“Yes, well, if you can’t drop them on the uphill, try and take them out on the downhill.”
The usually deadpan Sean Kelly cracks a joke on Eurosport during Stage 10 of the Giro overnight. He even chuckled.
Returning to racing.
Well the big news is tomorrow I’m lining up for my first race since last November. It’s only a low-key club crit, mind you. But it’s a race nonetheless; which makes it a significant milestone, both physical and mental. I’m under no illusions about winning or anything like that. My expectations are low. It’s going to be painful and, in all likelihood, I’ll be doing pretty well just to hang on to the back of the bunch. But regardless I’ll be smiling on the inside. It’s been a long time coming having missed the entire Australian summer.
While I’ve been doing more and more bunch riding in recent weeks, getting comfortable holding a wheel again, racing is a completely different story. I suspect my biggest issue tomorrow will be between the ears – worrying about those in front and around me on corners, for example. One by-product of this whole palava is that I’m feeling decidedly mortal these days. Crashing hurts. Crashing is expensive. And crashing is NOT fun. I’ve broken enough bones (six if you’re counting) in the past year to last several decades. No more thanks. Give me a wide berth people. Or prepare to hear all about it.
As for the rehab itself, the most recent batch of movement and (low) weight-bearing exercises from my phsyio have really made a huge difference. Stretching out the shoulder socket frequently every day, strengthening my rotator cuff with simple weight lifts, and improving my overall posture. I’ve tried to be very diligent and structured about things after the last setback, and combined I feel like I’m back to about 85% ‘normal’. This is hugely encouraging, even for an impatient bastard like me. Most days now I’m down to just a couple of paracetamol tablets, usually taken in the early morning just before I head out for a ride. Last Thursday I didn’t take any at all. That felt like a big win, let me tell you.
Strength-wise my left arm is still pretty weak. But I think I’ve finally accepted this element of the recovery is part of the longer haul. Besides I can still carry the grocery bags when necessary now. It’s slow improvement, but slow improvement is better than nothing. Or going backwards, of course. I’m off to see the physio again next week and I suspect we’ll be starting on some bicep and pec work.
But first, racing…
Days since op: 138
Days since crash: 154
Shirt removal pain-o-meter: 1/10
(Winter compression undershirt removal pain-o-meter: 7/10!)
Weekly riding: Pretty much back to normal now
Somewhere along the way, back in the 1980s, a great golfer became known as the ‘Great White Shark’. Around the same time an even more potent marketing drive from footwear giant, Nike, saw arguably the finest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan, rebranded as ‘Air Jordan’ with the 1987 launch of the iconic Jumpman logo. Granted they may not have been the first athletes ever to be marketed in such a way, but certainly they took things into an entirely new stratosphere for the personal branding of athletes.
These days everyone who’s anyone in sports has a brand and, of course, a logo. This includes basketballers, baseballers, golfers, tennis players, footballers and, yes, many of the current era’s top cyclists.
See how many of these you can recognise. Then scroll to the bottom for the answers.
(Andre Greipel, Brad Wiggins, Kobe Bryant, Novak Djokovic, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Chris Froome, Jarryd Hayne, Vincenzo Nibali, Kevin Durant, Lionel Messi, Mark Cavendish, Fabian Cancellara, Lebron James, Rafael Nadal, Usain Bolt.)
Forget skin suit. There have been plenty of cyclists who’ve gone the birthday suit over the years, usually in the interest of publicity.
In more recent times Britain’s former Track World and Olympic Champion Victoria Pendleton has revealed all for the cameras on several occasions, including a pre-2012 London Olympics shoot for GQ magazine. While in the men it’s well documented Italian Mario Cipollini has never been shy about getting his kit off, be it for the media or, ahem, ‘other’ purposes.
However long before either of these two athletes were even born, another giant of the sport went the full monty (save for a pair of slippers) to commemorate a famous win at the 1949 Tour de France. His name? Fautso Coppi.
Now to be fair on the scrawny Italian lad, Il Campionissimo was no ripplingly-built sprinter like the aforementioned riders. But he certainly was a cycling legend, or ‘phenomenon’ as the magazine called him. According to the (now inactive) cycling blog, Lagazzettadellabici, these somewhat comical photos of were taken in a Paris hotel room and appeared in ‘Paris Match’ magazine on 6 August 1949 – just two weeks after Coppi had won the 1949 Tour (all whopping 4,808km of it!) finishing 10’55” ahead of his arch-rival Gino Bartali.
