Remote Control Bikes

The following article originally appeared in the July/August issue of Bicycling Australia magazine and is reproduced here with their kind permission. Be sure to check out the new issue out on 30 August for more articles by yours truly 😉

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REMOTE CONTROL BIKES
The rise of the long-distance, tech-enabled directeur sportif

Sporting director. DS. Team manager. Directeur sportif. Racing director. Big boss man. Bjarne.

It’s a position with many different names. But whatever you choose to call him, or her, at the summit of every elite cycling food chain you will find someone who is, ultimately, in charge of all things bicycle-related. The biggest cog on the cassette, if you like.

Historically, it’s been the person screaming themselves hoarse behind the wheel of the team car like FDJ’s Marc Madiot at last year’s Tour de France, and it often still is, particularly at the major races. But descend a rung or two on the world cycling ladder, and nowadays there’s a growing chance the person directing the team is someone who rarely actually sees the riders, let alone witnesses them race. A bit like Charlie from Charlie’s Angels.

Technology has been shrinking the world for decades now. It’s no particular surprise then, that it’s also doing so within elite cycling. Email. Skype. Twitter. SRM. Garmin. Training Peaks. Even freely available ride data apps like Strava. In the space of a decade it’s become altogether possible to steer a whole team of riders with little more than a smartphone. All you need is an internet connection.

A notion that not so long ago belonged squarely in the realms of sports-fiction, the benefits of this remote control approach can be very real, especially given the business efficiencies it promises to deliver teams, and even nations, that aren’t exactly flush with funding – that is, most teams in the world.

Squads are bigger. Dollars are tighter. The racing calendar has never been more congested. Nor as geographically and logistically diverse. You can either find – and yes, pay – more coaching staff to cover your bases. Or you can find another way.

Now you’d expect UCI WorldTour, Continental and larger domestic teams to embrace any kind of technology that might help to deliver their riders an incremental edge. And they do. But smaller teams? Well, frankly, they increasingly don’t have any alternative.

The team I’m personally involved with, Cellarbrations Racing Team (CRT), is new to the Subaru National Road Series in 2013. We’re very much a semi-professional squad, with what might politely be described as a ‘limited operating budget’. But with ambitions that are anything but limited, CRT Directors Scott Suine and Russell Menzies knew the Team needed a coach of the highest calibre to navigate through its debut season and, perhaps even more pertinently, put structures in place that will serve CRT well for many seasons to come.

“Scott and I realised early on we had to make a pretty fundamental choice,” says Sydney-based Menzies, also a member of the 2013 Racing Squad. “Do we want to have a few good riders, a nice kit and hope for the best? Or do we aim for something higher; something that will be around for years to come?”

With a firm commitment from two major sponsors, they went with the latter. And it set in chain a series of events which led, ultimately, to Scott Sunderland, Tour de France (Sastre, 2008) and dual Paris-Roubaix (O’Grady, 2006 and Cancellara, 2007) winning directeur sportif.

Scotts Suine and Sunderland go way back. They used to cross paths as juniors, or ’juveniles’ as it was called back then, and spent plenty of time together on NSW State Teams in the 1980s. When Suine and Menzies hit the go button on CRT in mid 2012, Sunderland was one of the first people they sounded out via a humble message over his website, ssstrainingsystems.com

“The best way to get good results is having good structures,” says Suine. “Who better to give you that, than a TDF-winning directeur sportif like Scott?”

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Inverell born and bred, Scott Sunderland emerged from his own career as a Belgium-based pro in 2004 to become one of the world’s most respected road cycling coaches during the past decade. After high profile tenures with the Bjarne Riis-owned CSC and the David Brailsford-led Team Sky, he returned to Australia in 2012 and is now, amongst other things, the coach of CRT. Just four months into the year his influence on our rapidly-developing squad has been nothing short of extraordinary. All the more remarkable is the riders have only seen him twice. It’s no exaggeration to say he’s been a far more regular face on Cycling Central than at any of our training rides or races.

“It’s a little counterintuitive. You think you need to have a coach around. But really, it doesn’t matter if he’s in Sydney, Inverell or the south of France (where he’ll be this July during the Tour),” says Menzies. “We’re actually finding it makes us more responsible for our own actions and training because he’s not here most of the time.”

Suine, Menzies and Sunderland all agree it’s a dynamic that has brought the team members closer together, developing a collective resilience and independence which, to date, has stood them in good stead on the road. Says Sunderland, “Regardless of where I am, they ride as a group almost every day, and share knowledge constantly. It stimulates bonding and helps the team to grow and improve together. The guys push each other and help each other to achieve more – on and off the bike.”

