By Chris Carmichael
July 4 was a brilliant day for Garmin-Cervelo’s Tyler Farrar – and the entire Garmin-Cervelo team – but Stage 3 of the 2011 Tour de France was not without controversy.
First to Tyler Farrar and Garmin-Cervelo. Yesterday the team celebrated a few firsts. They won their first team time trial of any Tour de France, which was also the team’s first stage victory – of any kind – in any Tour de France. That put Thor Hushovd into the yellow jersey, which was also a first for the team. And then they rolled into Stage 3 and fought hard to deliver American sprinter Tyler Farrar to the final 150 meters with a chance to win the first Tour de France stage of his career. With a brilliant turn of speed, Farrar crossed the line first by half a bike-length, and on Independence Day no less!
Teams and coaches pay an awful lot of attention to the physical and technological sides of sport, and in a lot of ways those are the most straight-forward and measurable components of performance. You can tell with power data whether an athlete has the form necessary to win. You can use aerodynamics data to ensure that the machines slip through the air faster – and that the riders’ clothing is not causing more aerodynamic drag than it needs to. You can measure a rider’s caloric intakes and compare that to power data to determine whether energy intake is enough to support the energy expended. And you can even assess the athletes’ hydration status using urinalysis (riders can urinate on a stick that indicates the concentrations of glucose, sodium, and other substances in the urine; as well as the specific gravity of the urine). But the mental side of sport is still nebulous; there aren’t many objective measures of the riders’ morale or motivation, even though these aspects of performance are critical for success.
There’s no doubt that the Garmin-Cervelo team riders arrived at the Tour de France in top physical condition and that they are using the latest technology to aid in performance and recovery. But there are other teams that arrived in equal condition and with the same technologies. Thus far in the 2011 Tour de France, just about everything seems to be going Garmin-Cervelo’s way, and perhaps that has to do with some of those nebulous – but ultimately critical – mental and morale components.
Confidence: Success begins with confidence, and confidence is born of preparation. When you go into the Tour de France knowing the team leaders are on great form, it changes the way everyone on the team rides. Thor Hushovd won a stage of the Tour de Suisse right before the Tour de France, which confirmed his fitness was on track. Tyler Farrar won a sprint finish a few weeks ago as well, his first since returning from a brief hiatus following the death of his close friend, Wouter Weylandt, in the Tour of Italy. Tom Danielson finished third in the Tour of California in May. You get the picture.
When riders are confident, they are more attentive about putting themselves in position to win. The differences can be subtle: holding a position near the front instead of giving up wheels to other riders, acting decisively instead of hesitating, etc. When team leaders display these signs of confidence, support riders rise to the occasion because they realize that if they get their leader into position to win, he has the legs, eagerness, and mentality to finish the job.
Morale: The balance of optimism and pessimism within a team – and even within the support staff – has a major impact on the athletes’ performances. When the mood around the hotel and team bus is dour or even disinterested, the team’s performance is likely to be lackluster. Winning is obviously the best morale booster of all, which means yesterday’s victory in the team time trial certainly had a huge positive influence on the morale throughout the Garmin-Cervelo organization.
In contrast, morale around the Saxo Bank – Sungaard team may be a bit down. Defending Tour champion Alberto Contador had a rough day on Stage 1 and the team didn’t perform all that well during yesterday’s team time trial. It’s certainly too early to write off Contador, but when your team struggles through some unfortunate circumstances the challenge is to prevent morale from nose-diving. That’s where leadership – on and off the bike – is crucial. You have to keep your riders motivated and in a positive frame of mind, or you end up making more of your own bad luck.
Environment: Cycling is an international sport, and I really hesistate to stereotype teams based on national affiliations, but over the past decade American teams have experienced increasing amounts of success in European cycling. And it’s not just with American riders; the HTC-Highroad, BMC, Radioshack, and Garmin-Cervelo teams have riders from all over the world. But the environments created by these organizations have some very American traits: there’s more autonomy for the riders to train and prepare for races using the methods and coaches they want to work with, there’s more collaboration between riders and directors, and there’s a focus on innovation in terms of equipment, nutrition, and recovery. Garmin-Cervelo’s director Jonathan Vaughters has worked very hard to create a supportive, family-like atmosphere within his organization, and the riders’ appreciation of that was evident yesterday on the podium after the team time trial. The riders seemed just as excited about delivering the victory for Jonathan as they were for winning the race themselves.
When you create an environment where hard work and innovation are appreciated, where the contributions of individual riders are recognized, and where the riders and staff all feel a sense of ownership in the team’s goals, you create a situation where athletes can elevate their performances beyond the level that mere fitness and technology can deliver. That raises morale within the team, which boosts confidence for every rider, and sometimes you get what we’ve seen over the past two days: a team that can seem to do no wrong.
Of course, in an event as big as the Tour de France, there’s bound to be a little controversy nearly every day. Today it was with HTC-Highroad’s Mark Cavendish and Garmin-Cervelo’s Thor Hushovd. There was contact between the two in the run-in to the intermediate sprint, and both men were relegated out of the points for that sprint (which Cavendish won for sixth place behind the breakaway group). They rubbed shoulders and Cavendish used his head to move Hushovd over, but honestly I think I’ve seen worse in amateur criteriums. It wasn’t anything like the time Mark Renshaw used his helmet as a battering ram in a Tour sprint a few years ago (or was that last year?). That was excessive, but Cavendish’s actions today didn’t really seem that terrible. Of course, I wasn’t there and Hushovd might have a very different view of the events, but the officials seemed to be a little overzealous relegating the both of them today.
Chris Carmichael rode the Tour de France in 1986 with 7-Eleven and has been writing Tour de France commentary for the past 11 years. He is CEO and Head Coach of Carmichael Training Systems, the premier destination for coaching, training camps, and performance testing since 2000; and Official Coaching and Camps Partner of Ironman. Follow Chris on Twitter at www.twitter.com/trainright, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carmichaeltrainingsystems, or www.trainright.com.