The Last Mohicans

Cycle racing seems to be going in a one way direction with teams and riders adopting more and more sports science. But a few riders still buck the trend against power meters. Are their days coming to an end?

FDJ held their team launch this week with a video vaunting their technological approach to the sport. As well as sports science they other logistical support like a dedicated server to upload data. It’s not in the clip but the team is also building up a video archive of race footage, not so Marc Madiot can relive his glory days but so they can review past races to gauge performance and look for clues from their rivals. The French team now have three full-time coaching staff on the roster and hired help from others, for example a mental coach. If their budget doesn’t match Team Sky they’re doing their best to get close. But it’s not for everyone…

“I took up the challenge with Bretagne-Séché because I needed to ride less scientifically, more like the old school. I needed training methods that suited me. I want to do what I’ve always known how to do. When I’m out training, I do it by feeling”.

That’s Pierrick Fédrigo speaking to L’Equipe (€) at the Bretagne-Séché team presentation on Wednesday, he’s joined the team after several years with FDJ. He’s not the only one who doesn’t like being a slave to the strain gauge. Here’s Sandy Casar speaking to Vélo Magazine late in 2013 before he too left FDJ.

“When you’re told “today you’re doing 200W at 90prm for three hours“, well you’re really talking about work, you lose the pleasure. I’ve got to look at the countryside and enjoy nature.”

It’s easy to understand what Casar and Fédrigo are saying but all the same, we’re talking about a professional cyclist rather than a wandering cycle tourist. Teams pay good money in wages and the old habit of hoping their riders showing up in shape for a race is being replaced by coaching and remote monitoring.

Sans computer

Things were different when the likes of Casar and Fédrigo turned pro at the turn of the century. Modern training methods were present but a lot of work was still accomplished with a heart rate monitor and many, if not most cyclists were left to themselves for training. Besides, it worked as Casar and Fédrigo have a rich palmarès with several Tour de France stage wins. When it mattered they delivered even getting the better of those with pharmaceutical assistance.

Only a few years ago that Fédrigo showed up to a team training camp without knowing basics metrics like how many hours in the saddle or kilometres he’d done. Compare this to current FDJ captain Thibaut Pinot who might seem anarchic at times but even as a junior scraped together his prize money to drive to Switzerland and buy a used SRM power meter. Pinot is part of a generation used to this technology, there’s no requirement to buy-in to it.

Will Fédrigo’s retrenchment work? His results haven’t been so good of late and this might not be down to frustration with training, he’s 36 years old too. Ironically to tell if the sans science experiment works we’d need a science experiment to see if it works, to have 10 or 100 Fédrigos and train half with a brainy coach and let the other half ride to the tune of birdsong and see if the results were different.

Is it possible for a neo-pro today to train on the basis of feeling and past personal experience, especially if they belong to a team that supplies the machines for measurement and coaching capabilities? Fédrigo might not be the last of the Mohicans but he and others are getting rare. Maybe the results will improve, maybe they won’t, but at least he’ll enjoy the ride.

Pictures: Bretagne-Séché Facebook

57 thoughts on “The Last Mohicans”

  1. I really hate to see the sport reduced to “X watts vs X kilograms for X minutes” so it’s up to the race organizers to make sure SKILL and TACTICS (it would be nice if the rider had to think up the latter rather than have them yelled into his ear by the DS) count for something. 2014’s TdF was a good example.

  2. “…scraped up prize money and drove to Switzerland to buy a second-hand SRM power meter.”

    It seems like up-and-coming racers sometimes struggle to get the technology they need, and there have even been some stories about pros not getting power meters from their teams and not being able to afford them.

    A far cry from the apparent proliferation of such technology in the amateur ranks!

      • Since these days the fans are so often MAMIL’s with lots of disposable income, we tend to forget how much cycling was and still is pretty much a blue-collar thing when it comes to RACING for a living. All the expensive, whiz-bang technology in the world won’t get you results and a salary if you don’t have the legs and the desire.