To those from the old school, this type of virtual coaching arrangement may seem a little absurd. But think about it. How else could a fledgling team of elite, but largely unknown, riders ever hope to engage the services of such an outstanding mentor in the prime of his coaching career? Matthew Harley Goss has more chance of winning the polka-dot jersey in France this year than that happening.

“It really isn’t a problem for us, we’re a generation that feels comfortable with technology,” says Menzies somewhat wryly, well into his 40s and old enough to be the father of several of his teammates. “We still get pep talks from the coach and, yes, bollockings when we deserve it – it’s just over a different medium.”

Bollockings or otherwise, Sunderland’s experience is undoubtedly a massive asset for the CRT squad. “It gives us exposure to an intensity and level of coaching that, frankly, we wouldn’t get at 80% of existing NRS teams,” says Suine. “That’s a massive coup for the current crop of riders, and future ones.”

But the benefits of Sunderland’s involvement extend far beyond coaching. A higher profile, better connected coach equates to a higher profile, better connected team. “Sponsors are always very interested in Scott’s involvement,” says Menzies. “Within Australia right now, probably only ORICA-GreenEDGE have coaches comparable to Sunderland’s international coaching and riding experience.” While this may sound a touch bold, he’s right.

Of course, the flexible arrangement CRT has with Sunderland rubs both ways. It’s also a real reflection of the continued casualisation of the workforce as a whole in Western society. The cost to the Team is significantly less than if they were to appoint an elite coach such as Sunderland on a full-time basis (something they openly admit they could never have afforded). Payment is instead based on an agreed monthly figure to work with six elite riders. Equally, the time and travelling commitment required by the coach is significantly reduced too. He’s free to pursue other interests, commercial and otherwise. Not dissimilar to a stunt rider from Cirque du Soleil, he has a foot clipped into the pedals of two very different bikes. And so far he’s enjoying the ride.

“I love coaching, it’s very satisfying. But there are other things I like to do as well,” says Sunderland, mirroring the attitudes of many Australians who nowadays prefer not to be pigeon-holed into one role. On top of coaching up to 30 riders at any given time – the maximum number he feels he can meet without diluting his services – Sunderland’s current resume includes everything from hosting European cycling tours on behalf of Cycling Australia, to media commitments with SBS and, as of recently, the newly-announced position of Race Director for the top tier events on the Subaru National Road Series; something he’s undeniably proud and passionate about.

“Australian cycling is at a turning point. There’s an opportunity to develop something exciting for the future, right now,” says Sunderland. “I want to help get the NRS to a position where all the Pro Teams are regularly scouting here, and teams from other countries – especially Asia – are coming to us, rather than us just going to them.”

Of course, a sense of patriotic-infused altruism isn’t all that appeals to Sunderland. After leaving Australia to race in the USA as a 19-year old, and then Switzerland shortly afterwards, lifestyle has just as much to do with his move towards more flexible coaching arrangements. “I spent 25 years in Europe – quarter of a century – first as a rider and then as a sporting director. It was the right time to come home with my family. These days I’m in Inverell for three-quarters of the year; a town with no traffic lights, hardly any cars, half-way between Brisbane and Sydney, my kids are less than five minutes from school and my wife’s 10 minutes from work. There’s also a solid group of 20-25 local riders and, yeah, some good coffee shops in town. But my coffee is still the best!”

Given the technology-driven way Sunderland liaises with the majority of his two-wheeled charges, he’s also quick to add: “After a bit of pushing and shoving at first, I also have a very good internet connection!”

So it seems coach and riders are pretty happy. But how exactly does this type of coaching arrangement work?

Well, using CRT as an example, pretty darn well. The bulk of the Team’s contact with Sunderland is made over an internet connection, with fortnightly rider-specific training programs emailed on Thursday nights, regular team Skype hook-ups, together with additional calls and emails to individual riders to assist with the honing of training programs, racing schedules and, inevitably, injury management. The Team is also in regular contact via a dedicated CRT Google Group which can be accessed from anywhere in the world, 24/7.

“Scott’s always there if we need him. For example, leading up to Easter I rang him at 10pm one night to talk about a scheduling problem. When I woke up at 6am the next morning, I had an email with a revised program,” recalls Menzies.

