November 4, 2013

The Cross

 
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Racing cyclocross was once a common method for professional cyclists to stay fit in the off-season. Until the late ’80s, road champions like Roger De Vlaemink, Eddy Merckx, and Bernard Hinault appeared at ‘cross races through the winter. For many of them, it was not only a way to stay active, but also a way to earn a little extra income with appearance and prize money. Then in the ’90s, as the road season became longer, the training more specialized and the peloton more competitive, fewer riders crossed over to the dirt. In the modern peloton, only a select few ride ‘cross with the top tier. Similarly, cyclocross has become more competitive, specialized, and international, making it harder for riders to compete outside of their main discipline. Like many of my peers, I was encouraged by my coach to give up cyclocross racing when I was 20. The off-season was for resting and rebuilding, not racing. My ‘cross bike hung in the garage collecting dust; I missed coming home on a Sunday evening dirty and worn.

During the last few off-seasons of my professional career I trained with Dom Rollin, a Canadian who raced for La Francaise des Jeux, or FDJ. To escape the cold winter in his hometown of Montreal, Dom moved to Girona, where the weather is mild and few training sessions are missed because of snow, rain, or ice.Read more….

October 29, 2013

Time Off

By mid August, the professional peloton begins to yearn for the off-season. The Tour de France is over and the rest of Europe is vacationing in coastal towns or mountain chalets. But while the fatigue from the racing and travel sets in by late summer, the final finish line of the year isn’t crossed until October.

Now that it’s here, the riders will let loose for a few shorts weeks filling in their time off the bike with everything they were unable to do during the racing season. But after a brief moment of reprieve, and jamming as much forbidden food and drink in to their bodies as possible, they’ll then climb back on their bikes to prepare for the first training camps just before Christmas.

The off-season months should be one of the most enjoyable times of the year. Training sessions are less structured and the riders can settle into a routine at home. With a few friends, they can ride for hours each day to rebuild the foundation of fitness. Most importantly, the off-season should provide a mental break where the riders don’t have to jump aboard planes and spend countless nights in foreign beds. But for the modern peloton, those months of rest at home with family and friends are quickly slipping away.  Read on.

October 21, 2013

Work or Play?

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To most people cycling is freedom. When asked what their first memory of riding is, they’ll likely recall the joy they felt as they took their first pedal strokes or when they coasted down their first hill. In those moments, they became free from their parents’ grasp and free to move fast and see the neighborhood alone.

In a similar way, the sporting experience should be one of personal growth and development. But for many amateur athletes, it isn’t. Their sense of freedom becomes blurred. Instead, the playing field or race course becomes a feeder system to the professional ranks. The joy of play withers under the external pressures of performance, business, entertainment, and ego. Physical and mental health become secondary to achievement.

In the documentary Senna, the World Champion Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna was asked to identify the driver who gave him the most satisfaction as a competitor. Read on…

April 22, 2013

Early Morning.

At 5:40 a.m. the group met, in the parking lot of the 24-hour grocery store. The city streets were void of the parked cars that line the curbs each day as their owners run into neighborhood shops to grab a loaf of bread or a coffee. Behind the darkened store front of a bakery, a light glimmered, and the aroma of baking bread wafted outside. Although the air was below freezing, my body still held the warmth of my bed. But I knew that 20 minutes into the ride the cold would begin to bite, before the increased pace restored the warmth in my hands and feet.Image 4 Several months had passed since I last rode my bike outside, the longest break since my childhood. The Canadian winter, bitterly cold with ploughed snow piled high in the streets, incited no desire to look at the bike and I didn’t miss riding that much. Instead I ran, I played hockey, I skied; sports I hadn’t practiced or played since I was a schoolboy. As a boy I embraced every chance I had to ride. I couldn’t get enough of it. As a professional my life became singularly focused. Now that I was retired, I sought more balance, I didn’t have to ride, or be concerned with my fitness, as I had been since I was a teenager. No longer was it my job to upload training data, weigh myself daily or ride up and down a hill repeatedly at a specified wattage.

Outside the grocery store, an employee had left a case of water and a bunch of bananas for us, knowing the daily routine of the club. It was a simple welcoming gesture. A few riders chatted while we waited for others. Within minutes, their lights flickering like fireflies in the night, riders came from all directions. In a flash there were 40 or 50 of us who were ready to ride.

In the early morning, the city of 5 million people seemed our own. The streets that would be jammed with cars and irritable commuters in just a few hours were serenely empty, a contrast that made everything obscured by the daytime bustle more noticeable.

