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by Neal Henderson
April 6, 2016
Photography by Casey B. Gibson/USA Cycling
I love track cycling.
As an athlete, I love riding the track. As a science and data guy, I love coaching track cycling events because the velodrome is a nearly perfect model to measure and analyze performance.
Conditions on a track are very well controlled, and within any given racing session there is virtually no difference in condition from the first to the last rider. In road cycling, that’s not always the case. (Example: In a time trial we can see significant changes in weather conditions from the first to last rider in a TT which can ultimately affect the results of the day.)
Even though I grew up only 90 minutes away from the velodrome in Trexlertown, Pennsylvania — site of this year’s USA Cycling elite national championship races, as well as many other top notch national and international UCI events — I never rode the track as a young rider. There weren’t any track riders from my hometown, so it’s a discipline I only saw on TV, during the Olympics.
Even as a cycling coach for many years, I was never really exposed to track cycling until 2007, when Taylor Phinney decided to give the track a whirl just a few weeks after winning his junior world time trial championship in Aguascalientes, Mexico (which by the way is now site of one of the fastest velodromes in the world).
Taylor’s first track experience was in Colorado Springs, on a borrowed bike, just to see if he was interested in giving it a whirl. Soon after, he traveled with his mom (Connie Carpenter, the 1984 Olympic road race gold medalist and 1983 individual pursuit world champion) to Los Angeles, to get a few days of track training with Roger Young, the seven-time national track champion and two-time Olympian who also coached the 1992 and 1996 U.S. Olympic cycling teams.
To say that the weekend went well would be an understatement. Sure, he had his obligatory crash due to riding too high on the banking at too slow of a speed, but he also rode a 4km pursuit test effort which indicated that he could be very competitive at the elite individual pursuit national championship race a month later.
As Taylor’s coach, I had to learn some things about track cycling very quickly. I read all of the scientific papers about track cycling, went to the Tissot website to look at splits from previous track cycling competitions, and experimented with standing start efforts on a CompuTrainer and Velotron ergometer to see if we could simulate the demands of the individual pursuit effectively indoors.
Neal Henderson and Taylor Phinney at the 2009 world track championships, in Pruszków, Poland, where Phinney won the elite men’s individual pursuit and took silver in the kilo. Photo: Casey B. Gibson/USA Cycling.
Fortunately, all of that studying and experimentation paid off as Taylor made an impact in the individual pursuit immediately with an elite national title, and then went into the 2007-2008 UCI Track World Cup season with a dramatic progression of performance (ninth, fourth, first, and tenth) culminating in an eighth-place finish at the 2008 UCI World Track Championships in Manchester.
That performance, as well as his World Cup results, qualified him for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, where he finished seventh, as an 18-year old. He also set a junior 3K pursuit world record in June 2008, as part of his prep for 2008 junior track worlds. Also, at junior worlds in 2008, just four weeks prior to the Beijing Olympics, Taylor earned the junior 3K pursuit world championship, with future BMC Racing teammate Rohan Dennis of Australia taking the silver.
The vast majority of Taylor’s training leading into that World Cup season consisted of road training and specific indoor workouts. The beauty of the individual pursuit, from a scientific perspective, is that once we calculate aerodynamic drag (possible in the wind tunnel, as well as inside a closed velodrome), we can predict the exact power needed to ride a given speed relative to the environmental conditions (air temperature, barometric pressure, and air humidity) on the track.
The pacing strategy of individual pursuit is also critical, but ultimately the goal is to get up to speed within 1-lap, and then hold your goal pace until the finish. A quote that I use with athletes preparing for a pursuit is “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”
The training and racing experience that Taylor put into the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics helped propel him to individual pursuit world championship titles in 2009 and 2010. However, In 2010, Taylor’s goal of going for an Olympic individual pursuit title at the London 2012 Games was gutted when the UCI introduced a change in the Olympic Program, which resulted in dropping the individual pursuit in favor of the individual omnium, a two-day, six-event competition.
Fortunately, there was also an addition of the women’s team pursuit to the Olympic Program for 2012, and with that change I began helping the USA Cycling women’s team pursuit team as we started our program in the fall of 2009.
