Am I good enough…?

img_20160228_212639

One of the realities for anyone who has big dreams is self doubt. That nagging feeling that big achievements are for other people, and that one doesn’t have what it takes to reach those bold horizons. But I think we also have another fear – that we will reach the end of our days and regret that we gave-up too soon, and that we did not fulfill the potential that we all have inside of us. That is something which really drives me – I would hate to come to the end of my life thinking that there was something left undone.

I had a great season this year – nine podiums in races in Belgium, South Africa and Italy. So now I am thinking about 2017, and I have a big goal – I plan to race the UCI World Masters Championships in Albi, France. The 150km road race will be held over an undulating and very tough course, peppered with steep climbs. But I have to ask myself – am I good enough? Am I really good enough to win a World Championship?

I would really love to get on the podium in Albi. But the first consideration in preparing for a race of this level is to take an objective look at the physiological requirements. So to do that I have spent time analysing the performance of some of the top Masters cyclists in the world.

In this endeavour I have been helped by the social media platform Strava. You see, many of my competitors upload their training and racing data to Strava so I can analyse the physical performance of these guys in a way that has never been possible before. Not only can I see how many kilometres of training they are doing – I can also see their physiological parameters, such as power output per kilogram of body weight over different time intervals.

And make no mistake – the performances of many of these middle-aged amateur cyclists compare to riders in the professional peloton. The reason for this is because these amateurs live like professional cyclists – many of them ride over 20,000 kilometres per year, averaging upwards of 20 hours a week on the bike. But I am okay with that – Albi is a big goal for me, so I will make time to do whatever training is needed. I can live like a pro for a year.

To help me on my journey towards competing in Albi I have enlisted the coaching support of Allan Davis, an Aussie former professional cyclist with an impressive palmares. As part of preparing a training plan, we have looked at the results of the 2016 Masters World Championships that were recently held in Perth, Australia. Some of the guys who finished on the podium for the M4 (45-50 yo) category in the road race in Perth have uploaded their race and training data to Strava.

I have shared my insights with Allan, and we have both come to the same conclusion – without some kind of chemical enhancement, I am very unlikely to be able to produce the kind of raw numbers on show. I am not suggesting that the guys who made the podium in Perth are dopers – I know the Aussie winner Sam Smith and I trust 100% that he races clean. It is just that physiologically many of the top Masters riders seem to be able to do stuff that I have not been able to do up until this point in my cycling career.

So what are my thoughts for Albi? In Perth, three very strong guys won with a long-range breakaway that was formed with more than 85km remaining. Could that tactic work again next year? Given that many of the same guys will race in France, I am hoping that the peloton will be more reactive in chasing down attacks. This would mean that a larger group of guys survive into the final stages of the race.

The average speed of the race will be somewhere around 40 kilometres per hour, so I will need to be able to sustain a high average power output for roughly four hours. The actual wattage number I have calculated is about ten percent less than the power produced by the gold medallist in Perth, but I am smaller and lighter than him and do not intend to lead a breakaway or drive the pace at the front of the pack. So training goal number one will be to train my body’s ability to hold that high average power for four hours.

ALBI WORLD MASTERS COURSE

screen-shot-2016-11-14-at-22-44-23

Training goal number two will be getting over those climbs. The hills in Albi are not especially long, and not especially high. But they are steep and there are lots of them – ranging between three and ten minutes duration at race speed. The biggest challenge will come at the 55km mark, and if I am unable to hang on to the strongest guys on that first major climb then my race will be over. So I will need to train my body to produce a lot of power for the ten minutes or so of that climb. To help me fight gravity I will also need to lose weight, and should be down at around 64kg by race day, about 2.5kg lighter than I am now.

Positioning will also be crucial on those climbs, and I will need to be near the front of the peloton at the foot of each ascent. This will allow me to conserve energy by dropping back as we ascend, while staying in touch with the leaders as the accordion of riders strings out. I will arrive in Albi at least two weeks before the race, and will ride the climbs and descents.

