Coach Henderson Diary: A data guy at heart

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When I saw Rohan Dennis win his first elite Australian national time trial championship on January 7, my thoughts traced back to the many years we’ve worked together — since just prior to his first year as a professional, in 2013 — but more specifically to a month earlier, after a day on a scooter, in Denia, Spain.

It was December, a few weeks before Christmas, at BMC Racing’s first team camp of the 2016 season.

I drove the scooter for a 180km training day with a group of riders set to race the Santos Tour Down Under, such as Rohan and Richie Porte, as well as riders with other events on their schedule, such as Philippe Gilbert, Tejay van Garderen, and Taylor Phinney.

The training included breakaway simulations, with the riders attacking one at a time over the motor that was going a moderate speed. Once the last rider attacked and made the lead group, I would drive the motor back to the front of the group and have them start the attacks again. Even after all the coaching I’ve done, it’s still awesome to see some of the biggest names in the sport doing what they do so well from that perspective.

The training that day also included big-gear efforts, and tempo climbing. After four hours Rohan switched to his TT bike, and I motor paced him for 30 minutes. I had an SRM head unit mounted on the scooter’s bars so I could control his effort and keep him exactly where I wanted him — not too hard, not too easy.

Based on that effort, and a review and discussion of his 2015 national time-trial race file, I felt confident that Rohan was quite capable of winning the TT championship. We knew his fitness was good, and that if he executed the plan well, he could earn the jersey.

Three weeks later, it turned out we were right. Rohan and Richie used their form and fitness developed at that camp to pilot their way to a one-two finish at the Australian national time trial championships.

In addition to working with Rohan, my responsibility with BMC Racing involves coaching two other riders — Belgian Ben Hermans, who I started working with last spring, and first-year pro Floris Gerts, of the Netherlands. I also support the Science Performance division, headed by Allan Peiper.

In 2015, I helped with Rohan’s successful Hour Record, in Switzerland, as well as his time trial victories at the Tour de France, USA Pro Challenge, and at the Richmond Worlds, where BMC won the team time trial.

It was a great season, no question. But it’s also safe to say the bar is set high for 2016.

First, an introduction

I currently wear several hats in the sport, all related to sports science. In addition to working with BMC Racing, and as a high-performance consultant for USA Cycling, the national federation, I also run my own coaching business, APEX Coaching & Consulting, in Boulder, Colorado. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with talented cyclists and triathletes, including Taylor Phinney and Evelyn Stevens.

I’ll admit, I was surprised, but pleased, when Neal Rogers recently asked if I would be a contributor to CyclingTips.

My initial thought was that two Neals, both living in Boulder, might be a bit confusing. But Neal — let’s refer to him Mr. Rogers, I’m sure he’s never heard that one — emphasized that the readership of CyclingTips is quite sophisticated.

Some call me Coach Henderson. If you want to refer to me as “the other Neal,” I’m okay with that, too. [Editor’s Note: If you want to refer to him as “the smarter Neal,” that’s also accurate. — NR]

Here on CyclingTips I’ll be sharing my perspective from inside the sport. But first, an introduction…

I was born and raised in Hershey, Pennsylvania during the 1970s. (Yes, the town does smell like chocolate.)

My path to pro cycling began on a BMX bike, riding on the dirt of new construction sites that were popping up around my neighborhood. I played soccer and baseball when I was young, but turned to endurance sports due to injuries. First was swimming, then track and field, and eventually triathlon. My first road bike was a Peugeot Monaco; it still hangs in my parents’ garage. My first pair of cycling shoes had slotted cleats, and my first helmet was a hairnet. On my Peugeot, I mounted a wired Avocet cyclometer. I’ve always been a data guy at heart.

I distinctly remember the day my eyes were truly opened to the magic of pro cycling; it came during the 1992 Tour DuPont. Two of my friends, who also rode and raced bikes, joined me to see the start of a stage leaving from Hersheypark, our local theme park. We all wore similar red jerseys, so we kind of looked like a team. (Black was the only color of shorts available back then.)

As the race rolled out, we followed along behind for the first 15-20 miles, as the route headed toward Three Mile Island. (Yes, that Three Mile Island; the nuclear reactor that nearly melted down when I was in elementary school). We rolled out behind the caravan, surprised at how slow the riders were going. They were barely averaging 20 miles per hour, and we weren’t having much trouble keeping up!

About 10 miles into the race, one of the team cars dropped back to service a rider with a flat tire. An Italian director saw the three of us rolling just behind the caravan. He pulled up alongside us and told us to ride up with him, into the back of the peloton. (To this day I have no idea which team it was.) He paced us back up into the back of the group where he told us to “Go, go!” into the group.

The three of us sat at the back of the group for about three minutes before a commissaire noticed us. He drove up to us and asked what the heck we were doing… using slightly different language. We told him that a director had told us to do it, but he wasn’t buying our story, and threatened to have the police arrest us if we didn’t immediately drop back behind the caravan. We happily obliged, and were unceremoniously dropped when the peloton started racing in earnest. It was a thrill. I was hooked.

Everyone is happy after motor pacing.
Everyone is happy after motor pacing.

A life spent in cycling

Twenty-six years later, I’m still hooked.

I studied exercise and sport science at Penn State University, raced as a professional triathlete for four years, and moved to Colorado to continue my graduate studies in kinesiology and applied physiology at CU-Boulder. I earned my Master’s degree in the same physiology lab where Allen Lim was earning his PhD, and I coached triathlon, both for CU and the national federation, while I finished up my studies.

In 2001 Andy Pruitt hired me to oversee the sport science department of the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine, and I worked there for 12 incredible years. I learned a lot, and had many opportunities opened to me during my time there, and I’m eternally grateful to Andy for being a great mentor throughout my time at BCSM. In 2013 I decided to get back to focusing on coaching, and devoted myself to APEX, the coaching business I’d started in 1999.

This year I’ll be providing sport science support for BMC Racing at the Amgen Tour of California and the Vuelta a España. Since 2009 I’ve also worked with the USA Cycling track program, and while I wasn’t an official part of the Team USA staff in 2008, I was in Beijing, working with Taylor Phinney.

Four years later I was an official Team USA coach at the London Olympics, where our women’s team pursuit squad earned a silver medal, and Taylor took two fourth-place finishes, in the road race and time trial. I’ll be on the track for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, in August, and then headed straight to the Vuelta.

Okay, I think we’re up to date! My next entry will include a bit about the USA Cycling track team’s camp, in California, and analysis from the Hong Kong World Cup, the final event before track worlds. And, perhaps, a bit about a Rohan Dennis GC win at the Tour Down Under.

About the author

Neal Henderson wears several hats in cycling, all related to sports science. In addition to working with BMC Racing, and as a high-performance consultant for USA Cycling, he also runs his own coaching business, APEX Coaching & Consulting, in Boulder, Colorado. He’s coached athletes at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games. Follow Neal on Twitter.

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