Bernard Hinault, Sean Kelly and Phil Anderson during the Tour de France. They were lean but still looked 'normal'.
In the middle of February this year I sat down after watching a stage of the Tour of Valencia and made note of how many riders had already crashed and broken bones this season. This was the list that I compiled just off the top of my head , there are many others:
At that time also, I watched in amazement as Nairo Qunitana won a stage in the Tour of Provence where he did a similar time up Mont Ventoux to what Pantani had done during his heyday in July at the Tour de France. Even taking the cooler conditions and shorter days racing into account, this was still an incredible performance.
Then as I watched Adam Yates put in a blistering ride on stage 3 of the UAE Tour, once again I began to look at the way riders prepare for the season now compared to the past, especially the years during my career, and on how unbalanced they have become. Some of the riders have mentioned about the levels of racing right from the beginning of the season now and how it is full on even during the very first races.
Initially let’s look at the injuries from crashes. A good place to start is Mark Cavendish from about 10 years ago. One year in the Giro he was crashing frequently, through no fault of this own, but due to the hectic finishes of each stage. Sometimes at speeds in excess of 60kph, but there he was back on his bike the following day contesting the sprints again. How was his body able to withstand the impact without breaking bones?
Next let us look at how riders of my era began the season. Most were carrying a few extra kilos, or in Greg LeMonds case many extra kilos sometimes. Even Hinault, Fignon and many other top names would all rock on to early season races with a hint of a belly on them. Then we all raced ourselves into fitness. But our bodies had been given a chance to rebuild and recover during the off season so we were strong, not just in power figures, but physically strong. Cavendish too, had this sort of strength to be able to withstand the crashes without breaking any bones.
When the season finished back then we hung up our racing bikes, or sold them off, and then built up our physical strength by Mountain Biking, running, indoor circuit training in a sports hall with Tony Ryan (this consisted of a 30 minute warm up run outdoors, then 1 hour of push ups, squats, planks, lunges, etc), cross country skiing, and some of us even went back to work on farms. This made our bodies strong and kept our minds fresh. When the time came after a break of perhaps 6 weeks to get back out on the road we enjoyed it and also kept on mixing in other forms of physical exercise until we left for the early season races at the end of January.
Given that I won Paris Nice 7 times this system seemed to work pretty well. Nowadays however, many professional riders never get off the road bike all year round. They may do a bit of stretching in the evening but many just ride their bikes all the time. This leads to a lowering of bone density and this is what causes so many broken bones. The teams nowadays are just worried about results and there is little concern for the long term health of the riders.
For Quintana and Yates to be able to perform as they did in February of this year, they had to have been training really hard on the bike throughout the winter. Too hard. They were close to Tour de France level fitness at that time of year, and in the long term that is not sustainable.
Weight is another issue that has become too much of a focus. In the search for marginal gains riders are now worried about every extra gram. They eat like sparrows and many are always hungry, for food that is. Again a bit more balance is needed. By having such restrictive diets they are missing out on many natural minerals and vitamins etc. They may be super bike fit, but they are not a healthy fit.
So, given the time that we are currently in, my advise to all cyclists, professional and amateur alike, would be to expand your general fitness. My recommendation would be to do some running once or twice per week, any more and you might pick up an injury. Lift some weights if you have them or else do exercises like push ups and squats using your own body weight. Go chop some wood or find some other form of outdoor work that requires physical effort. Eat a varied diet. Don’t worry if there is a bit of fat on your plate and don’t get carried away with any of these fancy fad diets. Drink a few beers or a glass of wine and relax. And my advice, especially for us Sportive riders who are carrying an extra 10kg is to relax about the beer belly. A small one is a sign of health. For the pros, this is going to be difficult to do because everybody wants to be in peak condition for racing and to be able to perform at the levels that teams demand. However, in my mind this is something that needs to be seriously looked at.