If I am still at the front end of the race with a group of riders in the final kilometres, then attacks will certainly come. The guys who cannot sprint will try to breakaway and whoever is left will have to follow. These attacks are violent, explosive efforts of half a minute to a minute just to hold on to the guys in front of you. So goal number three will be to work on those explosive high-lactate efforts. This will involve a mix of on the bike interval work, power training in the gym and of course Kermis racing here in Belgium.

For me, the ideal finale for the Albi race will be to come to the line with a small group of riders – anywhere from five to fifteen guys. I can produce a big burst of speed at the end of a long and hard race, and I can keep a clear head. So the final piece of the training puzzle will be sprint work, done mostly on the indoor velodrome in Gent.

A look at raw data suggests that I am not good enough to win in Albi – there are so many guys out in the cycling universe that are stronger than me. I’ve seen their numbers.

But a look at raw data would have suggested that I wasn’t good enough when I competed at the World Masters Games in Torino three years ago…And I came home with a bronze medal.

In 2012 Simon Gerrans won Milan San Remo. A fellow Aussie who is almost exactly my height and weight, Simon finished ahead of Fabian Cancellara, Vincenzo Nibali and Peter Sagan. In his words: ““Without question Fabian was the strongest, I can’t deny him that…But it’s not always the strongest guy who wins the race. You have to play a little smart and be there.”

I am good enough to win in Albi. Because winning bike races is not just about numbers – it is about tactical nous and riding to your strengths. It is also about having a little bit of luck.

And most importantly it is about self belief.

Link to My TED Talk: Click Here

Post-Race Interview

CTCFinishI recently returned from South Africa where I competed in the four day Cape Rouleur Pro-Am Road Race, and the one-day Cape Town Cycle Tour (CTCT). I finished 1st Master and 3rd Amateur Overall at the Cape Rouleur, and 1st Master and 6th Overall in the Top Seeded Amateurs Group at the CTCT.

While in Cape Town I also gave a talk about work, life and cycling at the University of Stellenbosch Business School. After the event I was interviewed about my experience in training for and racing the CTCT by Brian Taylor. Below is the transcript of the interview.

Q. Were all the riders in your Top Seeded Group at the Cape Town Cycle Tour amateurs, or mixed with the pros?

The Professionals and Elite Amateurs (typically young guys who hold a UCI Elite racing license) headed off first, about five minutes before us. The guys in my 1A Race Group were the Top Seeded Amateurs and Masters (40+ years old). To make it into this group, riders must qualify by riding specific events throughout the year, in South Africa and abroad. There were around 200 guys in the 1A Group that I raced with.

Q. Were you racing in a team or individually? I am sure that makes a difference if you racing against competitors in a team and you are on your own?

I raced as an individual, which is why the final few kilometres were so difficult as I did not have teammates to lead me out, and I hit the front too early in the final 300 meters or so. But for my main event in Europe in April, the Giro Sardinia, I have a team of four guys riding for me. This means that I am sheltered from the wind, helped to close down gaps, and have a ‘train’ to lead me out in sprint finishes.

Q. What were your tactics for the Cape Town race?

In such a large group you need to make sure you stay amongst the front 20 or so guys throughout the race or you risk missing a split, especially on the tougher climbing sections like Chapman’s Peak and Suikerbossie. For these two climbing sections, I moved right to the front of the group at the base of the climbs, meaning that I could save energy by dropping back somewhat as the pace increased, but still keep contact. The riders tend to string out on these climbs. So if you are still in contact with the string of riders and do not lose contact, then it is kind of like an accordion as the long line of riders comes back together on the descents and flatter segments. This tactic worked perfectly for me, and after Sukerbossie I was with the front forty or so riders remaining – the rest of the starters had been left behind. I then worked my way towards the front ten riders by the 5km to go mark.

Q. You finished as 1st Master and 6th overall, but you said you found yourself at the front too early in the final 300 meters. When should you have launched your sprint?

