June 13, 2011

Organizers — and riders — need to take responsibility for race safety

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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May 19, 2011

Giro d’Italia SRM files.

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.

Stage 7. Maddaloni – Montevergine di Mercogliano

Stage 8. Sapri – Tropea

Stage 9. Messina – Etna

Stage 10. Termoli – Teramo

Stage 11. Tortoreto – Castelfidardo

May 13, 2011

Giro d’Italia SRM Files

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.

Stage 5: Piombino – Orvieto 191km

Stage 6: Orvieto – Fiuggi 216km

May 9, 2011

Training for the Giro d’Italia Team Time Trial

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.

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June 14, 2010

Recovering

I was pedalling at a consistently higher tempo on the stationary trainer but my heart rate was not increasing at the same rate as three weeks before. Tired from one of the toughest races I have ridden, my heart no longer responded quickly to stimulus. Three weeks of weather extremes, challenging and varied courses, intense racing and nonstop travel were draining. Electronic music, blasting through my headphones and blocking out the noise of the whirling trainer, got my mind racing but failed to stimulate my legs. They ached as the pressure increased. My warm-up complete, I stepped off the trainer knowing the final time trial of the Giro d’Italia wouldn’t be an easy one.

Grand Tours are unique in every sense. No other sporting event is as taxing physically and mentally. During the three weeks we rarely relax as the pace of our lives is relentless. We seem to be in constant movement as we are never in one place long enough to fully unpack a suitcase or feel remotely settled.

The team lives in a bubble blown around the race environment. Stage numbers replace days of the week. Results pages replace newspapers. The race moves around the countryside as one. We escape the bubble momentarily when we walk outside the hotels in the evenings, step in a store, or turn on the television at night to catch a few minutes of the news. But, our thoughts never really leave the race. There’s always an imminent goal.

Then the tour ends and our bodies shut down. Accustomed to the rhythm and tempo of the race we learn to persist, and cope, mentally and physically within the race structure. Once that pressure is released an tiredness takes over. The week after the finish, I feel an overwhelming lethargy. Each step I take through town, or up a flight of stairs, seems laborious in comparison to the thousands of kilometres ridden in Italy.

To recover and rebound to a higher level, I let my body rest and eat well. I ride intermittently during the week following the race, to keep from completely shutting down. The rides are at a tourist’s speed and just as short. Afternoons become nap time.

A coach once suggested that I base my training on the mathematical sequence by the Italian mathematician Fibonacci (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fibonacci). If applied to training two days of hard training would require one day of recovery. Following the sequence, 21 days of stimulus requires thirteen days of recovery. From experience, I know it requires at least ten days for the body to regain its normal rhythm and for the desire to ride to return.

A Grand Tour etches the body. Friends who I haven’t seen in a month comment on my weight loss and the dark brown tan line. Like a tattooed punk, a fit professional cyclist looks out of place in a crowd of townspeople.

Racing reaches levels unobtainable in training. If a cyclist recovers carefully from a grand tour, he will be rewarded his finest form. The extremes of the race mentally and physically, make cyclists comfortable with the abnormal.

The rest worked. Nearly two weeks after the race, I can feel the power I’ve gained in my pedal stroke. The return of the sensation of flight is the moment to resume training with consistency and intensity.

The effects of a Grand Tour are sweeping. Efforts can be sustained for longer periods, climbs seem shorter and shallower and the bike moves in harmony with the body. With so many hours spent in the saddle in a period of a few weeks, it is on the bike that a fit cyclist feels most comfortable. In any other realm, we again feel displaced.

And, it is during the rebound in fitness that I will specify my training again to ensure it is pointed towards the next objectives. For a week, I will train in the Alps and then Pyrenees with two teammates to ride the key Tour de France stages. It will be a week, where we will rediscover the routine and almost singular focus of the cyclist’s life.

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 26, 2010

A Trail of Pink Around the Boot

Lying on the hotel room bed with my legs stretched vertically against the wall, I stare at the ceiling. A spring breeze blows through the window cutting the stale odor of the hotel room. Beyond the window in the parking lot below, I can hear the intermittent buzz and splash the mechanics’ power washers. The air compressor that is used to fill our tires hisses and revs at intervals. Voices chatter in Italian, English and German. Their workday continues into the evening as they repair and prepare.

As gravity flushes the pain from my worn legs, I close my eyes and revisit the last kilometers of the race. A rider on my right bumps off my shoulder as he avoids a crash on his right. I look back. My teammates who follow in my draft are okay. Their grimaces are red from the effort. Sweat pours from their faces even though the spring air is cool. I don’t feel as worn as they look but I know I look the same — I have already seen the photographers’ shots of me. The directeur’s voice crackles over the radio as he tells us exactly how many kilometers and corners are left.

