Road Cycling News

Massage, Mark Cavendish and team morale: Mario Pafundi on being a soigneur with Team Sky

Team Sky’s operation at the Giro d’Italia stretches far beyond the riders selected, with a small army of directeur sportifs, mechanics, drivers, chefs and soigneurs working behind-the-scenes to ensure each rider can focus solely on doing battle on the road.

Food is prepared and labelled at the start of the day ahead of the stage

Mario Pafundi, an Italian, is among five Sky soigneurs tending to the riders’ every need at the first Grand Tour of the season, preparing food, making beds, washing cars, cleaning kit and massaging tired limbs.

Recent Giro d’Italia routes have been labelled inhumane by some riders and the organisers’ determination to take the race over the country’s steepest climbs and along it’s narrowest roads has made it among the toughest on the calendar, not only for the peloton, but also  the backroom staff.

“The Giro d’Italia is hard because you start early in the morning and finish late at night,” said 33-year-old Mario. “The territory makes it harder to get to the hotels. It’s not because of the organisation, but because of the territory of Italy. In France you have a lot of motorways but in Italy we have a lot of traffic and small roads – and nobody has any patience.”

A typical day at the corsa rosa starts at 7am, when the soigneurs prepare food and drink for the riders to keep them fuelled through the stage ahead, but while his colleagues then head off to follow the race, Mario sets off for the team’s next hotel.

The marginal gains philosophy that helped Great Britain’s cyclists to eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympic Games has been mirrored at Team Sky and for Mario that means preparing the riders’ beds to ensure a good night’s sleep after a tough day in the saddle.

Team Sky transport a mattress, duvet, sheets and pillows between every hotel for each rider to ensure a comfortable and consistent night’s sleep, while rooms are hoovered and cleaned to make sure they’re dust-free.

“I need to make sure that everybody is comfortable, so they can relax after the race,” said Mario.

Once the riders return to the hotel, each is given an hour’s massage by their assigned soigneur before more serious injuries are taken care of by the team’s physio or doctor. Time on the massage table provides the opportunity for riders to unwind, or it can act as a sounding board after a stressful day’s racing.

A soigneur helps to look after a rider's every need

“In the evening it’s important to have a good chat with the riders and we try to be close to everyone,” said Mario. “We try to keep everyone happy because it’s important that everyone’s in good emotional condition.

“At the Giro and the Grand Tours it’s not like working in an office where you work for eight hours and then you can go home to your family and forget about work. Here we’re eating together, we’re working together, we’re laughing together – we spend all of our emotion together. We have to make sure a rider’s morale is high so they are in the best condition to perform.

“At the end of the day our boss, Dave B, will talk to the team at dinner and have a good word for everyone to keep our morale up on a bad day or to say thank you if we have a good day. It’s important for us to follow the leader.”

Mario joined Sky at the team’s inception in 2010 while before that he worked for Barloworld with two of Sky’s current Brit Pack, Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome, whose relationship with Mark Cavendish ensured the Manx Missile was a familiar face when he joined the team this year.

“Mark is a very sweet guy with a big heart,” he said. “He never forgets about the staff and he tries to thank all the people working for him.

“He has one result, just one – to win. It’s difficult to put yourself in his shoes when he has to think: ‘Today I have just one result – to win’. We need to understand when he’s under stress, like in Denmark when he crashed, but he never loses the opportunity to say thank you to everyone. He’s a very good guy.”

Mario had been a soigneur for ten years, leaving behind an early career as a professional rider, where he learned sports massage alongside time in the saddle, to follow what he calls his passion. And after a decade in the job, Mario points to the demand for social media and the Internet as the single biggest change he’s noticed among the riders he cares for.

Keeping team morale high is vital and Mario takes his lead from Dave Brailsford

“The first thing the riders ask for when they get to the hotel is the internet code – and then the room key,” he said. “That’s most important for the riders because they have a lot of followers on social media and it allows them to relax. They can chat to their girlfriend or wife, or they can see the baby, like Cav will see Delilah on the video call.”

But while technology has developed at a pace, the Giro d’Italia remains constant, entwined in cycling and Italy’s history, and the race holds a special place in Mario’s heart.

“I remember from when I was a kid that when the Giro d’Italia passed through a little town, the mayor would close the school so the kids could see the riders,” said Mario.

“We never forget that cycling is the sport where nobody has to pay for a ticket. Nobody has to book a ticket to see the race, you can just jump on the road and shout at the riders. Football is still the most popular sport in Italy, but cycling is the people’s sport.”

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