Posts Tagged ‘Tour de France’

Coping with pressure

23 May 2017

In his book Etape, Richard Moore revisits stages of the Tour de France through the eyes of the protagonists. The first chapter in the book is about Chris Boardman’s win in the Prologue in Lille in 1994, which made him only the second Briton to wear the race leader’s yellow jersey. Boardman’s route into the professional peleton had been an unusual one; he turned professional relatively late, at the age of 25, after winning the individual pursuit at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, and then breaking the world hour record in Bordeaux in 1993–a record attempt that took place just as the Tour went through the city.

Boardman was invited onto the Tour podium the day after his ride, although not all of the Tour riders were impressed. Luc Leblanc, then the leading French rider, said publicly that most members of the Tour peleton could better Boardman’s distance if they put their minds to it.

Boardman was always quite anxious about his performance, and before Barcelona, he went to see John Syer, a leading sports psychologist.

Prior to the Barcelona Olympics, Boardman spilled out his fears to John Syer. “What if this goes wrong? What if I can’t go fast enough? What if the other guy’s faster? What if I puncture.”

Boardman expected Syer to offer words of reassurance. Instead he said: Yeah, well, those things could happen.” Boardman was puzzled. “I said, ‘Hang on, aren’t you supposed to be helping me here?’ But he said, ‘No, this is the deal, mate–elation and despair are two sides of the same coin, in equal and opposite proportion. If you want to risk the big win, you’ve got to risk the big low. So instead of trying to deny that, why don’t we stare it in the face?'”

John Syer was the first well-known sports psychologist in the UK. He was a former international volleyball player and coach, who came to prominence from working with the Spurs first team in the early 1980s. His book Team Spirit, one of a string of books he wrote or co-wrote to explain his methods,  was published in 1986.

A story I remember well from that book was of his work with the forward Steve Archibald, a talented player who needed a certain amount of anger to play well, but didn’t need it in the rest of his life. Syer helped him deal with this by having him visualise letting a bear(Archibald’s own image) out of a cage before the game, and then returning it to the cage after the game.

I remember the story because I tried a version of this myself in the early 1990s. I had taken a job in a new role that brought me into conflict with some of the engineers in the television company, and the head of department and his deputy proceeded to try to undermine me in every way they could. Nothing was too little trouble for them. Every day–for the better part of a year–was a sea of passive aggression.

By the time I went home each day, having absorbed the best or worst they threw at me, I always felt terrible. Remembering Syer’s story, I found a box and put it in the bottom of my filing cabinet. Before I left for the night, I would go through a ritual of visualising removing their hostility and leaving it in the box, in the office. It worked well enough.

As for Boardman, in that famous Prologue win, where he rode faster than any Tour rider before or since, he caught his ‘minute man’, the rider who left sixty seconds ahead of him, which shouldn’t really happen to professionals in a ride that lasts for eight minutes. His minute man? Luc Leblanc. What goes around, comes around.


My best 2015 Tour de France moment

28 July 2015

Steve Cummings wins Stage 14 of the Tour de France
 © ASO/X.Bourgois

My favourite moment in this year’s Tour de France, won by Chris Froome, was the stage win in Mende by Steve Cummings, the British rider who now rides for MTN Quebeka.

Several reasons for this. First, that MTN Qubeka is a “wild card” team at the Tour, one of those included by the organisers at their discretion, usually as part of a development strategy.

Second, Qubeka, which is South African-based, is an NGO devoted to improving opportunities for cycling in Africa, and half of its team are African. And since Saturday was Mandela Day, the timing was perfect. A South African friend sent me a  link to a South African report that suggested (tongue in cheek) that Cummings had had “the spectral hand of Tata Madiba on his buttocks”.

Third, it was a victory for craft and experience; Steve Cummings is a 34-year old rider who has been riding as a professional for more than a decade, riding for teams such as Sky and BMC, and has also had some success on the track, which tends to sharpen speed.

Although I like the romance of the African connection, it’s the craft element I’m going to write about here. The last four-and-a-half kilometres of the stage to Mende comprises a short-but-tough three kilometre climb followed by a fast downhill to the finish line. The young French climbers Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot crested the climb first, Bardet followed by Pinot. Cummings isn’t a climber, but he is a good time triallist and he’d used that power to get up the hill in third, to general surprise, but was still some way back from the other two.

