Regulating team soigneurs


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, who was been rubbed the legs of Bernard Hinault, Marc Madiot and Charly Mottet.

French exception
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.

New regulation?
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.

27 thoughts on “Regulating team soigneurs”

  1. Having just read the first few chapters of David Millar’s new book it is quite obvious what the role of the soigneur was (and maybe still is) in many teams. I thought a soigneur was generally a masseur and general team helper, not a medical assistant supplying and administering injections of “preperation” and “recovery” products.

    The recent BMC and Omega-Lotto cases show a worrying sign that drug use is still common at the team level.

    The UCI’s attempt to ban or restrict the use of needles and syringes makes a lot of sense.

  2. dear,

    please note that the Wim Vansevenant – Omega Pharma case is more than likely for personnel use.
    The customs found 3 ampoules where with the BMC – case they found 200 ampoules.

  3. In my view it is unlikely that Wim Vansevenant’s order for “amino acids” from an Australian supplier (which was “accidentally” sent back as muscle building and endurance products), was intended for personal use.

    Vanvesenant is an ex-pro with many contacts in the peleton and to receive such a package a few days before the Tour starts is suspicious. More likely he has a ‘customer’ in the peleton for these products. Also why Australia? many amino acid products are legally available in Europe or over the counter.

    I agree we don’t know all the facts about this case, but for me it doesn’t look pretty.

  4. I’m dubious with regard to the Vansevenant claims. Wim was a pro during the ‘bad old days’ and I highly doubt he’d:

    a) need to import from Australia
    b) be dumb enough to do it in his own name / not get someone else to do it

    If I’m wrong, he’s likely as stupid as Ricco (ie, about to Darwinise himself).

    I completed a review for a national Olympic organisation a few years ago, in anticipation of the 2009 WADA Code. We discussed introducing measure like ‘registering’ doctors and staff, etc, but decided against it. Ultimately, the athlete (patient / individual / person) is responsible for their choices and must wear them.

    Almost all countries have various criminal statutes in place now to deal with doping. If there’s an answer to regulating swannies, I think it lies there – they should face criminal prosecution if found to facilitate doping, and a subsequent ban from working within the sport (like the UCI has just introduced for ex-riders).

  5. There is a theme that runs through most of the problems with cycling through the years; a governing body that is totally unable to provide effective leadership for the crutial policing of the sport is charged to manage. THÃŒS is a perfect opportunity for the UCI to assert itsself as a positive force by effectively dealing with this. Instead, we have the French take the lead, make laws that look ridiculous because they can not be internationally applied, and from the UCI: pressing issues that will determine the future of the sport like bike weight. . . . bike weight!!!!! I’VE HAD IT!!!!!!!! sorry, also, great work as always inrng

  6. @ BenDE: Seriously though, bike weight and UCI approval of components are the two biggest issues facing cycling are they not? Who cares what people have running through their veins, as long as their bikes weigh more than 6.8kg, all is ok with the world.

  7. The UCI has brought in the No Needle policy this year against a lot of opposition from teams (and Eddy Merkyx!). This is a step in the right direction, the sport has to move away from the idea that “recovery” products have to be injected.

  8. No needles is still essentially window dressing. If they’re serious, they need to just introduce lifetime bans for staff and riders who dope.

    It’s really that simple. The message is out there now – doping is BAD. Now they can move on, and simply say “And if you get caught, you’re gone”.

    No plausible reason exists for second chances anymore.

  9. In defence of the UCI, they can ban doping but struggle to enforce this. It’s a lot easier to regulate the weight of a bike and enforce this.

    But, STB, note the “no needles” idea came from another group of several pro teams and the UCI went with it.