 

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We started slowly, still waking from our sleep, pedaling, chatting, coasting in the wheels of the large group, our lights shining on each others’ backs and casting shadows on the black tarmac. A half an hour passed and we were at our destination, where we would repeat loops through a neighbourhood and up and down a hill. It was here I would again feel the burn in my lungs, legs and arms only a cyclist knows.

In the group, there was a jovial and almost juvenile atmosphere; we had snuck out early to steal the early hours of the day to do something that gave us a sense of liberty few in the dormant city knew.

On the neighbourhood circuits the group splintered, as we each found partners who could push a little bit harder. The small group of six, which included me, fractured and regrouped with the undulations on the circuit. Riders attacked and chased from behind. I had forgotten the feeling of being on the wheel, in the wind and back on the wheel: the relief, the surge and the relief. The fun ended as the sun came up and the streets began to clutter and congest with cars. Like the bell sounding the end of recess, a rider called out the time and we all regrouped for the short ride home. Once back with our families, we would dress our children for school, shovel down mouthfuls of food and race off to our responsibilities.

I arrived home just in time. Sleet began to fall from the sky, again. I stepped off my bike and could feel the effort in my legs, a weighty sensation I had missed.

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November 10, 2012

Le Métier. The Seasons of a Professional Cyclist. Third Edition.

Now available: Amazon or Rouleur

October 21, 2012

Cycling Becomes a Cleaner Sport, Not a Safer one.

New York Times, Oct 15, 2012. Click here .

October 10, 2012

The USADA Investigation

Cycling has always been a part of my life. As a boy my dream was to become a professional cyclist who raced at the highest level in Europe. I achieved my goal when I first signed a contract with the United States Postal Service Cycling team in 2002. Soon after I realized reality was not what I had dreamed. Doping had become an epidemic problem in professional cycling.

Recently, I was contacted by United States Anti-Doping Agency to testify in their investigation into the use of performance enhancing drugs on the United States Postal Service Team. I agreed to participate as it allowed me to explain my experiences, which I believe will help improve the sport for today’s youth who aspire to be tomorrow’s champions.

After being encouraged by the team, pressured to perform and pushed to my physical limits I crossed a line I promised myself and others I would not: I doped. It was a decision I deeply regret. It caused me sleepless nights, took the fun out of cycling and racing, and tainted the success I achieved at the time. This was not how I wanted to live or race.

In the summer of 2006, I never doped again and became a proponent of clean cycling through my writing and interviews.

From 2006 until the end of my career in 2012, I chose to race for teams that took a strong stance against doping. Although I never confessed to my past, I wrote and spoke about the need for change.  Cycling is now a cleaner sport, many teams have adopted anti-doping policies and most importantly I know a clean rider can now win at the highest level.

I apologize to those I deceived. I will accept my suspension and any other consequences. I will work hard to regain people’s trust.

The lessons I learned through my experiences have been valuable. My goal now is to help turn the sport into a place where riders are not tempted to dope, have coaches who they can trust, race on teams that nurture talent and have doctors who are concerned for their health. From direct experience, I know there are already teams doing this but it needs to be universal throughout cycling.

Progressive change is occurring. My hope is that this case will further that evolution.

September 28, 2012

The last set of race numbers

The Montreal Grand Prix was officially my final race as a professional cyclist as I will not be racing in Italy this week or China in October because the arm I broke in August has yet to fully heal. During the race in Montreal, it became increasingly painful and swollen around the fracture, plate and screws. I hoped it would improve with a few days of rest but almost three weeks later it is still bothering me. The risk of falling and re-fracturing it in another race it is too great. The Montreal GP was a race day I will remember fondly and nice place to finish my career. It was a well organized race, on home turf, in front of my family, friends and supporters that was capped off by my teammate Lars-Petter’s fine victory.

Montreal 2012

September 5, 2012

Thank you.

After a lifetime of bicycle racing and experiences that have taken me around the world, introduced me to my wife and my closest friends, I am ready to retire as a professional cyclist. 2012 will be my last racing season. The Tour of Beijing will be my final race. Cycling will forever be my passion but it is time to change direction to spend more time with my family. I’ve reached a period in my life where I want to grow in other directions and experience some of what I had put on hold while racing.

As a boy, I was fortunate to have supportive parents who surrounded me with a nurturing community. Through the most challenging moments in my cycling career and life, my family has been the safety net that gave me the confidence to persist. Firstly, I must thank them for their unwavering support and love. My wife, Dede, a retired professional cyclist, supported my career and goals and understood the sacrifices a cyclist’s family must make.

