Matt Rabin, chiropractor for Cannondale-Garmin and the Slipstream team’s various guises since 2008, is the kind of man who instills faith in his clients. Some go to extraordinary lengths to benefit from the healing hands of Rabin.
Former Garmin pro Christian Vande Velde was at his wits’ end back in 2007 with longstanding biomechanical problems stretching back over several years of his career.
One session from Rabin and he was convinced. “He said ‘I don’t know what you did, but it made a huge difference,’” says the Londoner, co-author of newly-released book The Pain-Free Cyclist. “Four or five times over a six-week period, he would fly over from Girona, I’d treat him, then he’d fly back again.”
Namibian Dan Craven, with small-scale Continental outfit Bike Aid in Germany at the start of 2014, was another to entrust the treatment of his undiagnosed issues to Rabin, making flying visits to London to get his career back on track. Within months, the generously-bearded African signed with Europcar and rode his first Grand Tour, the Vuelta.
Talking through an athlete’s history to find the underlying cause behind their issues will often take up more time that the treatment itself. Rabin identified a virus Craven contracted at the Tour of Qinghai Lake in 2009 as being the possible start of his up-and-down performances in the five intervening years. That’s a lot of background information to cover.
“The more I get to know an athlete, the more I can assess ways that I can help them,” says Rabin. “There is a lot of talking – I can go in and work blind without that information – but it really helps them to understand what it is I am doing. Some of the things I do can appear quite subtle to the untrained eye.”
Having experienced some McTimoney chiropractic sessions myself, I can attest to the subtle nature of the work. A series of miniscule glancing blows up and down my spine was a world away from the crunching and wrenching I had nervously anticipated entering the room. It was hard to see what benefit this barely noticeable treatment could possibly have. But two sessions and a set of regular exercises later, I was sorted. And a convert. Trust is key here.
“An osteopath who I look up to a good deal – and it has been a massive help to me in my career looking after athletes – told me: ‘Before you can buy the message, you’ve got to buy the messenger,’” Rabin says. “When you treat somebody, leave your ego at the door; do your best and don’t invest in the outcome. If you get fantastic results, don’t think that you are amazing, but that you were lucky enough to have the tools in your toolbox to address that situation.”
And Rabin’s toolbox is, as Paul Sherwen might say, an ever-deepening suitcase of knowledge: “My remit has always been to continue learning, even now; to increase my ability to assess and treat. Every time I encounter a new patient, I learn something from them, and that’s what I find fascinating.”
Rabin also works with top-level professional footballers. Cyclists love to make out how soft footballers are compared to road racers. But the ribbing goes both ways, he says.
“I get a lot of stick about cycling, from the players and the staff. My riposte is always: go in that gym on a Wattbike at 300W and try and sit there for 15 minutes. Any given pro rider will do that for five hours. Or try and do three minutes at 440W. Brad [Wiggins] will do that for an hour. Then they get it.”
I wondered what the commonest complaints were in the riders he treats: backs, knees and necks?
“You have pretty much hit the nail on the head, the reason being that the position a cyclist puts themselves in for hours on end is not natural.
“I look at them on the bike, but there is too much emphasis placed on the bike fit. I agree that it is important to get within the parameters of a bike fit, but my belief is that the human body is quite adaptable, so if you are in the ballpark, you should be able to get the body to work properly. Fix the body and everything else will be resolved.
“A lot of pro cyclists, their biomechanics are out, no matter what you do. If you had a Ferrari, you’d take it out to drive for a few thousand miles a year, keep it wrapped up in the garage, make sure it is serviced regularly – you look after it. As an elite athlete, you need to have your body maintained too.”
That said, Rabin has noticed an improvement in the awareness of cyclists regarding injury prevention during his decade in the sport. Foam rollers, core strength work and stretching are now considered essential parts of a rider’s training programme, pros and amateurs alike. It was not always the case.
After finishing his sickeningly healthy-looking chai latte (good to see a man who practices what he preaches) while I'm on my second double espresso of the morning, Rabin will head off for his stint on the first half of the Tour de France. At the ultimate high-pressure bike race, what does the Cannondale-Garmin chiro do to keep his boys on the road?
“It’s a three-week race, the hardest in the world. Everyone is fit, everyone is ready, everyone’s stress levels are through the roof. So it’s basically managing that degradation in their biomechanics through the three weeks. If you can get nine riders to Paris, injury-free, feeling good, it’s a big success. We have done that once or twice. The last thing you want to see is a rider developing an injury during a race and having to abandon because of that. That would be pretty sad.
“If you can get the right care, the right management, the right approach – and that is everything from good massage, to what I might do, to what a physio might do – everyone pulling in the same direction, it’s amazing what you can do. It’s all about getting on the start line each day and resetting the button.
“I can get a lot of work done in the few days before the race starts, but once we get going, it is full-on. I try and get my work done before dinner. But on the Tour, it is virtually impossible. Okay, you might not see all nine riders every night, but you might see six or seven.”
All of which, combined with a healthy private practice, explains why Rabin and co-author Robert Hicks’ new book took a while to complete. The Pain-Free Cyclist is a potentially dry and complex self-help manual made simple: user-friendly, practical advice for prevention, treatment and rehab. It works.
A nice touch is Rabin’s interviews with pro riders – some household names, some not so much – recalling those ‘float’ days when everything felt great: uplifting stories to give the reader something to aim for. Having Bradley Wiggins as a client, he seemed a good place to start.
“When I talked to Brad, he came up with two straight away: the yellow jersey time trial in 2012 at Chartres. And the Olympic time trial. I said tell me about it. He said: ‘It was amazing!' I said, no. Tell me about it.
“And it came to life, everything flowed from him. Cadel Evans was great too. You can’t read them without the hairs on the back of your neck standing up.”
The Pain-Free Cyclist is published by Bloomsbury