Oh, how things change. If I had asked for some warm milk at breakfast before my first pro race, I may well have had my nice, new shiny licence torn up and set on fire in some kind of ritual cleansing.
I knew I had already pushed my luck at the beginning of the training camp by having the occasional omelette, so I accepted my initiation fate and when asked how I would like mine, replied the same as everyone else. Apparently you have to fit in and not be too fussy on your first day at the office.
Ten minutes later, there it sat next to the rice that I didn’t really want either: one big, fat, juicy steak. I considered that I’d had my breakfast and was ready to go but now I had to have another race meal, which seemed rather extravagant and unnecessary to me and my previous experiences as a poor amateur.
I wasn’t a vegetarian at that point but somehow I knew this wasn’t going to do me any favours for what lay ahead. Sure enough, six hours later the steak reappeared, just when I was supposed to be impressing my new colleagues in the middle of my first finale. Not good, but one thing I did notice was that when I had a juicy steak pre-race, I wasn’t that hungry at the finish. Or comfortable when lying in my bed trying to recover and get to sleep that same night.
You certainly got your money’s worth, though, because it took forever to digest, and since I was required to make a contribution by paying for part of the stay in the hotel on the Côte d’Azur, I felt it might be one of the steps towards being bigger, stronger and faster. I quickly learned that it wasn’t. Eventually, after serving up all shapes and sizes of various animal products, they gave up trying to convert me.
From then on, as I ate my warm milk and cereals, I watched with dismay as most of the guys I hoped to emulate continued with a dietary choice detrimental to their performance. Everyone said I was difficult.
Fast forward 16 seasons and the breakfast box, filled with every shape of cereals, from cornflakes to organic Fairtrade muesli from the depths of some African outback, was a feature at every pro team table. Even the French were infected, though the stalwarts continued to dip their all-butter croissants into a bowl of coffee and curse how the Anglos had spoiled everything.
Revenge was sweet and now, when I look at how team affairs are conducted, the good old times that all those wine-sipping types reminisce about weren’t that great at all. Compared to the support systems of today, they were the crude old days.
I rode for some decent teams – well, Fagor excepted – and on reflection, only a fraction of the time did they look after their people with any kind of thought. We went from one race to the next getting more and more tired, usually trying to earn a place on the Tour team, with nobody really thinking a bit of recovery might be beneficial.
The best it got was a training camp mid-season crammed between the myriad of smaller stage races that were considered the usual preparation for the season’s biggest event.
Panasonic never even bothered with that semi-break from the stress of racing, as Peter Post didn’t believe in letting you have too much rest. First season, I did 65 days of competition pre-Tour, almost all of which were in Spain, and then proceeded to fall apart ten days into the year’s most important race.
You would have thought that, maybe, things would have been reassessed for the next year? Nope. I did more, including the Giro and the Tour de Suisse. At that year’s Tour de France, I crumbled after a week and Post was half-crazy, so I got shamed in front of everyone.
It might sound like I’m being harsh on PP but, to be fair, all the other team managers followed the same principles. Race, race, race, until you crack, and then shout at you for being weak. Psychologists, they were not.
Contrast that with the careful rider management of today. Not too many races, lots of careful, thoughtful preparation. Training camps covering most of the aspects that you need to improve, like time-trialling for the climbers, and climbing for those that don’t do it naturally.
The only occasions I got to ride a TT bike were when they wheeled it out of the truck at races. There was no taking it home for a few days.
Of all the physical tests I did in a lab, not once was there any feedback regarding what the numbers meant. Usually it was a case of “you’re quite fit”, or “you’re a bit tired”, and that was that. No advice or guidance on training or structuring a season.
All the knowledge you needed had to be gleaned from reading, asking others or experimenting, and then fitted into the very few periods you got to prepare properly. It was basically self-service from the people around you.
Now there are proper trainers, sports psychologists, performance analysts, physios, nutritionists, development coaches, aero experts and people to take care of every eventuality. The sport has become more professional and it’s all the better for it.
More interest has brought more money, which has meant progress in every area, and though the racing is now closer than before, the chances of having a long and successful career are greater. There’s never been a better time to be involved in pro bike racing. It’s still as hard as it ever was, but at least it’s no longer the jungle it once was.
Dans le temps? Mon derrière.
This column was originally published in issue 66 of Rouleur