Just like with the individual pursuit, I had to go through a learning process with regard to the team pursuit. Fortunately, I had been gathering video of the top men’s team pursuit squads throughout 2008 and 2009 World Cups and world championships to speed up my learning process.
I also got some personal experience riding the 2009 USA Cycling master’s national team pursuit championship with some friends, to a bronze medal. My first real time on a velodrome was in July 2008, during a training session with Taylor at the Bordeaux Velodrome. In the video below, you can hear Connie laughing at me while Taylor’s friend Gabe Kennedy taunted me as I suffered through a kilo. And no, Taylor’s helmet didn’t fit me properly.
With USA Cycling’s head endurance track program Benjamin Sharp at the helm, we developed a strong USA team which earned a silver medal at the 2011 UCI track world championships as well as the silver medal at the 2012 Olympic Games, in London.
Taylor switched focus from the track to the road and raced to impressive fourth-place finishes in both the 2012 Olympic road race and time trial. I believe that the track is an excellent place for road riders to develop skills and fitness, that help on the road.
In 2013, I began to work again with the USA women’s team pursuit squad, with an eye on the Rio 2016 Games. Anyone who has worked with a national team leading into an Olympic year understands that there is a massive commitment of time and energy for anyone who wants to be part of the team. My focus has been on the integration of science and technology into the team’s preparation of the team.
Andy Sparks is the head coach for the team, and I provide him with support and information to help him objectively select the best athletes for competition and optimize our competition strategy. I’m also charged with trying to come up with ideas to help our team go faster. This runs the gamut from training ideas, with regard to physiology, to technical and tactical considerations to improve the team’s speed, to nutrition and recovery strategies, to tracking an individual athlete’s progression and performance.
At the end of the day, the fastest team pursuit squads come together through an integration of each individual rider’s strengths being utilized to optimize the net team performance. The possible combinations of rider starting position, length of pulls, and pacing strategies are considerable, and some aspect of what we learn is through trial and error in training.
USA Cycling coach Andy Sparks strategized with the women’s team pursuit squad before the gold-medal round. Photo: Casey B. Gibson/USA Cycling.
Fortunately, we are able to use all of the speed, cadence, power and timing data of each training session to speed up the learning process. We have some incredible new technologies that are available to us through a partnership between IBM and our USA Cycling track program. We’ve just recently implemented some of these technologies in our training sessions, and ultimately there’s been a dramatic improvement in the speed with which we can provide objective data-based feedback to our athletes.
The margin of performance in competition can be incredibly small, so everything we can do to gain an edge in performance is key. At the 2012 London Olympics our team finished just 0.08 seconds ahead of Australia in our Round 1 competition, which moved us into the gold-silver final against Great Britain. In an event that took three minutes and 16 seconds to complete, the difference in time was effectively just 0.04%. So yes, every little detail matters.
Prior to the IBM project, a typical post-training or post-race data analysis and evaluation would take approximately four hours. The IBM software links all of our data sources in real-time (power meters, speed sensors, heart rate, monitors, muscle oxygen sensors, and electronic timing data); we now have a complete analysis of our training efforts in less than a second.
As the guy who just gained three hours, 59 minutes, and 59 seconds of time back after each training session, I’m incredibly happy. This should see my allotted sleep time at training camps and competitions nearly double. And most importantly, I will now have the capacity to provide rapid feedback to the coach and athletes that can help everyone get faster more quickly. To me, that’s one of the most satisfying aspects of what I do — helping others achieve their goals.
In London a few weeks ago, our women’s team pursuit squad of Jennifer Valente, Sarah Hammer, Chloe Dygert, and Kelly Catlin achieved a historic first for USA — our first team pursuit world championship title. No USA team pursuit squad, men’s or women’s, had ever achieved this goal. Of course, our biggest goal for 2016 is coming up in a few months at the Rio 2016 Games, but it’s satisfying to have our team put up the second-ever fastest women’s team pursuit time, and to be on target for the top step of the podium in Rio in just four months from now.
And for me, it’s back to the drawing board, to see what we can do to get even faster.
Video: Women’s Team Pursuit Final, 2016 UCI Track Cycling World Championships
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.