Archive for the Racing Category

March 26, 2010

Back In Belgium

The Tour of Flanders course is extremely technical and for riders who don’t live near the course and know the roads well, a reconnaissance ride prior to the race is vital . The fight for position before the cobbled sections is as crucial as a rider’s skills on the cobbles, as the peloton splits on the small roads due to bottlenecks and crashes. Most teams ride the final 100 km of the course prior to the race to preview the stones and find the smoothest and quickest line. We rode the course the day after Dwaars door Vlaanderen–a midweek semi-Classic.

Most of the boys were tired from a hard and well fought race while Edvald Boasson Hagen and I had fresh legs from a few days of rest post Milan Sanremo. The weather was abnormally warm for Belgium which made the countryside all the more beautiful. This weekend will be big: E3 Prijs-Vlaanderen-Harelbeke and Gent Wevelgem. The team is prepared for a tough battle–rain is in the forecast and the temperatures will drop.

March 23, 2010

A Recent Photo Tour

March 19, 2010

Cipressa Descent

My teammate Juan Antonio Flecha filmed the descent off the Cipressa with a helmet camera while we were out pre-riding the racecourse. The Cipressa and the Poggio are the two decisive climbs in Milan Sanremo where the descents are as important as the ascents as position and a rider’s ability to handle his bike often determine the outcome of the race.

Yearly, a rider crashes in the one of the numerous hairpin turns coming off the climb. The road surface is smooth and the climbs are in the final hour of the race so the speed will be high. Every rider is tired and on his limit from the distance and the intensity of the race so errors are made and splits in the peloton occur. When the peloton reaches the coast road after the descent off the Cipressa the peloton will be in a long thin line and will often split near the back of the group as riders are unable to maintain the speed.

March 5, 2010

Classics

The Classics punish the riders, the bikes, the mechanics, team vehicles and soigneurs. The roads, the weather, and the intensity of the races drain teams. Each team prepares in its own way to deal with the wear of the races.

The Classics bikes are designed for comfort and practicality with frame clearance around the tires for mud, larger tires are used, special clothing is designed, team car suspensions are customized, wrists are taped, handlebars are padded, thicker chamois are fitted, and anything that can increase performance, comfort and durability is considered. The extremes of the Classics push the human and the bicycle.

Last weekend, in Het Volk and Kuurne Brussels Kuurne, we started the spring cobble campaign. As it was our first time back on the cobbles after almost a year away from the north our directeur sportifs, Scott Sunderland and Steven de Jongh flew us in a day early to preview the course.

Pedaling over the cobbles in training is entirely different to the race. While training, we don’t force like we do in the races, and therefore feel the bumps. At speed the bikes float over the stones with a unique fluidity. Tire pressure, tire diameter, and quality make a significant difference in performance. With low pressure the rider has more traction, the bike doesn’t bounce but floats beneath him, which also eases the wear on his body while also reducing punctures. Finding the right pressure is key as the bike must also perform well on the tarmac—too low a pressure only slows the rider on smooth surfaces. The other factor the mechanics consider when pumping the tires is how much air they lose during a six-hour race. Most tires lose a bar or two of pressure so they are pumped harder at the start of the race in expectation for the loss.

We have been testing several different tires. For the opening weekend I rode on FMB Roubaix tires—handmade cotton tires from northern France—, which were glued on to 32 hole rims and laced to Dura Ace hubs. The wheels handle incredibly well on the cobbles—personally I prefer the ‘classic’ aluminum wheels to the carbon rims although Flecha rode a carbon Shimano 35 to victory. I think a lot is dependent on the rider’s height, size and riding style.
The team has prepared a unique truck for the mechanics and soigneurs. Often, there is foul weather during the early part of the season and the mechanics suffer while working outdoors on the bikes in the pouring rain. So, the team has bought two trucks with pop-outs, which allow the mechanics to work on the bike indoors. They have a television, music and everything else a normal workshop might have so they can focus on the job instead of worrying about frozen hands and feet. The soigneurs area is equally as unique with space to prepare our race food, storage for the massage tables, a fridge, washer, dryer and everything else they need to take care of the team. Like our team bus, the truck is somewhere you actually want to hang out or work in, which in the end makes the long racing season much easier–comfort brings happiness, happiness brings performance.

February 26, 2010

Belgium

There is something in the air: The season of cycling.

We tested the wheels, bikes and legs on the cobbles today.

They’re ready.

We’re ready.

Juan Antonio Flecha’s juvenile demeanour has evolved into a veteran’s focus.

Cobbles, clouds, mud, embrocation, wind.

Tomorrow it begins.

