Soigneur Interview: A cycling team wouldn’t stay on the road for long without the guys behind the scenes, the unsung heroes – Soigneurs and mechanics. Ed Hood caught up with Andrew Hillman to hear some tales from the massage table.
There are no palmarès to check for this guy, he’s one of cycle sport’s back room, ‘unsung heroes’ – but he’s worked with some of the sport’s biggest names; he takes us behind the scenes to look at the life of a soigneur in modern cycling. Mr. Andrew Hillman, aka ‘The Hillmanator’.
PEZ: How did you get into cycling, Andy?
Andrew Hillman: My dad raced with the Polhill, he was a BLRC [British League of Racing Cyclists which pioneered road racing in the UK and was bitterly at odds with the ‘official’ body, the NCU, National Cyclists Union. ed.] man back in the 50’s riding things like London-Battle-London. He went over to see the Tour in 1953 which was a big inspiration to him. I raced in the 80’s and 90’s in the UK with forays to Belgium but in ’87 I decided to stay over there, lodging at Mrs. Deene’s famous guest house in Gent. I could just about scrape a top 15 finish by the time I finished but there were always the combines to contend with. I actually got a job at the Het Volk newspaper in Gent, I had been a printer back in the UK. My journey to becoming a soigneur started when I met John Herety and Gary Beckett [soigneur to Bradley Wiggins and a fixture at the six days for many years, ed.] when I was coming back from Belgium, they were en route to a British Cycling training camp. I got to chatting with them and I said that I’d love to do what they did; they suggested that I go to college and train as a physio and if I did that I would always get work with teams. So that’s what I did.
PEZ: You worked with the Navigators and Flanders teams initially?
Yes, from my time in Belgium I had made contacts and Frankie Van Haesebroucke asked me if I would like to work with Navigators, I spent two months at Donoratico working with guys like Marty Nothstein. And yes, I worked for the late Frans Assez at the Flanders team out of Oudenaarde. I was a freelance, working from team to team as required. I was a bit ahead of the game at that time, I had gels for the guys – and I remember riders saying to me; ‘what are those things?’ I think my big break was 2006 when Tony Harding asked me if I’d like to work with the South African team at the Junior Worlds. That led to me working at the Senior Worlds with the team – which included a young Chris Froome. It all moved on from there.
PEZ: Which is your favourite of the big races you’ve worked?
Milan-Sanremo, I did it with Unibet – that was a turbulent time mind, with the team denied a ride in Grand Tours because of wrangles with race organisers ASO and RCS over ‘advertising a gambling company,’ despite Lotto and FDJ being lotteries.
PEZ: Who’s chattiest on the massage table?
Jez Hunt and Baden Cooke were probably the most outgoing but the masseur’s golden rule is only to speak when spoken to, you don’t want to be one of those who prattles on if the guys want to lay quietly on the table.
PEZ: And who’s quiet?
Daryl Impey is a quiet guy, Beppu the Japanese rider too – Rigoberto Uran used to be quiet when he was with Unibet but now he’s an absolute extrovert. Rigo is a legend back home in Colombia, he has a company called ‘Go Rigo Go’ which employs about 80 people selling bikes and designing and marketing clothing through his shops.
PEZ: Who has the biggest legs?
Two people, Jimmy Casper the French sprinter who won a lot of races in his time, including a Tour stage, had massive thighs but they were like putty. Steffen Wesemann the German ‘rouleur’ who won the Tour of Flanders had huge thighs too. The thing is with both of those riders, they only liked light massage.
At the Gent ‘6 Days’
PEZ: What about climbers’ legs?
The climbers tend to have better definition, Rigo’s legs for example are very well defined but you have to spend as much time on their legs as you do on the guys with the big legs. And some guys have their quirks, Luis Pasamontes the Spanish climber who was second in the Tour of Britain one year and who I worked with at Unibet liked a 30 minute rub but only the backs of his legs, he didn’t want the fronts touched.
Dirk Demol – Roubaix winner ‘firm but fair’
PEZ: What about sport directors, who’s most laid back?
Without doubt, Dirk Demol as a DS he had respect as a Paris-Roubaix winner, but he was of the ‘firm but fair’ school.
PEZ: And the ‘sergeant majors’?
Hilaire Van Der Schueren, who’s at Wanty for sure was strict; Tom Breschel who’s Matti’s dad and was in charge at the Danish Caprinordic team – and Jacques Hanegraaf at Unibet, he was a stickler and no one messed with him.
PEZ: You worked with Radio Shack – did you encounter Mr. Armstrong?
No, I used to do the Tour of Austria which ran concurrently with the Tour de France. I was with them on races like Gent-Wevelgem and De Panne but our paths never crossed.
Rubbing RadioShack legs
PEZ: And you’ve worked with Mahieu Van Der Poel a fair bit.
I moved back to England in 2010, but Christophe Roodhooft at Beobank Correndon asked me over to work at training camps and races with the team in 2016. Everything moved up a gear in 2017 and I wasn’t sure I wanted to make the commitment to be on the road so much. But Mathieu is a lovely guy, very calm, relaxed, I never saw him once get angry about anything – he had fantastic legs to work on.
Working with VDP
PEZ: What’s the commonest problem you have to work on?
Apart from crashes, lower back and shoulders in stage races, repetitive strain problems – and a lot of guys like their feet to get worked on.
PEZ: Which team were you happiest at?
Unibet in 2007, the team was like a big family, I was a bit of a rarity back then, an English guy on a WorldTour Team.
PEZ: But you’ve defected to soccer now?
Yes, Notts County, some days I was traveling 270 days, too much, from training camps in Benicassim in January through the Tour Down Under right up until October. The soccer means I’m based in England and like cycling there’s a lot of history to the sport that you’re not aware of until you’re on the ‘inside.’ And I have to say that as a staffer, you get better treatment in soccer than you do in cycling. . .