Sign up for our newsletter


In praise of soigneurs

Trevor Ward
9 Jan 2019

Healer, provider, advisor, confidante… the soigneur is the cyclist’s best friend

This article first appeared in Issue 78 of Cyclist magazine

Photography: Tapestry

Soigneur Biagio Cavanna once said of Fausto Coppi that ‘massaging his legs was like playing a guitar’.

The giant, blind masseur would knead the Campionissimo’s muscles for most of his professional career and be a confidante to Coppi’s colourful private life.

He died, allegedly of a broken heart, the year after Coppi’s own early death at the age of 40.

Half a century later, masseur Rui Queixada is squeezing and poking my legs as if he’s trying to find a €5 note down the back of the sofa.

He has been doing this at the end of every stage of the five-day Ride Across Portugal event, and as such has been privy to my nightly hopes and fears, as in ‘I hope there are custard tarts for breakfast tomorrow’ and ‘I fear I won’t make it up the stairs tonight’.

His response to both is usually along the lines of, ‘You like your food, don’t you, Ward?’

He’s called me by my surname ever since I wrote it in the wrong column on the sign-up sheet after the first stage. He has resolutely refused to correct it since.

It’s safe to say that if I should fail to finish this 750km ride the length of Portugal, he won’t be heartbroken.

To be fair, though, Rui has been there for me at my darkest moments, particularly on Stage 2 at the top of the brutal climb to the Centro Geodésico de Portugal.

He was helping to hand out drinks from the feed station and offered a blast of his ‘magic spray’.

‘What is it, sunscreen?’ I’d managed to gasp as he rubbed it into my legs.

‘No, for your muscles,’ he replied, giving me a big slap on the back with one of his beefy paws before jumping into his car and racing off to reach the finish ahead of the peloton.

Fausto Coppi’s soigneur was also renowned for the various ‘magic’ potions and medications he supplied to his rider (though his were infamously more potent than Rui’s Star Balm Muscle Spray).

He also had his own strict training regime, which saw Coppi and his team of loyal gregari woken up at 4am and packed off on a 200km ride regardless of the weather.

On their return, Cavanna ‘would check their muscles, to see if they had really ridden all that way’, writes John Foot in his history of Italian cycling, Pedalare! Pedalare!

Such was Cavanna’s reputation, says Foot, that aspiring cyclists would make pilgrimages to his home in Novi Ligure ‘to have their muscles felt by his famous hands’ and be told whether they had a chance of making it as a professional rider or not.

I ask Rui if he can tell from feeling my muscles what kind of rider I am. ‘I can tell you like your food,’ he replies as he arranges my anatomy into a series of unnatural positions.

I take that to mean I am more of a rouleur than grimpeur.

What does become clear during my time with Rui, however, is that a good soigneur really does have healing hands.

After the daily, grinding, 150km-plus stages of Ride Across Portugal, I feel drained, with my fuel needle sunk deep into the red.

But after a 30-minute session with Rui – during which the pain of having various sinews and tendons stretched and wrestled in ways they have never previously known is almost unbearable – I feel as if a radioactive force is coursing through my veins.

‘You feel good because all the toxins created by your metabolism during the racing have been drained from your lymphatic system,’ explains Rui as he wipes down his massage table in preparation for the next rider.

‘The massage relieves all tensions and helps remove lactic acid from muscles. It also has the side effect of slowing down your heart rate and breathing so that the body naturally starts to relax.

‘Blood and oxygen can return to the muscles at a normal rate and make an effective repair of muscle tissues, increasing blood circulation, which is reflected in an improved sense of wellbeing.

‘Of course, rest and a good diet also helps, so maybe you should go easy on the pastéis de nata tonight.’

The art of massage is actually even more nuanced than Rui’s explanation, as Emma O’Reilly writes in her book about her time as Lance Armstrong’s soigneur, The Race To Truth.

‘I always did the riders’ legs first, then, depending on what type of race stage they’d done, I focused on other parts of the body,’ she writes.

‘For time-trials they’d need attention on their hamstrings. If they were doing a climb, their arms were tired.

By the end of races, they were more tired from straining over the handlebars and braking, so shoulders and backs needed pummelling.

The muscle tells you so much. Without asking, I knew just by touch whether they’d had a bad day.

If the muscle felt empty, it meant they had nothing left for the next day. It’s hard to describe, but a full muscle feels firm like a grape, and after a long ride they become almost like raisins.’

Today’s breed of ‘super-soigneur’ is much more than just a masseur.

As well as having the old-fashioned qualities embodied by Signor Cavanna, they need to be skilled in the arts of nutrition, cookery, laundry, personal hygiene, diplomacy, driving and navigation.

Handing out half a dozen musettes and water bottles at a feed station in quick-fire succession to a team of riders travelling at high speed is also a highly prized job requirement.

Impressive though all those talents are, it’s the art of massage that remains at the core of a soigneur’s strengths.

And it’s testament to Rui’s healing hands and his ability to rejuvenate my flagging body on a daily basis that we remain firm friends to this day.

Read more about: