,Sometimes people ask me if I was born with good bike control, or was it something that I worked on to develop over time. It was probably a combination of both, but I would say that most of my bike control skill came by working on it over time.
Growing up on a small farm in Ireland there was always some work to be done, but when we did have some free time, myself and my brothers Vinny and Joe would take out a really old big black High Nelly style bike that we found in a shed. We then raced each other in a time trail. We had to do it this way as there were three of us and only one bike, although Vinny tended to be a spectator most of the time, seeing as he was the younger buck.
It wasn’t really a normal time trial because we had a few extra elements to spice things up. When we found the bike, the tyres were flat so we just rode it like that for a while and then when we wore them off we just rode the big steel rims without any rubber at all. There was a concrete yard in front of the house from which a two hundred meter long bodhreen or laneway lead into the farm so we were in sight all the time. We put an old milk churn in the middle of the yard so the course was 4 laps of going around the churn, then out to the end of the laneway where we had to slow and turn the bike, which not only had no tyres but didn’t have any brakes either. We just slammed our boots down onto the ground to slow down as best we could and to try to turn cyclocross style. Then it was back in along the laneway into the concrete yard and around the churn again. Having learned to control a bike in this way, riding the slippery cobbles of Paris Roubaix as a professional with a much better bike which had tubular tyres wasn’t too difficult.
Just because I was slow to change from toe clips to clipless pedals people sometimes assume that I wasn’t really into equipment. Nothing could be further from the truth. I took my profession very seriously and was actually meticulous about my equipment. When most were still riding steel frames I was one of the first to race on Aluminium frames, made by Vitus. I was also one of the first to race on Carbon Fibre frames, again this was facilitated by Vitus who I worked with to help develop their frames at the time. Initially there were issues around the bonding process where the glue used to join the tubes to the lugs was not strong enough. However over time Vitus consulted with some aircraft engineers to develop a compound that was also used on airplanes. This technology was very similar to what is still used today by many frame manufacturers.
Bikes changed a lot throughout my career. I started on Steel, then went on to Aluminium, then Carbon and even rode Titanium during my final season. The Vitus Aluminium was very lightweight and comfortable but a bit soft after a certain amount of riding so we would have to change frames relatively often throughout the season. They were pretty strong though. The only time that I broke one was in Paris Roubaix when I got a puncture at the start of Arrenberg so had to ride the full sector on the flat. It was the year Vanderarden won, 1987. When the down tube broke having been weakened from all of the vibration caused by riding cobbles on a flat I got thrown over the front wheel and landed on my head. When he saw me crash, Vanderarden attacked. By the time I managed to get a spare bike the race was gone and I finished back around 30th. The carbon Vitus was lighter and stiffer so was a good improvement. These I never broke, although once again I did change them throughout the season. My final year racing when I was with Catavana we used a Titanium Vitus. These were a bit heavier than the carbon, not quite as stiff and responsive but were very comfortable.
When I joined PDM we rode steel Concorde frames. They looked nice but were very heavy. At the Tour de France we used a carbon frame made by TVT which was then sprayed up to look like a Concorde.
With Sem, Skill and Kas I always used Mavic components. Firstly their wheel rims. They made a special SSC rim for us professionals and I was one of the first to use them. I remember during some of my first victories at Paris Nice my manager Jean DeGribaldy worked with Mavic and Vitus to get me a bike that was just 7.5kg for the Col d’Eze time trial, the stage where the overall victory was often decided. Wheels at the time often had 36 spokes but for this Time Trial I used special 24 spoke wheels which had spokes that were tied and soldered for additional strength and stiffness making up for the lack of spokes. I also used a Maillard Titanium 13 - 19 straight through block on rear wheel. Having won that race 7 times in a row, I now look back and think that having really good equipment was the difference between winning and loosing on more than one occasion. Having the best lightweight equipment can be helpful for your motivation on those important occasions and also good for morale.
Mavic also made a very good quality groupset which was very smooth and reliable, apart from the time I put the rear derailleur into the spokes at the bottom of St Patricks hill in Cork. I had to make myself pretty big on the road as I was falling that day to make sure that enough of a group had to stop behind. They could help me to get back into the race. DaSilva was on my left and stopped too which added to the mayhem. He then gave me his bike and pushed me off again. I was saddened to read this week that Mavic are in financial trouble and hope that they will be able to get back on their feet once again soon.
At PDM we used Campagnolo. The Delta brakes looked nice but were about as useful as udders on a bull when it came to their stopping power. Many of us changed them for the cheaper Chorus model. They looked more traditional and worked a hell of a lot better.
When my time riding for PDM came to an end I signed for Festina which meant that I was back on a Vitus once more. This was a stipulation that I asked for, as at that stage of my career I understood just how much of a difference the bike could make. Going down the Poggio in the '92 Milan San Remo I felt at one with the bike and understood exactly how far I could push it. On another bike that day I may not have caught Argentin on the descent, and he might have been the one sipping Prosecco on the Via Roma.
