Soigneur, carer, swannie – it’s a personality type more than it is a job.

~ published in Bicycling Magazine (Issue 1 • 2021)

Soigneur, carer, swannie – it’s a personality type more than it is a job. 

My first encounter with professional athletes, if I can stretch it that far, was being at some or other pizza place for dinner the night before the 1999 Cape Argus Pick ‘n Pay Cycle Tour. Minding my own business, and in walks Doug Ryder’s IBM Lotus Pro Cycling Team. The restaurant, packed with cyclists, goes quiet, heads are turning and people are trying to act like they’re not starstruck. Then there’s me, blissfully unaware of who these guys in their matching tracksuits are.

Fast forward a couple more years, I’m at RAU (the University of Johannesburg for the millennials), and have switched from a lucrative career lifestyle in pursuing a BCom Accounting to BCom Sports Management, because who doesn’t want a job in Sports? 

While studying, I was given the opportunity to travel to the 2002 Tour of Korea with Team Microsoft, the former IBM Lotus team in their matchy-matchy tracksuits from 1999. My role was team soigneur, essentially responsible for sports massages and preparing the bottles for the race. It was a rude introduction to my first tour when Owen Hannie, now of Supersport fame, crashes on Stage 1 and had to have me, the new fresh-faced soigneur, do daily cleaning and dressing of his raw buttock, for seven days. Welcome to behind the scenes of world professional cycling!

I signed for Team HSBC in 2003, and was promoted from soigneur to manager, in my final year of studies. I was just 22 at the time and had a very progressive thinking CEO, who said that ‘I know you can do this, so go out there and do it’, and so I did. Here I was, travelling to Europe as not only young and inexperienced, but more shockingly, a woman Director Sportif of a UCI registered Trade 3 (now UCI Continental) team, which was not only unheard of, but probably a little blasphemous too.  

That support, or blind faith, has served me well in the years since.

I worked my way up from soigneur to assistant team manager, to team manager. I’ve been responsible for PR Liaison, Social Media Manager, Graphic Designer, Logistics and Operations Manager. I’ve worked for local teams and I’ve worked my way up to Program Manager for the Global XCO race team for Specialized Racing

Even though I transitioned from soigneur early in my career, it is a mentality that I still carry with me, and that has shaped my decision-making throughout my career.

The role of a soigneur is so much deeper than sports massage and mixing drinking bottles. Anyone can develop the skills to be able to get the job done, but caring for athletes at the highest level of sport, requires very specific character traits.

To the world, an athlete is the epitome of strength and determination – cool, calm, collected and above all focused. But for most athletes, this is when they are most vulnerable too. They have climbed an insurmountable mountain to get where they are, and they often doubt that they have enough to take the required step forward. This is where the role of the soigneur comes into its own. Soigneurs assist athletes in preparation before the race, feeding during the race and they are the first person the riders come into contact with after the race. In addition, they have an uninterrupted hour on the massage table where riders are able to unpack, vent or just sleep. Physio, chauffeur, mental coach, cook, cleaner, confidant and even barber – all in a (long) day’s work.

I have gone through 3 ‘Green Mamba’ SA passports over the last 18 years, and more visas than I care to mention. Cycling has taken me to every continent, countless airports and cultivated my compulsion for an extremely well-organised suitcase.

Together with my husband, Jaco Venter, former World Tour rider for Team Dimension Data, I lived in Italy for 5 spring and summer seasons immersed not only in the European culture but in the old world of modern-day cycling.

I’ve worked at the sharp end of 11 Absa Cape Epics, UCI World Cups, World XCO & XCM World Championships, with a highlight being the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Following Jaco’s racing, I’ve been to a fair share of road races like the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana, Paris Roubaix, Amstel Gold and Tour de Suisse. 

I’ve been in the inner circles with icons in the sport like Peter Sagan, Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, Anna van der Breggen, Egan Bernal, Henrique Avancini, Emily Batty, Julien Absalon, Mark Cavendish, Bernard Eisel, and Simon Gerrans. And having also worked with the likes of Annika Langvad, Kate Courtney, Jenny Rissveds, Jaroslav Kulhavy, Christoph Sauser, Alan Hatherly, Simon Andreassen, Loic Bruni, Sam Gaze and Howard Grotts, I’ve come to appreciate that there is no one recipe for success.

Having Saffas racing on the worlds’ scene like Greg Minnaar, Daryl Impey, Reinhardt Janse van Rensburg, Jacques Janse van Rensburg, Jay Thomson, Nic Dlamini was lekker because they always made time for a quick chat, and even the adopted ones like Chris Froome. The close-knit community of SA staffers that transcend UCI disciplines, working the Road, MTB and Track circuits, we might be far away from home but there is always that gees only saffas bring.

It’s going to be lekker to share insight into my working world, with some juicy tid-bits thrown in for good measure, but some names might have to be changed along the way!

Images: Michal Cerveny