September 28, 2010

Two Perspectives

His legs turning over fluidly, my teammate appeared effortless compared to his rivals. They hung over their handlebars; ragged and limp like old cloth dolls. Their bodies lacked the potency to contest for the victory.  Riding alongside him, I was panting, as he breathed rhythmically. As we crested the climb, the time gap to the breakaway was announced. It was several minutes ahead of us. Our directeur sportif soon ordered my flying teammate to ride on the front in pursuit. As we moved forward to begin riding in the wind, I asked him how he felt. “Really good.” Could he win? “I think so.” Throughout his career he had ridden as a domestique. And now, with the legs to win, he was asked to once again ride in pursuit.

The directeur, working with the knowledge he had, made his decision. Based on the riders’ knowledge, it was the wrong decision. I dropped to the back of the peloton, spoke with the directeur, explained the situation, and he changed the plans. My teammate ended up winning a stage and finishing second overall. From the team car, the directeur sees little of the race and relies on instinct, experience and the scant information he receives over the radios.

While recently sidelined by injury, I had the opportunity to sit in the team car through most of the Montreal Grand Prix. The experience was eye opening as the race within the caravan is entirely different. During a race we, the riders, have a limited and singular view of the caravan. We return to the caravan for bottles and food, pass through it when we are dropped, use the cars’ slipstreams to chase back on to the peloton and drop back to the cars with mechanical problems. High expectations are placed on the directeurs as they must react to our movements. Cyclists assume they have the right-of-way in the caravan and usually we do. It is said that with experience we become acrobats on our bikes. In turn, the directeurs become magicians behind the wheel, as they seem to narrowly avoid tragedy dozens of times during a single race. Their skills are impressive. In a hilly race their senses are constantly engaged as the peloton splinters into groups and suffering riders weave through the cars in an attempt to return to the front.

With the stream of information flowing over the team’s internal radios, the mobile-phone, the race radio and, often, a dash mounted television the directeurs harvest all they can about the race ahead. But, visually at least, they lack what we sense within the bunch. From the car, they see riders fighting to hold on at the back of the peloton, which bunches up and thins out with each corner or change in speed. They see the medical car, the commissaire’s car, the other team cars, and the riders who come off the back.

As riders are dropped, it is easy to see those who are resigned to their fate and those who try to change it. The neopros battle with a rookie’s desire, emptying themselves to hold on until their bodies give out. The veterans, who know their bodies, their abilities and their jobs within the team, pull over when their job is done to save themselves for the next battle. From the car, it is quickly evident which category every dropped rider fell into.

The race looks easy from the car. Speed is muted. On a bike you feel as though you’re in flight at 60 km/h. while in a car it has hard to tell the difference between 50 and 60 since both seem slow in comparison to the speeds at which cars travel on highways. Watching my teammates from the car I could no longer sense the pain and exhaustion. Within it, all perspective is changed. I constantly had to remind myself what it was like to be on the bike because, without seeing the pain-induced grimaces, it seemed like they could go faster. From the roadside, I had a better gauge of the race’s difficulty as I could momentarily see their faces and sense the speed.

The experience in the team car will change the way I race. It will make me more patient when I am in need of help from the team car, as I’m now conscious of the almost relentless chaos the drivers in the caravan must deal with.

If we are to continue to rely on radios to communicate between riders and directeurs it is crucial that communication is honest, clear and concise. Too often the radio reception is sketchy and infrequent. Races are lost because we rely too much on the directives from the car and not enough on clear communication. And, the riders should rely more on their instincts and on experienced leaders.

The most effective teams are those where the riders know their abilities, are mutually respectful, commit, communicate and don’t depend on the orders. Having ridden in the team car, I now more clearly understand what transforms a good team into a great one.