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While the Qhubeka ASSOS mechanics were fast at work as the sun struggled to rise over the town Genk, Belgium, they were not the only ones setting the alarm for 5:30 this morning. But then Liège-Bastogne-Liège—one of cycling’s greatest one-day races—is like that. It is a monument for everybody associated to the race.
Words and Images by James Startt
And while the team mechanic’s were readying the bikes and cars, the team soigneurs were busy in their shadows, filling the last water bottles and preparing the musette bags for the riders, not to mention lunch for everybody in the team car. After all, professional cycling soigneurs may be trained in massage therapy, but that is only a fraction of what their job actually requires.
As with the mechanics, however, the mood was upbeat. “Well it was definitely an early start, but we already did a lot of work yesterday, preparing all of the bottles for all of the cars for all of the feed zones,” soigneur Valerie Vermeirsch said. “There are two official feed zones, but we have cars cutting off the race in a lot of spots. So we had to prepare all of the bottles and also the food, the rice cakes, the paninis, everything.”
For Vermeirsch, who spent 14 years as a kindergarten teacher, working as a professional team soigneur is nothing short of a dream job. “We prepared 14 musettes—two per rider—which we will hand out at the two feed zones,” she said. “The tricky thing is that we don’t know if the riders will be able to go back to the team car during the race, or if so, how often. But they know that they will get a musette in each feed.”
In addition to the energy bars and gels from Amacx, the official team supplier, Vermeirsch adds sandwiches, rice cakes as well as easily eatable fruits to the mix.
Vermeirsch is just one of the team’s three soigneurs on hand at Liège to look after the seven riders who have prepared for what many consider the hardest one-day race. And it is the soigneur’s responsibility to make sure that the riders’ legs, and in general their muscles, are truly prepared for the nearly 260-kilometer test that awaits them. Some soigneurs work on “getting the cobblestones out of the legs,” as Vermeirsch likes to say. But each has their own approach, their own specialty.
“I am trained as an osteopath,” says Ricardo Pereira, a Portuguese specialist who juggles his work with the team with his private practice in his hometown of Porto. And while Pereira will help out with massages when needed, his main focus is osteopathic treatments. “I focus on getting the best mobility out of each rider, the stretching and the flexibility that assures that they are in the best shape to do 260 kilometers.”
At the start in downtown Liège, Pereira and Vermeirsch are relaxed, as much of their work has been done. And leaving before the actual start they have plenty of time to explain the nuances of their job as we make our way to Bastogne, the symbolic turn-around point in the race and the day’s first feed zone.
“We did all of the massages before dinner,” Vermeirsch says. “Every rider has a different muscles structure. Some riders are tall and have long leg muscles. For me that is easier. But some have shorter and more dense muscles. And for me it is harder really get in and get deep. I always ask the riders first how they are feeling. Sometimes a rider really wants me to go deep, but sometimes they just want something more regular. What is most important is that the riders recover as best as possible, and a rider needs to be relaxed on the table. If a rider can barely walk after they get off the table with me, well, that is not the best way for them to recover.”
“A good soigneur is a whole lot of things,” says Gunther Landrie, the team’s head soigneur. “The work behind the massage table is only 20 percent of your job, but it is where you have the most contact.” Landrie comes from a Belgian family deeply rooted in cycling as his father worked as both a team soigneur and mechanic and his brother Jurgen is a team mechanic with the Groupama-FDJ team. “My dad always used to say that a soigneur is like a second father. If a rider has a problem, they will come to you first. You have a real personal relationship with the rider. You need to be part philosopher and part psychiatrist as well.”
While a professional cyclist relies on each member of the team staff in different ways, it has been said that it is the soigneurs that have the most quality time with the riders. “The thing is that we have them on the table for an hour every day,” says Vermeirsch. “With us they can really relax and open up. We have a special relationship. We are the first to see them after a race, and we see all of the raw emotion after a race. But we also have different conversations than just those about the race.”
Vermeirsch is also part of a growing number of female soigneurs in the professional ranks, and while she has the same responsibilities as her male counterparts, she believes that the female soigneurs add a delicate balance. “I think one of the reasons that you see more and more female soigneurs in teams is because with us the riders can talk about different things. The guys are away from home for a long time and they need to talk about the things at home, about missing the children or other things. And perhaps sometimes it is easier to talk with a female soigneur about those things. I think we have a different view on ‘care’ and we listen and see things in a different way.”
With the race fast approaching Bastogne, Pereira and Vermeirsch take their positions on the outskirts of town. And as the riders float by in a blur they do their best to spot as many as possible. Vermeirsch, who was positioned first, managed to get rid of most of her musette bags, but she missed team captain Simon Clarke who was hidden in the team cars after a mechanical. Quickly turning around, she looked up the road and and waved vigorously to Pereira, who managed to get a second bag to the Australian. For some the moment could have been filled with stress, but for this Belgian and Portuguese duo, working together flawlessly as teammates, such moments appear commonplace.
“There is just a great ambiance on this team,” Landrie says. “I have worked with a lot of teams, but Qhubeka ASSOS is really a special team. What they say is what they do. They are on a mission to make a better world, that is what Qhubeka Charity is all about. At the end of the day we are here for Qhubeka, to help get more bikes to children and help get them to school.”