What's Cool In Road Cycling

PEZ Goes Inside Team Astana

Just prior to the Giro’s fourth stage TTT, PEZ had the chance to chill at the Astana team bus (if “chill” is the right word for such a hot, sunny day) and talk to some of the men who keep the wheels on the bus, so to speak. They don’t get on the podium and they don’t have fan clubs, but no pro team could function without guys like these…

Dmitri Sedoun, a friendly man who projects a low-key confidence, has been with Astana since it began at the pro level in 2007, although he was actually with its lower-level Swiss-based predecessor before that. He serves as a Directeur Sportif for the pro team, as well as its Technical Director, and in addition is the Team Manager for the Astana developmental team. In all, Astana has five DSes, including the overall Team Manager.

Astana Bus and Dmitri Sedoun on the cellphone.

When asked about the international nature of the team, Mr. Sedoun said that this had been intended from the start. Although the Astana Pro Team is a Kazakh project, it was always meant to draw on good riders from other countries. The predominant language used in the group is Italian but he said that everyone speaks two or three different languages, so communication was not a problem. Our own discussion was in German, with smatterings of English and Italian.

Integration of new riders was not an issue, he thought, given the multinational make-up of most teams and that the riders are highly professional in their outlook.

He said that the team time trial would be a very important stage and that the team had to make the best time possible as this was not a discipline that Astana excelled at and was unlikely to win. It was a difficult course with a lot of curves and, while not flat, offered the chance for high speed on the return stretch. As a team Astana was focused on the Grand Tours and the Classics.

Turning to the issue of sponsorship, the intent of the team is to promote Kazakhstan as widely as possible and in a positive way, rather than to serve simply as a springboard for young Kazakh riders. The sport is growing in Kazakhstan and the country now offers what Mr. Sedoun said was probably the best track in the world, suitable for World Cup events. While the sponsors, which include elements of Kazakh industry and the government, naturally want the best return on their investment, they have taken a long-term view. Mr. Sedoun admitted that 2011 had not been a great year for the team but his sponsors had remained loyal. Nonetheless, he saw the expanded interest in pro cycling by wealthy individuals who sponsor teams as a welcome development and that the support given to teams such as BMC was good for the sport.

At this point the team assembled and headed out for a recon ride of the course and Mr. Sedoun was called to attend to some of the innumerable details that are part of pro racing. Now was the opportunity to move from management and speak to Dr. Simone Uliari, the team physician, about the human side.

Dr. Simone Uliari

Dr. Uliari has been with Astana Pro Team for two season and was previously involved in sports through an Italian soccer team at the 3rd league level. He noted the big differences with the move into the big league: now he is with a team with five Directeur Sportifs, five mechanics and five masseurs, a long way up from the border-line pro soccer team.

In his role of ‘family’ doctor, Dr. Uliari handles all problems not only for the riders but also the entire staff. There are three doctors that alternate with Astana. After the Giro, Dr. Uliari will go to Belgium for racing there.

We spoke about the special requirements of the riders, who are trained to develop maximum performance and he quoted an Italian phrase that says “Bike racers are like crystal glasses.” That is, beautiful in form but fragile as they approach the limit of human capability. In addition to the need to manage their tendency towards colds and flu, he mentioned that he also oversaw food and that all elements of nutrition must be considered. There would be lots of seasonal fruit consumed, along with pasta and other carbohydrates as fuel. Prosciutto is on the menu and other protein sources.

Enrico Gasparotto took a stylish win on stage 7.

Dr. Uliari is responsible for the physical well-being of the team, but he said that some of the racers, in addition to their sports trainers, receive psychological coaching as well. He said that there are pressures in any sports team and it has to function as a family, with the big turquoise-and-yellow bus serving as home. And he assured us that the bus does indeed have a cappuccino machine onboard.

The last person we spoke to was not an actual member of Astana Pro Team but he may as well ahve been. Gian Paolo Mondini is a retired bike racer (winner of a stage in the 1999 Tour de France) who studied psychology after leaving the peloton in 2004 but now serves in the important role of Team Liason for Specialized Bicycle Components of California, a leading supplier and sponsor to pro bike racing. All the five pro teams that Specialized works with come to him for equipment and make suggestions or, sometimes, complaints, and he introduces new products to them and works with riders in a number of areas. Feedback from the riders is used to develop the best products for all of Specialized’s customers.

Gian Paolo Mondini with Specialized aero helmet.

One of the key areas is in fitting. We looked over the Specialized Shiv time trial bikes used by Astana and he noted that the frames, where are monocoque carbon, are standard but through the seat height and handlebar position adjusted for the individual riders. All of the time trial bikes at Astana are either sized Small or Extra Small, and the visual difference is an angled rise in the top tube on the smaller frame. Specialized works with the riders to optimize their position on the bike and Mr. Mondini said that wind tunnel tests do not provide complete answers for teh real world so validation of the time trial position is done with the riders on a velodrome.

The two frame sizes are easy to distinguish from the top tubes.

We also had a chance to look at the latest Specialzed aero helmet, which has not vents in the front but only allows air to escape through the tail of the helmet. It has flexible “curtains” along the side to conform to the rider’s face. Specialized, in its fit work, also counsels riders on how to maintain the helmet while racing for the greatest aerodynamic advantage.

The Shiv frame, with its rear brake caliper positioned under the bottom bracked, meets UCI specifications but does not carry the UCI seal of approval. However, the position of the riders is checked directly before each race by officials. Many of the Astana bikes had SRM power meters but several did not and Mr. Mondini said that it was up to the preference of the individual riders. Tires were 23 mm tubulars but he said that the trend would be towads clinchers in the future and that Zipp would be promoting its clincher time trial wheels.

Specialized Shiv and under BB brake placement.

Specialized has an interesting philosophy in seeking out individual riders it wants to sponsor. It has agreements with a number of top pros including Mark Cavendish, Tom Boonen, Tony Martin and Roman Kreuziger. Not everyone can win a bike race at the highest level and that small group at the apex of the pro pyramid, perhaps 20 in all, will not be on a single team so Specialized develops its relationship with top riders individually but also seeks out up-and-comers, who are very difficult to identify. They are generally able to speak English and often at the junior level rather than, say, pros in their second or third year. The company is particularly strong in the North American market but has been expanding in South America and the Middle East.

Roman Kreuziger, team captain at the Giro for Astana, came over to talk about some technical issues and we had the chance to ask him about the upcoming team time trial. He was very blasй about it but did think the course was quite difficult.

Now was the time for the racers to get back on their bikes for a final warm-up before their departure on the course, which took place at exactly 16:07. We had seen how the Astana machine works to give the riders the kind of support that allows them to concentrate on the race and at the Giro that day they finished with a very commendable third place.

• We thank Team Astana for taking time to indulge our curiosity at the Giro d’Italia.

When not wishing he could ride up the Klausenpass like Roman Kreuziger, Leslie Reissner may be found polishing his S-Works Tarmac at www.tindonkey.com

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