There is a familiar saying in the majority of endurance sports, which in essence states that the larger percentage of any top-level performance comes from the head, rather than the legs. In cycling this is certainly true, but how do you tap into the power of the mind, motivating riders to push themselves to their potential? How do you generate the bond between individuals to perform as a team, to sacrifice their own aspirations in the pursuit of a shared glory? Watching the practical application of the idea, we’re riding shotgun with the CANYON//SRAM Team as their Director Sportif (DS) quietly talks to his riders, aiding them through what is the irrefutably the hardest day of the 2016 Giro Rosa.
From this exclusive vantage point we’re witnessing the rolling chess game of the mobile circus that is professional cycling, watching it play out its daily dramas on the roads of Northern Italy. “Yeah Alena, very good, very good, keep it up. Go your own rhythm, your own rhythm,” DS Ronny Lauke talks calmly into the radio, his hand cupped over the microphone. Alena Amialiusik has a strong position towards the front of the now very strung-out field, rolling over the top of the day’s mountain pass. The sun beats down, and the changing light makes the narrow and sinuous road conditions even more difficult. “Sometimes you have to be super positive to the riders. I’ve never seen any benefits to being a DS that shouts at people,” he explains. ‘But then, on the other hand, this is a big team and our riders are fairly comfortable so I have to be firm on occasion to let them know they need to perform. The goal is to create bike riders that know what to do in certain situations rather than waiting for instructions.”
Take the previous day, for example, a flat stage where team rider Tiff Cromwell took the sprint finish in Lovere, a win that has been long overdue. It was clear that this success had improved the morale of the team as they headed into today’s tough mountain stage; the atmosphere before the race was best described as chilled. As the clock ticked down to the stage start, there were few signs of nerves amongst the team’s riders, none of which would be called climbers or even GC hopefuls. The Giro Rosa isn’t a race for this team yet, explains Ronny; their strengths lie with other events, but it’s something they’re aiming to tackle in the future.
With the mighty Mortirolo awaiting them on this stage, touted by many as the toughest climb in cycling, today would still be key for the overall battle in the Giro Rosa. But perhaps aware that the pressure was essentially off, the CANYON//SRAM riders appeared not to even batter an eyelid at this notorious climb; for them today’s pep talk by Ronny was all about survival and making time cuts. ”As the longest stage race in women’s cycling you have to conserve energy, because what you waste now won’t be there in 4 days,” they reason.
The Giro Rosa is the women’s equivalent to the Giro d’Italia and shares the hallmarks of the men’s race: mountainous, tough, and plagued by changeable weather. Unquestionably classified as the biggest and hardest stage race on the women’s pro cycling calendar, at 10 days it’s substantially shorter than the men’s version making the transfers uncomfortably, leg-numbingly long. “Your team set-up is particularly difficult when it comes to the Giro,” muses Ronny in a calm manner that has already made us feel at ease with being privy to this inner sanctum of the team. “It is such a distinctive race that somehow you need to hire riders who are just there for this one race and we are not ready for this yet. The mountains here are not common in the rest of the calendar, and you wouldn’t meet anything like it anywhere else.”
The race radio crackles in English with a thick Italian accent, interjecting between the discussions we are having in the team car. The juxtaposition between the calm everyday chitchat and business is explicit, as light conversation gives way to direct comments and even more direct instruction between the team’s staff; this is a race after all. As the car rolls ungraciously over a number of speed bumps on a traffic-free cycle path, Ronny tuts: “Bloody hell, if I’d had a GC rider then I’d have checked out this road. Plus, they’re out again with the route distance. What did that last sign say, 32 km?” He ends with a shake of his head in the manner of someone who really expects this to be the norm.
The front of the race have now hit the climb, as the convoy of cars still weaves through the village of Mazzo di Valtellina, passing a sparse number of spectators on the roadside. Held at the same time as the start of the Tour de France, the viewing figures for women’s cycling remain low and a glance at the prize money listed in the race bible is enough to confirm the sadly ever-present convention that it’s not easy to make a living as a pro cyclist if you’re female. For the CANYON//SRAM riders, the reality is fortunately a little brighter, and Ronny appears proud to be contributing to this improved state of affairs. “Too few teams have the resources to enable this, but the experience that a rider gains in the first few years after leaving the junior ranks is crucial. Then they’ll be ready to move up.” As a former pro, he’s sage about skills that can only be learned from racing. When talk turns to their widely publicised hunt for a new team member via the online Zwift platform, he is upbeat but pragmatic about what the outcome will be, and what sort of a rider will be joining the team come the end of the online cycling process later this year. But his interest in this seems hesitant, keen to see how their physical fitness will play out without the same real-life racing application of today’s riders. Right now, he’s focused on helping his current roster.
Something evident as we followed their lead rider grinding her way up the climb, inhaling the acrid smell of overheating clutches as she was caught in the team cars that shunted their way up behind the riders. This is certainly a unique and somewhat unglamorous view of the professional world of cycling. Here we were away from the GC battle, but nonetheless the support from Ronny shows how he motivates his riders to face a battle that is equally as tough.
It’s day five now and the race bible has dictated this is the day for Emma Pooley and Mara Abbott, two out-and-out climbers to do battle and rip the peloton to pieces. As we drive on there’s the sense of resilience seen in the faces of those at the back end of the field, those who glance wistfully in the team car as the peloton explodes on the Mortirolo. Some might argue that there’s little beauty to be seen in the suffering of some of the world’s best riders, but we’re hooked, wanting to know more about how the team can pool together riders of varying strengths, skills and stamina.
“Of course we’d like a GC rider, we have Lisa Brennauer who won 3 stage races. Trixi won California and Qatar this year, but sometimes you have to just play the cards you have,” Ronny confesses. Even though they are not riding for the GC in this particular race, the team have certainly made a splash in the world of women’s pro cycling. They have brought a new feel to the sport, opening the doors to the media and allowing first-hand insight into the team via their powerful social media presence. This has been a key part in the creation of the team, and was evident at the start of the stage, where the crowds flocked to check out the CANYON//SRAM riders, asking them for autographs – despite their lack of a Maglia Rosa for 2016.
CANYON//SRAM is a team that we feel we already know the inner workings of (largely thanks to social media), but watching the race from the passenger seat of their team car gives us a unique experience. “Being an open team, and using social media, having a good image, this is all important but we cannot forget the competition,” Ronny states as we hit the descent. “The emotion you can create with a win is much better than anything you can do in terms of social media.” His sentence is cut short as he watches in awe as the car is majestically overtaken by a seriously skilled descender: “She’s obviously never crashed before,” he says with a wry smile. His own lead rider is also overtaken here, unsurprisingly given the apparent hesitation as she embarks on the steep, narrow and technical descent. Ronny takes a positive skew on this challenging moment: “I don’t usually get chance to see them descending in a race. Usually we’re in the convoy and how often do you have mountain stages like this? This is mega interesting for me and clearly something that we can work on.”
Stood by the team car at the finish, faintly ticking as the heat from the incessant braking on the descent slowly cool off, we witness a tender moment within the team. Tucked away from the screaming crowds and seemingly lost riders looking for their team vans at the finish, we watch as an emotional Alena bursts into tears in front of Ronny. The emotions of the technical descent are released, and she questions whether her 14th position could have been much more.
But this is all part of the daily routine of racing, and the well-oiled inner workings of the team will once more bring her back into the fold. After our day with CANYON//SRAM we realise that it is not about comfort, team buses or team trucks valued at a million euros; the essence of getting more out of your body is finding the right place mentally, and we know that these riders under the father-like guidance of Ronny are getting just that.
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Words & Photos: Emmie Collinge