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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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)

January 19, 2011

Eat, Ride, Sleep…

In thirteen years, the season of the professional cyclist has progressively become the cycle of my life. Years and months are broken down into a race program in which we plan goals, training, rest and time with our families and friends. Our year begins in November at the first team meetings and ends in late October as we cross the final finish line. As is custom with most team, Team Sky was together in January for the second training camp of our season. After a hard week of riding with my teammates, where we accumulated 35 hours of riding, my commitment is as it was over a decade ago. But, my perspective has changed as maturity has given me appreciation, experience and understanding, which have replaced a neopro’s angst.

Each morning at the training camp the team gathers around the mechanics and massage therapists who prepare our bikes, bottles and food for the day’s ride. As we zip up booties, strap up helmets and fill our pockets we chat about the route and the prescribed efforts. Inevitably we leave the hotel a few minutes after our planned departure as someone struggles to adjust his position or requires another layer of clothing. Without panic we wait and then roll away together in our small peloton.

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December 27, 2010

As a Team

At the end of December the team was back together again. In Mallorca, Spain, away from the snow that paralysed the UK and slowed Northern Europe, we were able to ride for what seemed to be the entire day. We left the hotel just after breakfast and returned as the sun was setting.  Our rides lasted between four and six hours  and we accumulated roughly 32 hours in the week long camp. Rain didn’t hold us back; together we pushed each other to persist and complete the day’s work. The atmosphere was relaxed. After meals we chatted around the table until the waiters urged us to move on so they could clean-up and get home. From the dining room we moved on to the chess board and lounge chairs. The ache in my legs from the distance ridden gave me a feeling of fulfillment while the day’s effort induced a schoolboy’s slumber.

My roommate, neopro and new Team Sky recruit Alex Dowsett, told me that after a few long rides  with the team he went from feeling like an alien to a teammate. The point of a training camp is not only to build the foundation of fitness but also to build the foundation of the team. As we log the hours and as the ride gets tough, the group becomes one.

December 23, 2010

Le Métier. 2nd Edition

Le Métier 2nd Edition is essentially unchanged from the 1st edition that sold out in three months, with just a few notable exceptions. The 2nd Edition is paperback and comes in slightly more compact dimensions, making this edition substantially less costly than the 1st ed. David Millar and Christian Vandevelde both pen forewords. There is a new finishing stroke with an afterword about his 2010 Tour de France experience with Team Sky. The book contains four chapters — Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer — which map the slow crescendo of a pro’s season.

Le Métier can be purchased at Competitive Cyclist.

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.