  10. Now begins the “let’s try to rationalize this” game. A host of excuses come up to attempt to cover up the obvious: team management are not just aware of doping they ORGANIZE it. The soigneurs are the perfect fall guys. Contador dopes, so does Cadel, Vinou, the Schlek bro… This is a truism but not under the laws and regulation of pro-cyling, of pro sport, not in the media arena… Which means they share the guilt.
    What prevents the truth from coming out formally, what prevents the sport from moving forward, what prevents pro-cyclist from having to stuff chemicals inside them to stand a chance to win, to earn a living: (1) a UCI that is complicit; (2) Managers who are part of the doping problems; (3) advertisers who want results at all cost; (4) pro-cyclists who abide by the ludicrous “don’t spit in the soup” doxa (which is really screwing them, btw); (5) money-driven cycling media who hardly ever do investigative journalism or ask hard question (save for a few individuals such as Walsh, Kimmage but not many more); (6) cycling “fans” who think being delusional about the doping mess somehow validates their passion for the sport, and (7) Lance: a synthesis of all that’s wrong! 😉
    The fact that BMC and Omega Pharma are still in the Tour is a testimony that things are way worse even than during the Festina affair. At that time, those discoveries were shocking enough to prompt a real media outrage! Now, just look at cyclingnews’ front internet page: when the news about bmc came out it was one of their 4 or 5 main “stories”: buried between a sweepstakes game, a bicycle “review” or presentation (read infomercial), a couple of afp release or press releases: and today it’s gone. Absolutely sickening.

  11. Oliver: I disagree about with your consideration about cycling fans who want to be delusional about doping (translation: fans make an effort to believe, against all evidence, that there is no doping this sport). I, for one, have been following cycling since I was 5, and there were always scandals, and I never had a doubt about the importance that doping (and doping smartly) played in this sport. But this knowledge never kept me from following every Grand Tour. Call me a cynic, if you like, but not self-delusive. And yes, I would like excessive, suicidal, doping to be curbed and controlled (and I do think improvements have been made in that sense). But there will always be people ahead of controls and regulations (and therefore lies and stupid excuses), yet it’s never been the end of the world, and I don’t want it to be the end of the sport.

  12. I’m surprised you jumped to the conclusion that we are talking to “rogue” team members. Maybe they’re doing *exactly* what the owners, managers and racers want them to do. It’s called “deniability.”

  13. “money-driven cycling media who hardly ever do investigative journalism or ask hard question (save for a few individuals such as Walsh, Kimmage but not many more”

    I see this comment quite a lot. However, Kimmage and Walsh have the luxury of being sports journos for a major newspaper. If they get blown out by riders/teams for asking awkward questions they have the falback of writing about rugby, football, whatever. The vast majority of cycling journos won’t have that safety net. It’s an unfair comparison.

  14. Steve: true, and every time someone has been caught in the past it’s been an isolated event, conducted by a loner etc… when sometimes this isn’t the case. But here there is nothing to suggest this guy was selling to the team, he is not official staff and the 195 doses were seized a while ago. By “rogue”, I meant someone who had been caught doing something wrong.

    Oliver / Chuffy: yes, the cycling media can rarely go for big exposé pieces. There isn’t the money to fund investigations, yet alone the legal siege. Plus history shows that since day one the media has been there to sell copies.

  15. @chuffy: you are right, not everyone has the backing to do what Kimmage and Walsh did, good point. But contrast that to the many journalist who went out of their way to become advocates for Lance — despite the obvious doubts? Why the gusto and agressivity in the denials that doping was a real issue, that Lance is shady, etc…from folks like Phil and Paul? From the main journos at Velonews, Bicycling, etc… Why the book heralding an obvious cheat? Why the gratuitous and slanderous attacks on Lemond (portayed as bitter and envious), why the cover up?
    It’s one thing not to be able to do the risky and courageous investigative work but why is it that in the cycling press for one Kimmage you get the likes of Sally Jenkins, Loren Mooney John Wilcockson, Bill Strickland and so many others ready to profit from a cheaters instead of exposing them? And some of those are big names in the cycling press, powerful folks who could have taken a stand, btw…
    If you don’t have the backing to criticize Lance does that justify being his pr man or woman, does it justify profiting from his lies?

  16. inner ring, not knowing internet law too well, i’d be inclined to delete/edit some of the comments above. Some jump to some pretty drastic conclusions. It makes me think that fans and riders themselves are complicet in continually bringing the sport down with inuendo and speculation. I never heard anyone in football say of Juventus in the 90’s “really great the way they stormed home in the second half….if they’re clean” or (for example) ‘qualify’ Nadal’s performances with “…if he’s clean”.

  17. @jkeltgv: thanks. I hear you and neither do I know the law very well. Those are not my opinions but the words of others and everyone is free to comment, I’m don’t pre-approve everyone’s comments.

    But yes, a word of caution to everyone. This is only a blog and I don’t have legal advice on hand. So please exercise care, try not to point too many fingers. One of the good things is that most people are calm and give interesting comments, I hope it stays that way.

