Canadian Cycling Magazine
THE LAST TIME THERE WERE NO OLYMPICS
International events kept Canadians from the Moscow Games. What the athletes of 1980 experienced can offer guidance to cyclists waiting and wondering about Tokyo
Following the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which Gordon Singleton wasn’t allowed to attend, the track rider was looking for something to do. There were simply no competitions for him. He did, however, have some funding from the Canadian government. That gave him an idea, so the Niagara Falls, Ont., athlete called his coach, Eddie Soens, in Great Britain.
“I’d like to go to Mexico City and break the 200-m world record,” Singleton remembers saying.
“We’re not doing that,” was Soens’s reply.
“What are we going to do?” Singleton asked and then emphasised that he had funding. “The government is going to pay for it.”
“We’re going to go to Mexico City and we’re going to break to 200 m, the 500 m and the kilometre,” Soens said. “Oh. OK,” Singleton said.
Singleton was chasing records because of a war on the other side of the globe that had started at the end of 1979. That December, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. In mid-january, U.S. President Jimmy Carter called for a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow if the Soviet Union didn’t pull out of Afghanistan by Feb. 20. In March, he announced that no U.S. athlete would be heading to the Games. By the end of April, the Canadian government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, as well as the Canadian Olympic Association, supported the U.S.’S position. Canadians wouldn’t be heading to Moscow either. For younger athletes, the boycott meant their Olympic dreams had to be deferred. For older ones, those dreams and all the hard work they entailed were dashed.
This past spring, Canadian athletes faced the prospect of missing another Olympic Games. On March 22, 11 days after the World Health Organization declared the covid-19 outbreak a pandemic, the Canadian Olympic Committee (coc) took a firm stand on the Games that were to start on July 24. The coc wouldn’t send any athletes to Tokyo this summer to protect their health and safety. At the time, the International Olympic Committee had given itself four weeks to make a call on the Games. Two days later, the International Olympic Committee and the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee issued a statement. “The Games of the xxxii Olympiad i n Tokyo must be rescheduled to a date beyond 2020,” it read, “but not later than summer 2021.”
The statement bought athletes some time – which they need as those who face lockdowns couldn’t train as they used to – and a new goal to work toward. But with so much of the world’s economies and transportation systems severely reduced by the global pandemic, it’s hard to say, let alone imagine, in what condition the sporting world will be in a little more than a year from now. Delaying things until summer 2021 might seem to give everyone ample time, but it might not.
The experiences of Canadian cyclists in 1980 can offer some insight and guidance to those facing uncertainty today. The boycott, with its finality, was different from the
current delay. The athletes then had no choice but to move on. The Olympic postponement carries the promise that the Games will happen. Yet, at the end of April, Yoshitake Yokokura of the Japan Medical Association mused that the Olympics might not happen without an effective covid-19 vaccine available. Yoshiro Mori, president of Japan’s Olympic organizing committee, said the Games wouldn’t be postponed a second time. Maybe, it will all end with a finality similar to the boycott of 1980.
“I think I received a call from the coach, Pierre Hutsebaut, directly to my parents house. I was surprised,” says Louis Garneau, recalling the moment he heard news that he wouldn’t be going to the 1980 Olympic Games. The abilities of the former elite road racer from Quebec City had progressed since he started racing in 1972. In early 1980, he had been discussing the road circuit in Moscow and the riders to watch out for with Hutsebaut. The invasion of Afghanistan was not on Garneau’s mind. “You know, when you are a cyclist, 19 or 20 years old, you don’t check on politics too much or what’s happening in the world,” Garneau says. “When you are a cyclist, your ego is very big. You have to look out for yourself. Back then, if you didn’t check the newspapers or check the TV, you didn’t know too much about those things. At this time, my preoccupation was more on racing and taking care of my performance. I was only in love with the bike. I didn’t care about all the politics.”
Steve Bauer of St. Catharines, Ont., was focused on team pursuit. He, and riders such as Gary Trevisiol, Peter Suderman and Claude Langlois, had been building to the Olympics by competing in other major games, like the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton and 1979 Pan Am Games in San Juan, Puerto Rico. “There was serious disappointment,” Bauer remembers, “At the time, it was difficult to understand why athletes needed to be brought into it.”
Before the boycott was put i nto effect, Singleton came out in support of it. “If a boycott would preserve world peace, then I’m in favour of it,” he said in 1980.
