Before she headed off to the Tour Down Under, I sat on the VeloVoices terrace and shared a cup of coffee and a chat in the warm winter sunshine [not in the UK, then –Ed] with Sophie Chavanel. Sophie is a physiotherapist with French WorldTour team FDJ, and is also married to Europcar’s Sebastien Chavanel, the younger – and, in my opinion, the better looking – of the two Chavanel brothers.
Sheree: A lot of people dream of working for a ProTeam, but there’s plenty of competition for the relatively few roles available. So, Sophie perhaps you can start by explaining a little about your background and training and how you came to land your dream job with FDJ.
Sophie: Yes, a lot of people dream of working in a cycling team. I know I’m very lucky! But I’ve worked hard to fulfil my dream. I was born in a cycling family, so when I was ten I knew what I would like to do … become a masseuse in a professional cycling team. I had an idol – Michele Bartoli – my big dream was to become his masseuse. So when I passed my baccalauréat [the French equivalent of A levels – Ed], I entered Montpellier’s physiotherapy school. I finished in June 2005, but Michele ended his career in December 2004, so my dream became impossible! I asked all the French professional teams, FDJ team manager Marc Madiot agreed to discuss it with me and in July 2005 Martial Gayant [FDJ directeur sportif – Ed] proposed a few races to me to finish the year. It was really a beautiful experience! So they asked me to join the team. Since 2006 I’ve been a physiotherapist with FDJ. I want to thank Marc Madiot and Martial Gayant for their trust in me.
Sheree: Presumably you try to keep as up to date as possible with current trends in treatment. Do you also chat and exchange ideas with the physios on the other teams?
Sophie: Yes, we try to be always the best in our work or at least to do our best! I exchange ideas more with the physios in my team. But I continue to learn and I follow formation [continuing professional development – Ed] every year. Sometimes I’m in these training sessions with the physios of other teams so we can talk about it, or when we have a question we can exchange ideas.
Sheree: How has your role changed, if at all, in the past ten years and have there been any major changes in therapies or treatments?
Sophie: I don’t think the role of physiotherapist has changed a lot in our team for the past ten years. But for me, with the years, my role changes a little. I feel the team trusts me more and I think it’s important. For the treatments a lot of things have been tried: electro stimulation, ultrasound, compression boots, cryotherapy. The big problem for us is to transport it all! But it’s very interesting to test all the best technology. But despite the new stuff, I think the most important is to care for the riders. The massage is the most efficient way to hear and to feel the rider’s problems.
Sheree: Cycling fans fondly imagine that being on a WorldTour team is very glamorous. But from talking to others, I know it’s a tough world with long stretches away from home and very long working days. Perhaps you could tell us what you love about your role and also some of its disadvantages.
Sophie:I think it’s right that it is hard work because you are away from home for 180 days or more, so away from your family. It’s not easy to be separated – in this work you don’t come back home every evening. It’s hard too because we have a long working day. In the Tour, for example, the long days begin at 6:30 and we finish massages at 22:00. And you can never be tired. You are there to care for the riders so even in the evening you have to smile and be strong. The big difficulty I think is to live always all together. All the staff live together from breakfast to dinner and we share rooms, so you are never alone! When all is okay in the team, when you are with a person you like, it’s not a problem, it’s a pleasure! But when it’s the opposite it can be difficult! But as I said earlier I think we are very, very lucky. We do the job we love the most. We live our passion. How many people in the world work their passion? We travel a lot, we can discover a lot of things, we meet different people. What I love most is to live my passion. When you are at the feedzone in the big races, like at the Ronde (Tour of Flanders) just after the Koppenberg, you see the race. When you are in the Roubaix velodrome, you see the finish – it’s incredible! Especially when you see your riders doing their best, winning – or suffering.
Sheree: I know exactly what you mean. I feel the same way when I watch the riders I know well competing. There’s this emotional attachment. From 2007-10, Sebastien rode for FDJ. Was it easier with you both working for the same team or is it more difficult with him being on another team?
Sophie: It was very nice when we were in the same team! We lived together. I was there when he won and when it was hard for him too. I know him perfectly so even for the work it was interesting. I know where he has pain in his legs, I know about his back problem, I know what to do and he trusts me completely. Now it’s different. We are in different teams but for us the important thing is to be together at home at the same time!
Sheree: Let’s return to your day job. On the one hand it would be easy to say that you get to massage lots of fit young blokes, so how bad can that be? But in reality, you have a tremendous responsibility to tend to their weary, mangled bodies and keep them rolling day after day. Typically, what are the most common ills and injuries and how do you deal with them?
Sophie: The first important thing for us is the recuperation, so we do massage to help them recuperate faster. In the first part of the season there is a lot of tendonitis, especially in the knees. In this case we have to find the origin of the tendonitis and after that we treat it with things like stretching, cryo, massage, pain points and tape. Later there is lots of back or neck pain. It’s the same – we have to find the origin and to treat it. Sometimes they need to see an osteopath. We sometimes have some riders with breathing problems with blocked diaphragms, especially during the first mountain stages.
Sheree: You’re shortly heading off to Australia for the Santos Tour Down Under, I would imagine that riding in such high temperatures after a chilly European winter presents a number of challenges, not only sunburn and dehydration. Are there particular precautions for particular races?
Sophie: You have said the two big difficulties: sunburn and dehydration. So we try to find good cream to protect and to cool, and we do lots and lots of bidons! The other difficulty is that it is the first race, so the first big and high physical effort, so the riders could have some difficult days and some pain, like tendonitis.
Sheree: Marc Madiot, FDJ’s team boss, endeared himself to millions of cycling fans with his encouragement of young Thibaut Pinot in last year’s Tour de France. He strikes me as being quite a paternal figure for the younger riders on the team and has developed a reputation for bringing them on. But what’s he like to work for?
Sophie: Yes, for Marc the riders are like his children! He’ s very, very passionate about cycling: his team, his riders. I respect him a lot because he does his best with his team. He is a complete person. I think it was a very beautiful scene to see him like this, encouraging Thibaut. That picture, it’s him!
Sheree: FDJ’s riders are well-known for animating races, grabbing plenty of airtime for their sponsors and generally placing well. Two of your riders who did particularly well last year – Arnaud Demare and Nacer Bouhanni – probably spurred one another on as a result of the competition between them. Who should we be keeping a look out for this season and why?
Sophie: Oh, difficult question! It’s not my role to analyse the performance of my riders. Me, I hope they all have a good season. And I think we have a lot of riders who can be very efficient this year. I think Arnaud Demare and Nacer Bouhanni will confirm they are two of the fastest sprinters. I think we will see again with happiness Yoann Offredo in the Classics, and I hope Thibaut Pinot will do well in all the stage races. What he did during the last Tour and all the other. Arnold Jeannesson will be back after health problems, like Benoît Vaugrenard and Anthony Roux. It’s hard! I’m just a physiotherapist, not the sports director!
Sheree: Sophie that’s true, but you know what they’re capable of and what form they’re in. Thank you so much for your time and giving us a glimpse of some of the issues, stresses and strains behind the scenes.
During the season Sophie has kindly offered to share with us what goes on behind the scenes of a WorldTour team. So we’ll be living through the ups and inevitable downs of FDJ on the road and picking up some useful advice from Sophie for our readers. I for one can’t wait!