Archive for February, 2010
As the winter Olympics unfold in Canada, I have been thinking about my past experiences at the Summer Games.
The experiences have made my life richer and others’ Olympic performances have inspired me as an athlete. But as I watch the Canadians race for medals in Vancouver, I realize how far the Olympics are from the vision and values of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympic movement. De Coubertin said, “The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” The Games aren’t what I had imagined as a child as I now realize they are now to focused on generating money.
Olympians are now a part of a massive industry, which masquerades as something greater, but is virtually no different than professional hockey, basketball or cycling. The main difference is that the athletes aren’t paid for their performances by organizations that make billions from them. Our images are tightly controlled during our participation so we can’t promote personal sponsors for fear they might compete with those endorsing the Games.
Yet, it is still an honor to race with my flag on my back as the essence of sport—to inspire– is still at the heart of any competition. The Olympics provides the largest stage, which gives the honor more weight.
Paralleling the results based values of the current Olympic culture, Canada has been supporting their athletes with a program named, “Own the Podium.” The name of the program is contrary to the Olympic ideals (and on some level very un-Canadian and too self-assured) as ‘owning the podium’ is something completely out of the athletes’ control as it is dependent on thousands of variables which are unknowns until race day.
Result focused programs can be detrimental as they stress athletes who fear failure by making predictions which are out of their control (an athlete can’t control the performances of competitors and therefore has no idea whether or not he/she will win a medal). Being our best is something we can control. If that is our sole focus, the fear of failure is eliminated. Pressure to control the uncontrollable variables also increases the odds that an athlete will cheat.
With millions of dollars to build a winning team, and all of the hype to go with it, the 1996 US Olympic cycling team choked when it counted. They arrived in Atlanta believing they had won. Yet, the meager Canadian team won more medals with a minute budget. (We traveled to the race from our training camp in Arkansas in the back of the Saturn team truck as we lacked vehicles—Steve Bauer, the team captain sat up front with our mechanic Fernando Tapia.) Clara Hughes told me after she won her bronze medal in the time trial that she opted not to wear a radio or be relayed the time checks of her rivals, as she just wanted to go out and simply do her best ride. Her ride was an admirable, inspiring and unforgettable moment.
My Olympic experiences have all been memorable and unique. While digging through my computer I found some photos from those Games. Here are a few of the memories along with some images:
The 1996 Games in Atlanta was my first experience. I was a naïve 20 year old who matured quickly during my first season of elite professional racing. Thankfully, Steve Bauer my teammate coached me through the summer, and the race, relaxing my nerves as I rode for the first time with the stars I had only read about in the glossy cycling magazines. It was Steve’s last race and my first international event. The road race around Buckhead, in central Atlanta, was the first time I had ridden with an 11-tooth cog (thanks to Fernando who loaned me a fancy pair of Team Saturn’s Mavic Cosmic race wheels). I remember looking down at my sprockets each time my chain spun it, thinking, “Holy shit, we must be going fast. I’m in the 11!”
Steve told me when to move up in the bunch and when to follow the attacks. His tactical instincts were acute and after following a few attacks I found myself bridging up to the winning breakaway with the protagonists. Tucked tightly in the draft we made contact with the leaders as they reached the foot of the climb. No longer able to sustain the effort, I was promptly dropped. I looked back—Steve was coming across alone. Sadly, I was completely blown and couldn’t help him. For a few minutes there were two lone Canadians stuck in between the break and the peloton. Steve didn’t make it to the break and we were both absorbed by the peloton. I followed a few more attacks (being away with Abraham Olano for a few kilometers was another great moment for me) and finished in the peloton.
After the awe of being at the Olympics wore off I was slightly disappointed and disheartened. It was far more commercial than I had imagined and inhospitable. To me, there was no sense of community in the chaotic yet tightly monitored village.
However, watching my teammate, Clara Hughes, win two medals was a thrill and inspiration. We had grown up together, had spent months together at training camps and had become close friends. Ending an unparalleled career on a bike and skates, she has just skated in her final Olympics in Vancouver on the oval and won a bronze medal in the 5000 m.
The 2004 Olympics in Athens was wonderful as I was able to share it with my wife, Dede, who is part Greek. We had spent the first years of our marriage training together so it was an extraordinary experience to share with her. In a peak of emotion, she accomplished a dream by winning a medal in the time trial and retired soon afterwards. In the road race, I had fantastic legs until 2 km from the finish. Using everything I had left, I attacked the peloton and was away alone with 5 km to go (ahead of me Bettini and Paulinho were racing for first and second) chasing bronze medal. Axel Merckx bridged across to me and we cooperated until my legs gave out with cramps on the final ascent to the flame rouge. I was caught under the 1 km to go banner by a charging Ullrich who stormed to the finish to set up his teammate Zabel for the sprint. Ugh.