The history of elite cycling is strewn with ego clashes, often within the same team. It can prove an epic juggling act for team managers and often ends in acrimony.
It’s one of those epiphanies we all have at some point of our journey into cycling. The moment when, despite outside appearances, we come to appreciate cycling is very much a team sport disguised as an individual sport. It’s a simple but undeniable truth that, over the years, has caused more than its share of friction in pro pelotons and engulfed many of the sport’s biggest names.
Now given success is the dominant currency of any professional sport, including cycling, it’s entirely understandable team owners, managers and sponsors want to assemble the strongest squads possible each year. Of course while entirely logical on paper, this desire brings with it with many complexities and challenges. After all, few young cyclists enter the top echelons of the sport dreaming of being nothing more than a domestique. While the majority will end up in precisely this role, everyone wants their chance, and if they don’t get it, well, it can fester away and lead to some nasty open wounds that affect far more than just the rider in question.
Cycling is far from alone, mind you. Politics is riddled with impatient understudies whose ambitions have led to considerable friction, if not full-blown bloodletting. Formula One is also notorious for it. Hamilton versus Raikkonen, anyone? Prost versus Senna? Or how about Vittel versus Webber, or even Ricciardo?
Focusing back on cycling, it’s not just the UCI World Tour either. Even at the domestic level here in Australia, the Subaru National Road Series, it can be tough to placate every rider’s ambitions, especially with an already short season providing few opportunities for riders to express themselves. Often it’s ‘fortuitous’ injuries that provide the solution, with one rider unable to start in a targeted race or tour, saving the team management from hard decisions – and the inevitable consequences.
A couple of years ago I spoke with Team Sky’s Head of Sports Performance Tim Kerrison, asking how their team management balanced the ambitions of individual riders with the wider goals of the team, specifically Chris Froome and Richie Porte, who at the time was Froome’s chief lieutenant in Grand Tours.
“I think Chris can see both sides,” Kerrison explained. “At the end of the day these guys all want their own opportunity until they draw that line saying ‘I’m done trying to get results for myself’ to become a domestique or super domestique. These guys want opportunities, we need to keep them hungry and give them opportunities when we can, so we can get the most out of them when supporting other riders. It’s a fine balance, but Chris can see Richie’s done a bloody good job supporting him over the last couple of years, Richie’s had his own opportunities as well, and I think Chris can see you get the most out of Richie when he’s happy. And if we deny opportunities for himself he’s not going to be happy in this team, so we have to get that balance right.”
As we’re already starting to see 2016 certainly has no shortage of intra-team balancing acts; potentially-complex scenarios where on-road harmony is likely to be far easier to talk about than actually achieve. Gerrans/Matthews (OGE & Australia). Van Garderen/Porte (BMC). Aru/Nibali (Astana/Italy). Froome/Thomas/Landa (Sky). Valverde/Rodriguez (Spain). Martin/Alaphilippe (EQS). Quintana/Henao/Uran/Chavez (Columbia). Largely similar riders with similar race aspirations, especially in the season’s key classics and stage races.
History tells us not all of these partnerships are likely to end happily. Here are some of cycling’s more acrimonious intra-team spats…
Hinault versus LeMond.
Very well documented and one of the more treacherous episodes in the history of professional cycling. Greg LeMond helped Hinault win the Tour de France in 1985 with the promise of returning the favour in 1986. And when we say promise, that’s exactly what we mean; Hinault declared publicly to the world’s media: “Next year in the Tour I will be just the road captain. I will raise hell in the race to make Greg win…that’s a promise.”
Raise hell the Badger most certainly did in 1986, but perhaps not in the way the American LeMond and his supporters had hoped. Hinault rode aggressively (as usual) and found himself in the race leader’s jersey at the end of Stage 12. By Stage 17 LeMond have moved into yellow and all seemed to be going to plan. Then things became complicated.