It is difficult to go into the final kilometres racing guys you don’t know. In the final five kilometres I gradually worked my way towards the leading riders, and you will see from my on-bike video that in the final one kilometre or so I am in a great position, sitting in 4th or 5th position. But then in the final 350 meters the three guys to my left do not open-up their sprint and accelerate! And suddenly I am at the front, but with no wheel to follow. I am in the wind and I know it is too soon to go full gas. That’s not good. Then the three guys jump past me on the right. Of course, it would have been better if I was behind those guys – ideally I would have followed their lead, and then came past in the final 100 meters or so. As it was, I had to do a full 250 meters on my own, and you can see I fade towards the end as one guy comes past me on the line.

Click here to see my on-bike video of the final few kilometers: Video of Sprint at CTCT

So a bunch sprint is kind of like a very fast moving game of chess, as you need to keep a clear mind and predict the moves of your competitors. That is not easy when you are doing around 60kmh – sometimes you get it right, and sometimes you don’t. But I was still very happy with the result, crossing the line as 1st Master for the Top Seeded Group.

Q. Considering you are 45 and riding at the Masters level, the other chaps in front of you looked several years younger. So you did remarkably well?

I am not doing too badly for an old guy, especially since I train and race clean – I do not dope. My belief is that it is all about how far you can push your body as you age. Cycling performance is basically a function of power output, body weight and aerodynamics. Then comes self-belief, tactical wisdom and an ability to suffer.

I focused on weight loss over the winter, and my current race weight is at around 63.5 kilograms, which is the lightest I have been since returning to racing six years ago.  Body weight is especially important for climbing, as the heavier you are the more power you need to produce to overcome gravity.

As I am only 168cm tall I can ride an aerodynamically efficient position, and I race with quite narrow handlebars to reduce frontal drag. For the race I used an aero one-piece body suit and aero helmet, which combined can save 3 to 5 watts of power at race speed. That basically means that because you are cutting through the air more efficiently, you need to produce less power to hold a given speed. Over three hours of racing, those energy savings can help to give you that little bit extra when things get tough.

When in top condition, my power output (the amount of power my body can produce by pushing on the pedals and measured by a Power Meter in my crank set) is around 5.3 watts per kilogram of body weight for a 20 minute threshold effort, and I can produce a peak power output of about 1200 watts in a sprint. While those numbers would not win me a Professional World Championship against Peter Sagan, they are certainly within the range of domestic-level professionals and in the upper end of performance for elite Masters road cyclists.

For a discussion of typical power outputs by different levels of cyclists see: Watts/kg on the Power Curve

SA99

Q. Is your bike purpose made for you or off the shelf?

My race bike is off the shelf – a 6.5-kilogram carbon fibre LOOK 695 with Shimano Components and Zipp carbon wheels. It is a special edition painted in the style of the artist Piet Mondrian, which I think is pretty cool. I talk about the intersection between art and business in my keynote speaking, so it’s nice to ride what I preach.

Q. How often do you train for this sort of race? 

I train between ten and fifteen hours per week, but I only aim to be in top condition for around eight to ten weeks each year – March–April and late August-first half September.  So when I am building up to a big event, it is more like fifteen hours, including a few hours a week in the gym for power training and core strength. I do more than eighty percent of my training alone, as each of my sessions is planned to develop specific areas such as strength, power or endurance.

In the ‘off’ months when I am working more, I train about six hours a week. In the ‘old’ days trainers talked about the need to do lots of slow and steady ‘base’ miles in the off season, but modern training approaches challenge this, especially for Masters athletes who need to work harder to maintain muscle mass, strength and power. So my emphasis during the months when I ride fewer hours is on maintaining power and strength, mostly on my indoor trainer and in the gym, not riding hours and hours of endurance.