Fighting for the gap

The trick in professional cycling when fighting for a stage win is not to let another rider get onto your back wheel; if they succeed, they will almost certainly be able to use your slipstream as a springboard to accelerate past you at the right moment. Where the craft came in was two-fold: first Cummings knew that he’d have the advantage on the downhill stretch: climbers are typically lighter than time-triallists. As he said afterwards:

“When the road tipped and went down, the race sort of changed, it was in my favour. I had more kilos, I was more aero than the other two.”

And as he passed the French riders, he went past at some speed, giving himself a moment’s advantage as they were first surprised, and then gathered themselves for the chase. But they were back on his wheel quite quickly. Cyclists say that winning often takes a little luck; you gamble and you might not succeed. For Cummings that bit of luck was that Pinot was immediately behind him, and not Bardet, for Pinot’s known to be careful on corners, and wouldn’t take them as quickly as Cummings was prepared to.

“I caught them and went right to the front ready for the corners. I knew Pinot would be cautious and that he wouldn’t corner as fast as I could. It wasn’t really a risk. I saw that he wasn’t on the wheel and went for it, using my track speed for the final 400 metres. It’s hard for a climber to stay on the wheel of a track rider.”

Sadly I couldn’t find one usable piece of video that shows the whole sequence. The Tour’s video of the day shows him – 2’30” in, commentary in French –  catching the French riders at the top of the hill; its video of the last kilometre shows him hitting the corners at speed (Cummings is already on the front when it starts). And you’ll have to click on the links, because embedding them here seems to involve a whole new career.

Bardet and Pinot said afterwards they’d made a tactical error. But they made good in the last week of the Tour, when each of them won on one of the big mountain stages in the Alps.


Lance and the return of the repressed

20 January 2013

Lance’s limited but significant confession on the Oprah Winfrey Show sent me back to USADA’s “Reasoned Decision” – their report on the organised doping conspiracy (their words, not mine) that was represented by Armstrong’s various teams, before and after his comeback.
One of the reasons was to check the odds that Armstrong was telling the truth when he claimed not to have used drugs on his comeback, in an age when biological passports make such things easier to check. The answer: at least a million to one against. USADA asked Professor Christopher Gore of the Australian Institute of Sport to examine Armstrong blood samples taken between 2008 and 2011, looking in particular at reticulocytes (the immature red blood cells that are a clue to the possibility of blood doping):

When Prof. Gore compared the suppressed reticulocyte percentage in Armstrong’s 2009 and 2010 Tour de France samples to the reticulocyte percentage in his other samples, Prof. Gore concluded that the approximate likelihood of Armstrong’s seven suppressed reticulocyte values during the 2009 and 2010 Tours de France occurring naturally was less than one in a million. Prof. Gore [p 140]

But there’s also a striking moment in one of the footnotes of the Reasoned Decision. Go back to the moment in 1999, right at the start of the Tour, when Armstrong was informed at he had tested positive for corticosteroids. [pp 31-32] The team doctor was prevailed on to backdate a prescription saying that Armstrong had taken a cortisone cream for a saddle sore. (According to the evidence given to USADA, Armstrong said to the masseur, Emma O’Reilly, who knew the story to be untrue,
“Now, Emma, you know enough to bring me down”.) But the striking part of the story is in the news conference that Armstrong gave, where he told journalists:

”I made a mistake in taking something I didn’t consider to be a drug,” he said, referring to what he called ”a topical cream” for a skin rash. ”When I think of taking something, I think of pills, inhalers, injections,” he said. ”I didn’t consider skin cream ‘taking something.’ ”

Now, one of Sigmund Freud’s more famous concepts is the notion of “the return of the repressed”, in which a forbidden idea surfaces despite our best attempts to police it. The shrinkwrapped blog explains it like this:

He theorized that an unconscious thought/feeling (Id derived) would constantly press for access to the executive fictions of the mind in order to be discharged. The Ego would be on constant alert to prevent the direct expression of the forbidden idea but the idea would find a disguise and surface as a symptom.

And what’s striking about Armstrong’s language, even in this brief quote, is how much he says about the technology of doping (“pills, inhalers, injections”). A clean rider wouldn’t even have mentioned this. With hindsight, the forbidden idea is escaping its repression.
Armstrong told Oprah that he didn’t think it was possible at that time to win the Tour without doping, and he may be right about this. In Matt Rendell’s book A Significant Other, about Armstrong’s team-mate Victor Hugo Pena in the centenary tour in 2003, Pena maybe gives another clue. He tells Rendell (this is from memory) “We all live this life” – meaning the ascetic life of no alcohol, no chocolate, no parties. “Only Lance leads it more than anyone else.”

The picture at the top of this post is from and is used with thanks.