Even in retirement I have continued the relationship with Vitus. When we had the An Post Chain Reaction team I was very happy to have Vitus as our bike supplier of choice, and to this day I am still involved in the testing and development of many of the bikes in their range, especially the road bikes.
One of my highest profile equipment choices was related to the pedals that I used whilst racing. While many of the peloton had changed to clip-less pedals I was still happy to stay riding toe clips. I had concerns about possible injuries when the feet were locked in so solidly, as there was always a bit of play with the toe clips and straps that could be looser during a stage and then tightened approaching the finish. I heard about Hinaults' knee troubles and did not want to fall victim to the same fate. The initial clipless pedals from Look were totally fixed and if you didn’t have the cleats set up 100% correctly you were forcing your knee into an un-natural position 90 times per minute. It might be subtle, but after 200k chances are it would have a negative effect. As there was so much attention around my pedal choice at the time my choice of clip-less pedal was going to attract a bit of publicity for the manufacturer so I was happy to get a little compensation for that too.
A bike or equipment won’t make up for a lack of training, but a well maintained good quality bike will allow you to get the most out of yourself.
Last time I recommended that cyclists should do some running once or twice a week, so following my own advice, I was out on Monday for about an hour. At one stage I found myself running 50 meters behind another guy for two kilometres. During that time he must have looked at his wrist at least 29 times. At first I thought he had some kind of a twitch or something, but then I realised that he was actually looking at his watch all the time. At one point he even stumbled as he clipped the edge of a footpath whilst looking at that watch and it made me wonder about how reliant many people have become on technology when out running or cycling.
During my career I wasn’t a great one for technology. One year the team were all using these Avocet bike computers that had a sensor going down to the front wheel and I didn’t even have mine connected. I found it a bit of a distraction.
Nowadays, when I go to sportives or corporate cycling events, I often meet guys with bigger dashboards on their bikes than I have in my jeep. They can rattle off all sorts of stats and numbers but sometimes they are the very first ones to go south when the road starts to rise uphill. Something that really brought this home to me was a chat that I had at a sportive one day with a guy that I have met at many events around Ireland. Normally he could turn up anywhere with a buddy of his. Last time we met he was on his own and I asked where his buddy was. The reply that I received disappointed me. His buddy had bought a power meter, found some training program on the internet and then turned around and told the guy who he had been cycling with every weekend for over ten years that they couldn’t really train together anymore as he needed to do more specific sessions that weren’t conducive to the type of training that they had a always been doing together. There are probably other guys out there at present like that, half delighted with the excuse for training alone that the Corona virus has given them to train only with their figures and numbers.
Sometimes I go to watch local races here in Ireland At one race last year l met a guy who I knew, and asked how he had done in the race. Normally he is as strong as a bull so I was half expecting him to say that he had won or at least been in the top six. He shook his head when I asked and then told me that he wasn’t able to stay with the bunch. I asked if he had been sick or anything like that. Then the explanation came and all was revealed. This guy is a pig farmer and works very hard all week long. In an effort to improve his performance he bought a Heart Rate monitor and this was the first race that he had used it in. He told me that when he looked down at one stage and saw some high number he knew something wasn’t right, so he backed off and got dropped. If he didn’t have the Heart Rate monitor chances are he would have just dug in, suffered on a bit and stayed with the bunch. He might have even gone on to get a result at the finish.
Technology has its place in cycling for sure. If a professional is preparing for a key race, along with his coach, he can look at his numbers and be able to tell pretty accurately how he is going. Training can be adjusted daily to suit and confidence can be built outside of that gained by race results themselves.
People who are really busy can also benefit from using technology to peak for events in the short term. They can do really specific training in short amounts of time to build power and physical fitness. However, they may be missing out on the skills and abilities that longer days in the saddle can only provide.
Turbo trainers are coming into a world of their own at present. People can do a form of a group ride on Zwift and it keeps them in touch with others along with maintaining and building fitness. You even have many professionals and amateurs alike racing on there at present. Will this transfer across to real world results when racing opens up again? Probably not. Some will burn themselves out, physically and mentally. Others may believe that they are going better than they really are and take a hit to their confidence when numbers stop matching results. By all means it is a very worthwhile training tool but it is not a replacement for the road.
You can’t train for a wet and windy day inside your sitting room looking out the window. You can’t learn to handle your bike on a slippery descent looking at a screen. You can’t learn what clothing to wear to keep your body warm without overheating in freezing rain from inside a garden shed.
Cycling is a beautiful sport and a fantastic activity, for body and mind. I must have over 1 million km’s in my legs by now, but I still look forward to pretty much every time I go out for a spin on my bike, except when its blowing a storm and lashing rain as it sometimes is here in Ireland. Even then, when you get back home and have a warm shower you get the good feelings again. I never get sick of cycling and still train three or four times per week. I enjoy the fresh air, the wind on my face and the joy of a tailwind on the way home. I still get a buzz from the gallop for a yellow signpost at the end of a weekend group ride. Adrenaline still courses through my veins as I push my bike towards its limit on a fast descent. Cycling to me is not just a numbers game, it is a way of life.