With the Tour De France (and a potential doping announcement ) just a few days away I thought it would be good time to highlight a new book I'm reading.
I’m reading the book “Lance Armstrong’s War” by Daniel Coyle. In the book Coyle follows around Lance as he trains and he prepares to win his historic sixth Tour de France. What you get is an insider’s view of Lances race preparation, strategy and thinking as he prepares to battle his arch rival Jan Ullrich for the top spot of the podium in Paris.
I was immediately struck by how completely different Lance’s preparation was for the race to that of Jan Ullrich. You could call it Old School vs. New School.
Let’s start with Old School and Jan Ullrich. He came up through the old communist East German system of cycling which basically could be summed up by the saying “though them against the wall and see who sticks.” In other words, the East Germans (along with their Russian counterparts) would identify potentially talented cyclist at a very early age and put them through a horrendously difficult regime of coaching, training and racing.
The ones that didn’t crack (or stuck to the wall to use the early analogy) would become the new stars of the East German and Russian cycling teams and go on to compete for the pride of their communist motherland.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Collapse of the soviet Russia Republic it wasn’t long before these talented cyclist figured out they could make some serious hard currency racing in the newly opened West. They figured it out at about the same time that the professional teams discovered this newly available pool of talent.
Besides Jan Ullrich you may know such names such as Alexander Vinokourov that came up from this Soviet Era regime of riding. All these guys were some pretty bad ass mother @@@$$&&**…if you know what I mean.
They only knew one way to ride and that was head down and full out. They would ride well beyond the normal pain threshold and revel in cracking the lesser and weaker riders.
They were also known for their outrages breakaways during the long stage races. More importantly they were known for staying out ahead of the peloton for dozens and even hundreds of solo miles, and often winning a stage by outrages displays of physical prowess and pain defying extreme rides.
It has often been alleged that a lot of this cycling ability came as much from the East German and Soviet doping techniques as it did from the natural talent and sheer will power of the cyclist…but that is a conversation for another time.
Lance Armstrong, on the other hand, took a completely different and more New School approach to cycling. He and his entourage of trainers, coaches, doctors, technical experts, and factory reps reduced everything to numbers.
The numbers came from the wind tunnel when picking the best bike. The numbers came from the power meter when analyzing his readiness to race. These numbers came from the scale when comparing his power to weight ratio. And the numbers came from the little machine that spit out his lactic acid threshold on the hood of his doctors car as he climbed and re-climbed a favorite training hill in his Spanish European home.
All these numbers were poured over, studied, and analyzed to the point that both Lance and his posse knew to the hundredth of a decimal place at what point Lance and his team had to be in their training to win the Tour.
More precisely, they knew the exact power to weight ratio that a rider had to have in order to win the tour. They took every possible variable and reduced it to a mathematic equation that let them see exactly what the human body was capable of at any given time in their training and eventually the tour.
You can also think of these two approaches to training and racing as left brain vs. right brain, or perhaps a better analogy and one that seems to fit would be the head vs, the heart. And therein lies the rub. It was Lances “New School” methodical (read mathematical) approach to training and racing that rubbed many “Old School” Europeans the wrong way.
To them bike racing was a sport of the heart. They were used to cheering for hard partying and hard riding cyclist. They wanted to see the passion of the sport on display when riders would push their bodies not by what the numbers said, but by what their heart said.
Keep in mind that many top “Old School” racers would come to the professional European cycling circuit completely fat and out of shape. They would use European races as training and hopefully have enough heart and stamina to win the big tours. This was the approach that Ullrich took. Every year the pro peloton money shot was the one that showed just how much of a big butt and belly Jan had at the start of the season.
Lance was completely different. He would only race the Tour de France, and he came to the tour a mathematically perfect cycling machine. This cold and calculated approach to racing left many a fan cold and disinterested in the up stark American who seemed more interested in his power meter and heart rate than the pre and post parties of the tour.
The funny thing is that this old and new school approach to training and racing is very much alive today. It continues to both define the sport of triathlon as well as you and me.
As an example take a look at this brief video of Ironman Champion Natascha Badmann as she explains the virtues of her radical Tri bike.
You’ll notice that not only is the video interesting in that it illustrates many of the newest and cutting edge (if not bleeding edge) advances in bike technology, but I was completely surprised by her approach to racing.
You’ll see that she does not use a power meter, or even a standard bike computer. She simply has a watch stuck to the front of the bike to measure how long she has been riding. In other words, she seems to have a completely old school approach, and yet she is one of the most talented and winning Ironman of the last decade.
So I ask you…does your heart or your head rule your racing?
Are you old school or new school, or perhaps a little of both?