Archive for the Racing Category

August 26, 2010

Racing In Quebec

On September 10 and 12th two ProTour races will be held in Quebec City and Montreal. (www.protourquebecmontreal.com) The circuits, which wind through the city centres are hilly and hard. In 1974 the World Championships were held in Montreal on roughly the same 12 km circuit which we will race on in a few weeks. The major difficulty on the course is the climb up Mont Royal– a tough ascent which shadows the city centre. We will climb it 16 times.

In 1974 Eddy Merckx dominated and won the race. The World title was the final race he needed to achieve the triple crown of cycling: victories in the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and World Championships. In 1976 the same course was used for the Olympic Road Race and then through the late 80′s and early 90′s Montreal held a yearly pro men’s World Cup. Through the 90′s, and until last year, the city hosted the Women’s World Cup on the Mont Royal circuit.

As I was looking through the piles of photos my father has from a lifetime in cycling I found a few he and a friend, Gil Smith, took at the Worlds in Montreal. Some of the pictures are from the track events and some are from the road race.

August 23, 2010

Bite The Dust, Then Reach For The Stars

In the moment everything seems lost. I skidded along the ground, sliding on the tarmac as if I were seated on a sled but with only a thin layer of Lycra between skin and rock. The initial impact was brusque and jarring — similar to what a driver feels when rear-ended by another car. Then came the impacts every professional rider expects: Riders crashed into me from behind, colliding with my torso as if a thug was kicking it with fury. The riders whom I had crashed into, who were on the tarmac before me, would have felt the same impact.

For months, we had all trained meticulously, sacrificed, dieted and focused to be ready. A slick road, a nervous rider, a careless maneuver can end a dozen riders’ goals. Seeing riders fall in front of me, I feared it could be over. The fear is momentary.

On the ground, I feel the burn of torn skin. But before I look at the damage my body has sustained, I am looking for my bike. I get up, realize it is broken, look for the mechanic who is running towards me with my spare bike, adjust my torn jersey and prepare to climb back on. A dozen riders around me do the same.

The team cars have stopped in the middle of the road, unable to pass due to the crash, as the directors and mechanics look through the bodies and bikes to find their riders. A few lay on the ground holding their arms or shoulders while bleeding profusely. Their faces grimace with pain. From past experience I know that I will see most of them back in the peloton in half an hour. Riders will continue with broken, pummeled, bleeding bodies. Their will is too formidable to give. The sacrifice to prepare for the race has been too concentrated to resign to the pain of injury.

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July 10, 2010

The Times

A quick photo taken on an iPhone after the stage 3 finish in Arenberg–a hard day on the dusty cobbles.

In addition to my site, I have begun writing a column for The Times of London. It will continue through the end of the race, and I encourage you to take a look.

July 3, 2010

Team Sky Living The Dream

The team of eight riders singled into a line in front of me as we entered the cobbles. As the surface changed from smooth tarmac to uneven stone with patches of grass growing in the gaps, our bikes shuddered and our bodies shook.

In that moment we lifted our speed like a driver might suddenly accelerate on a sinuous mountain road as he feels the thrill and anticipation of a challenge. In racing and training, we are constantly pushing ourselves both mentally and physically to not only improve and win, but also because we are thrilled by the challenge and love to ride.

Prior to the Tour de France, the nine riders who would be competing in the race pre-rode the cobbled sectors we will race over on the third stage. Rural cobblestone roads punish a cyclist leaving him with blistered hands and sore muscles. Despite the discomfort, the team was inspired as we bounced over the stones. Like the mountains we will climb, the ancient roads are monuments in the sport of cycling. The great champions who have ridden, suffered and won on the roads have created the history, which inspires nearly every cyclist whether professional or a tourist.

Cycling’s rich history

Cycling is not only about the victory but also about the journey. The more challenging the journey is, the more fulfilling the achievement. With an understanding of the sport’s rich history that sense of achievement becomes more profound. After riding, the second sector of cobblestones, Bradley Wiggins, our team leader, looked over to me as we rode along and said: “I forgot how much I love riding the cobbles. It is a fantastic feeling.”

Bradley hadn’t ridden the cobblestones since the spring of 2009 when he rode the one-day Classic Paris Roubaix. We chatted for a few minutes about what the cobbles mean to cycling and how few Tour de France contenders now ride the early season Classics for fear of crashing. Decades ago, the sport’s icons rode all the major Classics and won. It was evident he wanted to be among them.

Brad has an encyclopedic memory for cycling history. Like me, he has absorbed everything relating to cycling he could since he was a young boy. Not only is he a Tour de France star but he is also a fervent fan. Amongst a generation of young riders who disregard the history of the sport his passion is unique. He understands that we are all a part of something greater.

