There’s been a lot of controversy around Chris Froome’s Giro d’Italia, from whether he should have been there in the first place to his memorable 80km solo win on stage 19.
Setting aside those Salbutomol issues for the moment, were his stage 19 win, and his overall win, quite as outrageous as some might say?
I think not.
Going into the Giro the field looked decidedly weak**. That’s not to take anything away from any of the riders on the start line, but apart from Froome only Dumoulin and Aru were previous grand tour winners, and though Pinot and and Yates are ‘front group’ riders they didn’t go in as proven leaders.
That front group in recent grand tours has been dominated by Quintana, Nibali, Contador, Landa, Uran, Valverde, Bardet, Porte, Martin, Kelderman, Kruijswijk, Fuglsang, Zakarin… …all absent from the Giro this year.
With Yates blown up and his domestiques out of the way Froome and Sky turned the race into a one on one with Dumoulin. Watching from the sofa I felt that Dumoulin lost the race the moment he decided not to chase Froome down the Finestre. Why on earth did he wait for Pinot and Reichenbach, two really poor descenders*** who he’d already dropped on the climb, when Froome was also on his own and only a few seconds ahead? Dumoulin has made a name for himself by pacing himself up the climbs. Pacing works because you don’t have to slow down and recover: because you can be relentless. There’s no benefit in pacing if you’re not relentless. Froome was relentless.
So what was my part in Froome’s win?
In December 2015 I wrote the following letter to Dave Braisford:
I hope that you are well.
I was prompted to write by the juxtaposition of two articles in the paper this week (photo attached), one on Chris Froome, the other on Emma Pooley. As you might recall, I coached Emma until the London Olympics.
Chris and Emma both came into professional cycling by slightly unusual routes. Both have extraordinary physiology, work ethic and intrinsic motivation but neither arrived at the top level with years of bunch riding and handling skills.
Emma and I spent a lot of time working on her skills and her position on the bike. She could always climb, and could break clear on long climbs, but womens’ races never had mountain finishes so to win she had to be able to descend and ride solo on her road bike.
I’m aware that the nature of mens’ racing is different and that one upshot is that descending and riding solo are no longer key skills – especially for top GC riders in the Tour de France, but in the world of marginal gains surely great descending is a weapon worth having. Chris is lauded for his professionalism and attention to detail, yet Graham Watson in this week’s Cycling Weekly writes, “I have to confess this [good shot of Chris descending] is a 1 in 20 success, many images that I have of Froome show him struggling on descents.”
I’ve been doing, watching and coaching cycling for many, many years and have seen lots of subtle changes in riding style and bike setup – and along the way the skills of cornering and descending have either been lost or sacrificed. I’m struck by how stressed Chris looks in the picture in the paper – his whole body is tense. But he’s not that unusual: the majority of current pros now make descending look like a white-knuckle ride. Unfortunately the coaching maxim of ‘watch what the pros do’ is resulting in everyone fighting their bikes round the corners. Contrast the other riders in this photo, with Cadel Evans.
I’m sure that I’m not the only person who coaches descending and cornering technique but I know that my coaching has a big impact. Some people come to me because, like Emma, they realise that their descending or cornering is costing them results. Some come because they are scared. The boys in the National Junior Triathlon Squad came because they were going as fast as they could down a mountain road and I left them behind. Most people, however, simply don’t appreciate the difference that learning to descend and corner makes. And it doesn’t require any fitness, power, calories, weight loss…
Good descending and cornering aren’t about fearlessness, they are about control. They are governed by simple principles of physics and biomechanics. The technique is easy to learn but coaching requires a suitable environment for deliberate repetitive practise.
Good luck in 2016.
Froome won the Giro because he raced the descents and his only rival didn’t.
** Weak field
Though the Giro was a fantastic spectacle as usual, it wasn’t just thin in top-flight GC contenders. Without Kittel, Greipel, Cavendish, Kristoff, Sagan, Colbrelli, Demare, Gaviria, Matthews, Bouhanni, and Ewan it was pretty much plain sailing for Viviani in the sprints.
The Giro is exciting because the terrain, the roads and the weather make it difficult for teams to control. But this year it had the feeling of a B race.
Did the big names not fancy that trip to Israel?
*** Poor descenders
From outside the peloton it’s not easy to know who are the good and bad descenders. Descending mostly happens away from the TV cameras and within a lined out bunch. A couple of years ago, however, Riechenbach was caught on TV losing a stage-winning advantage in the Tour de France to Jarlinson Pantano because of his slow and nervous descending. Pinot’s descending is widely acknowledged to be poor.
Dumoulin, on the other hand, successfully defended his pink jersey in last year’s Giro by chasing Nibali down the Stelvio.
The photo at the top of the page came from stickybottle.com