Archive for the Racing Category
As we reach the town’s limits, the peloton dives off a four-lane road into a tight bend. Brakes screech. Our speed drops from 60 to 20 kilometers an hour. The peloton balloons then bottlenecks going into the corner. Over 200 riders funnel onto the narrow street and accelerate towards the maze of the city center. As the peloton files out of the bend, it has become one long ribbon. The line of cyclists will snake through the town, skimming signposts, jumping speed bumps, and bouncing over cobbles and tram tracks. Using blind faith, we follow the wheels of the riders ahead of us closely. The effort is exponentially harder for the riders at the back because of the elastic effect of the peloton. Some riders will be blurry eyed from the intensity. Tired, panicked, or both, riders lose focus. Inevitably, mistakes are made and crashes follow. Within the town, we hear the occasional shrill whistle from a road marshal at a roundabout. But few of the dangerous elements on the course are signaled. We rely on instinct and experience.
Cycling is inherently dangerous. We accept that we’ll race over cobbles, rub elbows in sprints and descend mountains at high speed. But most cyclists agree that crashes are now more frequent than they were just a few years ago. While we accept risks are part of our jobs, we shouldn’t accept conditions that are overwhelmingly dangerous and avoidable. Cycling doesn’t need to become an extreme sport to be intriguing, exciting and dramatic enough to captivate a television audience. A few simple changes could make them even more intriguing while minimizing the risk to the riders’ health and, indeed, their lives.
During this year’s Giro d’Italia few riders wanted to race up the Monte Crostis, a narrow mountain road with a steep dirt descent. The mountain was included in the course to create a spectacle. Monte Crostis is picturesque and I’m sure the images would have been dramatic. But it wasn’t worth putting the riders’ lives in danger. Most riders feared the descent. In response, the organizers placed snow fences at the corners in the hope that they would catch riders before they plummeted to the valley below.
Tragically, one of our colleagues, Wouter Weylandt, died on a technical descent on the second stage of the Giro, adding to our fear as Monte Crostis approached in the final 10 days of the race. The night before the stage, however, Monte Crostis was removed from the course. But it was not concern for the riders’ safety that ultimately brought the change. Rather it was complaints from the directeurs. The road up and down Monte Crostis was too narrow for team cars. Our health was secondary. Finally, the Giro organizers gave in to the race commissaires’ demand to eliminate the climb. But they were clearly disgusted and publically critical of the decision. The cyclists, like the animals in a dodgy circus, are just a part of the show.
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In the Giro we’ve had easier days, hard days and really tough days. Yet, the toughest days of the race, and perhaps of my career, will come in the next week.
Midway through the Giro d’Italia the wear of the race is evident. In the peloton riders are coughing and spitting as their weakened immune systems fight to battle bacteria and viruses. Others are covered in bandages and tape from crashes and injuries. A week ago we were fresh, healthy and strong. Every second counted and riders battled incessantly to be at the front of the peloton. The mountains had yet to crush dreams and sap the fight. Now, as we near the end of the second week of racing the riders, with realism, know their place in the peloton.
I’ve posted 5 SRM files below. The two mountain stages, Stage 7 and Stage 9, also include the descent down the mountain after the finish. The green line is power, speed is pink, cadence is blue, heart rate is red and brown is altitude. The average values for the day are on the top left of the screen with overall distance and energy produced at the bottom of the list.
The mountain stage to Etna was a hard day of racing as the peloton never settled into a steady rhythm but raced at a hard tempo from start to finish. The course was either up or down so we had little time to eat or drink, as we were either breathing intensely going uphill or concentrating and gripping our handlebars while descending. At the finish it was evident the day had been wearing. Many riders ran out of fuel on the final ascent while others struggled to hold the pace from the start of the stage and had to sprint for the finish line to make it within the time cut (riders who don’t finish within a certain percentage of the winner’s time are eliminated from the race). With roughly eleven kilometres to go on the stage, I was dropped from the front group and rode to the finish at a steady tempo to save energy for the next days.