Despite his team mate now wearing the maillot jaune Hinault continued to attack relentlessly on Stage 18, leaving LeMond to fend for himself. The Frenchman would go on to take the stage atop Alpe d’Huez just ahead of his American team mate. Afterwards Hinault surprised everyone by suggesting the race was not yet over, and in an apparent betrayal of his La Vie Claire teammate LeMond, explained the final time trial would determine the winner. Hinault indeed won the time trial a few days later in Saint-Etienne. He finished 25 seconds ahead of LeMond but the time gap wasn’t nearly enough and the yellow jersey stayed on LeMond’s shoulders all the way to Paris, where he won the Tour by a comfortable enough margin of 3’10”. While he became the first (and still only) American to win the Tour the events of 1986 left a decidedly sour taste.
Author William Fotherington has spoken with both men on numerous occasions about the events of 1986, and their rivalry in general. In 1987 LeMond told him: “It was a nightmare on that team. It was pure war. We didn’t even talk at dinner…everything Hinault did was in some way to screw me.” In 2013 LeMond showed the wounds had eased, but only mildly: “I was fucked over a bit, but I’m not angry about it.”
To this day Hinault insists he helped LeMond win the Tour.
Eddy Merckx vs Rick van Looy.
He may have been the wunderkind of Belgian cycling. But after spending his first professional season riding for Solo-Superia in 1965, Eddie Merckx couldn’t get out of the squad fast enough, jumping ship to join Peugeot-BP-Michelin in 1966. Much of the reason can be attributed to one man, Rick Van Looy. 12 years the senior of Merckx, Van Looy was one of the most revered Belgian riders of his generation. Yet despite considerable personal success, the veteran appeared consumed by a deep jealousy of his younger countryman that lasted for many years – even when they were no longer team-mates. His bitterness reached its height with the reported ‘sabotage’ of Merckx in the 1969 World Championships in Zolder, Belgium, a race ultimately won by a Dutch outsider by the name of Harm Ottenbros.
With both Van Looy and Merckx named in the Belgian squad for Zolder, local expectations were sky high for the rainbow stripes. However the home team was a ‘team’ in name only, with competing ambitions ultimately torpedoing both men’s chances. Merckx abandoned while Van Looy, seemingly more intent on stopping Merckx from winning than saluting himself, finished a lowly 24th.
According to the French newspaper L’équipe: “This world championship, just as we’d forecast, was held to ransom right from the start by the formula of national teams, by disagreements among the Belgians – Rik Van Looy as ‘leader of the anti-Merckx clan’ – and by the order of battle, which was TO STOP Eddy Merckx winning. For him, the best of all in terms of absolute talent, the problem looked insoluble. And it was. So the winner of the Tour de France, crushed by numbers, paralysed by the hunting-wolves of the peloton left the race on the last lap so that his name never even figured in the results.”
In 1970 Merckx famously commented of Van Looy, “I admire the champion. I like the man a lot less.” Forty years later, in a 2010 interview with Cycling Weekly, Merckx explained: “The atmosphere at Peugeot was totally different (to Solo Superia). All I got from Van Looy and his cronies was ridicule, not one piece of help or advice. They were very unfair, I was still just a naive young boy really. With Peugeot, and especially with Tom (Simpson), it was different.”
Wiggins versus Froome.
This one bubbled away quietly for a couple of seasons, before rearing its head at the 2011 Vuelta Espana and reaching boiling point during the 2012 Tour de France. It was a race filled with considerable tension en route to an historic British triumph, which saw Wiggins finish on the top step in Paris with Froome one rung down. So caustic were things behind the scenes, the duo’s partners even became involved via a public social media slanging match. Wiggins’ wife tweeted specific thanks after his TDF win to Michael Rogers and Richie Porte, glaringly with no mention of Froome. Michelle Cound, Froome’s partner, then became involved tweeting herself that such behavior was pretty typical: “If you want loyalty get a Froome dog – a quality I value although being taken advantage of by others.” Ouch.
Things got even worse in 2013, with Froome fully expecting Wiggins to fall in line as super domestique after the deeds of 2012. But in shades of Hinault and LeMond it was never quite that simple. Froome felt clearly frustrated by his limited opportunities at Sky, feeling he could have won the 2011 Vuelta himself, and quite possibly the 2012 Tour. Wiggins felt humiliated by Froome’s unscripted shows of strength in 2012, specifically on the Stage 11 finish to La Toussuire and again on the Stage 17 finish to the Col de Peyresourde. While race circumstances were different, on both occasions Froome appeared to abandon his leader in the final kms, only to relent before the finish.