        • Larry T.,

          I can’t speak for rural France, but in the U.S. there is almost no such thing as racing for a living. Our current national road champion has a real job. Most “pro” cyclists not paying to ride earn less than a fast food worker and with worse benefits. In this area, Women have it much worse as most World Tour females have no salary, only travel expense reimbursement.

          To make it into the World Tour requires a huge investment, especially if you do it inside the USA Cycling system. And even then it hardly ever works out.

          We can thank the way the UCI has structured the sport for this.

          • Philip Gaimon, wrote the book “Pro cycling on $10 a day,” something that maybe (has been) reviewed here? The title is no joke. Unless you’re at the top of the game, there’s no money in pro cycling in the US. And relative to Futbol, there’s “no” money in pro cycling in Europe. It’s done out of love, even by those MAMILs. Which is a good thing, as well as a hard thing.

    • I can beat that. When I read, “when the likes of Casar and Fédrigo turned pro at the turn of the century.” I immediately;y thought 1900. 2000 just doesn’t seem like that long ago, and old fashioned enough, to be referred to as “turn of the century”. (Guess it also shows how old I am!)

  3. I’m a big fan of Power Meters for training purposes. I have one and like it very much, but I do think “incremental gains” kill some of the mystique and dare I say, panache of professional cycle racing. For myself, I like to not blow up entirely on a pro-longed climb of 10%. Conversely, I think I know my body well enough not to do that…say, I may have a Dura Ace stages for sale…

  4. All that any “serious cyclist” needs is a smart phone or bike computer with GPS tracking and the Strava app.

    Let the hunt for KOM’s do the rest 😉

  5. Money is changing the sport in ways that we can hardly imagine and there’s no turning back. But, good for B-S, I hope they can keep a place for themselves.

    Lighter, Yoann’s couch must be pretty smelly.

  6. Regarding (endurance) sport and science, there’s an opposition that’s been going on for ages.
    On one hand you’ve got the science guys who discover or invent a new concept every once in a while (VO2 max, effort economy, lactate threshold, etc.) and claim that their discovery is the very one ruling performance and should be trained specifically and above anything else, whereas on the other hand there are sport guys with field experience and possibly better clues about how much to increase workload, when and how to tapper for peaking, etc. Often times there’s quite a gap between these two kinds.

    Now, for a practical example, see running and the emphasis on VO2max in the 80’s and 90’s (example borrowed from and quoted from memory). VO2max was found to be the one determinant of performance in endurance sports. So all the focus was put on improving VO2max, which led to the development of training methods trying to find out how to run the most time at VO2 max in a given time (short interval training is the answer). Still the number of US high school runners who could run 2 miles in less than 9 minutes dropped from a dozen per year to a dozen in two decades or so.
    From 2000’s onwards, there’s been much less emphasis on VO2 max or any other scientific concept, and a more balanced approach, and suddenly dozens of runners went sub 9 minutes again.

    Back to cycling : more science is generally a step in the right direction, but misunderstood or improperly used science could mean a step backwards in terms of performance. Now how relevant is the current state of cycling science nowadays (especially at FDJ), I wouldn’t want to guess.

    Also, a new training method can bring new physical adaptations, that’ll lead to an improvement in performance, even if the method isn’t as optimal, simply because it’s a new stimulus. But after a while the foundation of the former method will tend to vanish.
    A lot of chance and random elements guide performance in cycling, in terms of race results, so it’s hard to say how Fedrigo will fare, but for the fun of it, let’s guess it could mean a strong start of the season for him, then a progressive fade.

  7. maybe casar just needs to learn to listen to the meaning rather than the words
    “doing 200W at 90prm for three hours” to me just means a sustained steady state ride. you don’t have to stare at the computer for 180 minutes to ensure that power and cadence don’t deviate from set figures. its just a matter of not riding too easy or too hard and doing about 3 hours worth of it… you can still “look at the countryside and enjoy nature”. shorter intervals maybe need to be more strictly adhered to, but then you just get through them and relax in the recovery intervals. so much for “professional”

    power figures are just a means for a coach to define what he wants a rider to do and then review what has been done. you can equally say “ride moderate tempo” or whatever subjective words and that is just the same except open to different interpretations.

