What a difference a pro makes


[Ed: Fantastic discussion, thanks IP!]

Eight months before the Olympic Time Trial takes place in London, Fabian Cancellara was out around Surrey doing a recon of the 44km route, as revealed in the latest Cycling Weekly magazine. When one of his entourage suggested that they skip a small part of the route, the Swiss time trial specialist replied "we’re doing it. We are riding every single metre".

This is what champions do. They recon routes in the depths of winter. They attach a helmet cam to their heads as they do it. They watch the route video over and over in the days before the event. Then when it comes to the day itself, they are able to draw on all of the extra knowledge they’ve gained, thereby giving them a crucial edge over those opponents who are not willing to go to these lengths in their pursuit of victory.

Fabian Cancellara has won the World Individual time trial title four times and he is going to London to defend the Olympic individual time trial title he won in Beijing. Cancellara is a champion.

Andy Schleck is not.

It is well-known that time trialling is Schleck’s biggest weakness as a cyclist and is the major hurdle he must leap over before he will finally win the Maillot Jaune. This year’s Tour de France had just 41 individual kilometres against the clock. This was the lowest amount since this individual discipline was introduced to the Tour in 1934. Schleck was in the yellow jersey going into the final time trial, but he still didn’t win.

The 2011 Tour de France route had been announced the previous November. Schleck knows how bad he is at time trials and yet he chose not to recon the route of the only individual time trial in the race. He was asked on T.V. after the final time trial of last year’s Tour why he had chosen not to ride the route of the stage before the Tour. Schleck responded in an aloof manner saying that he thought he had done all he could to win the Tour.

The organisers of the Tour de France, A.S.O., made it extremely easy for Tour contenders to get used to the time trial route when they decided to include the exact same route as part of the 2011 Criterium du Dauphiné in June. But Schleck didn’t even enter this race, opting to ride the Tour of Switzerland instead. Eventual Tour winner Cadel Evans rode this time trial in the Dauphiné and finished sixth. But more importantly, he was gaining information about cornering and gear selection for the Tour de France the following month.

If Schleck knows how poor his technique is at time-trialling and that this technique may cost him the Tour de France, then how could he not recon the route? How could he not record it on a helmet cam and watch it a dozen or more times before July? How could he not do everything possible to try and gain an advantage in any other way?

He has said himself: "I cannot lose the Tour again because of a time trial".

It’s not like Schleck doesn’t have the time or effort to spare to gain these slight advantages. He doesn’t focus on any other stage race other than the Tour de France. He has entered 52 stage races as a professional cyclist and he has won none of them. He’s the first rider ever to finish the Tour de France in second place three years running.

If you consider the nine biggest races in cycling (three Grand Tours, five monument classics and the Worlds road race), only two other riders have finished runner up in any of these races three years in a row. The first of these unfortunate riders was Italo Zilioli who finished second in the Giro d’Italia in 1964, 1965 and 1966. The other was Giuseppe Saronni, who finished second in Milan-San Remo between 1978 and 1980 before eventually winning the race in 1983. Schleck has now joined this unfortunate list.

However, there is a silver lining visible for Schleck in that same Cycling Weekly article which reported on Cancellara’s activities. That silver lining is Johan Bruyneel.

When discussing cyclists, the word ‘preparation’ comes laden with all sorts of negative connotations. And it is certainly no exception when mentioned in terms of how Bruyneel gets his riders ready for the Tour de France. But all doping-related undertones aside, Bruyneel knows how to prepare his star rider for the biggest race in the world.

Lance Armstrong didn’t invent the idea of reconning Tour de France stages but under Bruyneel’s tutelage he certainly helped to popularise it. For Schleck’s sake, Bruyneel needs to instill an Armstrongian level of attention to detail, something which Schleck seems alarmingly reluctant to embrace:

Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France seven times and he would have done it with or without Johan Bruyneel. I know who I am and I know what I can do. I will not change my ways of doing things according to this or that manager.

Next year’s Tour de France route contains almost 100km of individual time trialling, more than twice the amount of kilometres over which Schleck managed to concede this year’s race to Cadel Evans.

No rider has ever finished second four times in a row in one of cycling’s biggest races. But Schleck shouldn’t be worried about becoming the first. With the amount of time trial miles in the 2012 race and less mountains than in previous years, unless he adopts a more professional approach towards his preparation he’s not even going to finish on the podium.

Photo by Bryn Lennon, Getty Images Sport

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