As David Walsh explained in his excellent book, Inside Team Sky, their uneasy relationship formed much of the narrative of Team Sky’s season that year: “Froome and Wiggins are ambitious, prickly and acutely aware that even though there are three Grand Tours ever year, there is only one that young boys (not brought up in Italy or Spain) dream of.”
In the lead-up to the 2013 Tour, their Sky team mate Geraint Thomas toed the politically correct line for The Guardian newspaper: “The decision on the leader is really for the team to decide and at the end of the day we are all professionals and it is our job, we will do what we are told.”
Ultimately Wiggins didn’t make it back to the Tour de France at all in 2013 after an ill-fated Giro attempt. His pre-Tour withdrawal saved more prying and speculation. But as Walsh observed, the damage was already done: “The relationship between two leaders in a cycling team can be like an exotic fruit – once mishandled, bruised forever.”
Visentini vs Roche.
At the end of 1985 the Italian Carrera Jeans squad signed Ireland’s Stephen Roche with an eye to capturing the biggest prize of them all, the Tour de France. While Roche had a poor first year with the squad in 1986, he bounced back hard in 1987. After winning the Tour de Romandie just ahead of the 1987 Giro he became the favourite to claim the maglia rosa and, understandably, felt he’d earned the right of team leadership. Trouble was his team also included the 1986 Giro winner, Roberto Visentini. As an Italian rider with an Italian team and the defending champion, Visentini also expected leadership.
According to writer Graham Healy: “Team management decided they would start (the 1987 Giro) with two team leaders. Before the race even began though there were lots of arguments between the two in the battle for supremacy within the team.”
Of course, two into one rarely tends to work, and this intra-team rivalry came to a head on Stage 15 when Roche attacked Visentini against team orders. As Healy again explains: “Roche seized his opportunity to win the race on the fifteenth stage to Sappada. Going against team orders, he attacked early on a descent. Directeur sportif Davide Boifava told Roche to desist, but he continued on. Behind, there was the farcical sight of Carrera team chasing their own man. But the chase eventually fell apart. It was a gamble that just about paid off, as Roche managed to take over pink by five seconds from Switzerland’s Tony Rominger. Visentini meanwhile had a torrid day, and ended up losing six minutes to his team mate. His chances of a repeat victory were gone. He was livid afterwards, as were the Italian fans.”
Time did little to soften Visentini’s displeasure with the Irishman, the Italian telling the media many years later. “Being attacked by opponents was normal, but it was my team mate and I could just not stomach it. I sometimes lost to star riders like Moser and Saronni, but I never complained. Roche’s attack was unacceptable…the gesture of Roche remains unspeakable.”
In the end both riders wore the maglia rosa and claimed two stages in 1987, however after seizing pink from team-mate Visentini on Stage 15 Roche never gave it up, going on to win the Giro by 3’40” ahead of Britain’s Robert Millar, before also winning the Tour de France, the only time Carrera would ever win the Tour. It was also the last time the team won the Giro. Roche left the team at the end of 1987 but returned in 1992 for his final two seasons as a professional.
Pain & Posturing
It was all going so well. Too well, perhaps. As I’ve been feeling better and better in recent weeks I’ve been ramping up my riding and working. But, naggingly, so too has the pain in my left shoulder. It’s been generally manageable with a bit of paracetamol, ibuprofen and the odd cement pill. Until last Thursday that is. I decided to have a crack at my first solid session of hill repeats in four months, with plenty of out-of-the-saddle gear mashing. Bad idea. I made it through the session (albeit with the help of a few sneaky short-cuts), but was in agony for most of the day afterwards, a deep throbbing pain right through the shoulder joint that, frankly, was all rather depressing. I hadn’t felt this bad for three months.
After a bit of a sulk at home – and contemplating the heavy duty painkillers once again (I resisted) – it was on the phone to my physio, also recovering from a separated shoulder as you might recall, for some guidance and reassurance. No, it shouldn’t be feeling worse. No, don’t get more scans just yet. Yes, I should come in as soon as possible.