Snapshots of the finish are clear in my memory. The race is broken down into crucial moments, which are the only vivid mental snaps. Forming a film-like memory is impossible. A storm of color, the race rips through the countryside. We race through towns too quick to form clear impressions. Their names are targets for us. They are one point of reference in a race of hundreds. We are always pursuing something: the break, the wheel in front, the finish line, the top of the climb, the next town, the group in front. The peloton never truly relaxes long enough to absorb the environment. Yet, somehow, all those pieces come together to form a wonderful journey for us and for the spectators we whizz past.

In a trance within the bubble of the race, almost everything external is missed in those final frantic moments. I am focused solely on the goal and more precisely my exact position in that race and the requirements of my job. In those moments pain is overwhelmed by emotion and endorphin. My breathing increases and lactic acid seers my muscles. But, the intensity of the moment pushes me beyond what I could achieve in training. The race carries the rider.

As I lie in bed, the surges I pushed out hours earlier can still be felt in my aching legs. My mind is at ease but my body is still racing to recover from the effort. The muscles twitch.

Our bodies are becoming thin. We don’t recognize how we have morphed in the past few weeks but our families will. We have thinned from cyclists to grand tour riders.

In the third week of the Giro, the strain of the race is apparent in the peloton. We have rarely relented since the start in Amsterdam. Daily, from the drop of the flag the peloton is moving at over 50 kmh until the breakaway finally forms — often after over an hour of constant attacks and pursuits.

This Giro has been abnormal on every level. The unusual course has created unease in the peloton. That nervousness contributes to the intensity of the racing. When teams panic under pressure they can lose much more than those who ride with clarity and patience. That panic causes crashes, splits in the peloton, and incites mental and physical fatigue, which leads to breakdown.

Some riders who attacked with vigor in the first week now sit tight in the draft. Those who are ill ride at the back of the group and don’t even attempt to move up. They yo-yo in and out of the peloton as we climb and descend until the string finally breaks and they press on alone to the finish. Their days are long and their position is the one we all fear.

The Giro d’Italia is not only wearing on the peloton but also on the team staff. As we reach the last week everybody seems to be counting the days. Three weeks is a long time to be doing anything, even vacationing on a beach. The stages have been long and intense. Before and after each day’s race we sit on the bus driving to and from hotels. The driver has covered over 3000 kilometers since the start. For us, it isn’t too bad as we can sit back and relax. But for the staff hours of work are added to their already long days.

While we flew to Italy from the Netherlands, they drove. While we sleep, they’re preparing our mussettes and bottles for the following day. While we lie in bed, they’re cleaning the bus and working on the bikes. While we race, they’re in the feed zone or preparing the hotel rooms.

But we all persist because there is a common passion for cycling that envelopes the Giro’s circus. Spectators spend hours decorating their homes in pink for the race to pass by in minutes. They anticipate and celebrate the race’s arrival like a birthday or Christmas. The race has left a trail of pink through Italy and like any celebration it has incited fervent emotion in the people. Seeing that emotion makes all of the suffering worthwhile.

Lying on my hotel bed I envision the next stage. I can see the animated crowd cheering and children dressed in pink pounding the barriers. I can hear the MC at the finish announcing the winner’s name. Like all of them, I also feel inspired.

May 17, 2010

Giro d’Italia SRM Graphs

The Giro has taken us from the Netherlands to southern Italy. Up north, we battled the wind, fought for position on narrow farm roads, weaved through traffic islands and sprinted out of small towns. After a relentless first week of long days on the bike combined with hours in the bus, we are now racing through the hills and undulating Italian countryside. Attached are two SRM powerfiles from two stages during the first week of the Giro–the graphs show the distance, speed, power, and altitude ( I wasn’t wearing a heart rate strap).

The first graph is from the third stage in the Netherlands (Amsterdan-Middleburg), where the peloton blew to pieces and our team led the charge on the front until the final eight kilometres when our leader, Brad Wiggins, was caught up in a crash. We spent the final kilometres of the race chasing to limit his time loss. The second SRM file is from the first mountain top finish on Stage 8 (Chianciano Terme-Terminillo). The peloton rode like mad from the drop of the start flag and never really relented. My job for the day was to protect Brad and keep him out of the wind and in good position before the final climb. Once we reached the climb, I sat up and rode up the climb at a steady speed to save energy for the coming days while he hammered away with the leaders. The next six stages are all over 200 kilometres. Wednesday’s stage is 262 km. I’ll try to post a graph from one or two of those stages.

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.