Those were the months when asking Italian riders and staff members “come va?” was anything but just a form of greeting. Saying to you “how are you doing?” now is not just a formality.
- You are right… We are doing much better now, but those were the days no one here will ever forget. “Here” means in Bergamo, where I live and where our center of applied sports sciences is based. We found ourselves in one of the epicenters of the pandemic, and it’s easy to imagine what it felt like: ambulances wailing day and night, the feeling devastation in the families affected… We are on our way back to normal now, and it’s entirely due to self-isolation, I have nothing more to add here. That’s the only way to battle the spread of any serious new infection, and we see now that it works. To win this tough battle you have to be strong and patient.
As far as I know, you, as head coach of the team, stayed in online contact with the riders and management all this time.
- It’s just the way my work goes, under normal circumstances as well. It has been years since I started working with the riders online, there is no other way to co-ordinate the training when they are spread over the globe. So, I didn’t need to adapt, neither did the team.
What did the picture in terms of their conditions looked like when they got the green light to train on the road? How much did they lose?
- Much less than one would imagine. They had a solid early-season base to dwell on and stayed active over these months, following their respective modified training programs. That came as no surprise to me, and the main thing, strange as it might seem to be, was to hold them back a bit. They were so hungry for going full gas, and there’s always a danger of going too early too fast when you get a restart.
A notable blessing in disguise of this complicated situation was the fact that their bodies and their minds had a chance to recover. People in sport often forget that quality preparation is not only about training hard, moreover, sometimes it’s even more about recovery than about riding out of your senses. Every motivated athlete will give his all on the road, while balancing it with well-planned recuperation is much harder to master. Astana’s riders had a chance to stay with their families and rebuild themselves in the period of the year when normally they wear themselves out. I hope they come back stronger when the second part of the season begins.
Let’s talk about the philosophy you follow in your work with the team.
- I love the process of gradual building up of an athlete’s qualities, sculpturing his form, starting from the pre-seasonal period. In a certain sense, we had to repeat it in the lockdown faze this year. It’s fundamental to create a good aerobic base on top of which you can subsequently put high intensity work and high altitude workout during training camps. Prioritizing this is a proven strategy that brought us to multiple wins and podiums in Grand Tours; last year it helped us set a new team record of GC wins in a season.
Would you call yourself an innovator or a traditionalist of a coach?
- I am definitely not the one to set up experiments on athletes. Every method we apply must have a solid scientific base, be proven in practice and stand the test of time. In this respect, you can consider me conservative if you wish. At the same time, though, cycling is going through a period of, if not a revolution, then at least of rapid evolution. Meticulous analysis of athletes’ data, programing based on power readings, incorporating strict nutritional guidelines in training and racing activity (we’ve got two nutritionists in the team’s staff now) – all of this has quickly transformed itself from innovation into daily routine. Here at Astana Pro Team we can’t miss the train of these interesting modern trends – well, it turns out that we are modernists, too.
The riders had to spend a lot of time on their home trainers, and, looking at the results of the virtual Giro, this time was spent well. What do you think of smart trainers, simulation software and online racing? Have we already reached the point when it can be used as 100 per cent substitution for riding on the road, if need be?
- All of what you mentioned did help us quite a lot in getting over this crisis, that’s an undeniable fact. I switched to writing plans of indoor training for the guys during this period, and modern technology gave me much more space for maneuver than I could get some years ago. But in no way can you equate riding on a home trainer with riding on the road. Just because there is no proper riding here, no dynamics, no turns, no descents or climbs, no road feel, no wind resistance. From a biomechanical point of view, your body works differently. This work can keep your conditions on a certain level and facilitate your restart, but to be ready for a really big battle you have to accumulate a lot of real road kilometers again.
You said it’s not only about training the hardest; but it’s actually not just about the bike, either, given what I can see during the training camps and on social network pages of the riders, both on and off season?
- Exactly! We pay utmost attention to physical conditioning of the athletes, on and off season, and it’s not the strategy that was born yesterday. For instance, leg press and leg extension prove effective in competition phase, too, you should only keep in mind adapting them to the elevated rhythm of pedaling, lower the weight and increase the repetitions. It helps the riders not only keep up their level of strength but make it higher. Postural training and stretching are indispensable in modern cycling as well; in a training camp, we use them on a daily basis in the afternoon.
You are the head coach, but you are also responsible for the personal programs of certain riders?
- Yes, there are three of us coaches in the team structure, I work in close contact with Claudio Cucinotta and Giacomo Notari, and also directly with a group of four team leaders – Alexey Lutsenko, Jakob Fuglsang, Miguel Angel Lopez and Ion Izagirre, plus two talents, Yevgeniy Gidich, who took his first long-awaited win last year, and Davide Martinelli. Each of them has strengths of his own, and it’s up to us all to put them to a maximum use, depending on what the most important races look like this season. In terms of Grand tours, it means that we bet on Lopez for the Tour, Fuglsang for the Giro and Izagirre for his home event, La Vuelta. Guys like Alexey or Omar Fraile are always here to hunt for stages.
This crowded calendar – do you think it’s realistic to set sights on all the big goals?
- We are traditionally a GC, moreover, we are a Grand tour team, capable of aiming high in one-day classics. I’m an optimist by nature, and when I assess the level of conditions Astana riders demonstrated earlier this year, I think of my optimism as well-grounded. It’s not a dream but a goal for us to aim for a podium in every three-week tour. As an Italian, I naturally regret partial overlapping of Giro and Vuelta. But it is as good as it gets, the cycling community is up against an unprecedented situation, and the shareholders do their best to let all the people involved do their job.
I’d like to wind it all up on another optimistic note, if you don’t mind. Talking about blessings in disguise and silver linings of the clouds – I heard you have thrown your leg over your bike again?
- I have, indeed! Normally this time of year I’m too busy with a lot of travel, it doesn’t leave me enough time to ride, and it’s not convenient to carry the bike around, thus there is no alternative to running to keep yourself reasonably fit. Which doesn’t mean I lost my love of riding the bike, and I enjoy it quite a lot now.
Who knows, perhaps it will bring you to the starting line of a granfondo?
- No, no chance. I don’t mind riding some legendary routes but don’t do it competitively. My university studies and subsequent activity in my Center of Modus Vivendi were driven by great scientific interest. I am no foreign to competitive ambitions either; but I have a privilege of satisfying them with Astana Pro Team. When a rider I train wins, it gives me a feeling of a winner, too.
Text by Sergey Kurdyukov
Photo credit: © Getty Images