Suine agrees, adding: “Texting is probably the quickest and easiest for both sides. If it’s pelting with rain in the morning, we shoot him a text and Scott will provide a pretty much instant alternative, possibly on the trainer or another workout – either that or tell us to get off our backside and get out there!”

The CRT model also includes plans to meet as a group, including Sunderland and sponsors, every couple of months during the road-racing season for short training camps. The first was held in February at Ettalong on NSW’s Central Coast, with a second taking place just after Easter. The rest is done over email, telephone and Skype.

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“A lot of coaching programs are formulaic. But Scott develops individual plans based on our condition, racing schedule, and riding goals,” says Suine, himself having coached several younger riders on a remote basis over the years. “He’s constantly probing for feedback on how we’re feeling, before and after workouts, so he can keep honing them. Just as if he was alongside us.”

Ultimately, money talks. Like any relationship the level of coaching and depth of support is linked to dollars. But as Sunderland stresses, whatever the budget, the focus is on creating the best pathway for success whatever the situation riders find themselves in. “In the early days at Sky, for example, I think the team perhaps tried to change too much too quickly. You think you’re doing the right thing, but it can easily lead to information overload for riders, making it hard for them to concentrate. That’s why so far at CRT we haven’t rushed in with detailed power data analysis and things like that – maybe later in the year, around Grafton-Inverell time, or even next year.”

Managing this link between peak physical and mental performance is a hallmark of Sunderland’s coaching style, with sports psychology a pivotal part of his approach to mentoring riders over the years, including his current role with CRT.

“Regardless of where in the world the riders were, a major part of my job with CSC and Sky was to be constantly checking up, and checking in,” recalls Sunderland. “How’s the training? What numbers are you hitting? How are the energy levels? How’s the wife and kids at home? If I understand how they’re feeling, and why, I know how to unlock the door to get the most out of them.”

Whilst still early days for a team yet to roll off the start line for its first NRS race, the key to success appears to rest with having a core of self-motivated riders, marshalled by a couple of senior on-road ‘lieutenants’ to keep things running smoothly on a day-to-day, and race-to-race, basis. To this end, Sunderland has worked hard to forge a long-distance triumvirate with his two team directors, Suine and Menzies. “We’re liaising with Scott on an almost daily basis, covering everything from race tactics and training programs, to techniques for maintaining motivation levels with individual riders,” says Menzies. “There’s feedback going pretty much constantly in both directions”.

Sunderland agrees, pointing out the roles of Suine and Menzies are essential given the relative inexperience of several CRT squad members.

“No coach can be with their riders all the time. Strong team captains on the ground are critical at any level, especially when you have a bunch of younger guys. People like O’Grady and Voigt, for example, even the way Mark Renshaw used to run the lead-out for Cavendish at HTC-Highroad. You need this, because young guys have so much to learn. The best way is to put them on the road alongside riders who know all the scenarios, and see them unfolding almost before they happen. The great thing about CRT is we have a genuine balance, from elite juniors to NRS hopefuls to Masters who’ve been there and done that. It gives the team the best chance of success.”

Surely there must be disadvantages? Otherwise everyone would be doing it? According to Suine there’s only been one problem area to date: race day. “I guess the only drawback in our arrangement with Scott is when we’re racing and he isn’t there. But we always knew that was the case. You do miss out, because his experience and tactical nous would be incredible, not just as a coach but as a DS. Obviously that’s not possible when he’s thousands of kilometres away, or in another country.” But wins have still come, and both sides firmly agree the pros outweigh the cons. It’s also seeing plenty of attention being paid to the CRT model.

“It’s a modern team structure based on European models, and one that, so far, is working really well for us,” says Menzies. “In fact, we know of several other Sydney clubs who are watching us very closely, looking to set up similar structures for their elite riders, if not this domestic season, certainly for the next.”

Clearly, cycling isn’t blazing a trail here, for it’s by no means the only place you’ll find this kind of technology-driven remote-access thinking. Telephone, online and mobile banking technologies have been around for well over a decade now, and after initial security concerns have virtually eliminated the need to ever visit a branch. Tertiary institutions continue to see a surge in popularity of off-campus degrees to the point that many of the world’s most iconic universities, including Harvard and Yale, today offer online courses to international students; students who will likely never set foot in their hallowed Ivy League halls. It’s a smart use of technology. Not to mention smart business.

Love it or hate it, this is how the 21st century works. So we’d all best get used to it. Or if you’re really, really smart, get into it. Because if our experiences are anything to go by at CRT, this is only the beginning.

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