While Singleton wanted to return to the Olympics after becoming the first Canadian track sprinter to advance to the ⅛ finals in the 1,000-m event at the 1976 Games in Montreal, he knew politics and sport were linked. He was even ahead of the Canadian Olympic Association, which rejected the boycott at first.
Unlike the athletes of 1980, today’s riders have a unified opinion of the postponement of the 2020 Games: they understand why the coc took its stand. “It’s a different era now,” says Bauer. “The covid-19 pandemic has vast implications.” Some riders, such as track cyclists Jasmin Duehring and Tristen Chernov, were proud that their country showed leadership as the ico seemed to hedge its bets. Once the Games were officially postponed, there was hope for the athletes: they should get their chances to compete later. There was no such hope with the boycott’s announcement.
“I WAS ONLY IN LOVE WITH THE BIKE. I DIDN’T CARE ABOUT ALL THE POLITICS.”
Bauer, who turned 21 in 1980, had time on his side. In the years that followed, he transitioned from the track to the road. He’d win national championships and compete at the road world championships in Goodwood, England, in 1982. In 1984, he took silver in the road race at the Los Angeles Games. “Did the boycott make the biggest difference in the long-term? Probably not,” he says. For slightly older riders, their window as competitive athletes closed quickly after 1980. Garneau remembers fellow roadie destined for Moscow Martin Cramaro only raced for one more year.
Even though Garneau was a young rider, he had plans beyond the bike. “My goal was not to be a cyclist for the rest of my life,” he says. He started his cycling clothing and equipment company in 1983, of which he’s still the president. Yet, he didn’t drop his Olympic aspirations. With the encouragement of his mother, he vowed to target the ’84 Games.
Garneau might have had a spot on the ‘80 team, but he was by no means a shoo-in for ‘84. “It’s not easy to make Olympic team selection,” he says. “You need to be in good shape at the right time. If you have a cold, or you fall sick, you can miss it. Your races and training have to be perfect. The coach will also look at what kind of racer you’ve been for the past three years.” Garneau was able to make the team in 1984, and then retired at the end of that year.
For some current Canadian athletes, especially the women’s cross country riders, the selection process for Tokyo is unclear. Emily Batty, Catharine Pendrel and Haley Smith – the three in contention for two spots – still don’t know who will be on the team. With races cancelled because of the covid-19 pandemic, they don’t even know how the selection process will work yet. Depending on how the process develops, and how fit and healthy the riders are months from now, the what-if scenarios could intensify. What if the World Cup at Nové Město in the Czech Republic had happened at the end of May? Would that have made the difference for one rider instead of the other? The postponement might help one athlete and hinder another.
For Michael Woods, he will have even more time to recover from the femur he broke in March, increasing his odds of a better Olympic road race.
Louis Garneau says he has one souvenir from the first Olympic team he was on: a letter from the Canadian government acknowledging his selection to the 1980 squad. He received it in the mail. While the government did honour the athletes who couldn’t go to Moscow with an event in Ottawa, Garneau didn’t attend, staging a small boycott of his own. “I was upset,” he says. “That’s why I didn’t go.”
But the road rider has something else he gained in 1980. “Developing my motivation and focus – those were the only things that I can say were positive. Right now we have a bad period,” Garneau says, referencing the $32 million of debt his company owed to creditors in early March. “But we will come back and survive because I have the same attitude as I did in 1980. I missed the Olympic
Games, but I said I’d never give up. This is it.”
In the summer and fall of 1980, Singleton and his coach prepared in North America for the track cyclist’s world record attempts. Then it was off to Mexico City. The velodrome in the Mexican capital is at 2,230 m. At that elevation, the lower air density allows a rider to travel faster and farther at a given effort than at sea level. For Singleton, the location was also appropriate as two of the records he was chasing were accomplished in the same place: Omari Phakadze set the 200-m mark of 10.61 seconds and Pierre Trentin secured the 500-m record of 27.85, both in Mexico in October 1967. José Ruchansky had the 1-km record, 1:04.225, which he had set in La Paz, Bolivia in November 1978.
Usually, great achievements in sports feature spectators. Singleton knew what it was like to race in front of a crowd. But the atmosphere during his 200 m record attempt on Oct. 9, 1980 was quite subdued. “It was on a Thursday morning and there was nobody there,” he says. “I had to get up on the track and say, ‘OK. Go break a world record.’”