In defence of Mark Renshaw

16 July 2010

This finish on Stage 11 – from the Tour de France on Thursday – will become famous. Mark Cavendish’s lead-out man Mark Renshaw, on the HTC Columbia team, tussles with Julian Dean, performing the same role for Tyler Farrar on the Garmin team, either ‘head-butting’ him, as much of the press coverage preferred, or pushing him back onto his line with his head. The Tour Commissaires (referees) decided that for this, and for going off line in front of Farrar, he should be excluded from the race.

This is quite a rare sanction – the last time it was used was 13 years ago, when the Belgian cyclist Tom Steels hurled a water bottle at another sprinter in a bunch sprint – reckless behaviour, at the least.

And it seems to me both that Renshaw was dealt with harshly – and that sooner or later cycling won’t get away with this sort of arbitrary decision-making.

For the non-enthusiasts, some basics. Cycling is a team sport, in which riders work together using their slipstreams to help their leaders or their sprinters to win. The physics are explained well in Matt Rendell’s book A Significant Other, but essentially a rider close behind another one can gain 30% in terms of speed for a given amount of effort. Hence the so-called ‘trains’ you see as teams close in on the finish of a race and try to set up their sprinter for the win. Each cyclist in the train cranks up their effort to the max for a period, before swinging off and letting the next rider take it on.

Renshaw, probably the best ‘lead-out’ man in the world at the moment, is the final link in the chain, and has the job of taking Mark Cavendish towards the line at speeds of around 70 kph, riding among dozens of others, before leaving Cavendish to accelerate away for the last 200-250 metres. When Cavendish is on form, which is most of the time, the combination is unbeatable, as we saw in the final stage to Paris last year, when Renshaw finished second to Cavendish, lengths ahead of their rivals.

Breaking up the train

Because the Columbia team is so good at this, the other teams have decided that the only way they can win is by breaking up the Columbia train in the last kilometre. And that’s what happened yesterday. On the video – there’s a slow-motion sequence filmed from above at 1.38 – we clearly see Dean move quite sharply across Renshaw’s line from the side, pushing Renshaw to the left, trying to close him in to the barriers so Cavendish can’t come past. Thor Hushovd had tried something similar – but much less contentious – a few days ago. If this were football, it would be the equivalent of holding a striker to stop them attacking a cross.

Renshaw uses his head to push Dean back onto his line – taking even one hand off the handlebars at 70kph is suicidally dangerous, for you and others, as the bike could well start weaving.

Then, as Cavendish goes past, Renshaw moves off his own line a little, to the left, and impedes Dean’s Garmin team-mate, Tyler Farrar. Forcing a rider into the barriers is highly dangerous, and can put cyclists into hospital for weeks, or months. But Renshaw stops quite a long way from the barriers (it may even just be a reaction to the way he’s had to hold Dean off); Farrar, who’s probably beaten anyway, checks slightly and then moves on through the gap. In football terms, whether intentional or not, it is the equivalent of the tap tackle rather than the studs down the calf. And it’s worth adding that Renshaw himself is generally regarded as a ‘fair’ rider (not all of them are), and that he said afterwards that he didn’t see Farrar to his left.

So, although the Commissaires’ decision was said to be unanimous, there is huge room to doubt its appropriateness. There are other penalties they could have imposed, ranging from a fine to relegating Renshaw to the bottom of the day’s standings. (Two riders who started a stand-up fight after crossing the line earlier in the Tour were merely fined, for example.) And why Dean wasn’t penalised is a mystery. They seem to have punished the reaction and not the original foul, as football used to do in the days when the best players didn’t get as much protection from defenders who were trying to kick them out of the game.

It’s also worth making a point about process. The Commissaires made their decision on the basis of the broadcast footage, and without hearing submissions from the team (team officials were called in to be told of the decision). The rules about what is or isn’t allowed in a sprint are unclear, and inconsistently interpreted. There’s no appeal. The Tour organisation, ASO, can get away with this because it is a private organisation, and because teams want to be invited back in the future. But the losses for the team are potentially considerable; Renshaw loses earnings and reputation; Cavendish may win fewer stages (although one wouldn’t bet on it); Columbia may have issues with its sponsors or its Tour earnings. Decisions need to be made quickly on the Tour because every day is another stage, and so every day counts. But we’re no longer in a world where judges can routinely make arbitrary decisions without appropriate process or representation and expect to get away with it. It’s only a matter of time before the ASO finds itself in a legal dispute with a team because a Commissaires’ decision breaches the rules of natural justice.

