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March 19, 2014
The world of professional cycling isn’t like many other mainstream sports where daily support is readily supplied by the teams. With riders spread all over the Europe in-between races, they sometimes need to find their own local support network of coaching, motorpacing, massage, etc. I first heard of “The Rok” in a casual conversation with a pro cyclist living in Monaco and how he plays a significant part with helping bring the World’s best riders up to form. Jono Lovelock tells his fascinating story.
What do Matthew Goss, Simon Gerrans, Dave Tanner, Mark Renshaw, Theo Bos, Richie Porte and Calvin Watson all have in common? They’re all professional cyclists, they all live in Monaco, and they all have a Rok.
Rok — a deliberate misspelling of rock, said to be of Flemish origin, but what in reality is just a joke between mates — is the nickname of Leigh Bryan, an Australian who has relocated to Monaco and made himself indispensable to the professional athletes in the area. He provides motorpacing, strength training, cycling programs, psychological support, he liaises with local and team medics during periods of injury, he organises altitude camps, and above all, he is brutally honest. He is their rok.
When approached for an interview, Rok was initially hesitant; he did not want to sell stories of grandeur and he did not want to take away from the performances of the athletes he works with.
“I am known for being brutally honest so if what I am about to say seems a bit direct then I apologise, but I am not known for bullshitting,” Rok told CyclingTips. “I have a general rule not to conduct interviews. I prefer to stay away from the ‘limelight’ and allow my athletes’ performances to be their own.
“To be crystal clear this is in no way to be secretive but rather I have found over the years that it is something the people I work with greatly respect and appreciate. I have been constantly evolving my business since 2002 when Stuart O’Grady first asked me to come to Toulouse to assist him in his recovery from iliac artery surgery. My athletes understand that I am purely there for them and them alone, and not for the further advancement of my career.”
Mentions of Rok could be found in old articles where some of his former athletes had dropped a snippet here and there, but it wasn’t until the release of O’Grady’s book that Rok was mentioned in detail. And now his fascinating story can be told.
Originally from Launceston, Tasmania, Rok completed a Bachelor of Education with majors in health and physical education while pursuing a cycling career of his own. Rok was Australian criterium champion in 1994, and moved to the US in 1999 to race track and criteriums. But that was all cut short when Rok was hit by a semi-trailer while training outside of Philadelphia, which ultimately put an end to his career.
But as one door closed, another opened.
“I had been friends with Stuey since 1991 junior worlds and I came to France in 2002 for the first time to assist him with his post operation recovery prior to the Tour,” Rok explained. “The move was made to Monaco in 2005 and at that time I started working with other guys such as Brad McGee and Troy Bayliss. From this point, each year has become busier and more diverse with me stepping into MotoGP, World Superbikes, World Rally Championship and now DTM.”
A typical day for Rok starts on the computer, checking emails and looking at TrainingPeaks files to assess the status of his athletes. Every professional athlete has their own training program, strength program, racing program, training camps, PR commitments and families which they need to balance. It’s Rok, where possible, who ensures these calendars don’t conflict. For some athletes he provides strength training and bike training, for others he has access to their team programs and ties that back into their strength work. The athletes let Rok know what support they require and he does the rest.
Away from the computer by 8am at the latest, each day then involves gym sessions, motorpacing and treatment for the cyclists; and gym sessions, cross training — of which cycling is a big part — and treatment for the non-cyclists.
“It’s rare that we jump behind the motorbike for five hours, that just never really happens,” Rok explained. “I go out on the scooter because I might have to meet three different guys, each doing their specific efforts.”
And so each day involves the logistical battle of being present to watch one rider doing his sprint efforts along the beach and then heading to the hills to watch another go full gas up a climb. By that stage another rider will have finished on the bike and will be ready for the gym, while someone else may be in need of a massage.
Rok wears many hats but as Dave Tanner explains, the real value-add of working with Rok is the real-time assessment he offers.
“He’s there for that ‘little bit different perspective,’ and if he’s just seeing something or noticing something new, he’ll pick up on it,” Tanner told CyclingTips.
And as Rok explains, observing the functionality — how his riders are moving on the bike — and taking those observations to the gym is the crux of his operation.
“I can give real-time feedback, whether it’s something silly like telling a rider they need to change their cleat position, or watching them when they do an effort and telling them to try and change their pedal stroke a bit. Pull up more, drop your shoulders … just things that you see out on the road that you can then take back to the planning board and go ‘well, we need to fix this in the gym with this alignment,’ or ‘the thoracic spine is still a problem,’ or ‘there’s still a little bit of strength discrepancy,’” explained Rok.
With Tanner having just returned from a broken collarbone, Rok used him as an example of the massive changes that a rider’s body can go though in such a short period of time. Even more so, it’s the changes in the proprioception of athletes that makes an objective observer such as Rok so vital.
“What the athletes say and what I see can often be two different things, and that’s the value of being out on the road with the guys on a daily basis,” said Rok.
But it’s not just on the bike where Rok’s keen eye is of benefit; he uses these same skills helping his motorsport athletes when testing and fitting new equipment.
