March 1, 2011

Around The Block

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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February 22, 2011

The Season Begins

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.

Michael and Sean Yates (Directeur Sportif)

February 16, 2011

Le Métier. French Translation.

A friend, Jean Michel Dupé, has translated the book Le Métier. Below is an excerpt from the first chapter. Hopefully, the complete translation will be published soon.

The photos were taken by Camille McMillan.

Durant l’intersaison, nous nous renforçons au mental comme au physique, en sortant sous un temps froid pour rouler pendant des heures sous la pluie ou la neige. Dévolus au travail et à la poursuite de nos buts nous roulons sous des conditions qui gardent la plupart des gens chez eux. Dans les extrêmes, j’ai appris sur moi-même, et sur mes limites.

En hiver, je pédale sur un rythme stable tout en me hissant au delà des côtes avec ma surcharge pondérale. Il n’y a aucune urgence ; Je construis des fondations comme je le faisais adolescent dans le garage et sur les routes cernées de congères. «  Les kilomètres c’est comme  l’argent en banque » mon premier entraîneur m’aurait dit, « tu dois commencer la saison avec un gros compte que tu débiteras inévitablement à chaque course. »

Les kilomètres à rouler passent rapidement avec les amis à socialiser sur le vélo comme les travailleurs qui discutent tout en creusant les routes. Les repas d’hiver et les longues soirées avec force vins nous ralentissent sur le vélo, mais en attendant on a besoin de se vicier un peu pour échapper à la structure que nous endurerons bientôt. Un cycliste chérit les instants dont il dispose pour se relaxer, tellement ils sont rares au sein d’une saison chaotique. Nous savons cela, vient Mars où le travail exigera une focalisation sans failles.

Loin de Toronto, je vis et m’entraîne désormais à Gérone en Espagne. Conduit ici il y a presque dix ans par mes co-équipiers Américains, la petite ville Catalane est désormais mon domicile. Gérone s’est peuplée doucement de cyclistes professionnels étrangers qui furent attirés par cette ville pour sa proximité aux montagnes, son climat Méditerranéen, et son noyau grandissant de collègues d’entraînement. Rouler est plus facile avec des compagnons, particulièrement dans les mois déclinants de la saison ou lors de printemps humides : souffrir est plus facile lorsque vous êtes avec un ami.

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December 1, 2010

On the Bike Again

A professional cyclist is rarely off of his bike in the off-season for more than a month.  Progressively, through the months of November and December I slowly ease back into the routine of training. With time, the distance and intensity of the rides increases. As the morning fog lifts with the chill of the damp night air, we meet at a café to plan a route over cortados and pastries. In the warmth of the café we linger and socialise. The races are months away, we know our fitness will come so for now we can simply enjoy the ride, the camaraderie and the environment.

Catalonia, and specifically Girona, is magnificent in the autumn and winter. The streets, which were once crowded with tourists through the summer are now spotted with locals who chat under the Christmas lights. The sun lies low in the sky creating long shadows and setting before the children arrive home from school.

We’ll ride for half of the day in a small group. There are no intervals pencilled into our programs or specific goals to meet. We rode as we did when we first started this sport ages ago. As David Millar wrote in the foreword to the update edition of the book, Le Métier,  “What was once the worst time of the year for me is now my favourite; Winter is now the time I enjoy most. During the Tour de France, Michael and I discussed how much we were looking forward to our December training rides. It’s then we get to meet in the morning and ride our bikes for fun, with an appreciation of our good fortune.”

Here are a few photos from a recent ride. Dominique Rollin is wearing the Cervelo clothing. Dom will ride for La Francaise des Jeux next season. Jordi Cantal, a local fireman, took many of the pictures and rides with us often. He knows the smallest roads and trails. And, he teaches me a little Catalan and Spanish as we ride.

October 11, 2010

Flying or Ragged

Throughout the Tour de France photographer Scott Mitchell followed Team Sky as he is working on a book with my teammate Brad Wiggins. Based on the work I have seen the book should be fantastic. Scott sent me some photos recently which I have posted below. I find it odd seeing photos of myself as the mental image I have is often far different from that which is captured in the photos. At times, I feel ragged but in a photo I look healthy while the opposite is also true as I can be flying on the bike but the dark rings under my eyes tell a different story. I find this interesting and it is one of the many reasons I wanted to write a book with photographer Camille McMillan.  In our book Le Métier,  we worked to tell the complete story of the cyclist’s life from both perspectives.

Here are some of Scott’s fine photos:

September 28, 2010

Two Perspectives

His legs turning over fluidly, my teammate appeared effortless compared to his rivals. They hung over their handlebars; ragged and limp like old cloth dolls. Their bodies lacked the potency to contest for the victory.  Riding alongside him, I was panting, as he breathed rhythmically. As we crested the climb, the time gap to the breakaway was announced. It was several minutes ahead of us. Our directeur sportif soon ordered my flying teammate to ride on the front in pursuit. As we moved forward to begin riding in the wind, I asked him how he felt. “Really good.” Could he win? “I think so.” Throughout his career he had ridden as a domestique. And now, with the legs to win, he was asked to once again ride in pursuit.

The directeur, working with the knowledge he had, made his decision. Based on the riders’ knowledge, it was the wrong decision. I dropped to the back of the peloton, spoke with the directeur, explained the situation, and he changed the plans. My teammate ended up winning a stage and finishing second overall. From the team car, the directeur sees little of the race and relies on instinct, experience and the scant information he receives over the radios.

While recently sidelined by injury, I had the opportunity to sit in the team car through most of the Montreal Grand Prix. The experience was eye opening as the race within the caravan is entirely different. During a race we, the riders, have a limited and singular view of the caravan. We return to the caravan for bottles and food, pass through it when we are dropped, use the cars’ slipstreams to chase back on to the peloton and drop back to the cars with mechanical problems. High expectations are placed on the directeurs as they must react to our movements. Cyclists assume they have the right-of-way in the caravan and usually we do. It is said that with experience we become acrobats on our bikes. In turn, the directeurs become magicians behind the wheel, as they seem to narrowly avoid tragedy dozens of times during a single race. Their skills are impressive. In a hilly race their senses are constantly engaged as the peloton splinters into groups and suffering riders weave through the cars in an attempt to return to the front.

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July 19, 2010

Photos From The Tour

For some reading material here are two recent interviews. Toronto Life, read interview here. FT, read interview here.

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.

February 19, 2010

More shots from training camp