The flat stage from Termoli to Teramo allowed the peloton to recover. Soon after the start, a small breakaway formed and the peloton chased at a steady speed. The finales of sprint stages are intense as the peloton swarms using every inch of the road as the finish line nears. In the uphill sprint I helped out our sprinter Davide Appolonnio who finished 5th.
The following stage to Castelfidardo was a tough day on difficult terrain. As the stage distance was relatively short and over relentlessly hilly countryside there wasn’t a relaxing moment. Again, the dropped riders had to race like mad to make the time cut while at the head of the race the speed was constantly high. Riders were either attacking or the peloton was chasing threatening breakaways. In the end, the stage came down to a group sprint. As we rode back to the bus after the finish line most riders were complaining of very sore legs.
The coming stages are those the peloton is fearing.
The course profiles we receive at the beginning of a race are often deceiving. The altimetry can be inaccurate, the maps sketchy and the distance off. And, we often deceive ourselves and think a stage is easier because there are few climbs. The toughest days are often those where we relax and assume the race will finish in a sprint but are then surprised by relentless short climbs, twisting roads and bad surfaces. The peloton inevitably thins into a long line and we sit uncomfortably on our saddles for hours, burning far more calories than imagined and accumulating more meters of climbing than calculated. The Massif Central in France is famous for its tough rolling terrain, rough tarmac and baking heat. The conditions on 6th stage of the Giro d’Italia from Orvieto to Fiuggi were similarly hard. Under the weight of the day’s racing the peloton splintered in the finale and roughly 80 riders sprinted for the line. In the sprint it was evident the riders were spent as it became a race of force instead of speed. Meters after the line, the sprinters collapsed in exhaustion.
My SRM file from the stage is posted below. The stages are usually quick for the first hour and then, once the breakaway forges a gap, the peloton settles into a steady rhythm in pursuit. With ten kilometres to go we ascended a five kilometre climb. At the top, I went to the back of the group, which was in a long thin line, with my teammate Kjell Carlstrom to bring our sprinter, Davide Appollonio, to the front so that he was in position for the sprint. My final effort of the day was a surge on the front of the group with two kilometres to go. Spent from the effort I sat up and rolled across the line while Davide sprinted to 5th place.
The stages in the Giro d’Italia are often technical. Fortunately, the organization provides fairly accurate profiles with detailed breakdowns of the climbs. Yet, a detailed breakdown in a book can’t fully prepare us for technical descents on gravel roads. The second SRM file I’ve attached is from the 5th stage to Orvieto. The finale 40 kilometres of the course took us over sections of white gravel roads. The peloton fractured into dozens of groups as soon as we reached the roads as riders came to a standstill on the dirt climbs and crashed on the descents. It was clear which riders had experience riding on gravel. Unfortunately, I crashed just before we reached the gravel so I spent the rest of the race chasing to regain contact with the front of race. The SRM files give an idea of the effort required on a rolling stage in the Giro. I’ll post some more files as the race goes on. The mountain stages should be interesting.
When we crested the summit of the final climb and began the descent I was on familiar roads. Our tires, pumped harder for the faultless Swiss roads, hummed as we flew down the mountain. On the flatter roads that hugged the shore of Lac Léman we sped along at over 50 km/h. As I rode on the front of the peloton the landmarks and sites we passed sparked the occasional flash of an old memory. Fifteen years ago, when I was an amateur racing for a team from Annemasse, a suburb of Geneva across the border in France, I had ridden and raced on the same roads. I was a neophyte in a foreign land with the goal of becoming a professional.
Once a week, on my easy training days, I would ride into Geneva and stop at a lakeside café. As I sipped on a coffee I’d daydreamed while watching the jet d’eau spray its fine mist across the harbor. I pictured myself one day finishing a professional race in the city centre. The images in my mind were glamorous and glorious. The reality is different.
