Archive for June, 2010
The month prior to the Tour de France, Team Sky organized a small training camp in the Alps and Pyrenees for us to ride in the high mountains while also previewing some of the key Tour de France mountain stages. For us, Brad Wiggins, Steve Cummings and me, the camp also provided us with a good training block as we had been recovering from the Giro d’Italia and required a few good days of training to kick-start our fitness again. In the five day camp we rode roughly two or three key climbs every day. The set-up was ideal as we had a small group of riders, a support vehicle to follow us, and a camper to meet us on the mountain peaks. In the camper we could layer clothing for the descent and grab a quick coffee or tea to keep warm.
Our team coach planned the routes and organized the day while Sean Yates, our team director drove behind us. Pre-riding the climbs and breaking them down into sections is key, but it is just as important to know the run-in to the ascent and the technical aspects of the descent. Positioning before the climb is crucial while knowing the descent is also vital as time can be won or lost depending on how confident and comfortable a rider is in the corners.
Sean was known as one of the fastest descenders of his generation. When he was asked by a journalist why he became so good at descending he responded that he couldn’t climb so he learned to catch groups on the descents. He told us a story where he bridged a five-minute gap to the front group on a long Alpine descent. The Colombians he had dropped on the way down caught him ten kilometers up the next climb. To many of the guys on the team Sean is not only our directeur sportif but also a childhood idol. Since he retired he hasn’t gained an ounce and he still rides daily and looks the same on his bike as he did when he was winning in the Motorola colors in the early 90’s. His work ethic, and quality as a domestique, was remarkable. He is a hard man who simply loves to be on his bike.
The following video is of one of the numerous climbs we did during the camp. The climb is the Port de Balès, a beautiful ascent in the Pyrenees. The road leading into the climb cuts through gorges and winds its way through pastures before opening up to some of the most beautiful countryside I have ridden through. The descent is fairly technical and, as the stage will finish at the bottom, will influence the outcome of the race.
I was pedalling at a consistently higher tempo on the stationary trainer but my heart rate was not increasing at the same rate as three weeks before. Tired from one of the toughest races I have ridden, my heart no longer responded quickly to stimulus. Three weeks of weather extremes, challenging and varied courses, intense racing and nonstop travel were draining. Electronic music, blasting through my headphones and blocking out the noise of the whirling trainer, got my mind racing but failed to stimulate my legs. They ached as the pressure increased. My warm-up complete, I stepped off the trainer knowing the final time trial of the Giro d’Italia wouldn’t be an easy one.
Grand Tours are unique in every sense. No other sporting event is as taxing physically and mentally. During the three weeks we rarely relax as the pace of our lives is relentless. We seem to be in constant movement as we are never in one place long enough to fully unpack a suitcase or feel remotely settled.
The team lives in a bubble blown around the race environment. Stage numbers replace days of the week. Results pages replace newspapers. The race moves around the countryside as one. We escape the bubble momentarily when we walk outside the hotels in the evenings, step in a store, or turn on the television at night to catch a few minutes of the news. But, our thoughts never really leave the race. There’s always an imminent goal.
Then the tour ends and our bodies shut down. Accustomed to the rhythm and tempo of the race we learn to persist, and cope, mentally and physically within the race structure. Once that pressure is released an tiredness takes over. The week after the finish, I feel an overwhelming lethargy. Each step I take through town, or up a flight of stairs, seems laborious in comparison to the thousands of kilometres ridden in Italy.
To recover and rebound to a higher level, I let my body rest and eat well. I ride intermittently during the week following the race, to keep from completely shutting down. The rides are at a tourist’s speed and just as short. Afternoons become nap time.
A coach once suggested that I base my training on the mathematical sequence by the Italian mathematician Fibonacci (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fibonacci). If applied to training two days of hard training would require one day of recovery. Following the sequence, 21 days of stimulus requires thirteen days of recovery. From experience, I know it requires at least ten days for the body to regain its normal rhythm and for the desire to ride to return.
A Grand Tour etches the body. Friends who I haven’t seen in a month comment on my weight loss and the dark brown tan line. Like a tattooed punk, a fit professional cyclist looks out of place in a crowd of townspeople.
Racing reaches levels unobtainable in training. If a cyclist recovers carefully from a grand tour, he will be rewarded his finest form. The extremes of the race mentally and physically, make cyclists comfortable with the abnormal.
The rest worked. Nearly two weeks after the race, I can feel the power I’ve gained in my pedal stroke. The return of the sensation of flight is the moment to resume training with consistency and intensity.
The effects of a Grand Tour are sweeping. Efforts can be sustained for longer periods, climbs seem shorter and shallower and the bike moves in harmony with the body. With so many hours spent in the saddle in a period of a few weeks, it is on the bike that a fit cyclist feels most comfortable. In any other realm, we again feel displaced.
And, it is during the rebound in fitness that I will specify my training again to ensure it is pointed towards the next objectives. For a week, I will train in the Alps and then Pyrenees with two teammates to ride the key Tour de France stages. It will be a week, where we will rediscover the routine and almost singular focus of the cyclist’s life.
The 2010 Giro was the toughest, yet most exciting Grand Tour I have ridden, and I think from a spectator’s perspective probably one of the most thrilling in recent years. The race was a spectacle from start to finish. In the last two decades professional cycling has become formulaic and the Giro’s organization set out to create a race that cracked the formula. In recent years teams have figured out how to control the variables by eliminating the unknowns. the unknowns are what make cycling interesting, dramatic and thrilling, for both the cyclists and the audience. The courses have become predictable and the racing mundane.
Yearly, the Giro organization works to break that mold to form a spectacle. This year, they mapped a course, which was both challenging and entertaining. Daily, I knew I was racing a stage that I would one day recall fondly. Somehow, it seemed we were returning to cycling’s roots where unpredictably makes the race and provides the challenge. The unknown elements are what make a bike ride memorable.
The mountain time trial up to Plan de Corones is a ride I will forever remember. The ascent was tough but the last kilometre was the steepest bit of road I have ridden. We usually clip through the last kilometre in a minute, or less, but on the climb every pedal stroke was laboured and every meter counted. At the finish line, the views were spectacular. On the mountain peak at 2000 meters altitude we were surrounded by a wall of snow capped peaks and covered by a crystal blue sky. The descent off the peak in the cable car was equally memorable. Each of the riders sat in his own personal gondola, with his bike. The silence in the gondola was calming after the intensity of the crowds and the effort up the climb. For half an hour, I was able to reflect on the ride, the race, the Giro and absorb the beauty of the countryside.
I put together a helmet camera clip of the last 450 meters of the time trial. The camera, a Gopro HD, was mounted on the following motorcycle driver’s helmet. The music is by Paolo Conte and the song is “Bartali”–an tune about the Italian cycling icon Gino Bartali.