February 26, 2010

The Games

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.

February 8, 2010

Photos from France: La Marseillaise, Etoile de Bèsseges.

October 10, 2009

Radio ga ga

During a time trial, riders used to depend solely on their memory of the pre-ride to gauge their speed through the corners and their effort on the climbs. Today, there is a constant relay of information coming back to the rider, so he knows how to approach a corner, how many kilometers he has left on a climb, exactly how far he has to the finish, and how his time compares to that of his rivals.

The director, with a coach’s eye, can tell a rider what gear to ride as well; he will tell him when to shift up or down depending on the rider’s apparent comfort and speed. Unaware of the change in his position, a time trialist, riding near his limits a time trialist will lose his form on the bike, creating more wind drag. The director will be in his ear to correct those errors.

And, of course, there is constantly a voice yelling encouragement, which can either refocus a rider, or make him irritably annoyed if the director is overly encouraging. Live television coverage, being broadcast in the team cars, gives the directors constant time checks, and also allows them to see exactly how the rivals are performing – how they look on their bikes and whether or not they will be a factor in the race. With radios, the time trial has been stripped of many of its most challenging elements.

Motorola is my co-pilot
The race has gone from being a purely individual race to a team event. The co-pilot, the teammate to the rider, sits in a car following the race and directing the rider much like a rally car driver depends on his navigator.

A decade ago, riders gauged their efforts on their knowledge of their own capacities, and sometimes, an infrequent time check from a soigneur or mechanic who stood at the side of the course with a bit of paper, a stopwatch and a pen. Some directors yelled at their riders over loudspeakers, or simply out the window (which did absolutely nothing other than making the directors feel significant because the riders can’t hear a thing over the wind) but the information relayed was spotty and more than anything else, was usually simple encouragement (or irritant), in the form of, “Up, up, up” or “Venga! Venga! Venga!”

When the director fell silent it generally wasn’t a good sign – it was likely that he no longer cared to push the rider as the he had lost any hope of a decent result.

The time trial is said to be the race of truth: a rider alone, without aid of drafting, sets off in a race against the clock. In many ways it is the purest form of bike racing.

Tactics are few, the effort is completely individual and the event can be ruthlessly difficult pushing the cyclist to his physical limits. At least that’s much how it used to be. Over the last ten years, race radios have changed the time trial.

Craig Lewis, my Columbia-HTC teammate and a young professional with several strong performances against the clock, wrote in an email, “With the use of a radio, you’re racing and pacing yourself against all of the riders who have ridden before and after you as their times. The technology has taken quite away from the purest form of road racing.”

Lewis is among a generation of riders who have rarely raced without radios. He can see how the radios have restrained the development of their generation’s tactical intellect, as few of his peers know how to race without aid. Yet, he is not the only rider in agreement with having them banned, or regulated, as a large percentage of the riders can see the radios are detriment to the spectacle and can create unnecessary chaos in the peloton.

The radios dull the event as everything becomes more predictable in a race that should not only be about the strongest physical performance but also the strongest mental performance. The combination of the mental and the physical are what make a cyclist great and a race should be a challenge to both. Particularly in a race that emphasizes the individual.

Ali defeated Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire not because he was stronger but because he used his savvy. And, for that their fight became monumental. The best races are won and lost when riders duel until the end with potent attacks and calculated moves.

Radio-free in Mendrisio
Two weeks ago at the World Championships in Mendrisio, Switzerland, the U23 category rode without radios in the road race. As in Varese in 2008, their radio-free-race proved to be the most exciting of the weekend as the race lacked the control which dominated both the women’s and the pro men’s event.

Without time gaps, or race information, the riders had to rely on their intellect, their tactical knowledge, their experience and instinct. In the end, the strongest rider surely won, and the day of racing was thrilling from start to finish. As this generation, matures without radios, we will see a brilliant tactician develop into a champion. Like Sean Kelly, Laurent Fignon, and Bernard Hinault he will be great not only because he is strong but also because he has learned how to race with his brain.

David Millar, multiple grand tour time trial stage winner, put it most succinctly.

“Racing with radios is a clear performance advantage,” Millar said. “This is especially obvious in a time trial as riders who are not specialists can benefit from having someone with experience coach them through the race. The person in the car effectively becomes the rider’s brain. I would love to race against my peers and not their directeurs sportifs. It has been argued they make racing safer. Rubbish. This is a weak argument with little real world relevance. The radios must go.”

The transition to radio free racing will be a difficult adaptation for many riders and directeurs as it is a device that has become a crutch and a safety net. In the end, cycling will prosper as riders gain their independence while racing with intellect and instinct.