The final stage of this year’s Tour of Romandie finished 200 meters from where I had been sitting fifteen years ago. Our team controlled the finale perfectly for Ben Swift, the sprinter. With an impressive burst of speed he won convincingly.
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Three days prior to the start of the Giro d’Italia the team got together in Turin for a few days of training. The opening stage of the Giro was a team trial so it was important we become accustomed to riding with one another in formation and refine our technique. Bobby Julich, who is a coach with the team and was a time trial specialist and Olympic Medalist, was there to guide the team and give us advice. During the race he sat in the passenger’s seat of the team car and relayed all of the key course information to us over the radio.
To me, the TTT is one of the most beautiful events in cycling as it not only requires complete sacrifice from every rider but also selflessness. To ride fast everybody needs to be constantly thinking of their teammates as any sharp acceleration, poorly taken corner, or bump in the road can have a detrimental effect on the whole squad. Rhythm, fluidity and a constant steady speed will ensure that a team carries the momentum to travel as fast and efficiently as possible. It is also the only event where the whole team can stand on the podium together and celebrate the victory.
Here are a few photos of the team training before the start of the Giro d’Italia.
Like a river’s current carrying a stick, I float in the middle of the peloton. We speed through towns, over hills and across the plains. As we near the finish, our momentum becomes a torrent. I pedal almost effortlessly, as the slipstream drags me along. The eight riders on the front of the peloton of 200 riders share the workload in the wind, dragging us along like a locomotive. But even the select group at the front look for the slipstream of the cars and motorbikes ahead. The wind is the racer’s nemesis.
Winning a Classic means minimizing the amount of time spent in the wind. In the first hours of the race, a winner will rely on his team’s protection to save every watt for the key attacks during the finale. In a race where over 6,000 calories will be burned, every rider is on the limit and every watt counts. Cyclists save.
Largely invisible to the television audience, there is a motorcade of cars and motorcycles at the head of the race. They capture us on video, ensure the road is closed to traffic and referee our movements. Although the vehicles aren’t directly in front of the group, they nevertheless create a slipstream for peloton, which increases our speed, reduces our workload and, from time to time, changes the outcome of the race.
During the finale of a race, the protagonists will attack into a crowd of motorcycles. On the key pavé sectors of a Classic, or in the high mountains where the roads are narrow, the motorcyclists fight for position so their photographer-passengers can capture the pivotal moment. As they jostle for position and split the crowds of spectators, they are only meters in front of the lead riders. An attacker, a breakaway and a team who is chasing will all race for the motos’ slipstream to increase their speed. It is a part of the race we all accept. But, when drafting is prolonged rivals cry foul.
It isn’t only the motorbikes and cars, which disturb the air. The television and police helicopters, which circle above the peloton create turbulent air when then hover low altitude. Sometimes, the strength of their choppy downwash virtually brings us to a standstill and causes crashes. After the 1984 Giro d’Italia, the Frenchman Laurent Fignon protested that he had been robbed of the overall victory. Fignon felt that the organizers had manipulated the result of the dramatic and decisive final time-trial, so that his Italian rival Francesco Moser would win the overall classification. He protested that the television helicopter, which hovered directly behind Moser for the entire length of the stage, had created a down-force that literally pushed him to the finish.
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At first, my cycling world was the length of the gravel driveway. After I rode up and down it countless times and gained experience, my parents allowed me to move up to the sidewalk. While retired neighbors watched from their porches, I raced my friends along its stretch of concrete until we knew every crack, diversion and driveway. At the end of the summer day, the grey concrete was marked at either end with long, black skid marks. As the sun dipped behind the row of houses, parents hollered “dinner” and we had one last final sprint for the garage.
As I grew older, my limits were again extended. Our skills increased, we gained confidence, we raced around the block, stopped to check out anthills and garage sales. We were constantly discovering. We could escape into our own world where we had independence and freedom. On our bikes, there was a sense of liberty. Exploring the world broadened our horizons and developed our maturity.