Q. What kind of other special training do you do?

The important thing is to train for the hardest part of the race that you are targeting. It is pointless to do lots of six hour rides at a steady pace, if the race you are targeting is just three hours long, will be raced very fast and has half a dozen short and steep climbs. If the race has short, steep climbs then you need to train your body to do repeated explosive efforts over short, steep climbs. If you are racing events in the mountains or time trialling, then you need to train your body to hold high-power output for longer durations, say between twenty and forty minutes. In this case, explosiveness is less important.

My training program is based around a four-week cycle, with three weeks of increasing intensity followed by a one-week rest period in which I hardly touch my bike. I have found that as I age, recovery is increasingly important so I monitor my resting heart rate every morning. If my heart rate is ten to twenty percent above normal when I wake, then this is usually a good sign of fatigue.

Using a power meter during training is also very important to monitor fitness and fatigue. For example, if I do a warm-up, followed by five minute effort, and see that my power output is more than five percent below what is expected at a given heart rate, then this is a pretty sure sign that my body has not recovered from a previous training session. So I simply get off my bike, and shift that training session from the morning until the evening, or even the next day. It is amazing that sometimes an extra five or six hour of rest is all the body needs to be prepared for the next training effort at full intensity.

Q. How do you balance your work and sport?

I am constantly juggling three balls – my family, my cycling and my work. I fully believe that it is impossible to balance things equally all of the time – at certain times of the year I am a very good cyclist and (I think) a good Dad as I am home a lot. But at those times I am not working too much. At other times of the year I am very focused on work, a bit less of a good Dad in that I away from home quite a lot, and not at a top level as a cyclist.

The main conference periods In Europe are May-June and September-November, which is when I earn more than seventy percent of my annual income. During the other months when I am focused on training and racing, I work a bit but not as intensively. I might give one talk a week, or a day of teaching here and there.

During my peak training months, especially from December until March and in July and August, I do not do long-haul travel, and I don’t do multi-day workshops as this disrupts my training too much. I am able to do this as I am self-employed, but the speakers’ agencies and Business Schools with which I work also understand and respect this.

So I plan my year around juggling my cycling and work. And of course, I try to be a good husband and dad most of the time. Although, a few weeks ago I was shouting at my kids at the end of a long day on the bike, and my eight year old son Charlie said: “Pappa, you’re tired and hungry. Maybe we should not be having this conversation right now.”

Q. What are your next goals?

I will now take a week of rest, and then do a heavy ten day training block to prepare for the Tour of Cyprus, a three day Pro-Am stage race at the start of April. Then at the end of April I will race the six-day Giro Sardinia. Both races are quite mountainous, so I am hoping for some good results given that I am climbing well at the moment.

You can find my talk at USB here:  What is Success, Really?

IMG_20160302_160806

 

 

On Being a Cycling Dad

Photo 1.jpg

A few days ago I sat on the sofa together with my wife Anne-Mie and my children, Ries, Hannah and Charlie. In my hands were four hand-written messages of love and support, wishing me success for my first races of the season in South Africa.

Eight-year-old Charlie had drawn me his dream aeroplane, with a cycling training track, gym and Jacuzzi. Hannah, who is eleven, had drawn a colourful mountain with bikes on top, and a winners trophy boldly standing forth. My big boy Ries had simply written ‘Our NR 1, Always.’ And from my wife, cut-out pictures of my face stuck on winning Orica GreenEdge riders, with funny remarks about podium girls.

How many opportunities do we have in our adult lives to receive such expressions of unwavering support? Of course, as kids many of us experienced encouragement for our youthful endeavours. But it seems that the older we get the fewer chances we have for people to cheer us on in living out our dreams. Sure, we might get complemented and rewarded by our colleagues for our  work achievements. But for me that is nothing like receiving sincere encouragement from those we love, for pursuing the passions that bring life meaning.

For me, this heartfelt expression of support from my family gives me such motivation. Because my wife and my children are telling me that this dream to realise the potential that I have as a sportsman is something for all of us to celebrate. They know more than anyone how hard I work, how much I suffer when I crash, and the discipline and sacrifices that are required to get on to the podium at the international level.

