Many outsiders believe that the unsung heroes at the Tour de France or on a pro cycling team are the domestiques, but at the end of the day, all the riders get a piece of the glory.
However, as a professional cyclist, I know all too well that to see the true unsung heroes of the peloton, you need to look to the side of the road to see the people standing in team kit offering riders bidons and musettes.
Soigneurs, commonly referred to in English as “swannies,” are the cycling team members that take on the all-encompassing role of rider care on and off the bike.
The name soigneur is derived from the French word “soigner,” which means “to look after” or “to care for”.
Unlike most other positions on a cycling team whose jobs are pretty self-explanatory, such as rider, dietician, or mechanic, the duties performed by a swanny can be pages long.
What Is A Soigneur?
As a professional cyclist myself, I know that soigneurs are the often-overlooked glue to a team.
They are versatile members of a cycling team whose responsibilities encompass most aspects of the riders’ well-being.
In simple terms, soigneurs are like the team’s mom and dad.
When I’m at a race, our soigneurs are essential, as they make sure that all I need to think about is racing.
What Role Does The Soigneur Play Within A Cycling Team?
Nutrition And Hydration
One of the primary and most well-known responsibilities of a soigneur is to ensure that cyclists are well-fueled and properly hydrated before, during, and after racing.
Before races, a soigneur will go out to the stores to purchase different snacks and even some breakfast products that each rider prefers.
Prior to hitting the start line, soigneurs will make a variety of gels and other race food available to the riders.
They will also check in with each rider to confirm their drink mix preference for their initial two bottles, whether it’s carbohydrate mix, electrolytes, or just plain water.
During the race, soigneurs will stand at the side of the road in designated spots, known as feed zones, wearing a team gilet to hand out bottles to riders throughout the race.
Following the race, soigneurs will have riders’ recovery drink, usually a protein shake, ready for them as soon as they get back to the team bus.
If a soigneur doesn’t sound busy enough, this is only one aspect of their job!
Recovery And Massage
Professional cycling is a demanding career and puts incredible strain on the riders’ bodies.
During the long days of stage races such as the Tour de France or Giro d’Italia, soigneurs play a pivotal role in helping our recovery by providing post-race massages.
Some soigneurs come into the profession with prior certification in massage therapy, while others have been in the game for years and picked it up along the way.
Alongside massage, soigneurs are responsible for getting riders other recovery tools, such as compression boots. Since most teams don’t have enough for each rider, the soigneurs make sure each rider has a chance to use them.
Mental And Emotional Support
Soigneurs will see riders at their highest and lowest points.
Soigneurs will have riders on the massage table coming off their first big career win to riders who narrowly missed the time cut in a stage race and won’t be lining up the next day.
Aside from racing, the demands of professional cycling can take a toll on riders’ mental well-being. Things like being away from home, family, and friends for long periods, intense competition, and the pressure to perform at the highest level consistently all add up.
The role of a swanny goes beyond the massage table, as many riders, myself included, will see them as a confidante.
They will often offer encouragement, give advice, provide resources, or simply a sympathetic ear to help riders vent and navigate the emotional challenges that come with the job.
Many teams have sports psychologists or skilled therapists; however, many of us riders see our soigneurs more as friends, and this can make it easier to be vulnerable with them.
Freddie, a retired soigneur who worked for different teams over twenty years, told me, “I’ve seen riders on the best and worst days of their lives. I am the one they can confide in, trusting that what they say to me doesn’t go further.
“They can say what they need to say, get things off their chest, complain about riders, even staff, problems outside of cycling, anything goes really. I’m just here to support them the best I can.”
A professional cycling team at the WorldTour level can be racing up to three different races on the same day.
Coordinating the logistics to make sure riders and staff have what they need come race day can be quite a complicated task.
Soigneurs are the logistical backbone of teams.
When they’re not directly working with riders at races, they can be found arranging travel and accommodations for future races and ensuring the right vehicles have the right equipment and supplies when multiple races will be going on at the same time.
This often-forgotten role is crucial to making sure that come race day, riders can focus solely on riding their bike and not worrying about whether they have the right equipment or if their flight is booked.
How Do You Become A Soigneur?
Although there are no official requirements to becoming a soigneur, many top teams will look for someone who has either a massage therapy qualification or many years of experience in the field (or both!)
Many soigneurs develop a reputation over years of working with smaller teams before making it to the top of the WorldTour. Oftentimes, soigneurs will start with small elite teams before beginning to work with professional teams.
Over years of attending UCI races, soigneurs will grow a network with staff from other teams they may want to work with in the future. The cycling community is a very small one, and most jobs are filled through word-of-mouth rather than posted to the general public.
A Day In The Life Of A Soigneur
Come race day, soigneurs are on the clock from before the crack of dawn and won’t rest until late that night after everyone else is long asleep.
The soigneurs will begin preparing for the day by gathering and organizing the necessary supplies such as bidons, nutrition, massage oil, and medical kits. Together, they’ll go over the team’s schedule, route, and race details to plan logistics.
The soigneurs will join the riders for breakfast where they will discuss the strategy for race day (although tactical responsibility primarily lies with the directeur sportif) and any specific requirements or preferences from the riders.
Everyone will then travel to the starting area of the race, and the soigneurs will help riders with their pre-race routines. This can be anything from warm-up exercises, massages, applying “embro cream”, or any other last-minute support.
Once the riders head to the start line, the soigneurs will move to their pre-determined feed zones along the race route to provide water, energy drinks, and nutrition to the riders as they pass by.
After the riders pass by the feed zones for the final time, the soigneurs will then head to the finish to prepare to support the riders post-race.
As riders cross the finish line, the soigneurs will be there to provide the riders with water, food, jackets, and even physical support to get the riders back to the team bus safely when exhausted.
Once back at the team bus, the soigneurs will provide the riders with recovery drinks, typically a protein shake.
Back at the hotel, the soigneurs will immediately begin providing post-race massages and any other recovery aids to the riders.
At the end of the day, the soigneurs will begin preparing the equipment and supplies for the next day, including helping to clean the bikes and team cars, doing laundry for the riders, and restocking the race nutrition.
So, How Important Is The Soigneur?
The role of a soigneur is undeniably vital yet often underappreciated in the world of professional cycling. As the unsung heroes of the peloton, these versatile individuals go beyond the traditional roles associated with cycling teams.
From ensuring proper nutrition and hydration to providing crucial recovery support through massages, soigneurs are responsible for rider care on and off the bike.
Amid the grueling race calendar, soigneurs also offer mental and emotional support to riders on their highest and lowest days.
Whether it’s standing at feed zones, preparing recovery drinks, or providing a sympathetic ear, soigneurs play a crucial role in the overall well-being and success of a team.
Despite the challenges and the often-overlooked nature of their job, soigneurs continue to be the glue for many teams, ensuring that every rider only needs to focus on riding their bike, making their contributions indispensable to professional cyclists and their teams.
While the big stars take the headlines at the French, Italian, and Spanish grand tours, the soigneurs are the ones holding the show together behind the scenes and helping the riders perform at their peak.