Thursday, January 07, 2010
Flexibility & Performance
There’s a good interview with Ivan Basso in the latest edition of Cycle Sport. For those who don’t know, he was Armstrong’s heir apparent in the Tour before getting busted in the Operation Puerto scandal and serving a two year suspension. In his return to the peloton this year he was a good, but not great, stage racer. While most pundits chalk this up to lack of dope, Basso offers a different perspective. Unlike Tyler’s vanishing twin, his explanation actually makes sense. Not only that, we’ll get to see it play out next season.
Many cyclists’ lives fall apart after a drug bust. Look at Hamilton or Landis, who seem shadows of the men they once were. And compared to many, like Pantani or Jimenez (who both died of drug overdoses after living with suicidal tendencies) they seem lucky. None of this happened to Basso. His family life stayed strong. He seemed to take his punishment as a motivation to train even harder. His schedule became transparent, as well as his blood values, and he trained publicly like a Spartan for two years.
His return was a disappointment. He targeted the Giro d’Italia, a race he’d won by ten minutes on the eve of his bust, and came in 5th. He vowed to do better in the Vuelta a Espana and did, but still missed the podium after getting smoked in the final day’s time trial that dropped him to 4th. This would be a career defining year for most professional cyclists but, for the guy who finished second in two Tour de Frances’, it was a major step back.
The tifosi quickly dismissed him. Instantly there was pressure for Liquigas to let Basso go in favor of supporting its two young stars, Nibali and Kreuziger. Another teammate, Franco Pellizoti, who finished third in the Giro, demanded to be the protected leader next year. Always the gentleman, Basso has offered to ride in support should those riders prove stronger. He also has a plan to ensure it won’t happen. It’s based on flexibility.
Basso was always a great climber. It wasn’t until he came to CSC that his time trialing caught up. Working with Bjarne Riis he quickly became feared against the clock as well, which is the recipe you need to win grand tours. “If you do 400 watts on climbs,” says Basso. “You should be able to produce 400 watts in a time trial too.”
Last year it wasn’t the case. Basso (like another former time trialing champion, Lance Armstrong) was decidedly average. According to the numbers he was 20-30 watts less efficient in his time trial position, a lack of efficiency that will never will a grand tour unless you can drop everyone on the climbs like Ricardo Ricco, which requires a blood haematocrit level that will now put you in prison.
When we visualize hard training we think of pain and suffering. Basso suffered like a dog for two years only to see his performance go backwards. He then took the Armstrong approach and raced and raced. This seems logical when you’re trying to make up for time away from racing but it’s not scientific. It’s not how either rider gained success, which was by scientifically evaluating every aspect of performance and doing whatever was necessary to make it happen. Doping aside there were many other factors that set these riders apart.
Flexibility is something we rarely think about in cycling, or almost any sport for that matter besides the obvious like gymnastics. But the ability to get your body into an aerodynamic position while it’s still powerful is a massive advantage. While Basso was riding his “virtual Giro” and famous ticking off miles he probably wasn’t spending hours sitting in a quiet room stretching without a coach demanding it of him.
It’s human nature. How many cyclists do you know that given a couple of hours would choose to stay inside and stretch rather than go for a spin? How many of anyone in any sport? All training, for that matter, leans this way. The first workouts that get dropped by our Beachbody customers are yoga and stretching. We get more emails complaining about these than all of our other workouts combined. Nobody asks why they should do cardio or lift weights. We are regularly questioned, or even challenged, about the validity of yoga.
Athletic performance is about balance. Your body needs to be able to perform well throughout its range of motion. If it can’t you will suffer for it. These differences can be imperceptible. In these two photos of Basso there’s a 30 watt shift—podium or no podium—that may even avoid a trainer’s eye.
Tony Horton tells us that he doesn’t look that way he does at 50 because he lifts weights, but because he does yoga. Basso has dropped his early season racing in favor of a flexibility program. There are lessons here, which we’ll get to see play out on Italian roads in May.