I understand that this sporting journey is far from a solo undertaking. A few years ago I remember crashing in one of those crazy and fast Belgian Kermise races in East Flanders. I shattered my left collarbone, cracked my pelvis and was sent by ambulance to the nearest hospital in a town called Dendermonde. My wife and then five-year-old son Charlie came to visit me in the hospital after the surgery on my shoulder, and I could see the worry in their faces. It was mid 2012 and about twelve months before the target event of my biking comeback – the World Masters Games in Italy.

As I lay in the hospital bed, my little boy took my hand and stared into my eyes. He asked, with worry in his voice, “Pappa, when will you be able to ride your bike again. Will you still be able to do the World Championships.” I smiled back at him, and said “Yes Charlie, it will take a little time for my body to get better, but I will be ready.” A few minutes later he managed to accidentally press the button on the bed remote control, almost catapulting me across the room.

And in August 2013 Charlie and his Mum, brother and sister cheered me on to a bronze medal in the road race at the World Masters Games in Torino. As I crossed the finish line, they were all waiting with outstretched arms.

But perhaps what made me proudest about standing on the podium in Torino was the fact that we had already started to see in our children this courage to dream big, to believe that anything is possible if you have energy and focus and self-belief. It’s part of why I ride my bike, to show my children that life is for living.

I am sure that the future will give us many more reasons for celebration. Not just through my own sporting adventures, but also in celebrating whatever dreams my wife and my three children aspire to achieve.

Photo 2.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

A day with Alexander Kristoff

IMG_20151228_181856

In my last blogpost I talked about how life sometimes knocks you down. Isn’t it funny how life can also give you wings – I just met my cycling idol Alexander Kristoff!

I had just left the small apartment where I was staying with my family in Puerto de Mogan on Gran Canaria, and was heading up a narrow rural road towards the centre of the Island. I had planned a long and steady day on the bike, and was enjoying the sun on my back when a small group of cyclists caught up to me. As I glimpsed over my shoulder, I recognised several guys in the Norwegian colours of blue, red and white and then I saw the two in red. They looked different – lean, and tanned and relaxed on the bike. And then it hit me – they were wearing the new colours of Team Katusha, with names down the side of their jerseys – Kristoff and Bystrøm. I could not believe it – what were the odds of meeting these guys on my training ride!?

Alexander Kristoff is one of the world’s top classics riders, and has won Milan San Remo, the Tour of Flanders and a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympic Games. Sven Erik Bystrøm was under 23 World Champion in 2014, and joined Katusha as a professional in 2015. And here they were, riding beside me on the road to Mogan and the mountains beyond. As is etiquette in cycling, I asked if I could join the small training group and was welcomed into the fold. I introduced myself, and met each of my six Norwegian companions. As it turned out they had not started the day together, but had formed the group along the beach road on the way from Puerto Rico.

We held a steady tempo as we headed up into the mountains, and chatted away as the gradient was not too steep. Kristoff told me about his trips to Australia and the Tour Down Under, and how he had decided not to go this year given his focus on the Spring Classics and defending the Tour of Flanders. I learned that the other Norwegian guys were out for a short ride of just a few hours, but Kristoff and Bystrøm were planning a big day of six or seven hours. So I asked if I could tag along, and the two professionals said “sure, no problem.” A grin spread from ear to ear as we reached the top of the climb and three of us turned left and the other guys turned to the right. It was just me and team Katusha!

To say that riding with Alexander and Sven was exciting for me would be a big understatement. I was ecstatic! When I first got back on to my bike more than five years ago, I sought out and trained with young elite level guys in the area where we lived near to Brussels. Some of those rides almost killed me, but I told myself that if I wanted to race at the elite level again, I would also need to train at the elite level. I found it so motivating to be training with the elite guys, many of whom were at least twenty years my junior. But I never imagined that one day I would be out on the road with Alexander Kristoff and Sven Bystrøm.