Through my 14 year professional career I’ve been fortunate to race with many of the top teams. From my first coaches and clubmates to Dave Brailsford and my Team Sky teammates I’ve had the opportunity to race and learn from many of the best.  The last three years on Team Sky has been ideal on every level. Racing is the job I dreamed of doing. I must thank my teammates, coaches, and rivals for making the job satisfying and memorable. The emotions after crossing the finish line, sitting on the bus with teammates and recounting the day will be hard to recreate.

Many of my fondest memories involve the bike but reach far beyond races: riding through the parks with my mother on the way to school, riding with my father, uncle and aunt through Provence, riding with my wife in the Rocky Mountains, and teaching my sons to ride their bikes.  On the bike, our relationships developed. That will continue long after I retire as cycling will always be a part of me. Cycling has given me something that reaches far beyond finish lines and race results. Over the last year, as I’ve thought of retirement and reflected on my career, this has become increasingly clear.  The racing journey has been a thrill but the cycling journey will continue.

September 5, 2012

At the Gate

Froome is in this race.

Oh, they’re catching them fast now. The gap is only one minute twenty-three.

Hey Dad. You know Froome is the guy that was second in the time trial in London. And was second in the Tour.

He’s pretty tall. Taller than his teammates.

Oh that guy in blue from Spain is attacking now. Look how steep the hill is. Sky is chasing.

The commentary continued as passengers formed a line, waiting to board the plane. Dressed in Barcelona Football Club shirts, flip-flops, and dark with tans, most were summer tourists at the end of their vacation in Spain. Now, they were going home to Canada. I was on the same flight as I am scheduled to race in the GP Quebec and Montreal, two one day races which would mark my return after a month away from racing due to another broken arm and another surgery.

Sitting in a row of grey chairs, I listened to the boys who were sitting behind me with their parents. They gave a play-by-play commentary about the race that was being broadcast on the muted Samsung flat screen television. I already knew the outcome. It was a rerun of the Vuelta stage I had seen fifteen hours earlier. While packing my suitcase, I had watched it at home, folding my jerseys and rolling up my cycling shorts. As the splintered peloton raced the last five kilometers up the steep ascent, attacking each other, I screwed a new pair of shoe plates on my cycling shoes and then packed them in my carry-on bag for the trip.

Of course, the racers I watched were friends, rivals and teammates. Mine is a biased view of a bike race. Sitting at the gate, watching the race again with a different commentary, my perspective shifted: it was now an enthusiastic child’s.  And, through their eyes it became a far more interesting race to watch.

A boarding announcement was made and slowly the line shuffled forward down the bridge and into the plane. The boys, who I now realized were from two families, made no move to get in line. They were fixed on the race as were their fathers. One, who was about my son’s age, seven, knew more about the riders and racing than the others. Occasionally, one of the fathers pointed out the riders’ gearing or explained who was in which group. But, it was the boys who animated the action we watched.

Their voices had a naïve purity that was lovely.  The essence of our sport is often clouded and lost.

In the middle of the peloton we are focused on the goal and our attention is to the details that will get us to the line first. The profession eclipses the purity of sport. From a child’s perspective there is little on the screen but bike racers sprinting up mountains. Very likely, the boys didn’t know two of the four riders they were watching had been suspended for doping. They didn’t know about the internal dynamic within the breakaway, which teams were likely to lose their sponsors, which directors were dishonest, which riders rode dangerously, or even, who would be the likely victor. At home, the boys would ride through their neighbourhoods pedaling like madmen on their far-too-heavy mountain bikes as if they were Froome spinning away in a time trial.

When the broken bone took me away from the bike, a surgeon said that I could race six weeks later. In the hospital bed, sipping on tea and eating cookies, I poked at my iPhone, and studied my race calendar. Eneco was out. San Sebastian out. Denmark out. But in seven weeks I could race in Quebec and Montreal. I had a goal.  Experience had taught me that a plan and a goal help me heal.

The crash, the surgery, blood loss and forced time off my bicycle would consume most of the fine form I had developed in the previous two months. My rehabilitation had to be gauged and progressive. First, I went for short hikes with my wife. Then longer hikes up a mountain. Then I began running and riding on the trainer but without holding the handlebars. As the pain in my armed abated I was able to push myself on the bike, feeling a different pain that would bring back my fitness.

Watching the stage at the airport gate, I massaged my arm in the way a dog licks a wound or a child plays with his loose tooth. The ache was almost gone but it still somehow felt soothing. I smiled to myself, as the boys commentary continued, as their voices rose with each attack.

It isn’t the job that drives my desire to get back up from each crash to race again but the sport, the fans and the youthful feeling of freedom we all experience when pedaling like madmen.