The bike took me everywhere.
Our experiences weren’t unique but perhaps they were rare. Despite living in a large, diverse city, few of my classmates had seen much beyond our gentrified neighborhood. After class, I was riding through the suburbs and into the countryside.
The bike continues to take me to places I never imagined I would travel. And, even the local routes I ride evolve daily, never becoming mundane. Within the silence of a dormant forest in the winter to the electric buzz of a vibrant coastal town in the midsummer our senses are constantly engaged in a diversity of contrasting stimuli. The emotion I felt on a bike as a young boy hasn’t dissolved with maturity. It’s what keeps me riding.
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From the drop of the flag I felt right. After five days of racing at the Tour Med in southern France, my body was adapting to the effort after months of off-season training. Like a musician who has just joined an orchestra, my transition back into the group wasn’t immediately harmonious. On the last stage, I noticed a change in my physique had occurred: I had gone from rider to racer. In any transition there is a moment where the change is marked and noted before it is accepted and becomes familiar. I had found the rhythm of the race.
After two solid weeks of racing at the Tour Med and Volta ao Algarve in Portugal, the unique sensations racing had returned. My legs ached from the stress of the workload and the repeated attacks and accelerations. My lungs felt ripped from the rapid and fierce exchange of oxygen. The wheel in front, the finish line ahead and the surging speed of the peloton allow us, force us, to drive our bodies in ways we can’t simulate in training. The grimace of pain on a cyclist in a race is unique. We dig in, hold on, and push the pedals and the wind until we see tears, then stars.
The stimulation of a race is unparalleled in any training session. Races condition the body to produce the required power to attack up a climb or into the wind.
In February the peloton lacks the fluidity it will develop as the season gains momentum. Riders seem uncomfortable with the chaotic surges and lulls. Many overreact or take uncalculated risks. Training alone or in small groups during the off season has dulled our skills in the peloton. Within the group there is a jittery nervousness as everybody is keen to prove themselves, eager to race and full of vigor after the off-season. The weight and fatigue of a season of racing has yet to set in.
We have returned to the routine of the nomadic cyclist. Suitcases are packed daily. Racing from town to town we live in a world of industrial park hotels, buffets, intermittent internet connections and long distance phone calls. In the evenings, we’ll walk around the car park to digest the feast, breath cleaner air, note the temperature, and talk about the past race and those ahead. Before returning to our single beds in a shared room, we’ll tell stories from the race as the mechanics lock up the truck for the night. The days, which are broken down into a structured schedule, pass quickly. The gaps in the schedule are filled with moments of relaxation where we hope our bodies will recover: the bus ride to and from the race, the half hour after breakfast before we leave for the race, the massage, and the evening hours where we can converse before we doze off.
The mental adaptation to the race is instantaneous. Although we’ve been away from the environment for months we settle like schoolboys returning to class after summer break. I find my place in the peloton, where the chat takes place in over a dozen languages. After a lifetime at the races it is all familiar: the aroma of the embrocation on legs, pinning toxic smelling new race numbers to the jersey, the voice of the M.C. as he introduces the peloton to the spectators who hang over the barriers waiting for our arrival or departure. The surrounding environment is never constant but there are things in the peloton that haven’t changed in decades.
But the peloton’s approach to gaining fitness has changed. Twenty years ago riders would ease into the season, letting the fat gained through the off-season melt in the races, which were slow and controlled. Now, every team is eager to make an impact early so we arrive at the first race lean and in shape. The average speeds through the season remain constant. For those who haven’t trained properly through the off-season, there is no mercy. Every finish line counts.
This year we will each race roughly 90 days. We know our roles, strengths, skills and weaknesses. The routine is the same but in our constantly changing environment nothing else is static. On the bike, our lives are uniquely colored and never mundane.