In the past, it was all about bikes and bits but now cy­cling teams are look­ing at tech­nol­ogy, data and com­mu­ni­ca­tion in a big way. It’s a big part of Di­men­sion Data’s strength. MC

Procycling - - DATA IN CYCLING - Wri ter: Fran Reyes Pho­tog­ra­phy: Gru­ber Im­ages*

“Even if it is com­mu­ni­cated within min­utes of the start, strat­egy takes weeks of prepa­ra­tion” Luca Guer­cilena man­ager, Trek-Se­gafredo

Sala­manca. At the start line of a stage of the Vuelta a Es­paña, Cris­tián Ro­dríguez fid­gets while try­ing to set up the cy­cling com­puter on his bike. “Oh boy, I can’t see any­thing prop­erly on this screen,” mut­ters the Caja Ru­ral-Se­guros RGA rider. Ro­dríguez is a highly-re­garded young rider from Spain, a promis­ing all­rounder who some think could be­come a grand tour con­tender. He has been train­ing on watts since his ju­nior years, fol­low­ing the ad­vice of for­mer rider Michele Bar­toli.

Do riders use power me­ters so much in train­ing that they de­pend on them in rac­ing? “It is not only about the watts,” Ro­dríguez says. “I like to look at the pro­file dur­ing the stage to know which climbs are com­ing. And also, do you know how much of an edge it gives to see a map of the race route on the des­cents? Good bike han­dlers can be much faster thanks to that.” What a gam­bit: de­scend­ing at 70km/h with one eye on the road and the other on a tiny screen on your han­dle­bar. What a time to be a cy­clist!

Let’s be­gin with some cy­cling plan­ning 101, a scrap of knowl­edge usu­ally given out in the first class of ev­ery team man­age­ment course: the dif­fer­ence be­tween strat­egy and tac­tics. The strat­egy is the broader plan: the re­sources that are go­ing to be used and how they are go­ing to be de­ployed to achieve the de­sired end in a race. The tac­tics are the de­ci­sions nec­es­sary to ac­com­plish the mis­sion. There are big de­ci­sions – who will at­tack and where - and the small, like which side of the road is prefer­able at a cer­tain point. Tac­tics are of­ten im­pro­vised in the heat of rac­ing; strat­egy is es­tab­lished in the bus be­fore­hand.

“Even if it is com­mu­ni­cated within min­utes of the start, strat­egy takes weeks of prepa­ra­tion,” says Luca Guer­cilena, the Trek-Se­gafredo man­ager.

How and when this prepa­ra­tion takes place varies from team to team, although there is a gold stan­dard out­lined for us by Bin­gen Fer­nán­dez, the sports di­rec­tor for Di­men­sion Data: “First we cre­ate a GPX file, which is the map for­mat read­able by most de­vices and apps, of the race route. By look­ing at it, we fig­ure out what the race is go­ing to be like. Then we call the riders we plan to line up and their

re­spec­tive coaches, to get a re­port of their shape and some feed­back from them on how they are ap­proach­ing the race.”

These calls are par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant in cy­cling, which is one of the few team sports where ath­letes are dis­persed over geo­graph­i­cal ar­eas too large to meet up reg­u­larly and there­fore train at home, alone. How­ever, they still re­port to their coaches, both with calls and through apps like Train­ing Peaks. This al­lows coaches to present the planned train­ing ses­sions to their ath­letes, right down to the most spe­cific de­tail. It later sig­nals with a very sim­ple colour scheme whether the riders has fol­lowed the plan.

“That’s the only feed­back we get,” Fer­nán­dez says. “I guess it is eas­ier in other sports where the staff are ac­tu­ally present at the ath­letes’ train­ing on a daily ba­sis… But it is still a bet­ter world than back in the day, when we would train on our own and travel to the races with­out pro­vid­ing our DSs with any in­for­ma­tion on our shape other than our raw feel­ings.”

How the races are an­a­lysed and the line-ups de­cided can be a very com­plex process. “We quan­tify and take into ac­count ev­ery­thing,” ex­plains Xa­bier Artetxe, coach for Team Sky. “For a stage race, we first sort the stages by the type of rac­ing we are fac­ing: how many sprint stages, if there is a time trial and how

long it is, how many moun­tain stages, whether they are sum­mit fin­ishes or not, how much to­tal al­ti­tude gain there is…

“Once we’ve bro­ken down the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the race, we choose the riders who take part depend­ing on their qual­i­ties, their shape and the goals they have in the sea­son. For ex­am­ple, send­ing a sprinter to a hilly stage race like the Tour of the Basque Coun­try to score re­sults wouldn’t make any sense, but such a race can be use­ful as a train­ing

block for his up­com­ing goals. Then, coaches and sports di­rec­tors to­gether dis­cuss all those as­pects to piece to­gether a line-up ac­cord­ing to the spe­cific race tar­gets and the wider goals of the team.”

Once the line-up is de­cided, it is time to com­mu­ni­cate it and be­gin pre­par­ing the race with the riders them­selves. “Once we have picked the riders, we speak to them at least a week be­fore the race,” says Artetxe about Sky’s meth­ods. “The DSs send them a brief­ing break­ing down ev­ery stage to the de­tail, defin­ing tar­gets for each cy­clist on each rac­ing day and out­lin­ing the over­all plan of the team: who is the leader, who has what role.”

This thor­ough def­i­ni­tion of roles might seem su­per­flu­ous, but riders give a lot of value to it. Riders said it was one of the main im­prove­ments Mer­ijn Zee­man brought into Lot­toNL-Jumbo when he was hired from Gi­ant-Alpecin in 2013.

“Mer­ijn has led the team in coach­ing,” says Steven Krui­jswijk, who was fifth in the Tour de France for the team in 2018. “Ev­ery rider has a goal at ev­ery race - not only the lead­ers. Mer­ijn has mas­tered the process of get­ting the team to­gether, set­ting a com­mon tar­get and mak­ing ev­ery­body feel his task is im­por­tant.”

Artetxe ex­plains that at Sky, they pro­vide the riders in­for­ma­tion about key sec­tions of the race and adapt the train­ing ses­sions to them. “We in­tro­duce ef­forts sim­i­lar to those de­manded by the race in the train­ing rides dur­ing the build-up.”

The team also sends videos of the course. “If the roads have never been rid­den in a race be­fore, some­one from the staff records them. And if there are prece­dents, we take ad­van­tage of YouTube and other sources to pro­duce a video that shows what the course is like and how the

"The team bus meet­ing is usu­ally as­sem­bled around a Pow­erPoint pre­sen­ta­tion. We out­line the course, the weather, the strat­egy and the pos­si­ble sce­nar­ios" Luca Guer­cilena, man­ager, Trek-Se­gafredo

race might pan out.” But do riders ac­tu­ally watch those videos? “Of course. Although each one at their own con­ve­nience. Egan Ber­nal, for ex­am­ple, ar­rived at the Tour de France with­out know­ing the course nor watch­ing any of the videos in

ad­vance be­cause he felt he wouldn’t keep that many de­tails in mind by the time he had to ac­tu­ally race. There­fore, he would watch the videos of the fol­low­ing day’s stage the evening be­fore it, after get­ting his mas­sage.”

How the riders re­ceive all this in­for­ma­tion varies. Di­rect com­mu­ni­ca­tion with coaches and the DSs is the pre­ferred chan­nel. Squads like UAE Emi­rates have de­vel­oped pri­vate apps which show­case videos rel­e­vant to ev­ery race, links to down­load GPX files of the cour­ses, weather fore­casts and tools like

MyWindSock (to sig­nal the wind di­rec­tion and speed at ev­ery point of the race) or Wik­iloc (to get as many de­tails as pos­si­ble of the course). Oth­ers, like Mo­vis­tar, cre­ate Telegram groups for each race on which they pro­vide links to down­load or ac­cess the in­for­ma­tion. Smaller, more mod­est out­fits set­tle for an email with the route on Strava and a PDF at­tach­ment of the road­book.

“I, for one, am of the opin­ion that it is not nec­es­sary to over­load the riders with in­for­ma­tion on the days prior to the race,” says Fer­nán­dez, who is de­scribed by his for­mer rider Igor An­tón as “one who is in the van­guard of race-plan­ning and knows which help we riders need”.

“I pre­fer to go into deeper de­tail on the evening be­fore the race, or even in the

“I, for one, am of the opin­ion that it is not nec­es­sary to over­load the riders with in­for­ma­tion on the days prior to the race” Bin­gen Fer­nán­dez, sports di­rec­tor, Di­men­sion Data

team meet­ing we hold on the bus in the morn­ing. The team bus meet­ing is usu­ally as­sem­bled around a Pow­erPoint pre­sen­ta­tion,” Fer­nán­dez con­tin­ues.

“We out­line the course, the weather, the strat­egy and the pos­si­ble sce­nar­ios of rac­ing the other teams might cre­ate,” says Guer­cilena.

“We try to pack as much in­for­ma­tion as pos­si­ble into a meet­ing that should last 15 min­utes max­i­mum”, says Groupama-FDJ coach Julien Pinot. “We also ad­dress the width of the road in the key sec­tions and what the ap­proaches to those are like - with videos or at least with screen­grabs from Google Street View.”

Fer­nán­dez adds there is a spe­cial pro­vi­sion when deal­ing with flat stages for sprint­ers: “With sprint­ers, it is about look­ing at the race map and vi­su­al­is­ing turns and round­abouts,” he says. “Most of them tend to have an awe­some abil­ity to vi­su­alise and mem­o­rise the last kilo­me­tres. And then there is the wind. The speed of a sprint varies dra­mat­i­cally depend­ing on the di­rec­tion of the wind. Hence, the tac­tics of the sprint train are to­tally adapted to it.”

After all this strat­egy come the tac­tics. Although tac­tics are of­ten im­pro­vised, riders want to feel there is a brain in the driv­ing seat that isn’t fed by a heart beat­ing at 170 beats a minute – they want a voice to rely on.

“I like Patxi Vila be­cause he cal­cu­lates ev­ery­thing from the team car,” says Bora-Hans­gohe’s Lukas Pöstl­berger. “Be­ing able to trust the sports di­rec­tor to be in con­trol and to have the so­lu­tion for ev­ery­thing is re­ally com­fort­ing.”

Riders and DSs need to be up­dated dur­ing the race on cur­rent cir­cum­stances in or­der to choose their tac­tics. “Dur­ing the race, there are two sports

di­rec­tors fol­low­ing the race and one coach who is driv­ing the course some min­utes ahead of the car­a­van,” says Pinot. “The coach is tasked with dis­cov­er­ing any rel­e­vant de­tail that wasn’t no­ticed in the build-up, such as round­abouts which can only be rid­den on one side, or large amounts of spec­ta­tors in a par­tic­u­lar sec­tion of road, or wet cob­ble­stones in the cen­tre of a vil­lage. He col­lects this info and trans­mits it to the DSs, who re­lay it to the riders.”

Teams also have to re­act to what ri­vals are do­ing, though Al­lan Peiper, who is mov­ing from BMC to UAE Emi­rates as a di­recteur sportif for 2019 says, “Defin­ing your own tac­tic is more im­por­tant than try­ing to guess what com­peti­tors might try to do.”

“To con­trol the break­away, you need to know who is strong and who isn’t,” says Team CCC’s climb­ing do­mes­tique Si­mon Geschke on watch­ing ri­vals.

“In grand tours you spend three weeks rac­ing against the same pelo­ton, so you get to know ev­ery rider. In smaller races, you ought to do some home­work. There are riders, like Vasil Kiryienka or Alexis Gougeard, you would never let make it into the break­away if you want to have a sprint.”

“Know­ing the con­tenders is ob­vi­ously eas­ier in the big races, as we know who we are rac­ing against long in ad­vance,” says Guer­cilena. “But in smaller races, you get the start list the evening be­fore the race and it might be full of Conti and ProConti teams you don’t face very of­ten. We’ve had sit­u­a­tions in which one of our riders was in a break­away

with five other riders who he had never en­coun­tered in his life. Be­cause of that, the staff does some re­search on the eve of the race to get a sense of what ev­ery rider on the race is like.”

Strat­egy and tac­tics are of­ten based around the use of power me­ters. Fig­ures like Al­berto Con­ta­dor and Nairo Quin­tana have been very vo­cal against their use, ar­gu­ing that rid­ing to power has en­abled Team Sky to put a lock on some races, par­tic­u­larly the grand tour moun­tain stages.

“Yes, we do pro­vide riders with an es­ti­mate of the watt out­put they can and need to pro­duce on ev­ery sec­tion of a de­ci­sive climb,” ad­mits Artetxe.

But it is not nec­es­sar­ily as sim­ple as one rider sim­ply fol­low­ing their me­ter.

For­mer Sky rider Leopold König says, “You can pre­dict the av­er­age power you want to pro­duce. But, if the tem­per­a­ture changes, then you are go­ing to be mis­led be­cause it’s go­ing to have some im­pact on your body. There are a lot of fac­tors which have an in­flu­ence on how many watts you pro­duce: hav­ing a good sleep, be­ing good at draft­ing...”

The char­ac­ter­is­tics of the course also come into play. Julien Pinot ex­plains this with re­gards to his brother Thibaut’s per­for­mance at the sum­mit fin­ish of La­gos de Co­vadonga in the 2018 Vuelta - a stage the French­man won solo. “The power me­ter was use­ful for him at the bot­tom of the climb be­cause the speed was too high and he chose to let the favourites go a bit be­cause he knew that if he went into the red zone that early, he was go­ing to ex­plode. Later on, he came back to the group, at­tacked and went away alone. But at that point he couldn’t re­ally trust the power me­ter as the slopes were pretty un­even. That’s more doable on a stead­ier climb, though.”

“As much as I be­lieve in data and num­bers, there is some­thing else about cy­cling that isn’t sci­en­tific,” says Peiper. “It goes on feel­ing, willpower, in­tel­li­gence, in­tu­ition… And those things are quite vari­able, and hard or im­pos­si­ble to mea­sure. If you have an awe­some VO2 max and can’t ride your bike, you won’t go too far. On the other hand, riders with nor­mal pa­ram­e­ters have won Clas­sics thanks to be­ing smart. The more we can have data and an­a­lyse it, the bet­ter we will un­der­stand bike rac­ing. But this sport is not down com­pletely to data. Its tac­tics are un­pre­dictable.”

Back to Sala­manca, and the Vuelta. Josemi Fer­nán­dez, di­recteur sportif of Caja Ru­ral, ap­proaches Cris­tian Ro­dríguez and lis­tens to his com­plaints about the blank power me­ter. “You are al­ways think­ing about the num­bers, fo­cus­ing so much in the de­tails; you some­times for­get rac­ing is about pas­sion,” he warns his rider.

As Bin­gen Fer­nán­dez puts it: “We can pro­vide as much in­for­ma­tion as we want, but a rider must feel the race and take his own de­ci­sions in the spot. This is not a video game. I can’t move the cy­clists with a joy­stick. Thank God!”

“As much as I be­lieve in data and num­bers, there is some­thing else about cy­cling that isn’t sci­enti ic. It goes on feel­ing, willpower, in­tel­li­gence, in­tu­ition… Those things are quite vari­able, and hard to mea­sure" Al­lan Peiper, di­recteur sportif, Team UAE Emi­rates

Man­ager Doug Ry­der holds a meet­ing on the Di­men­sion Data bus

Sky's riders have been ac­cused of us­ing their power me­ters to sti le tac­tics in grand tours

Pinot used his power me­ter e fec­tively on stage 15 of the Vuelta, win­ning on Co­vadonga

Apps have be­come an in­te­gral part of train­ing and as­sist­ing tac­ti­cal plan­ning

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