When you ride with guys for six or seven hours there is no need to rush the conversation. So we chatted in a relaxed way as we headed further into the centre of the island, talking about how we came to cycling, about goals for 2016 and our families. I felt a bit self-conscious talking about my plans for competing in South Africa and Italy in the Spring, especially considering the races that they will be doing at that time, but the guys listened and wished me luck.

IMG_20151228_182336

Sven told me that they were working to a four-day training cycle – three days on the bike, and one day of rest before the next cycle. Today was the day for long steady distance after a day of interval work, which suited me just fine. We stopped for a short lunch of cheese sandwiches and coffee, topped-up our water bottles, and enjoyed the view to the peaks surrounding Tejeda. On the way back down the valley, I saw first hand how fast professional cyclists can descend, even on a training ride.

All in all I spent almost seven hours with Alexander and Sven, and we covered around 170kms and more than 3500m of climbing. It is a day that I will remember for a very long time, although not because there were any flashes of insight or golden nuggets of training advice. In fact, I was struck more by the ordinariness of a long day in the saddle with two guys who have chosen cycling not only as a passion but also a job. I had the pleasure to meet two very open and sincere human beings, who despite their fame and achievements were happy to share their ride with me.

I am a lucky guy, and I am sure 2016 is going to be a very good year – for me, for Sven Bystrøm and for Alexander Kristoff.

IMG_20151228_113019

HAVE YOU SEEN MY TED TALK: What is Success, Really?

Self-Belief, Beyond Reason

Eight months ago I lay beside the road on a mountain descent in Mallorca. It was early April and I had just hit a brick wall doing about 50km per hour, breaking ten ribs, puncturing a lung, dislocating my right shoulder and cracking several teeth. And I was pissed off – furious at myself for losing concentration on the corner, and angry that all of the hard work that I had done on my bicycle over the winter was now lost. But I did not despair – not even for a moment. Because throughout my life I have sometimes experienced setbacks and heartache, but I have always been able to get back on my feet. And I knew that this time would be no different.

After the ambulance arrived at the roadside I was taken to a small hospital in the nearest town, but the doctors took one look at me and shook their heads – my condition was too serious. They put a drip in my arm to ease the pain, and I was transferred to the intensive care unit of the University Hospital in Palma. The rest of the journey was a blur.

That evening, after the catheter had been inserted to drain the fluid from my punctured lung, I managed to call my wife Anne-Mie. With laboured breathing, I told her that I had crashed, but I was okay. No broken neck, no head injury and I could remember the kids birth dates. I told her that I was going to be okay – that it would just take time.

I spent a week in the hospital before I was allowed to travel home to Belgium by ferry and train – I was unable to fly because the tear in my lung was too serious. In that time I had a lot of time to think, and of course I started to write this blog. But not for one moment did I consider that my life as a cyclist was over – I just accepted that my goals for the 2015 season were gone, and that I would have to focus on repairing my body.

Lying in that hospital bed in Mallorca I reminded myself that life is long, and that this accident was just a setback. At only 44 years old, I have many years ahead of me – in 2016 I will turn 45, and that means progressing to the Masters 4 Category for guys from 45 to 50 years old. So I said to myself, “next year will be your year.”

A few days ago I had a quiet celebration – I got back on my bike at the start of July, and for the past five months I have been steadily rebuilding my fitness. I still have some pain in my ribs, and the shoulder aches a bit, but the rest of me feels fine. I record all of my training sessions with a Power Metre and Heart Rate Monitor, and it is exhilarating to see that my condition is now back to where it was before I had the crash. My body’s ability to sustain power is about the same as when I got on the top step of the podium at the Cape Town Cycle Classic back in March – and that feels amazing.

But more importantly I still have a passion to compete. For me, love for my sport is not about a small spark in the dark. It’s about a burning fire, and self-belief beyond reason. The fire still burns, and 2016 is going to be a very good year.

WATCH MY TED TALK: What is Success, Really?

