A coach’s story: The mechanics of Grand Tour success

Fri 2 Nov 2018

When Simon Yates arrived in Rome at the finish line of the 2018 Giro d’Italia after three stage wins and 13days spent in the race leader's Maglia Rosa there would be no final podium, no awards, only extreme physical exhaustion and profound disappointment.

Yet as that line was crossed on the Via dei Fori Imperiale in the shadow of the Colosseum thoughts were already beginning to turn towards redemption and the next objective – La Vuelta a Espana.

This is the story of how Yates, Mitchelton-SCOTT and coach Alex Camier turned that disappointment into the team’s first Grand Tour victory and in doing so put on a consummate display of control and how to learn from your mistakes.

Acknowledging an objective and training for a Grand Tour:

With all the variables involved in cycling and the effects that sudden weather changes, mechanicals and the onset of fatigue can have on rider performance and the team’s objectives, how do you go about creating a training program for a 21-day Grand Tour?

“I think the first point is to acknowledge an objective," Camier explained. "The second would be to create a plan that is based around what is possible for the rider to achieve – in this case Simon – and what their best possible performance could be at that objective.”

“From there you work backwards. You would work around specific preparatory race that would facilitate a good performance and then we have to recognise what his current limitations are that would potentially stop him from getting a result at his targeted race.

“We would then always have that at the back of our minds that we are working towards improving perhaps one area of weakness or somewhere where he could be better compared to others, whilst also maintaining a strong focus in where he can take time and where his strengths lie.

“This would be about minimising the risk of him underperforming in an area where he suffers, but actually also looking to maximise an area where we know that he can have an advantage over other riders.

“An example of this would be Simon’s improvement in the time trial, but his strength on the climbs. Then identifying where to try and utilise that strength on the climbs and where he could potentially gain time on his rivals and what sort of work we could do in training that would allow him to attack successfully on the climbs to use his strengths to find some kind of advantage.”

Aggression and taking time at the Giro:

Going into the Giro d'Italia sport directors and coaching staff set a clear focus of taking time early on in the race for joint leaders Yates and Esteban Chaves, working on the assumption the pair would suffer some time losses in the individual time trials. 

“The approach we took with Simon was for him to have condition from the start of the race but we didn’t really expect him to go on and do what he did in such a dominant fashion until the last two stages," Camier said.

“Stage six was a mountain stage, finishing atop Mount Etna and we wanted to be very prominent because that was probably going to be our best chance to get a step up if we could. (ed: Chaves won stage six with Yates second, gaining time on the other contenders with a vicious attack that laid the foundations for the coming stages.)

“Ultimately, we hit our objectives, but also failed at the same time through him faltering towards the end. That’s a combination of the preparation, the idea behind the preparation, tactics within the race and other factors that we managed to improve upon as we moved on from the Giro.”

Picking up the pieces and turning the gaze to Spain and La Vuelta:

Despite never wishing for the devastation and exhaustion of the Giro d'Italia ahead of a victory, the experience granted the team, Yates and Camier some crucial hindsight. It put the team in a new position from which they were able to learn and grow.

“Specifically from a preparation perspective there were certain aspects of understanding where Simon was at when he came out of the Giro and how that rebuild phase will go, you have a plan, but you’re also waiting to see how that progresses," Camier explained.

“In Simon’s particular case he was pretty flat and empty and after the Giro. Pretty dead, but he had a solid break and when he started to return to training it was apparent early on that the effects of the Giro were quite permanent, but his return to good condition was fairly rapid and from that point forward we went about our business with a slower, but more progressive approach."

Contrary to the Giro d'Italia where the fous lay in gaining early time, Mitchelton-SCOTT put an emphasis on the tail end of the Vuelta and preparations were adjusted accordingly.

“The goal for the Vuelta was to be one of the strongest contenders in the third week of racing, not the first or second, to try and execute that particular process," Camier said. "So, that even if Simon wasn’t going to win the Vuelta, but we got to a point where he was very good in the third week and he hadn’t lost too much time over first and second weeks then we knew that the formula was coming together, comparative to the approach at the Giro."

“That was the focus, we went about it in a more reserved approach once we’d seen some of responses to training that we’d seen pre-Giro, at that point we backed off the progression of the training and held him back in a way, held him at that level and then we went to work on the specific environmental demands of the Vuelta and fatigue resistence.

“That became the final phase of preparation. Instead of trying to reach a peak in the weeks leading up to the race, we looked to get to a very good condition, eased off and looked at the specifics that could undo his condition – heat, dehydration and other environmental stresses that can come at the Vuelta due to the climate in Spain and the time of year it is raced."

And how do you prepare for the unpredictable?

“Everything is taken into consideration, from the coaching aspect, well as much as possible," Camier suggested. "Specific fatigue that race will implement, type of efforts required for particular stages, everything we can do to try and make a rider bullet proof for that race we are targeting."

“Of course, weather can be unpredictable and also stage outcomes, so we have to be quite general with the daily goals. We can’t say on the fourth hour of stage six that Simon will be in the right condition to win a bike race, but what you can do is say is that he is in the best condition possible, that if the circumstances are right then he is giving himself the best chance to be able to do that.

“Essentially what we did at the Giro, we flipped it on its head at the Vuelta and obviously there is middle ground there where we can be a little bit more aggressive earlier in the race and still arrive at the same point in the third week. But, part of that will come with Simon’s development and we must remember that the dynamic of the Vuelta was very different to the Giro, but at the Vuelta it went to plan.”

Alex Camier is a British coach who has been with Mitchelton-SCOTT for four years. Simon Yates won the 2018 Vuelta a Espana.

Photos courtesy of Getty Images.