Equal parts masseur, friend and counselor. An interview with Lotto-Belisol soigneur Franky De Buyst

At its very heart, cycling is rather dichotomous and thus contradictory at times. Obsessed with technological innovation, the sport is also steeped in historical precedent. One example of that is the relationship between rider and soigneur. Strictly speaking, the French word soigneur means “trainer”, but this definition is far too limited within the scope of cycling. Equal parts masseur, assistant, caretaker, as well as friend and—in some occasions—counselor and advisor, the responsibilities of a modern soigneur are wide-ranging.
With all this in mind, I sat down with Franky De Buyst, a soigneur for the Lotto-Belisol team. Franky has been working at the highest level of the sport since 2001, and has the credentials and experience to prove it. During his time as a soigneur, Franky has worked for Team Telekom, Domo-Farm Frites (in its many sponsor iterations), as well as Highroad-HTC. 

An ex-rider himself, Franky treasures the close relationships that he builds with the riders he cares for. In a sport consumed with technology, numbers and the idea of constantly chasing (get ready for that over used term) marginal gains, the soigneur remains a valuable example of the sport’s simple past. One that is unlikely to change, regardless of what material bikes and wheels will be made of in decades to come. 

(This article first ran in Road Magazine
Franky's office during a race

How did you get started as soigneur in pro cycling?
My last year as a rider I had a crash, and I thought it was probably better if I stopped. I was racing for Tönissteiner-Saxon [now Crelan Eupony], and they said they needed a masseur for the next season. It just so happened that during that winter, I could take a course to learn how to be a masseur. They told me that if I took the course, the team would take me on. That was perfect for me, because it allowed me to stay in cycling, and not have to go out and look for a job. But the funny thing is that at the start of the season, they told me they weren’t able to give me the job, and I was actually unemployed for one full year after that.

Do you think your time racing has made you into a better soigneur?
Maybe it’s not your time racing that makes you better, but the fact that you’ve been around soigneurs for a long time that helps you. You’ve seen what works, what they did well, and maybe what was not done well. You learn what not to do, which gives you a big advantage when you start out at a job like this.

Photo: Cycling Archives

What’s your usual schedule like, on the day of a race?
I wake up at 6:15am, come downstairs and get to work right away, since breakfast isn’t ready right away. That mostly consists of getting things ready, and packed into the cars. Then we have breakfast. After that, we start getting lunches ready for everyone. That includes food and drinks for the riders. When that’s ready, we go to the start.

Two of my colleagues will do the two feed zones, and I go in another car with one of the directors to different spots along the race with bottles and wheels. After the race, riders will shower in the bus, and if it’s a one-day race, they go home. In that case, I won’t do a massage after the race. In some cases, we also get to go home if we’ve been working for a long period of time. That usually means driving one of the team cars back to my home, near Brussels.

Is there any part of your job that you dislike?
Now that my children are older, it’s not so hard. But when they were small, being away was difficult. I’m normally away 160 to 180 days a year. My kids would have events at school, parties or birthdays, and I’d miss them because of work, which was very hard. But that’s part of the job. Now with computers, it’s easier. All this technology makes it easier to stay in touch, but when I started, that was not the case. Even calling was too expensive back then. 

Photo: Cycling Archives
What do you like most about your job?
I like actually giving riders their massage. It’s hard work, but it’s time that you have with your riders when you can speak with them without having any interruptions. For me personally, it’s also a nice time to relax. And this is important also. If you are not relaxed, you can’t do your job properly, and give a massage that will allow a rider to relax.

Photo: Lotto-Belisol

How much of your job on the massage table is helping riders physically, and how much of it is helping them mentally?
It’s both. You do help them mentally. Throughout the year, you work with the same riders. You get to know each other well, and you’re always talking about races. But overtime, you begin to talk about your family life, and personal issues. So your relationship grows, and at races like the Tour, you help them mentally that way. You talk about other things aside from the race. It’s really the only one-on-one time you have with riders. They’re always around other riders and staff, before races they are nervous, so when you are working with them, it’s the one time you can talk.
Have you become close to some riders as a result of conversations on the massage table, and perhaps through the advice you’ve given them during your work with them?
A rider who I worked with for five years, and I’m still in contact with and am close to is Axel Merckx. We’ve always stay in touch, and now even more because my son Jasper raced in his team [Bontrager, formerly Bontrager-Livestrong]. I’ve also kept in touch and became close to Michael Rogers.
How difficult is it to work during a grand tour? I know it can be incredibly hard for the riders, how tough is it for the staff?
It is hard, but the more you’ve done, the better you become at managing it. During my first Tour de France, I was very nervous. I did so much work, and so much energy that I was exhausted. So when I finally came home, I slept for two days. But with time, you start to learn how to manage your time, you start to know the hotels you stay in, and even the staff at different hotels. You learn the roads you have to drive in, and everything becomes easier as you know more.

Franky and his son Jasper, who now races with Topsport Vlaanderen - Baloise (Photo: Niusblad.de)
Many recreational and amateur cyclists tell their friends and family that the reason why they shave their legs is because it makes it easier to get a massage…even though most of them have never had, and will never have a proper massage. Does that strike you as funny?
Maybe a little, but it’s just tradition in cycling. It is, in fact, easier to give a massage when there’s no hair on the legs. That’s true. But here as Europeans we grow up aware of this tradition [of riders shaving their legs]. So no one asks or thinks about it, it’s just a normal thing. Also, I now see more and more soccer [football] players who shave their legs as well. Teams with bigger budgets have masseurs, so they are also shaving their legs now. ■

Franky De Buyst as a professional
1994  [BEL] Vlaanderen 2002 - Eddy Merckx (België)   
1995  [BEL] Vlaanderen 2002 - Eddy Merckx (België)   
1996  [BEL] Vlaanderen 2002 - Eddy Merckx (België)   
1997  [BEL] Tönissteiner - Colnago (België)   
1998  [BEL] Tönissteiner - Colnago - Saxon (België)   
1999  [BEL] Tönissteiner - Colnago (België)
Franky on Twitter