Training.jpg

 

Big Hairy Ambitious Goals

I remember when I was working at London Business School back in the early 2000s, and I taught on a program for a big international telecom company based in the UK. The company used the acronym ‘BHAG’ or ‘Big Hairy Ambitious Goal’ to describe what they were trying to achieve in the business world. I adopted the term as part of my journey towards a medal in the mens road race at the World Masters Games in Torino.

My body is almost fully recovered after my accident back in April. Ten broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder and a punctured lung don’t heal overnight, and my first few months back on the bike back in July and August were just awful. I had lost so much strength, that I was regularly passed by the lone retirees that you come across pedalling the roads of Flanders. And they were not riding electric bikes!

I can admit that the accident had not just hit me physically – I felt depressed, as the pain was pretty much constant for about three months. It was impossible to lie flat, so I slept in a ‘Grandpa’ chair for more than ten weeks. When I first got back on my indoor trainer at end of June, I was exhausted after just 30 or 40 minutes of pedalling. My body was using so much energy to fix itself, that any added exertion left me drained.

But bit by bit I have increased my training intensity over the past four months, and now I am starting to hit the performance numbers that I was doing back in April. One of the good things about the accident is that it has really taught me to sense my body – I don’t know if its real or imagined, but it is kind of like I can feel my muscles, joints and even respiration with a heightened sensitivity. So every day when I start my training session, I first spend some time just sensing my body. And then I compare the way I feel to the screen in front of me – power output, heart rate and cadence.

The other good thing about the accident is how motivated I am feeling about getting back to competition. The start of this year was quite stressful – our contractor had gone bankrupt in the middle of building our new house, throwing our moving plans into disarray and meaning that we had been stressed with getting the project back on track over the winter. The whole episode had really disrupted my training, so I came into the Spring behind where I would have liked to be. I had some good results in South Africa in March, but I felt distracted. Then the accident.

But now I feel incredibly motivated to make the 2016 season one of my best. For the past six weeks or so I have been waking at around 6am almost every morning, doing 60 to 90 minutes on the indoor trainer before Anne-Mie and the kids are out of bed. I am in my obsessive groove, where training gives me the kind of kick that I guess musicians and artists feel when they are in their flow. There is no boredom or loneliness, no mental distraction. I’ve even started to talk to Anne-Mie and the kids about my power curve and watts per kilo, and they are kind enough to feign interest.

Now its time to set some BHAGs !

 

 

 

 

 

Mid-Life Dopers

Podium

I compete against mid-life dopers. I ride with a power meter, a crank-mounted device that measures the number of watts you are producing at any given moment on the bike. So I don’t just feel the pain that I go through trying to stay with some of the middle-aged amateur cyclists I race against – I can actually see the numbers they are putting out. And sometimes those numbers are simply unbelievable.

I participated in a multi-day race in Sardinia last year against Masters riders from all over Europe. About half way into the 140km first stage I found myself putting out around 360 watts at the base of a long climb just to stay with two Italian guys in my age group category. These were not little skinny guys like me (I am 168cm tall and my race weight is around 64 kilograms) but tall, well-built men of at least 75 kilos.

The two Italians were smoothly riding away from me on the climb, and taking into account their body weight and the incline, this meant that they were putting out as much as 10 percent more power than I was – maybe 390 watts – and they were holding it! When in peak condition I can hold 360 watts for about ten minutes of pedaling, before I completely blow-up. So I shook my head and watched them ride away.

To put 390 watts in perspective, Chris Froome’s estimated power output on the mountain stage he won in the Tour de France this year was around 410 watts. So what I witnessed in Italy just didn’t make sense for middle-aged amateur cyclists. I Googled the names of the two Italians that evening to discover that one of them had recently returned to competition after a two-year doping suspension.

Over the course of the week-long race, these two guys raced aggressively every single day – there seemed to be no fatigue, and they attacked constantly. I eventually finished third for my age group classification, but was more than twelve minutes behind by the end of the week. The other guys in my age group joked that we were engaged in two-speed racing – the winning Italians in one class, and the rest of us in the other.

