“Finishing” School: Learning from Paolo
Sunday school is where some learn from the Book of Paul. But the past couple of weekends, the peloton has been schooled big-time in the Book of Paolo. What can we learn physically and psychologically from the best racer on the planet? And for you Lance-o-holics out there raising a snit, yes I did say best racer on the planet!
You Can’t Win if You Can’t Sprint!
At both Hamburg and San Sebastian, Il Grillo (The Cricket) turned on the afterburners at the end of 200+ km of racing to scorch a small group of elite riders for the victory. Now look down the podium at Hamburg or just a little bit down the finish list in San Sebastian and who do you see? That’s right – Davide Rebellin from Gerolsteiner, another smallish one-day specialist from Italy. Look a bit further back and you’ll find Rebellin almost always in the final selection in the big classics. In fact, Rebellin is always near the top of the UCI list, finishing a couple of years ago at #3 and even briefly flirting with #1. Satisfying as such consistency may be, I bet that he would gladly trade all of that to stand on top of the podium at Flanders (lost sprint to Erik Dekker in 2001) or even a “lesser” World Cup like Hamburg.
Another rider who has spent time as UCI #1 thanks to an awesome palmares of 2nd and 3rd places is Francesco Casagrande. True, he won San Sebastian twice, but each time it was through solo efforts. Greg LeMond won the 1983 Worlds through a splendid solo break, then spent the rest of the 1980’s getting nipped at the line by Sean Kelly. Think about it, how much tougher is it to make another acceleration to ditch your final breakaway companions, who are already the strongest in the pack? LeMond always advocated devoting at least one day a week on sprint work throughout the year, and it paid off at Chambery in 1989 when he won the Worlds again with a blazing sprint from a small elite pack including Kelly.
What can we learn from this? It doesn’t matter whether you are the local crit king or fancy yourself as a climber or rouler, you simply cannot maximise your abilities without being confident in the sprint. Most amateur races end up in a sprint of some sort, so you can gain so many more high placings just by focusing on your ability to finish. Not only should you work in the weight room and on the bike throughout the year, consider throwing in a set of sprint efforts near the end of a long ride during the early to mid-season to simulate the fatigue you’ll feel at the end of a hard race.
You’ve Gotta Want to Win!
With good legs in hand and a lightning sprint , Bettini can approach the finale of the races with absolute serenity and conviction. Serenity in knowing that his sprint will take care of things in Hamburg against Rebellin, Ullrich, Astarloa, and Celestino, permitting him to follow Ullrich’s acceleration and then help maintain the break to the finish. Conviction in knowing that he can afford to lay it all on the line like he did in San Sebastian. That’s incredible confidence and panache to blow the pack apart on the Jaizkibel to create an initial elite break, attack again and tow Ivan Basso with his tongue dragging on his front wheel for 20 km to the line, then comfortably lead out and win the sprint.
How many of us, in Bettini’s situation and with the lactic acid level on max, would listen to the little voice inside our head that keeps telling us how tired we are, how strong everyone else is, how we’re happy just to finish in the final break, and how it’s suicide to tow a rival 20 km to the line? Yeah, that’s exactly why Bettini is UCI #1 and kissing podium girls while we’re somewhere in the UCI 6 digit range if we’re lucky! I know I’ve caught myself convinced I can’t sprint and being happy just to be in the final break more times than I care to admit. However, my breakthrough races always seem to happen when I psychologically break this trap and tell myself with utter conviction that I WILL win or make someone suffer more than they ever have in their life to beat me. Never underestimate the importance of the will to win.
Stephen Cheung is an Associate Professor of Kinesiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, with a research specialty in the effects of thermal stress on human physiology and performance. He has been an avid roadie since beginning university in the mid-eighties, and still has non-indexed downtube shifters on his winter bike and wool jerseys hanging in his closet. He can be reached for advice or comments at [email protected]