  8. “We’re talking about a professional cyclist rather than a wandering cycle tourist.” That sums it up for me. At the end of the day, these men and women are paid (some quite handsomely) to get a job done. If your boss has a program in place to ensure the success of his/her company, you toe the line. It can be very difficult to do, but if you believe differently, but unless you’re wildly successful doing it your way, you need to follow the protocol.

    • Another way to see the matter is that we’re speaking of incredibly gifted persons who, in many case, have a self-perception and a relation with their own physiology unknown to most people (as you very rightly point out in another comment).
      Moreover, even if they can look like workers with a contract, the weak and flexible nature of the latter makes them more similar to freelance workers: their future, year after year, depends heavily on their personal performance (that’s a structural contradiction which usually generates various problems not only in terms of training but also in team strategies, lining up and so).
      This two elements – and much more – suggest that we should take into account more complex processes. The rider deserves, at least, to be fully persuaded, not just to be told what program he needs to execute.
      Maybe he’s right and the trainer is wrong; the team is paying the rider for one or two years, not for the following years and the consequences implied by certain training options.
      I think that we’ve started to see the market consequences of this kind of questions during the last couple of years…

        • It is very easy: If you want someone to do their best, you treat them with respect, take them serious and know who you are talking to. Not everybody responds to the same methods. This goes for every bussines, I see that every day. There is a huge difference, if you do your job or if you like your job. In Cycling your income, your whole team, anything, relies on the riders doing their best. So it’d be smart to make sure they are convinced they are doing the right thing. The riders are as reliant on their performance as the teams are, or even more, so I imagine there is a lot of fear on their side of doing the wrong thing and loosing a whole season and getting no contract. And the fact that the riders usually have more than one team in their career means, every team tells them “This is the best way”- hard to trust and find out what really works for you.

  9. Agree with David, but we do need keep in mind the points brought up by Aquarius.

    One might submit that Sky last year was an under achiever, although injuries did play apart in that.
    Sky doesn’t lack a expensive and onerous “training policy” but one might observe they are a bit short on managing the motivating and team building aspect of a team sport. ( perhaps they need to smell the roses on a few training rides)

    My point is many teams in an attempt to be competitive promote the “next best fitness plan” in which to vault the team too the next level. Have we all not worked for people who struggled motivating us in an attempt to make us better employees? Yet failed not from lack of a “new” management plan.

    Endurance pro team sports, are a tough tomahawk to toss!

  10. I lost interest in F1 because the formulaic approach and elimination of x-factors made the racing predictable and boring. Almost invariably the teams at the top of the funding chart won the races, podiums and championships.

    I would hate to see the same happen to cycling. The metronome approach has helped make Sky an instant bad guy to most. It just doesn’t “feel” right to the viewer.

    However, I could accept the w/km/t approach to racing…if the riders had to pay attention to it themselves. Do away with the radios. Take the DS’s instant access out of the equation. THAT, more than anything is affecting negatively the product on the road. If you want instructions, drop back to the car. Then burn the energy to get back to the front. But give the riders the ability to think for themselves again. Let them figure out what to do with the numbers on the screen that they are staring at in front of them (instead of looking two wheels up the road to anticipate a crash.)

  11. I don’t have a power meter for my bike as I don’t currently race but a friend of mine described it as a “Pandora’s box” once he got his up and running; like getting a HR monitor x 100.
    I’ve moved back to running and use a GPS watch and it is a very very handy piece of kit for training. I do a couple of interval sessions during the week; prior to having the GPS watch these were done at an athletics track so that I could judge distance and pacing accurately. My current program has me doing longer intervals; 5-6k in the middle of a session. These would be mind-numbing on the track.

  12. “Today you’re riding at 200W at 90rpm for three hours”…

    In other words, you’re going for an easy, steady ride at a normal pedalling cadence for three hours, and every so often you should glance down at your bike computer to ensure that you’re maintaining roughly the right effort level.

    Doesn’t sound so horrible to me.