Flecha leads the way

Over the cobbles Juan Antonio Flecha led the team, with Bradley tucked tight in his draft. Flecha is a Classics star. Yet his story is exceptional as he is one of the few Spaniards to ever shine on the cobblestones. His childhood dream was to race among the protagonists in the Classics and despite coming from a nation, which produces climbers who perform in the heat, he persisted with his goal and is now one of the top Classics riders. Despite spending his adolescence south of Barcelona, he floats on the Belgian and French cobblestones and attacks when a cold wind blows off the North Sea. Like Brad he knows that in every major pro race, he is part of something richer and greater than just a sporting event.

Our team is full of individuals who have that same passion. Dave Brailsford, our manager, raced in France as an amateur as did our coach Rod Ellingworth. Each of our directeur sportifs has raced professionally. The team has combined that passion for the sport with Formula One technology and resources to build an environment, which is not only nurturing and understanding, but and also well organized and structured.

As we begin the Tour de France there is an electric ambiance within the team. We are prepared, committed to our goals and relaxed but we are also excited as we appreciate and understand what the Tour means. Cycling is our profession but we are also living a dream.

June 8, 2010

Plan de Corones TT. Giro d’Italia 2010.

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.

May 13, 2010

Highs and Lows.

As the peloton of 198 riders crowded around the start line in Amsterdam there was an air of nervousness and excitement.

Crowds of people leaned over the steel barriers craning to see the peloton, Bradley Wiggins’ maglia rosa, and the under-dressed fashion models who pranced around the start line waiting to send us off.

As we stood on the cobbled street, anticipating the drop of the starter’s flag, some riders fidgeted, others slung their heads low on their bars and stared down at their front wheel, while others chatted inanely to avert their focus for a moment before the race began. The ambiance was as electric as that at the start of Paris-Roubaix.

First stages of grand tours are inevitably chaotic as every racer holds on to a thread of hope. Legs are fresh and every rider has a dream and a goal. As the race wears on those dreams evolve as some find a level of performance they hadn’t imagined while others come short of their goals and abandon their dreams.

With each passing stage, the nervousness in the group dissipates as the race progresses and riders find their place in the hierarchy. The race will become too hard to pretend or hide as the speed and course create a natural selection.

To professional cyclists Northern Europe is windy, flat, wet, and dangerous. The riders who thrive in the conditions are considered the hard men of cycling, as they seem to fear little but massive mountains. The Giro d’Italia is known for the scenery, nice weather, pleasant breezes, steep mountains, and coastal roads.

Riders who raced the Giro a decade ago speak of calm starts, where the peloton cruised along at leisurely speed, nobody attacking and everybody chatting. As the television audience tuned in the show began, and they attacked the last hour of racing with vigour.

Somehow, the descriptions of the race seem to mirror the Italian culture where people enjoy relaxing but also explode with passionate gusto at the right moment. With the globalization of the peloton the Italian way of racing has vanished and, like in every other race we ride, the peloton strikes the course from the first kilometer and doesn’t seem to relent until the finish. Having the Giro begin in Amsterdam was like mixing opera with Ska.

At the start in the Netherlands we all knew the racing would be physically and technically intense. From start to finish, we raced over dikes, roads barely wide enough for an SUV, and through tiny villages, which became a maze marked by traffic islands, poles, and roundabouts. There were few moments where we could relax or even take our eyes off the road ahead to glance over at the masses of people who lines the courses from start to finish. The Dutch, like the Italians, love cycling. In the Netherlands, like in Italy, the Giro brought a party of pink to each small town.

Our race began with a bang as my teammate Bradley stormed out of the gates in Amsterdam to convincingly win the first stage. Hearing him talk about the effort after the race provoked goose bumps on my neck. He was either going to win or crash. His focus and lucidity under pressure ensured he wouldn’t fail. He left everything on the eight-kilometer course and virtually collapsed at the finish.

The team was committed to defending his jersey. In the wind, we rode together in the front, split the peloton and made every selection until the final 10 km when we came crashing down. On both road stages in Holland, half of the team arrived at the bus scraped, bruised and bleeding but still in good spirits. The music blasted through the bus’ speakers, the boys sang along, we laughed at our bad luck and our focus changed to the future. We had fought a valiant battle, know we have the legs to continue the fight in the coming days and weeks, and realize that good morale will keep us buoyant and firing.

After racing a relentless 220 kilometers the peloton boarded buses for an hour-long drive to the airport where we then stepped onto planes to travel to Italy. Finally, at 11 PM the plane landed in Cuneo. Drummers and trumpeters greeted us and ushered the weary, worn and bandaged peloton into a massive tent where a thousand VIP’s waited for autographs and photographs. Starving after having not eaten since the finish we ate like animals as the VIP’s snapped photos. At 1 AM we boarded a bus with two other teams for the hour-long trip over tiny farm roads to our hotel. At 2:30 AM we were finally tucked into bed. We would be on our TT bikes in 12 hours.