The 2008 Games in Beijing were a cultural experience as the contrasts in wealth were shocking and unsettling. Despite the awkwardness of participating in an event surrounded by ethical question marks, I enjoyed the time with my teammates and felt good throughout the race. Thankfully, this time, my legs seized up after the finish line and I was able to finish in the top ten, five seconds from the front group. A highlight was riding around the city with Jason McCartney on rented city bikes the following day, as documented here in the NYT.
Professional teams organize training camps not only to increase the level of fitness but also to build the bond between teammates. Daily we spend hours together on our bike. On the road we chat while we cruise along, we tempt each other into races on the climbs, sprint for signs, ride in tight pacelines, practice our team trial training and, most of all, spend a lot of time getting to know each other as cyclists, as workmates, and as friends.
Almost each waking hour of the day is spent in the company of a team member. We share hotel rooms so even when we are asleep there is a teammate about two feet away in an identical single bed snoring away. It is at the camps we learn to live with each other, trust each other, and respect each other. And, where we learn to deal with each other’s quirks. There are few other working environments where people are together constantly for weeks—at all meals, during almost the entire day, and then in shared rooms.
A friend of mine who is a fireman told me the firefighters spend hours together, even when off duty, because when they’re deep in a fire they need to know they can trust and rely on their workmates to save their life. Although, we are only riding bikes, knowing a teammate, being confident that he is committed to the goal of the team and will sacrifice, makes the difference between winning and losing. And, it will also make the ride, the race, and the journey that much better. Which is why we are here, riding together as a team in Valencia.
Oddly, it is on the coldest days in the harsh weather that the bond grows strongest. When faced with adversity we push each other to get through it together, and in the end, that is what it is all about. Early in the week we were faced with lousy weather. We set out under cloudy skies, which soon opened up and became rain and then snow. Frozen we persisted. We stopped occasionally to fill our bottles with hot tea and our pockets with bars and cakes. A coach once told me, “You might as well get out in the bad weather and ride—you’ll have to race in it.” Our bodies adapt to the conditions—the hardest part is getting out the door and into the rain. As the hours wore on, we hammered away to keep warm and as we reached the fourth hour the skies cleared and we rode home on dry roads. When we completed the work, there was a sense of accomplishment within the group when we returned to the hotel.
The camp is not only intended for training and bonding but also gives us time to test new equipment, adjust our positions, and have the physios and doctors take care of any physical problems. While we rode, the coaches and technicians analyzed our performance, gave us the results, and provided advice on how we could improve. Team Sky has specialists in each specific aspect of cycling and if a question can’t be answered they’ll seek out advice from professionals beyond cycling. Nobody pretends they know every answer. The openness to new ideas not only allows the riders to improve but will also push the sport of cycling in a new, more progressive direction.
By this coming weekend, the team will be racing incessantly for the next eight months. Clearly, we will continue to build during throughout the year but it is now we must lay the foundation.
As we spend more time on our bikes than on our feet, professional cyclists can feel a millimetre of difference between bikes, shoes or cleat position. The team mechanics have some beautifully made custom jigs to align everything so our bikes or our shoes (each rider has a spare pair of race shoes in the team car) are identical.
Being a professional team mechanic is a trade in Europe. Mechanics start working with teams as apprentices when they are in their late teens and work until they retire. Most mechanics have a profound understanding and passion for the job which makes them meticulous. When we win they also feel a sense of accomplishment and share the victory with the team of riders. A champion will keep the same staff with him through his entire career. Few of Johan Bruyneel’s soigneurs or mechanics have shuffled around between teams as Johan tries to hold on to the staff he has confidence in and can trust. Geoff Brown, the Canadian mechanic who works for Radio Shack, began with Motorola before moving to USPS, Discovery and Astana worked on my bike for many years. Never once did I step on my bike and have a problem or worry that it would fail. Julien deVriese, Radio Shack’s head mechanic, has worked with everybody from Merckx to Maertens to Lemond to Armstrong. During Johan’s decade of dominance at the Tour de France they had few mechanical problems. DeVriese aged Lance’s Tour de France tubulars in a cellar for five years so the rubber was resistant to puncture while ours were aged for a few years. While at the races, they were checked daily for cuts and changed often. The team rode a whole Tour of Spain with only one flat tire. The details make the difference.
I will follow up with some more photos and videos of the mechanics and soigneurs at work from our camp this week.