  13. I believe a real professional rider is versed well enough in his/her own physiology that utilizing a powermeter will only enhance, not weaken, their training. In the EPO crazed (relatively speaking) nineties and noughties, riding on emotion went much further, as an uncalculated attack based on feel could be sustained for a much longer period of time than at present. Now that the ability to dope has been reduced (compared to the past 20 years), a good pro must know exactly how far they can push before going into the red. Still, in a race situation, seeing that you’re at you’re “limit” while holding a wheel in the crucial moments of a race is something you have to try to ignore for as long as you can, pro or amateur.

    • Your reflections about the EPO era aren’t convincing at all. Present training techniques come mainly from what was elaborated by the “big bad doctors” during the ’90s, not so much has been added. More specifically, all the powermeter stuff can be traced back to some of the symbolic figures of that time. What is (quite relatively) new, concerns diet and metabolic changes.
      In fact, the example you suggest doesn’t make much sense. If you’re using EPO your threshold will be higher, but that will produce a “more sustained” attack only if the average speed of the best riders’ group isn’t itself “doped”. All we know about that years shows quite the contrary. That means that duration of a full gas attack is roughly the same, even if the speed is higher (which has an aeodynamic negative effect, but that’s another story).

  14. I wonder if most people are aware of the complex nature of the human performance due to self-consciousness and the continous mind-body feedback – if it makes sense to separate the two.
    The body isn’t like a machine at all, even if most training programs dream something like that (do androids dream of electric sheep?).
    Very relevant physiological (not just “psy”, careful with that) change is introduced by how you feel, what you hope to do and so (birdsongs too? 🙂 ). Hormones, nervous system, that kind of stuff :-O
    Thus, not only the number of significant factors is way superior to what can be easily calculated (science is generally trying to reduce the number of relevant variables, but the question is always how many factor are we cutting out from our perspective, and how determinant are they?), but, what is more, we’ve got a lot of “circular” feedback effects.
    Moreover, individual physiology is peculiar enough to say goodbye to a pillar of science, *repeatibility*. Especially in individuals who are, by statistical definition, quite exceptional.
    All that means that a good trainer should be very conscious of the limits inherent to his or her work, and should therefore respect the athletes with whom he or she is working.
    The theoretical foundations of that kind of work are quite shaky, the data corpus are usually weak, too.
    The same goes for the athletes, obviously, who should be open to new suggestions or techniques (as most of them indeed are). Nevertheless, despite the examples cited by inrng, I feel that most overconfidence lies presently on the side of a naïf pseudo-positivistic approach which is way less scientific than it likes to believe or show itself, as some of the previous comments (Aquarius, Othersteve…) pointed out.

    • Gabriele provides an excellent summary. I have just one hypothetical to add: What if the athletes who are habituated to training plans, power meters, and feedback from coaches were told to get rid of them all and adopt old school methods? I suspect that many would find it hard to adapt, having grown reliant on the technology. For those who experienced performance improvements using old school methods it would be interesting to hear how they explained the improvements.

  15. I don’t have one but I can accept there is a role for powermeters in training for elite cyclists. I wish they were banned in races though.
    WRT the approaches above; I suspect there is a middle way which Sandy and Fredrigo are overlooking in order to make a point. One thing these guys have that most amateurs lack is volume of work & time to do it. Part-timers usually use intervals as a shortcut when time in the saddle is just hard to beat.

      • i really don’t think it would change much. once you use it all the time in training, you know what watts you’re putting out at anytime without having to look. maybe you’d be +-20 watts off either way. so Froome would still stay at his threshold when Contador attacks and he would still invariably stare at his stem, power meter or not.

  16. Electrical devices should be banned from the drive train during racing – no watt meters and no electrical shifting.

    It is fine to train with them, but they should be banded from races – this is cycling, not motorsport.

      • I was under the impression that all those firms have a range of products beyond just electrically activated gear changes and strain gauges – SRAM don’t yet have a commercial electrical shifter system so their sponsorship certainly doesn’t depend on increased sales of that product…

  17. Gabriele, the point I’m trying to make is that rider’s have to be more aware of their limits now. A powermeter is a great measuring stick. In the EPO era, men like Pantani and Riis were able to decimate the “doped” group remaining with them on the climbs, as they were able to push themselves to a level unattainable for someone riding a l’eau claire (but also because they were willing to take their doping to dangerously high levels). All I’m saying is that riders nowadays cannot afford to be as daring. In essence, they must be able to know how far they can push and how long it will take before they can push in such a manner again, and in my experience a power can do that job.