On that day, Singleton set two new records. With a flying start, he rode the 200 m 10.58 seconds and the 500 m in 27.31. The next day, less than 24 hours after getting his first world record, he polished off the kilo in 1:03.823.
Singleton’s attempt at the records was a creative way to handle the time and space offered him by the boycott. Garneau and Bauer eventually found success in the sport, but Singleton struck quicker and saw big results. It was a masterful pivot. Today riders need to find their ways of pivoting their training and their goals in light of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s a more challenging situation than in 1980. Track cyclists and many road cyclists can only ride on virtual courses. Maybe 2020’s “Gord Singleton” will find glory with a smart trainer and a pixel parcours. The world is going through a massive change. The Canadian riders who will find success will have to change, too, in creative ways.
PETER DISERA’S OLYMPIC DREAMS DEFERRED
Tucked into a table at the back of a small café in Girona in late February, Peter Disera and I sipped cortados and talked about how amazing it felt for him to be the top Olympic contender for the Canadian men, thanks to his seventh-place finish in the short circuit race at the Nové Město World Cup in 2019. He was still in a state of disbelief and excitement. What would an Olympic start do for his career? When he flew back to Canada at the end of that month, nothing was amiss. Two weeks later, we were texting again as he quickly left California after a U.S. Cup started and was cancelled midway through the weekend due to covid-19. The ioc had finally admitted that Tokyo may be in trouble. The Olympics might be postponed, he messaged, and did I want to do another quick interview?
The uncertainty was palpable through the phone when we spoke again. He was in B.C. with his longtime girlfriend. All of us were in self-isolation. Twenty-four hours later, the statement from the Canadian Olympic Committee came through saying that even if the Olympics took place, Canada was out. My phone pinged minutes later. “Do you want to talk?” Extrovert that he is, Disera wasn’t just facing his Olympic dream slipping away, he was looking at the months of no racing, physical distancing and solo rides, and feeling deeply unsettled.
By the time the Games were officially postponed, Disera was actually relieved. Finally, an answer to the uncertainty. Or at least, one answer. “What I don’t know yet is how qualifying will be impacted by this,” he said. “I don’t know when we’ll be able to race again. But my end goal hasn’t disappeared. It’s just – I don’t know where it is.”
“I understand it and I respect that postponing is the right thing to do, but what the heck? I was working so hard. I was so focused. Now it’s all up in the air. For me, the hardest part is going to be avoiding getting complacent while just training and not knowing when the next race is,” he admitted. “Heading into what would have been the start of the season, my fitness was trending in the right direction. The Olympics course suits me. I felt great on that course, and I hope I can race there again. And yes, regardless of how realistic the outcome is, I want to medal at Tokyo.”
“Saying outright winning is my goal would be abundantly ambitious,” he said. “But, still, why not?”— Mollyhurford
TOP WOMEN XC RACERS HAVE ANOTHER STRESSFUL YEAR AHEAD
For most nations, it’s clear which riders will be the Olympic contenders. In the Canadian women’s cross country field, three women were arguably in the running for what will likely be two spots. In 2019, Haley Smith took third in Nové Město. Catharine Pendrel had a fifth-place finish in Lenzerheide. Emily Batty rode to ninth at the world championships in Mont-sainte-anne.
All the cross country-related uncertainty that has come with the coronavirus pandemic – confusion over qualifiers and no clear date for the return to racing – has forced the riders to manage their expectations and their fitness as best as they can.
“Even when there was uncertainty, there was still hope,” Pendrel said. “Now that it’s postponed, it is just a big mental shuffle for me. I turn 40 this year and there are a lot of decisions to make. I had a Plan A for this season: go to the Olympics. If that didn’t work out, Plan B was crushing World Cups. Now I’m feeling a sense of loss, and figuring out how to move forward. I want to keep training because races may come back, and I need to stay engaged. So right now I’m trying to think, why do I ride? Without racing, do I still want to be that better, stronger rider?”
“We can’t just give up on our goals,” Pendrel concluded.
From self-isolation after returning from California, Smith had similar sentiments, but a more relaxed timeline. At 26, she understands that she’s in the position to fight for an Olympic spot a few more times in her career. “I’m sad. It’s challenging to handle because, while I hadn’t made the team yet, I felt like I had a pretty good shot,” Smith said. “It’s now kind of evaporated. The postponement of a year seems pretty massive, and while that’s a year away, it shifts the axis of your daily world.”
