As every new cycling fan, such as myself, enters the strange and beguiling world of pro cycling a vast number of questions arise. Why is the yellow jersey yellow? What makes a good domestique? Who is lé patron?
For me, the largest theme amongst those was the astonishing number of riders that compete in World Tour races and their suitability for the days challenges. I found myself surveying the huge array of riders in the peloton and identifying who was in the frame for the podium on that particular stage or one day race, or, who was using it for training for a race later in the season. Herein lay the strangest characteristic of road cycling that I have never quite fully managed to understand. Who is actually racing?
The most obvious example to analyse this phenomenon is the 2012 year of Bradley Wiggins. 2012 saw him entering races purely to win and in the process utilised a ‘riding to win’ philosophy unlike no other rider in recent history. Wins at Paris-Nice, the Tour of Romandy and the Dauphine were all used as a stepping stone to July and the Tour de France. In the process he quashed the notion that riders who were in form in June for the Dauphine, would flop at the Tour whilst also becoming the first rider to win the above races all in one season.
As Team Sky supremo Dave Brailsford and sports scientist Tim Kerrison consistently presented the media they were always 100% racing to win. Yet this approach hid an even more refined method. Racing only at specific times throughout the year, freeing up more time for training camps, often at altitude and at specific points during the season, ensured that Wiggins was in control of what he achieved on the bike. Indeed Kerrison noted that Wiggins was attempting to be at 95-97% performance all year, at all races he entered.
Wiggins’ story is an obvious one, yet a look into the past, particularly in 2010 when he rode the Giro as preparation for the Tour, reveals that for him racing as preparation or training didn’t cut it like it did in 2009 as he finished 4th (now 3rd) in the Tour de France. Racing to win was now his de facto method of participation. Ultimately he trained to race and as riders are getting closer and closer in terms of their abilities without the skewness of doping, will racing yourself fit provide success?
Perhaps the answer is, that like many other facets of pro cycling that continue to fascinate me, training techniques, depend on the rider and his/her idiosyncratic body and their particular end goal: one day race, a weeklong stage event or one of the grand tours. The traditional build up to the World Championships in September of every year of many a pro cyclist involves entering the Vuelta in order to gain race fitness to be at top form for the Worlds. In 2012, 11 out of the top 30 finishers in Valkenburg rode the Vuelta and of the top 10, 6 of them including podium finisher Alejandro Valverde and winner Philippe Gilbert had finished the Spanish grand tour mostly in the mid to lower field (with the exception of Valverde) in the general classification. Clearly riding the Vuelta this year was extremely tough with numerous summit finishes, not suitable for a sprinters World Championships course like we saw in Copenhagen in 2011 but highly correlated to the hilly challenging nature of the Limburg parcours.
Whilst Team Sky’s spreadsheet, clinical training style is somewhat in stark contrast to the time-honoured training ‘by feel’ which Thomas Voeckler is the greatest proponent of, there must be room for both of them in today’s cycling world. With the 2013 World Tour cycling season now at 271 days long, starting in January with the Tour Down Under and finishing with the Tour of Beijing in late October, there is perhaps now sufficient scope for more riders to reach their peak at more specific times throughout the year.
Ultimately I am sure there remains no consensus on the ideal training and racing partnership and I’m sure there will never be. Yet, this is precisely the reason why I love cycling, its mystique, its complexities and its variety. Here’s to the 2013 season!