After a worrying night contemplating what horrible new damage I’d somehow managed to inflict on the shoulder joint (when you have little idea what’s going on, there’s a tendency to always assume the worst), I saw my physio yesterday morning and it turns out I’ve been a very naughty boy. As I’ve been feeling so good – using the arm more, riding more, and working more at my desk – I’ve been a little too neglectful of my posture exercises. Truth be told, I haven’t done any for about the last 10 days. Cue the chin stroking and frowns.
Within barely a minute of (painfully) removing my shirt my physio suggested my posture was truly appalling. ‘Look at your position right now!’ Yes, I was hunched forward with decidedly rounded shoulders, a taller and skinnier version of Quasimodo. He explained my poor posture probably wasn’t aided by working for long periods on a computer, and has almost certainly led to an undesirable compressing of nerves, tissue and so forth in my still-healing shoulder socket. Which, of course, equals……pain.
Voila! Problem solved then? Just sit up straight, right? Well, not quite. I’m now back on a pretty intensive posture/strength regime to get my rotator cuff and other relevant muscles back on track – with strict instructions to do them every day without fail. This, in theory at least, should lead to an easing of pain in due course. The trick, as it is with most things in modern life, is finding time to stick to the schedule with so much else going on. Just the latest in a long line of physical and mental challenges to overcome since that fateful Californian descent last December.
In better news, had a good 50km ride this morning. 100% drug assisted.
Days since op: 109
Days since crash: 125
Shirt removal pain-o-meter: 4/10
Weekly riding: Some road, some trainer, some hills
Part 15: Two rides forward, one ride back…
Where did that three months go? It’s my 14-week post operation check up this Tuesday. I’ll be telling my orthpod the plated shoulder blade feels almost 100%. The AC joint and coracoid still hurt, however. The recovery has been a lot slower on that front – but my strength is returning, albeit glacially. In reality it’s been long enough now that I’m pretty much used to the discomfort anyway, it’s become normal to feel pain whenever I overstretch the arm, roll to my left in bed or try to catch something on reflex. Life goes on. Besides, that’s why they invented paracetemol, right?
On two-wheeled matters, my return to riding on the road continues and I’ve been able to wind things right back on the trainer to just one session a week. It’s so nice to get outside again on a regular basis, but it’s also been quite frustrating as the progression to date has been anything but linear. The first week back on the road I felt awesome, really strong, and put in several efforts that raised the eyebrows of several of my usual training pals. But a week later the wheels fell off. I felt horribly lethargic and couldn’t even keep up on a coffee ride. It was all rather depressing at the time, and I still don’t really understand what happened. Thankfully this week has been better once again. I’ve managed to put in about 250km, gradually increasing the intensity and distances. Who knows what will happen next week? I’m realising it’s best not to get too far ahead of yourself with things like this. Patience is everything.
The road season is getting into full swing now here in NSW and with a few big races coming up I must confess I’ve been tempted enough to renew my racing licence with Cycling Australia. Mind you, haven’t had the cohunes to line up at the starting line just yet – the mental side of things still seems to be the biggest hurdle. Straight line speed is no problem whatsoever. Cornering at speed, however. Yep – big problem. Corners I’ve hurtled around hundreds of times before, entirely safely, currently have me reaching nervously for the brakes every time, especially fast right handers like the one that brought me down last December. I guess time will heal those mental scars. Hopefully I can be back racing, even if it’s just hanging on to the bunch, in the next month or so. Competing for the win may be a while off yet.
In other unfortunate news, my legendary physio, Albert, has decided to try his hand at ‘method physiotherapy’. Like an actor who decides to live the part they’re playing in a film, he decided to crash (and destroy) his own bike on Good Friday, separating his AC joint so he can have complete empathy for my situation. I appreciate the solidarity mate, but really, it wasn’t necessary. Hope you heal quickly. Lucky you’re also married to a physio, ‘eh?
Days since op: 96
Days since crash: 112
Shirt removal pain-o-meter: 2/10
Weekly riding: Back on the road, but no racing – yet
Eurosport’s Carlton Kirby was back to his best during the Stage 1 team time trial at Tirreno-Adriatico. Commenting (positively) on the hugely simplified 2016 Androni-Sidermec team kit this is what he had to say about the old one: