INFORMATION IS POWER
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
“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