    • Could you please try to elaborate a little more on what you’re meaning in a physiological / athletic sense? Like threshold, speed and so?
      Because I feel that it really makes little sense in technical/cycling terms, as I explained above, and things didn’t get better here. Sounds like doping fantasizing.
      You say: “…were able to decimate the ‘doped group remaining with them on the climbs, as they were able to push themselves to a level unattainable for someone riding a l’eau claire”.
      That is, people can attack other dopers because they can go faster than some clean riders who aren’t around at the moment? (How many were the clean riders in the peloton? And in the selected group?) o__O
      Widespread doping makes it harder to select a group (aero reasons), not easier.
      It makes sense that possible big differences in the level of doping produce differences in performance. But are we sure that the biggest difference are those created by a system of loose controls, compared with a system of tight tests? (this is a non-rhetorical question). And, even more important, how do you know that the riders you name were doping so much more than the others (“dangerously”)? I know what people used to say about Riis, but I don’t have the same kind of hints about Pantani. Instead, there are several arguments to defend the contrary (not that he was riding clean, obviously).

  18. I felt like Casar years ago the first time a sales manager had the ability track the number of calls I made and the amount of time I was on the phone. My professional integrity was being personally attacked. But over the years these are two of the many fundamental metrics, not to beat you over the head with, but to refer to upon sustained performance irregularities. You begin to realize that typically you make the number of calls you’re supposed to and it’s not a big deal. And sometimes when things aren’t going right, you look at it and realize your attention has been elsewhere and it’s time to get back to basics. I applaud the focus on these training methods and not having a hands off approach DS telling riders “I’ll see you on race day. Do whatever it takes to turn yourself inside out when I do”. I would however be in the camp to keep the electronics just in training and let the learned natural spirit fly come race day.

  19. The response to being told to ride tempo might not be about the technical aspects. Could it be about an independent spirit? About a man who works on his own or nearly so almost every day? About a man who is prized for his ability to do the equivalent of playing chess while running a marathon? And then he is being told exactly how to do a recovery ride? Might he feel insulted? Could this be about management more than science?

    I think that perhaps there will always be a dynamic between structure and independence. And there will always be a tremendous need for riders to make their own decisions on the road in a race. The question will be how to get each individual to the right peak, mentally and physically, on the right days. The best directors are the ones who also manage the ego and intellect of a rider, not just the numbers.

    Motivation is not a science. Our sport is one of individual performance, even on the most structured teams. The art and science are both important, but the best efforts by any rider are driven by the rider’s choice on the road. The choice to turn him/herself inside out for an effort, or to follow the numbers. If Casar or anyone else motivates himself best by using an internal set of metrics, then the DS and coach will serve their team best by harnessing that along with the powermeter. And that, I think, is what is happening every day.

  20. There is a huge tendency to over-exaggerate the influence of power meters in the actual race itself. The teams are gathering the readings at the end of the race to do their performance analysis, but the pros know full well what pushing xx or yy watts feels like. My favourite power meter anecdote is when Nibz huffed and puffed about power meters after the stage of T-A in 2013 won by Froome, and it turned out that none of the Sky riders had power meters on their bikes on that particular stage…

  21. Btw for those who always bang on about Froome staring at his power meter….you do know he’s not actually doing that when he looks down with such annoying regularity? If you look at videos of him, his head nods too far down for that. It’s a bloody annoying habit of his, but it’s not his power meter he’s staring at.

    • The computer thing is a myth. No one who knows what they’re doing needs to check their power ever 3 seconds on a long steady climb. He’s probably doing it for breathing.

      It’s been studied. Dropping your head reduces ventilation resistance.

      Froome mainly does it when he goes uphill and can take his eyes off the road, and the harder he goes the more he does it. Watch him on youtube and you’ll see.

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