May 6, 2010

Cutting The Grass In The Flowing Peloton

Like a crowd of thousands surging for a door, which has just opened into a stadium the riders in the peloton push, shove and panic as we near the cobbles. We all know that our position will determine whether or not we make it through the race.

Riders use every inch of the four-lane road on which we ride as they race for the head of the peloton. Some jump up on the sidewalks at 50kph, weaving through the spectators, skipping ahead of the chaos on the somewhat clear sidewalk. After weeks of racing in Belgian and French Classics we become accustomed to the surge. Risk is calculated and accepted. We become immune to the shocking sound of riders crashing and carbon snapping with each race.

The cameras shooting us from the helicopters above, or the motorcycles up front, can’t capture the intensity of the peloton. From their perspectives we appear to be flowing as one, like stream down a canyon. Several directeurs sportif have told me that only in a team car following the peloton you can feel the speed and witness the technical madness.

As the European cities have grown, towns have become increasingly congested making bike races harder to orchestrate. Twenty years ago there were few roundabouts, speed bumps or traffic islands. Now, as we enter towns, policemen’s whistles blast to warn us of the concrete islands sticking into the road with their short concrete stumps. We swerve around the parked cars but occasionally hear the terrifying thud of a rider slamming into the metal.

The races in northern Europe have a different intensity to those ridden later in the season. In northern European Classics, the racing demands constant focus.

Sometimes we are like rally car drivers as we wind our way through narrow farm roads dodging sign posts, spectators and cars. While later in the year we’re like alpine touring cars, flying through the countryside at a steady speed.

The Giro d’Italia, which I will start this week, will perhaps be a hybrid of both types of racing. This year we begin in Amsterdam and race south towards Italy. In Italy, we’ll race on the white gravel roads, which lie like a ribbon on the lush green Tuscan hills. In the Netherlands the peloton will face similar wind swept maze-like courses to those we rode on during the Classics.

Every rider knows that the three week race could be lost in a short few kilometers and every team director will remind his riders to be in front as we near the dangerous bits of road. In the weeks prior to the race teams were already planning for those moments. Races are won or lost in the panicked surge.

April 9, 2010

Paris-Roubaix Pre-Ride Video

Three days prior to the start of Paris Roubaix the team drove to the Arenberg forest to ride the course. From Arenberg it is roughly 100 km to the finish. Each of the 17 remaining cobbled sectors is separated by less than 10 km of tarmac. In Arenberg the race becomes relentlessly difficult—the 100 km that follow the forest are perhaps the hardest 100 km in professional cycling. The vibrations beat the cyclist’s body, his muscles are torn from the effort and his eyes burn from the dust.

The cobbles were relatively dry when we rode them although there were a few muddy sections where puddles had formed or tractors muddied the road. In the video, you can see the riders slipping and sliding on the slick sections. The crowds were already gathering in anticipation for Sunday’s race and the media was out to photograph the protagonists testing their legs and their equipment on the cobbles.

The countryside the course crosses is grim but comes alive for on race day. The video captures the fields that are open to the wind. The grey clouds which blow in from the North Sea look ominous. The spring air in northern France is damp and cold.

In an ironic twist we ended up finishing our ride with Saxo Bank, as we were both out on the parcours at the same time. There are few sports where rival teams will chat in training three days prior to the big event. In cycling, rivals are friends and there is a shared respect that somehow transcends the race. And, despite those friendships we will battle with them until the bitter end on Sunday.

April 5, 2010

Flanders, Paris-Roubaix

Here’s a gallery from the past few days. You will find a few pictures from before Flanders, and then the task of prepping tires for Roubaix.

March 29, 2010

Cobbles

While training on the Tour of Flanders course last week I rode with a helmet camera and captured some of the cobbled sectors. The camera came loose a few times so my teammate Juan Antonio Flecha edited the segments on his computer and we put together a short film . The team riding on the cobbles was: Juan Anotonio Flecha, Kurt-Asle Arvesen, Edvald Boasson-Hagen, Mathew Hayman, Greg Henderson, Ian Stannard and G’ Thomas. You can make out a few of the faces in the film. The rider who takes off on the cobbled section, the Holleweg, is Flecha–we rode the section quite quickly which the camera captures.

The camera doesnt come close to capturing the gradient of the cobbled climb though. It was neat to see commuters riding the cobbles in the other direction on their way to work–you can see a woman riding her city bike along the smooth bit of stones on the left side of the road coming towards us. Riding the course is something unique even when we are not racing. The history, the culture and difficulty brings out an excitement in the team not felt elsewhere.