By Maria Kozikowska
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure to once again join the Physical Project team in support of the pro-am cycling race, Trois Etapes Giro. Physical Project have been providing a team of highly-skilled therapists to support the riders at each Trois Etapes since the race first ran in 2012. The therapists, very often keen cyclists themselves with a clear understanding of how demanding the sport is on the body and mind, are assigned their own team and become what is known in cycling as soigneurs, or "Swannies". From the French for "the one who provides care", a soigneur is responsible for assisting, massaging, taping, stretching, feeding and clothing the riders.
Being a soigneur feels like being a mum to eight grown-ups! Throughout the day, you make sure that the only thing that the riders need to worry about is riding their bikes. The list of duties is long and varied but includes: preparing their bags for the day, keeping them supplied with water and energy drinks, managing all nutritional requirements, ensuring they apply their sun cream and preparing post-ride snacks. Essentially, it's your job to look after the cyclists’ bodies so they’re in peak condition before and during racing, and then recover well afterwards.
Sports massage is always an important part of the race. Before the stage, it helps to stretch the stiffness from the previous day and gently warm it up for the day of sitting on a saddle. During the race, the therapists support the riders and address any aches and pains that need immediate attention to help everyone finish the race in good form. Post-race, the massage works by means of relaxing, stretching and soothing aching and tired muscles. During these treatment sessions, the therapists are also able to assess the body, including any soft tissue issues, support it with sports taping and advise on stretching to aid the next day’s performance. What is more, the time on a massage couch does not only loosen up the riders’ bodies but also helps them to reflect on the day of racing and unwind. Away from the hustle and bustle of the race, it is the rest time for the mind and tired legs.
What was so special about this year’s Trois Etapes Giro was that I was assigned to a team of seven amateur cyclists from the Soldier On Australia charity and their pro-rider Cadel Evans, as they conquered three mountain stages in the Italian Dolomites. If cycling is your passion, you’re a sport massage therapist and you cried when Cadel won the Tour de France in 2011 (and yes, I did cry!), there is hardly a better job that you could imagine doing!
Soldier On Australia were a team of servicemen and a servicewoman wounded whilst serving in Afganistan. I was truly amused by how persistent, smiley, enthusiastic, strong and fit they were when climbing the Dolomites in the most horrendous heat, then rain and even hail. To make things even better, the team had an Australian comedian riding with them, Hamish Blake. Hamish did not only make everyone almost choke with laughter at the dinner table, but also kept the team spirit up, especially when discussing tactics in the evenings (looking resplendent in his yellow jersey) and encouraging the team to kick everyone else’s butts the next day. Even after overcoming his less than graceful fall at 5km/h and mechanical problems, Hamish remained the genuine spirit of the team. Nothing would bring him down (not even being soaked and stuck at the back of the van with his broken bike and no warm towels)!
As for Cadel Evans, he was a true gift to the team and his involvement was priceless: full of great tips and advice on eating, drinking, clothing, riding and tactics. He was very approachable, funny, and relaxed and drank endless espressos (I lost count!). I think we all not only attentively listened to him but also carefully watched what and how much he ate. And I'm sure that those piles of Nutella and banana rolls that I made on his request every morning helped the team to smash those climbs.
What is special about being a team Swannie and accompanying the riders throughout the day is that you develop a strong bond with your team and your colleagues, and make many great friends. Sarah, Matt, Andy, Hamish, Jono, Cadel, Steve (aka Andre Greipel), Jamie, Bruce, Anna and Pearl were the best team I could dream of and I hope to meet up with them again. I also felt more than privileged to be able to chat to Cadel Evans about his career, riding and have an opportunity to ask him questions that I always wanted to ask when I watched him racing.
And, if you put your heart into your job, you can receive an amazing gift.... I can confess that I'm now a proud owner of Cadel's riding kit and I can't think of a better reward for all the hard but super fun work. Thank you.