“Right now, I’m running through different ‘ what-if’ scenarios about what racing could look like, and trying to decide how to train,” Smith said. “I need a start date in mind, so I’ll make one up and begin training for it, and re-adjust my training as the race dates emerge. I’m also taking some time right now to reset, continuing to practise yoga. It’s been the biggest factor for helping me
“THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO ARE SUFFERING SO MUCH MORE THAN WE ARE, AND WE’RE LUCKY AND GRATEFUL THAT WE’RE HEALTHY AND THAT WE CAN STILL RIDE OUR BIKES.”
deal with some mental-health challenges that are resurfacing because of this. Meditation helps, too, though it’s hard to sit with your brain when you don’t like what’s happening in there.”
She pushed to find the positive: “As hard as it is to wait for the Olympics, they aren’t going to be cancelled forever. Right now, I think it takes a lot of effort to put on a happy face. But really, I haven’t lost anything. There are people who are suffering so much more than we are, and we’re lucky and grateful that we’re healthy and that we can still ride our bikes outside.”
There will be questions that will need answering in the coming months. Until the racing calendar comes back, decisions on new qualifiers versus old qualifiers and around riders who weren’t fit in 2019 but are coming into form in 2020 will need to be made. Is the goal fairness to the competitors who were leading the pack heading into 2020, or is the goal for each country to field the top competitors as May 2021 rolls around?— MH
VELODROME RIDERS NOW OFF TRACK
Canada’s women’s pursuit team has hauled in bronze medals at the past two Olympic Games and would have been well-positioned to finish on the podium in Tokyo this summer. While the change in schedule upends the typical four-year training cycle, team member and twotime Olympian Jasmin Duehring sees opportunity in the year ahead.
“There are certainly a lot of questions,” Duehring said. “For one, do we duplicate the training year we just finished? The best approach will be to stay adaptable.”
Duehring is living in California and is enjoying riding a variety of bikes on all manner of roads and trails. This change, away from strict training plans, allows her to stay fit and have fun on the bike, regaining her enthusiasm for cycling in general. “It’s been refreshing to ride my gravel bike and my mountain bike,” said Duehring, who also sees a strategic value in the variety. “The more disciplines I am doing, the more racing I can do whenever racing starts up again.”
Not one to soft pedal in any part of her life, Duehring is also looking into coursework even after finishing a master’s degree in mathematics education. The work helps her to stay mentally sharp and provides a rewarding change in focus while off the bike.
Meanwhile, farther north i n the i nterior of British Columbia, reigning Paralympic champion in the road
cycling men’s C2 time trial, Tristen Chernove is doing what so many athletes do: fitting in training around a day job. Chernove owns an airport management company. He’s been focused on how the covid-19 pandemic is affecting his business. In order to keep industry certifications up, Chernove’s airport needs to be maintained on an ongoing basis. Without flights coming in, he’s having to spend without much revenue coming in.
“I have a lot of employees to look after, and we’re trying to navigate through this,” Chernove said. “We’re being creative and adjusting the business model to create sustainability.” Chernove is bringing that same creativity to his preparations for Tokyo 2021.
“When I think about para-athletes globally, we all have strong attributes and experience in adaptability,” Chernove said. “The question is how we apply that drive for excellence in this situation.”
In Milton, Ont., track athletes are both teammates and housemates, enabling co-operation in training, and opportunities to boost morale. Kelsey Mitchell is in her first Olympic cycle, though no athletes have yet been publicly announced. For her, the emotions surrounding the status of the Games have been a part of life. “When the Canadian Olympic Committee said they would not be sending a team, it was quite emotional,” Mitchell said. “Once the ioc said they would delay the games, it was a huge relief.”
For the moment, Mitchell and her teammates are unable to get into the velodrome, and have focused on other activities to keep fit and pass the time. “We have our trainers and weight sets in the garage at home, so we’re able to keep training,” Mitchell said. “Of course, we’re not going to the velodrome, but otherwise it’s not that different.”
Until a specific training program is put in place for the team, Mitchell is doing a mix of trainer rides and weights three days a week, and doubling down on saddle time twice a week. Just like everyone else, she’s reaching out to friends and family through video calls, and waiting to know more about what comes next.