The fact is that doping, and especially the use of the blood booster EPO, is all too common in amateur Masters cycling. Unlike professional cycling, there is no biological passport system involving the systematic and regular testing of competitors. In many countries, such as Belgium, there are random checks at race events but typically just a handful of riders are tested. In many events, like the one that I raced in Italy, there is no testing at all. So the odds of getting caught are quite small.

Doping products such as EPO are affordable, and readily available for purchase on the Internet. The real challenge is how to deal with the mid-life dopers, and I think that out of season testing must become a reality for those Masters riders who are performing ‘exceptionally’ in race events. For example, I know of a 50 something cyclist who won 8 out of 10 Masters events in a Belgian Kermesse series a few years ago. Given the level of competition in Belgium, that kind of performance verges on the unbelievable. Out of season testing of amateurs is already done to an extent in the US, and scores of riders have been suspended as a consequence. The same should be done in continental Europe.

Although there is very little research about doping by Masters athletes, I have read a lot on the psychology of doping at the elite level of sport. Much of the literature talks about game theory. The simplest game in game theory is “prisoner’s dilemma”. In the athletes’ version, both cyclists will be better off if neither takes drugs, but because neither can trust the other, both have to take them to make sure they have a chance of winning.*

If it is highly likely that the majority of your competitors are doping, then you have two options. You can choose not to dope, and be almost certainly beaten as a consequence, or you can dope, and be given a fighting chance. I have read scores of interviews with cyclists who doped during the Armstrong era, and almost all of them talked of this athlete’s dilemma.

The financial stakes in professional sports can be high, and this is also a factor that undoubtedly drives some to dope. But it is not just about fame and fortune – many young cyclists who encountered the doping culture of the 1990s and early 2000s had dreamed of professional cycling since they were kids, sacrificing education and career opportunities for a sporting path. They had travelled far from family and friends to make it as a rider in Europe, and were then sucked into an environment in which doping was the norm – where it was expected by peers and mentors. For them, cycling was a job and doping became a tool of the trade.

But the reality for middle-aged cyclists is very different. There is certainly no fortune, as even the best amateur Masters racers spend far more on equipment, travel and race costs than they ever get from prize money. Cycling is a passion, not an income generator. Fame is also elusive, as Masters cycling is rarely reported on by the mainstream media.

We are not surrounded by people who encourage us to dope. In fact, those who cheat disgust most of my cycling peers. A Belgian rider who is almost fifty years old won his age-group category of a week-long Masters race in Italy this year, and also rode unbelievably well on the general classification. Not only did he finish in the top ten, but he consistently outclassed riders twenty years his junior – every day of the event. He has served a previous doping suspension, and was openly ridiculed by other cyclists at the race. I wondered if this was fair, but his performance on the road left few doubts in many peoples’ minds.

To me it seems that the prisoner’s dilemma still plays a role in elite Masters cycling – the fear that others are doping, so to win I must dope too. But what this also says is that the individual puts ‘winning’ above all else. And in the absence of financial rewards and fame ‘winning’ is essentially about two things: firstly a sense of self-achievement, and secondly recognition from family, friends and the Masters cycling community.

But in both cases the outcome is a lie for dopers – you have not achieved your true potential, and the recognition that you are receiving is undeserved. It is one thing to mislead the Masters cycling community about the reasons for your performance, but to do so to spouse, children and wider family and friends strikes me as very sad indeed.

And this is why I pity the mid-life dopers. Because what they have failed to acquire is the wisdom that at this stage of life, winning is not just about receiving a medal after a bike race. It’s about how you got there, and who you have become along the way.

Earlier this year I won my age-group classification and was also 1st International Amateur Rider overall at the Cape Town Cycle Classic. It was the first time in my life to stand on the top step of the podium at a major international race.

Standing on that podium in South Africa, I held the trophy high.

CAPETOWN

*For a good discussion of game theory and the athlete’s dilemma see: The Economist, Doping in Sport: The Athlete’s Dilemma, 20 July 2013. ARTICLE