“Due to my work in motor sport I have been exposed to the use of telemetry data for motorcycles and cars,” he said. “I have spent many hours trackside and in the company of race engineers and suspension technicians to gain an understanding for how the machine operates and therefore the effect this has on the rider or driver.”
A screengrab of Rok from an ABC News report about Matthew Goss and his training methods.
And when his athletes are in the gym, what do they actually do?
“We’re just trying to keep things as simple and functional as possible with core function and stability exercises through the use free weights, power bands, TRX suspension, kettle bells and so on,” he said. “We rarely use machines but we have bars for squatting as well as plyometric and agility equipment.”
And with real estate an expensive commodity in Monaco, Rok set up a private gym in the car park of his building to save his clients both time and money. At 1:13 into this video, one can catch a snippet of how simple Rok’s work can be, and his message with that is to focus on consistency.
“During the season it’s more about consistency than the length of time you are in the gym,” he added. “Guys might come in three or four times a week for 40 minutes, but it’s like cycling training in that you back up the volume through consistency. We do a mixture of pre-ride activation and ‘stand alone’ sessions where we focus more on specific areas we are trying to improve.”
When pressed for the best example of his work, Bryan goes back to the beginning and O’Grady’s recovery from iliac artery surgery.
“This was something which could have been career-ending and as such I did a lot of research about the injury and side effects,” he said. “Stuey also took a lot of information from the surgeon who performed the surgery and Credit Agricole was also very supportive. But ultimately, it was down to Stuey and I to build him back up to being a professional cyclist again. It was this experience which triggered my passion for the role I am in now and helped me understand just how difficult it was for these professional riders who did not have any real support in Europe.”
Tom Boonen was another headline rider heavily involved with Rok.
“I assisted to resolve some issues with Tom,” he said. “He’d had a year in 2010 with a massive knee injury so we did a lot of assessment on the ergo and out on the road just to see how everything was functioning. We put a functional program in place from October 2010 and then continued this throughout the 2011 season. In conjunction with this program was a huge amount of volume on the road for five to seven hours a day during December and January in the freezing cold.”
But it was no quick fix:
“That was a change that took six months, but it was something that was constantly evolving throughout the 2011 season and it’s more so that it evolves as the guys get fitter. These guys have all got big engines and it doesn’t matter what profession they are, often the bigger the engine the more the injury can be overlooked or worked through without actually fixing the issues.”
AG2R’s Maxime Bouet is another rider to have benefitted from working with Rok.
“I started working with Max as he has the same personal coach as Simon Gerrans and Mark Renshaw; Benoit Nave,” said Rok. “Benoit and I could see during his primary assessment on the ergo and in the gym that Max wasn’t functioning correctly, particularly in terms of his glutes and lower spine.
“I felt from that point we could find another 30 or 40 watts. Sure enough after two months when he did his first test in February before the season, he was 30-40 watts higher in the time trial test, but more importantly, the file had become more consistent and was not jumping around so it was clear he was operating more efficiently.”
Strength and gym work for cyclists is a constantly evolving debate that is often muddled by throwaway lines from coaches and athletes that are then taken as gospel by knowledge-hungry fans. This very conundrum is another reason why Rok has shied away from the spotlight; he does not want the work he does to be misinterpreted.
One prominent strength and conditioning coach in Melbourne recently told CyclingTips that if you wait for the science to catch up you’ll be ten years behind. With that logic, however, how do you know who to trust, or what to do?
“A lot of the work is what I see, but also it’s having the trust of the guys that you work with that what you’re telling them isn’t a load of shit too,” Rok said. “I think they respond to the fact that you’re not somebody in the lab telling them ‘Ok you’ve got this number or this value,’ but you’re actually somebody that’s out there with them, when it’s two degrees and snowing and you’re right there alongside them.”
It was Rok’s work with Ducati that forced him to upskill quickly as his role snowballed.
“When Troy Bayliss first asked me to work with him, it went from working with him to travelling with him. Then it went from travelling with him to working with Ducati directly and their other riders. You can’t bullshit your way through that,” he added.
With Team Sky giving his work the tick of approval as well, Rok’s reputation within the sporting world is growing still.
“Richie [Porte] comes to me every day he’s here in Monaco for functional conditioning and Tim Kerrison is happy for this as it is something Richie enjoys and he feels he gets a lot of benefit on the bike,” he said. “We had Dan Guilemette, the physio from Sky come to check out one of the sessions that we were doing to ensure we are all on the same page. I guess you get a reputation as well that you know what you’re talking about.”
But Rok doesn’t want a reputation to help sell energy food or training programs, he just wants to get his job done, and do it well.
“I’m not looking to further my career or to be known as the ‘coach to the superstars’ or that sort of thing because I don’t see myself as that at all,” he added. “I’m just somebody that enjoys working hard and works long hours trying to assist people achieve their goals. I believe people see the races and results and are very quick to judge when someone does not perform but these guys work so hard away from racing and sacrifice a huge amount.
“It is not easy to win a professional bike race, no matter what the level of race. But win or lose, every professional athlete makes a huge commitment behind the scenes!”