  18. @inrng: last thing I want is to put this blog in danger of legal reprisals… What I say is my opinion and when I mention the names of the folks who wrote books for Lance with Lance and my opinion of them I don’t speak for you, obviously. Hope that’s voicing one’s thoughts is still allowed and that powerful folks’ legal firepower won’t make the comments above impossible… It reminds me of a guy getting sued for (rightly) saying the Chernobyl nuclear cloud went over France: he lost in French courts!

  19. @Oliver – another thing that doesnt help is a cycling fan base that has very strong opinions on doping without knowing the inside scoop. The focus on punitive actions on past deeds doesnt really inspire a culture of openness. I really recommend everyone reads Landis’s interview with Kimmage – after reading that, I dont blame any pro cyclist for doping. I know that if I was in their shoes, I’d be jamming whatever the hell I could into me as well, and nor would I be too keen to point fingers at others either.

    Anyway, I am done with talking doping, to be honest. There is some great racing coming up and doping or not, I am looking forward to enjoying what is shaping up to be one hell of a Tour.

    @Inrng – a request. Can you post more stuff on behind-the-scenes life at the Tour, post-ride activities of the riders, etc? I for one find those posts of yours fascinating.

  20. To continue this theme just a bit: I noticed yesterday when Inner Ring posted its’ first story about the BMC soigneur, almost immediately there was a comment by someone deciding that that meant that Cadel Evans wasn’t a clean rider. I think it’s dangerous to jump to those kinds of conclusions and especially wrong to commit them to print on the web. Reputations can be ruined easily, and things have a way of quickly becoming “fact” in this on-line world.

  21. OLIVER, 100% correct!

    The role of the free-lance soigneur is most comparable to that of a posse for a rapper. One guy carries the guns, one guy carries the drugs. They ride in separate cars, keep a low profile, and if you’re smart, stay in separate hotels. They make sure the star can enjoy the rewards of his success and are 100% focused on keeping the gravy train rolling. If the party gets busted, they take the fall.

    As for cute ol’ Cadel. Saeco->Telekom->Lotto->BMC. Every single one of these teams OBVIOUSLY facilitated doping. No question. None. Evans has shown constant improvement throughout his career despite the constant evolution of doping products and procedures and shared podiums with obvious chargers. Please explain to me how Evans could be an isolated island of clean racing in this sea of systematic doping.

    As for who is clean….I reeeeaalllly hope Ryder is. Bottom half of the top-10 might be possible for a clean rider these days. But I really feeel like a sucker for this. If he finishes in the top-10 riding clean…..that’s Lemond type talent……and the best of the generation waste away before our very eyes.

    Yay!!! Tour time!

  22. And I also agree that the word ‘rogue ‘ is used incorrectly.

    Also, the concept that Schoutteten was ‘selling’ these drugs to a team is flawed. Most likely,he was receiving drugs and carrying them for whomever he was working for at the time. And my guess would be that the only value he could offer a pro cycling team is his ability to procure and transport doping products effectively.

  23. @jza i really wish folk would stop bandying shit about on one of the few respectable cycling blogs going around. I come to inrng for his (and generally the commenters) sanity and coolheadedness. Speculation on who dopes and who doesn’t and what teams ‘obviously’ facilitate belongs on the CN forums.

  24. Here’s the link to the interview Guadzilla mentioned above, in case anyone missed it:

    I feel that it’s misguided to go after individual riders and support staff, when it’s abundantly clear that it’s the whole system that demands and facilitates this behavior, starting from the top. Witness the UCI’s attempts to initially suppress and then continually delay the Contador case, as has been documented extensively on this blog. We still won’t have a verdict by the time this year’s tour ends, we could have a situation where the winning rider is stripped of wins two years in a row, shameful!

  25. jkeltgv,

    Is it possible to discuss the arrest of a BMC employee for possessing a large quantity of dope without discussing the extensive doping record doping among team executives and star riders?

    And the reason blogs like this is because these issues can be discussed in context, rather than the CN/VN echo chamber that is only concerned about keeping advertising dollars coming in.

    And you do a GREAT job of this Mr. Ring! Thanks for the in depth reporting, best cycling news site going!

  26. To reiterate what JKELTGV has said better than I can. I also come to this site because it has been a forum for thoughtful and non-hysterical discussion. The web is full of forums dominated by screaming haters of all stripes and flavors. I COME HERE TO GET AWAY FROM THAT CRAP.

Comments are closed.