Toolbox: Coaching Observations From Le Tour
As both a coach and fan of bike racing, I always watch the tour (or any bike race for that matter) with a “coaches eye”, always looking for things that I can use to help my athletes improve. Here are just a few of the many observations I picked up this year.
Fortunately, the media coverage of cycling has intensified over the past few years. In the distant past, we would have to wait until the next day’s newspaper to see results or the CBS television’s summary of the Tour on Sunday afternoon to see any form of weekly highlights. Anyone remember that John Tesh music? Now of course, we can always view the live coverage as it happens, or else get the DVDs after they are created and really watch the race unfold in detail.
Here are some of the things that caught my eye this year in terms of lessons for the rest of us:
Alberto Contador after the final time trial said, “You never really know why things don’t work out as you hope after the preparations you’ve done. There are so many aspects to the sport that you have to take into consideration. Cycling is not like math. You can’t plan things exactly.” I absolutely love this statement and shows the top professionals in the sport have the same issues as any other level of bike racer. Here is a guy that had won the last 4 grand tours he had entered was the pre-race favorite by far, began the race with a ton of confidence and then basically had a wrench thrown into his gears. The key here is that no matter how well you plan for events, it doesn’t always work out perfectly. Try not to over analyze the problem, as the human body is a complex machine and you may never figure it out. Just remember that successful bike racers try different forms of training to find the best prescription that works for them. As Alberto says, preparation is an art, not a book, computer program, or a formula.
Cadences – On I believe the first rest day, Versus (US coverage) did a special on the history of the Pyrenees and its role in the Tour, this being the 100th anniversary of their inclusion in the race. What a great special it was, with lots of footage of the days of Merckx, LeMond, etc. One thing really caught my eye and that was the cadence differences that those great champions used while climbing the mountains versus what the champions of today use. There is no doubt that higher cadences are the trend right now. If you look at the “old days”, bigger gears and slower cadences and I would assume, longer cranks were the norm. Now, “spin to win” is the in thing. Finding the correct cadence is no easy chore. There are many variables to think about when choosing the correct cadence, as I believe that optimal cadence changes by the second! I have a great study that explains these variables by Dr. Aldo Sassi of the Mapei Center, called “Effects of gradient and speed on freely chosen cadence: The key role of crank inertial load.” Please email me if you wish to get a copy:
Sassi Cadence Study
Position – Along with cadence changes, position on the bike has always changed. Looking at older photos and film footage, riders were really stretched out. Shorter top tubes and longer stems were the norm with the goal of getting the rider as aero as possible. Today, when you look at position, there is a drastic difference. The cockpit is much shorter, riders look more relaxed with their arms bent at the elbows, thus producing a shock absorber affect. By having this more relaxed upper body, it allows them to really focus and produce more power. If you haven’t had your position recently checked, it’s a good idea to do so. Bike positioning is a dynamic process.
Sportsmanship – There will be debates to the end of time about Contador going ahead when Schleck had his now famous chain drop issue. What that would have done to the outcome of the 5th closest Tour ever if Contador had waited? We will never know, period. I was more impressed with the responses of Contador and Schleck 24 hours after it happened. Of course Andy Schleck was upset after the fact, who wouldn’t be! Their display of sportsmanship at one of the most important events of their lives was a lesson for all athletes. It’s not very often you get a chance to win a stage of the Tour or the Tour itself! Say what you want about Contador, but the effort from both riders to put the incident in the past and move on showed the upmost in professionalism and maturity. Every rider should take something away from that series of events that two great champions showed us in the heat of battle.
Teamwork – The Tour is the ultimate display of teamwork and showing that cycling is the only mainstream sport where a complete team sacrifices themselves for the glorification of one rider. Each team has different goals. Obviously, Columbia was focused on green and field sprints, while Rabobank was focused on the overall with Menchov and Gesink. They really never gave their sprinter and three-time world champion, Oscar Freire any form of support we could see. The key is that even at the lower levels of the sport, teams have to have plans and stick to them. Tactics and strategies are not given remotely enough focus at the lower levels. Make sure your team really works on this important aspect of the sport, and is constantly evaluating tactics.
Ivan Basso (bronchitis/fever), Cadel Evans (broken elbow), Frank Schleck (shattered collarbone) and Christian Vande Velde (everything!) – What can you say about these guys, especially Christian Vande Velde? Man, you got to feel for him! All that preparation, all that focus and accidents and untimely sickness basically threw their chances out the door. The key observation is that this stuff happens. Anytime you are training and racing that hard in such a competitive and aggressive field, you are on the edge of sickness or crashing completely changing the outcome. All of them have had this happen in the past and these types of issues will continue to happen in the future. The key is to accept it as part of the sport and keep your eye on your goals. It’s a clichй, but it’s not how we handle success, it’s how we handle the bad times and what we make out of them. Anytime you hear an interview with Christian, he has a smile on his face and is focused on the next goal. He is a true champion!
Limitations – Who doesn’t love Chris Horner? He tells it like it is and has more fun than anyone out there. He just belongs in bike racing. And the thing I respect the most about Horner is that he knows his limitations and totally sacrifices himself for the team. Knowing your true limitations takes a long, long time to understand. Chris is a seasoned professional and has raced and trained for years and years. He knows what he is good at and he knows his limitations. It’s important for all riders to learn about themselves in this way. But be careful, as I believe too many newer riders stereotype themselves long before they need to. How often I hear, “I can’t climb” or “I can’t sprint!” At the lower levels of the sport, fitness can overcome limitations in many circumstances.
I hope you enjoyed the Tour this year as much as I did. What a great race with the Green Jersey going down to the last sprint and the time trial deciding the podium on Saturday. We are already looking forward to next year!
Ride safe, ride strong
Bruce Hendler is a USA Cycling Coach and owner of AthletiCamps in Northern California. For the past 10 years, he and his experienced team have helped athletes of all levels achieve their goals in the great sport of bike racing thru cycling training camps, cycling coaching and performance testing. To contact AthletiCamps, visit their website at www.athleticamps.com or follow them on Twitter.