from offering massage services unless they are a registered physio. The reason was deliberate: to weed out the witchdoctors within the sport and introduce a degree of professionalism for those working behind the scenes. At the time, various police investigations suggested some team soigneurs seem to have been hired from Eastern Europe because they were able to import doping products with ease.
The law came as a shock to the French cycling scene. Guys who had been massaging the legs of champions for decades suddenly found they were banned from their jobs. They could still hand up musettes in the feed zone or rub embrocation into the legs but a post-race massage, perhaps the essential task of a soigneur, was outlawed. “When I work in France, without the massage, I feel useless. You depend on the massage” said Patrick Gagnier, a soigneur with FDJ.com, who was been rubbed the legs of Bernard Hinault, Marc Madiot and Charly Mottet.
The same law has led to a strange situation where team soigneurs can give massages abroad but find themselves barred from massage in France. French teams have had to recruit additional, registered, staff but the change proved problematic as the peripatetic nature of the sport demands long hours and plenty of travel. Whilst registered physios in France are contracted to work a 35 hour week.
For me the law smacks of politicians looking for a “something must be done” law. Yes, some soigneurs were complicit in doping and the law was a means to weed them out but simply banning them from massage doesn’t stop them bad ones, instead they stayed on as coach drivers or lurked in the background. The law didn’t fix the problems, it displaced them.
Soigneurs have an important role in the team. Their para-medical help and close relationship with riders means the job is sensitive. I wonder if new regulations could help, perhaps seeing all team helpers vetted to make sure they are not hiding a criminal past or a police investigation. Or at least having some kind of central UCI register where professional mistakes can see people struck off the list, to ensure staff are registered and teams can’t hire anyone overnight if they’ve been involved past scandal.
Still, this wouldn’t fix everything. The BMC case has shone a light on the role and for all the work some teams do to present a good image, it goes to show this can be quickly undone by hiring some help to cover for few races.