After graduating from The Boulder College of Massage Therapy in 2001, Debbie Lipski knew she wanted to work with professional athletes. So when an opportunity to work with the U.S. Track Cycling Team came her way, she jumped at it! She’s been a professional soigneur ever since. Debbie has worked with many Professional Cycling teams including Ralph Lauren Polo RLX, Health Net Pro Cycling Team Presented by Maxxis, Bissell, Garmin, Radio Shack, and Trek Factory Racing.
But wait—what the heck is a soigneur, anyway? What do they do? We chatted with Debbie to get the inside scoop on the life of a soigneur and some muscle recovery tips for cyclists at home.
What the heck is a soigneur?
Soigneur is French for “caretaker,” so we basically do everything except take care of the bikes. We provide massage therapy treatment, run to the grocery store, shuttle riders to and from the airport, feed the riders during the race, do the laundry, and take care of first aid issues when doctors aren’t around. We’re like the team mom for the cyclists.
What kind of training or education do you need to become a soigneur?
There are no specific requirements to be a soigneur. Some soigneurs aren’t even certified in massage, but the top teams really do like to bring on therapists that have certification. I personally am certified from a specific massage therapy trade school, which was a year-long program. I know there are soigneurs that work with teams in Europe that have even more experience and education beyond massage therapy, but it isn’t a requirement.
What’s a typical day like in the life of a soigneur?
When we first get to a race, we show up to the hotel before the riders get to the city where the race starts. The soigneur does the airport run to pick them up and bring them to the hotel. We get the riders situated and then provide massage on the days that are leading up to the race.
The night before the race starts, soigneurs make drinks and prepare snacks for cyclists to consume while they’re on the bike. (Rice cakes, pastries, Nutella and bananas on a bun, and other nutritious snacks).
The morning of the race we pack up vehicles and ice coolers with drinks and go to the start line. Most teams have a bus where the riders can prepare for the race each day. One soigneur is usually on the bus helping with putting numbers on jerseys or balm on the riders’ legs if it’s cold. We give them their food and drinks for the start and then drive to the feed zone where they pick up feed bags during the race.
Once the riders grab their food in the feed zone, soigneurs race to the finish so when they arrive we can provide them with drinks, towels, and clean clothing in case any of our riders are in the top three for the race. We have to clean them up and get them ready for the podium presentation.
Once the race is over, we drive back to the hotel and start massages right away. There are usually three to four soigneurs with the team, so each soigneur works with two or three cyclists for about an hour per rider. Once massages are done, we pack up, go to dinner, and start making drinks and food for the next day.
What lead you down the career path as a soigneur?
I’ve been an athlete since the age of two, and have always had an interest in sports. I grew up as a gymnast and platform and springboard diver, and then got into running and doing triathlons when I moved to Colorado. I was always a recreational cyclist, but it was really just being an athlete in general that got me into Sports Massage. Knowing I would never be a pro athlete myself, I still wanted to work with that caliber of athlete as a career.
I honestly didn’t know what a soigneur was when I went to massage school. I knew I wanted to work with athletes and have always loved traveling, so when I was asked to work with the U.S. Track Cycling Team in 2002, it seemed like a perfect fit for me. It really comes down to who you know and who you meet along the way that leads you to the next Soigneur opportunity. I’ve always loved to venture out and see the world, so this job was a good combination that fulfilled a lot of my interests.
How is massage therapy for professional athletes different than massage therapy for the regular Joe?
Athletes, in general, are more aware of their bodies and what’s going on with them physically. They can really pinpoint where their bodies need the most attention. They’re typically more fit or in shape than the average person, which means that their muscle tissue is healthy and strong. With cyclists, I tend to focus on the general muscle groups that they use the most in their particular sport: (i.e. low back, glutes, and legs)
Do you typically see more male or female soigneurs or a mix of both?
European teams usually have more male soigneurs than females, but in the U.S., you find more females.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I like the whole scene. I like being at the events with the huge crowds and the energy. I enjoy getting to know the athletes whom so many people admire, and seeing that behind the scenes they’re really just normal people like you and me. Every day is different. Every day you’re packing suitcases and moving on to the next city for the next stage of the race.
The most rewarding part is knowing that your work as a massage therapist is helping the riders recover so they can continue on throughout a long/hard week of racing. At the end of a long day when they feel like they can barely keep going, they’re able to finish strong partly because of the work you’ve done. You weren’t the one on the bike, but you were part of the whole experience of getting the athlete to the finish line and potentially on the podium.
What is the greatest challenge?
The long days. You’re usually up at 6AM and you don’t go to bed until 11 or 12 at night. About mid-week you start to feel tired but you still have to do the heavy lifting and deep tissue massage. Keeping your energy up and trying to eat healthy even though there’s not always time—those are the greatest challenges.
How often do you recommend massage therapy for an amateur athlete or cycling enthusiast home and what kind of massage should they ask for?
I would recommend just receiving a deep tissue massage if you can’t find a sports massage therapist. It really depends on what issues the athlete is coming in with. If someone is free of injuries and just looking for their muscle tissue to relax—deep tissue massage is the best option.
Once a week is a good prescription for a weekend warrior or someone who’s not making that particular sport their career. It’s also recommended for someone who sits at a desk all day. It’s really a good guideline for anyone.
What about people who don’t have the time or money to see a professional massage therapist every week? Anything they can do at home?
It’s always good to have a thorough stretching routine, and to use a foam roller. The foam roller works better than just stretching alone, in order to loosen the muscles and keep them working efficiently. Taking hot baths with Epsom salt when you’re sore, and just having a good nutritional diet plan are also great self-care remedies. Eating well will keep your body as healthy as possible.