Breaking Away from the Cycling Scandal
I'm in an empty bar on a Spanish island, pedaling a stationary bicycle. As a doctor looks on dispassionately, a computer connected to the bike cranks up the resistance every three minutes, until it feels like I'm struggling up a steep mountain road. Soon my pulse tops 180 beats a minute, more than I thought I had in me.
My legs ache unbearably and I gasp for oxygen in the seaside watering hole—which is closed for the winter but doing service as an impromptu laboratory. The air smells faintly of stale piña coladas. At regular intervals, one of the doctor's assistants squeezes blood samples from a puncture he has made in my earlobe. So this is what it feels like to be a pro cyclist!
The reason I'm going through this torture is to learn more about the training methods that Bob Stapleton, a U.S. wireless pioneer-turned-cycling manager, is introducing to the T-Mobile cycling team. Stapleton, co-founder of VoiceStream Wireless, now known as T-Mobile USA, is hoping that cutting-edge training techniques will offset the competitive disadvantages of his resolute stance against doping (see BusinessWeek.com, 3/1/07, "T-Mobile's Unlikely Cleanup Rider").
A New Regimen
At this resort on the island of Mallorca in January, the 29 men and 11 women on the racing team, plus a few journalists, got a crash course in how to eat, train, and even think better than the rest of the pro cycling peloton.
The test I'm enduring, designed to measure how efficiently my body converts stored fat and carbohydrates into pedaling energy, is just a small part of the program devised by Stapleton and a management cadre that includes former pro riders Rolf Aldag, sporting director of the men's team, and Kristy Scrymgeour, who's in charge of the women's squad. The training regimen uses methods that have been used successfully in other sports such as tennis and NFL football, but never applied as systematically in pro cycling.
The fact is, most cycling "teams" are really collections of free agents who come together for races but train on their own. Riders often hire their own fitness coaches who, in at least a few cases, have sometimes proven to be dodgy characters with connections to the sports doping underworld.
A Clean Edge
T-Mobile, the wireless unit of Germany's Deutsche Telekom (DT), learned the perils of that system the hard way. Last year the team's star rider, Jan Ullrich, was implicated in a Spanish doping scandal that authorities say also involved his personal trainer. (Ullrich denies doping, but retired from pro cycling in February.)
Now, in a bid to rescue its image and that of its sponsor, the T-Mobile team is taking a holier-than-the-Pope approach to doping, with a testing regimen that far exceeds what the rules require. But with doping apparently still widespread in cycling, Stapleton knows he needs another edge.
"A big issue was competitive advantage," says Stapleton, a 48-year-old Californian who officially took over the team in November. "I thought we would be disadvantaged by not using performance-enhancing drugs. We knew we had to have the best training."
Science plays a big role. That's not typical for pro cycling teams, where training often consists largely of racking up as many miles on the bike as possible. The T-Mobile athletes will also spend plenty of time on the road, but their bikes are equipped with sensors that collect detailed data on their performance.
In the course of the season, riders will continually upload the data to the Internet, including parameters such as heart rate and the amount of pedal power generated. Wherever they are, team managers will be able to remotely monitor riders' fitness levels, and adjust their training and nutrition regimens accordingly.
Another novelty for pro cycling is an off-the-bike fitness program.
At a Robinson Club resort on Mallorca—a sort of German Club Med—the riders gather first thing every morning for exercise sessions based on techniques developed by Tempe (Ariz.)-based Athletes' Performance. The program uses unconventional movements, such as hopping around with elastic bands around the thighs, to develop more strength and flexibility in the hips, midsection, and shoulders. A pair of consultants working for Athletes' Performance, Darcy Norman and Scott Williams, also looked for weaknesses or asymmetries in the riders' bodies that could be corrected by training. "We're hoping to compete with the doping scenario," says Norman.
The same methods helped the German national soccer team exceed expectations at last year's World Cup, but are new to cycling (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/5/06, "Germany's Assist from the U.S.A."). Stapleton hopes the fitness program will give the riders more staying power over the course of the grueling season, which runs from late January through October. The jury is still out on whether he's right, but the riders are willing to give it a try. "As much as you can squeak out, the better," says Kim Anderson, a Texas native who rides for the women's team.
The Breaking Point
Stapleton has even appointed a team psychiatrist, Jan Mayer, who will teach riders skills such as how to banish negative thoughts during a race. "This sport has to be 30% to 40% mental," Stapleton says. "If you're riding four or five hours and you have a negative thought, after a while it will consume you."
Underlying the whole program is close monitoring of the physiological factors—such as the ability to convert oxygen and stored fat or carbohydrates into energy—that separate pro riders from the rest of us. My test on the stationary bike in the empty bar was part of that evaluation process. The blood samples squeezed painfully from my ear were analyzed to determine when my body starts to produce more lactic acid than I can process, the so-called anaerobic threshold. Too much lactate causes my legs to ache and I quickly run out of gas.
Even trained riders can't operate at peak level for a whole race. So a key part of training is raising the anaerobic threshold, maximizing the power a rider can deliver to the pedals without crossing the red line. The tests show that my power output at the threshold is a modest 159 watts. By comparison, T-Mobile rider Linus Gerdemann could generate 370 watts even before he began training for the season.
Separated from the Pack
As team doctor Andreas Schmid scrutinizes my data, he seems to be struggling to find something encouraging to say about my performance. Finally, he offers that my fitness is "above average." His advice on how I should train is counterintuitive: I should cycle at a relatively leisurely pace, Schmid says. In my case, that means keeping my heart rate at around 125 beats a minute, building basic endurance.
Later, I get a lesson in what else separates me from the pros. Stapleton and several members of the T-Mobile staff lead a few journalists and visitors on a ride along the back roads of Mallorca. For a stretch I find myself following Sporting Director Aldag, who retired from pro cycling in 2005. The weather is spring-like and it's a thrill to be on the back wheel of a guy who has ridden the Tour de France 10 times. Still, I can't help but notice that not only is Aldag pedaling at half my cadence, but as he rides he regales the group with war stories about his cycling career. Oh, well.