Tom Simpson, ‘cycling’s Icarus’

26 July 2009


The Tour de France climbed Mont Ventoux yesterday, and the British riders found their way to pay their respects to Tom Simpson, the British cyclist who died on the climb in 1967, a mile short of the summit, suffering from a mixture of heat exhaustion, dehydration, stomach problems (he’d been ill for several days), amphetamines and alcohol. The best account of that fateful day is in William Fotheringham’s biography Put Me Back On The Bike, which makes it clear there were other causes as well; professional insecurity and Simpson’s burning desire, which quite often pushed him beyond his physical limits.

Simpson was the first British cyclist to make a real impact on professional cycling, and is probably still Britain’s most successful racer, winning among quite a lot of others the World Championships, Paris-Nice, and classic one-day races such as the Milan-San Remo (not won by another UK rider until Cavendish’s win earlier this year). The first, too, to wear the leader’s yellow jersey in the Tour, with a best finish in sixth place.

Yesterday David Millar threw an inscribed Garmin team cap to the foot of the memorial, while Charly Wegelius added a water bottle. Mark Cavendish removed his helmet. Bradley Wiggins, who had gone past at the business end of the stage about half an hour before, Twittered afterwards that he’d had a photo of Simpson taped to his bike.

Shed a tear today for Tom. I had a little extra strength today from somewhere. Had a photo of the man on my top tube.

And I hadn’t realised until yesterday that Simpson’s daughter, Joanne, had shared the same house as Bradley Wiggins’ dad, Gary, when Gary Wiggins was competing professionally in Belgium.

The most exact epitaph for Simpson came earlier this year from David Millar, who’s had his own problems with drugs. In his introduction to Simpson’s recently re-published autobiography, Cycling is my Life, he described the memorial as a poignant reminder of “how close he got and how far he fell – Tommy Simpson, cycling’s very own Icarus.”

Some of the best books on bike racing

5 July 2009


I’m never sure about posts which are basically lists, but I have been mulling this one over for a few months now, and there will never be a better moment than this year’s Tour de France ‘Grand Depart’ in Monaco to share them. So here it is:

Best introduction to the Tour de France: Inside the Peloton by Graeme Fife Fife – a prolific cycling writer – manages to combine both the sense of the sport and how it works, as well as the history of the race and most of the ‘grands’, the riders who have dominated it.

Best inside account by a professional: Paul Kimmage’s book A Rough Ride. Kimmage, now a sports journalist, was a successful amateur who never won a race as a professional. His book, published in 1990, was the first to break ranks on the sport’s drugs culture in the ’80s, and he was ostracised for most of the ’90s. But the book does more than this; it gives a feel for the life of the journeyman pro (in the same way, say as Eamonn Dunphy’s Only A Game did for football in the ’70s).

Best Insight Into being a team domestique: Domestiques are the team riders who can’t win for themselves, but ride for their leaders, preventing breakaways, chasing them down, keeping the pace high in the mountains, and so on. A Significant Other by Matt Rendell (based on Victor de la Pena’s diaries of the 2003 Tour) catches this better than any other. There’s a splendidly geeky section on the physics of the peloton, and a fine chapter in which de la Pena explains his team role in detail on one particular stage.

Best fictional account: Tim Krabbe’s The Rider – a novella about an amateur race, seen from the perspective of one of the riders. Almost existential.

Best book written by an insider about a pro team: A tie here, and both are about professional British cycling teams, about fifteen years apart. In Wide Eyed and Legless, Jeff Connor (a former fell-running champion-turned-journalist) is sent to ride the Tour stages ahead of the race and also report on the ill-fated ANC-Halfords team, under-prepared and under-financed, as it falls apart during the race. Team on the Run is written by John Deering, the press guy of the Linda McCartney team, funded by the vegetarian food company, and by Paul, who comes out of the story well. There are some highs – an unexpected win in the Giro d’Italia, for example – before the money goes astray.

Best book about racing as an amateur – or maybe just the best book about racing: The Escape Artist by Matt Seaton, a wonderful account of the slightly obsessive nature of the amateur rider. It sets the tone with a well-judged description of a tricky but exhilarating part of a favourite training run, and also of his first experience of riding fixed wheel at the Herne Hill velodrome (which ends calamitously). This is about cycling as a way of life – which comes up hard, later, against his wife’s illness and early death. I’d say it’s the best of all of these books.

Other cycling posts:
Reaching the heights, touching the void

In praise of Mark Cavendish

Cycling and painting

Doping, cycling and the Olympics

Sporting records, limits and technology