Cycling Canada’s high-performance director Kris Westwood offered insight into how the entire team will be approaching the challenges presented by the delays to the Olympic and Paralympic games. “We have specific dates, but at this time, there are still questions on how this may impact the number of qualified places, and from that, our team selection,” Westwood said in March. “For the time being, we’ve told athletes to approach this as an off-season. It’s important with the pandemic that athletes stay home and stay healthy. If and when events get rescheduled, there won’t be a need for them to perform immediately.”— Deancampbell
FINDING NEW WAYS TO TRAIN FOR BMX
On the West Coast in early spring, bmx national team coach Adam Muys was working hard to figure out how to put together a program to support his athletes as they prepare for the future. “Things are ever-changing right now, and resources aren’t what we would normally have,” said Muys from his home in British Columbia. “Initially, I’ve had the athletes focus on a two-week, unstructured block. The goal is to have them stay home, stay healthy and flatten the curve.”
As calls from public health came to maintain physical-distancing measures, Muys had to get creative to find fun challenges that would keep his riders focused and engaged. He also maked extensive use of video review, and devised ways to work on fundamental skills at home or in a driveway. “Track access is not possible right now, so we have other things to work on, like manual challenges. How far can you go?” Muys said.
Access to facilities is a big problem for bmx athletes, who need to build i mmense power to excel in supercross, where each heat is an all-out sprint of approximately 30 seconds. The athletes usually do weight training at Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C., but like most facilities in April, access to the weight room had been cut off. None of the team live together, so sharing equipment in one location wasn’t an option either.
Muys has taken inspiration from other disciplines. While there is no direct correlation f rom one sport to another, mountain biking requires bike handling skills, track cycling – especially sprint disciplines – demands power, and smooth pedalling skills translate over from road cycling. “I tend to speak monthly with the coaches from other programs,” Muys said. “There are always nuggets f rom other disciplines I can use with my athletes.”— DC
WAITING TO RETURN TO THE ROAD
Michael Woods spent the early days of the pandemic in isolation in Girona, Spain, healing from a broken femur suffered in the Paris-nice race. The resulting pandemic orders to stay home didn’t change much for Woods, who only left home – on crutches – to have his blood tested.
Following the 2019 Japan Cup one-day race, Woods went out to reconnoitre the Olympic course. Though it lacks the punchy, demanding final portion of the Rio course, Tokyo promises to be a challenging race.
“Both Mount Fuji and the Mikuni Pass are really going to be difficult climbs,” Woods said. “Technically, it will be an easier course than Rio, but I think it will still play out like a one-day Classic, with two or three riders out in the lead at the finish.”
With the race delayed for a year, Woods can focus on getting healthy without any time pressures. His previous career as a runner came to an end after he failed to heal fully before returning to competition. He’s not going to make that same mistake again. “I’m fully focused on recovery, and will ease back into things,” Woods said. “I’m spending a lot of time with my newborn daughter and my wife. I’m reading a lot of good books.”
“I don’t mean to diminish the experiences economically, socially or medically of others through all of this,” he said, “but I’m able to find a silver lining in my injury, and that’s helping me deal with the lockdown for the pandemic.”
Leah Kirchmann spent the early part of the pandemic in Sittard, the Netherlands, at the Sunweb training centre with fellow Canadians Alison Jackson and Ben Katerberg. Kirchmann was proud of Canada for taking a stand on the Olympics, and hopes the postponement of the Games will reflect the role the Olympics have in framing the values of sport. “The Olympics stand for fairness in competition, and that just wouldn’t be possible with so many athletes unable to prepare properly,” Kirchmann said. “I am grateful to see that they are postponed to the summer of 2021, and I hope they can be a celebration of better times.”
For the time being, Kirchmann and her teammates are focusing on adapting to the new situation. “Right now the coaches and performance team are looking to have us more in race shape into the fall,” Kirchmann said. “We don’t have any clear answers about the race calendar at the moment, and we will continue to make adjustments to the plan as more information becomes available.”
Being adaptable will be critical to success for all athletes. Being able to work with teammates in person is an advantage Kirchmann and other Sunweb riders enjoy when so many are only able to connect virtually. Still, that hardly means an easy road lies ahead. The focus in the short term is on the foundational work that will best set Kirchmann up when events can take place once again.— DC