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Scientific or Empirical What’s Best for Cycling?

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Wilcockson/ Yuzuru Sunada

Like most ex-pat Brits who love soccer, I’ve been thrilled this winter that NBC Sports began televising or live-streaming every game in the English Premier League. On New Year’s Day, as a Tottenham Hotspur fan, I was glued to the screen watching Spurs’ nail-biting 2-1 defeat of Manchester United at Old Trafford. It was a victory for seat-of-the-pants determination exemplified by Tottenham’s new homegrown manager, Tim Sherwood, a former Spurs player and youth team coach, the replacement for André Villas-Boas, the Portuguese wunderkind who was sacked after 18 months in the job.

AVB, who never played pro soccer, uses a technocrat’s approach to coaching that eventually didn’t fit well with a club steeped in traditional English football. Following AVB’s expulsion, Tottenham supporters’ trust joint-chairman Darren Alexander told Press Association Sport, “I think if there is one criticism of André it is that he complicated football. [He had] dossiers for this and dossiers for that, and maybe he over-complicated things. He concentrated on what the opposition were going to do and not how we were going to play.”

The Spurs supporters’ spokesman and all the fans are happy that Sherwood has returned the club to winning ways. The last straw in AVB’s firing was a humiliating 5-0 home defeat to Liverpool on December 15—a result that resonated even more because the Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers from Northern Ireland, is a true believer in the English game and how players should be coached.

Talking to The Guardian a few months ago, Rodgers said, “You do need to work on tactical discipline, but you have to strike the right balance between coaching and over-coaching. The whole reason I got involved in coaching was because I felt British players were technically and tactically very strong but they weren’t always given the support and confidence necessary to express themselves.”

Sherwood has a similar approach, so his team’s victory earlier this week over defending Premier League champion Manchester United was an immediate endorsement for a more empirical method of coaching. “Empirical” is defined in Webster’s as “originating in or based on observation or experience.” This could also define the methods that old-style cycling team directors bring to pro road cycling—in contrast to the science-based approach used by Team Sky, the UCI ProTeam that has won the past two Tours de France with Great Britain’s Brad Wiggins and Chris Froome. Their Tour victories (along with consecutive wins at prestigious pre-Tour races such as the Tour de Romandie and Critérium du Dauphiné) have been achieved under Sky’s charismatic general manger Sir David Brailsford—who previously guided Britain’s national cycling team to unprecedented Olympic success in the far more technically based world of track racing.

Using the same approach to road racing as he applied in the velodrome, Brailsford could say he has found the magic formula to conquer the sport’s top stage races. But is his techie “marginal gains” approach sustainable? After a monk-like training year totally focused on the 2012 Tour, Wiggins burned out and had no appetite for contending at his main 2013 goal, the Giro d’Italia. Froome, however, says he is assimilated to Brailsford’s “watch your power meter” methods, but not every talented rider is as disciplined—Grand Tour contenders such as Cadel Evans, Vincenzo Nibali, Dan Martin and Nairo Quintana all have a more opportunistic attitude to training and racing.

Furthermore, a large part of Froome’s and Wiggins’ successes has been the selfless support they’ve received from Sky teammates such as Peter Kennaugh, Richie Porte, Michael Rogers, Geraint Thomas and Rigoberto Urán. But these support riders won’t always adhere to the Brailsford doctrine. Rogers left Sky last year to ride for Saxo-Tinkoff, and Urán has just moved to Omega-Quick Step. And though Porte has re-signed with Sky, he has said that, at some point, he would like to move to a team where he’ll be the top leader. Thomas also has ambitions to be more than a super-domestique.

It will be interesting to see if similar problems confront two other UCI ProTeams that are following the lead of Britain’s Team Sky—USA-registered BMC Racing and Australia’s Orica-Green Edge.

Orica is most similar to Sky in that its general manager Shayne Bannan, like Brailsford, was the high-performance director and head coach of his national federation for two decades before taking his present role. But unlike the British team boss, who has taken an all-encompassing, workaholic role with Team Sky, Bannan focuses on the overall team management and gives his sports directors, headed by former European-based pro Matt White, a more hands-on role with preparation and tactics. The Australian team’s less-rigid approach is one reason why Adam and Simon Yates, Britain’s highly talented twin brothers, have chosen to start their pro careers with Orica rather than Sky.

As for BMC, whose general manager is veteran American official Jim Ochowicz, the team has just appointed ex-pro and longtime directeur sportif Allan Peiper as its overall sporting manager. He replaces Belgian John Lelangue, who never raced as a pro cyclist. In contrast, Peiper, a Belgian-based Aussie, is fully cognizant of the sport’s traditions and its modern possibilities. Asked earlier this week in Adelaide about his new job, Peiper said, “I think I’ve been given the opportunity by Jim Ochowicz and [team owner] Andy Rihs, to change the direction of the team, bring a different energy in and create a different pathway for BMC because we need other results. As much as it was nice being a DS and every day in contact with riders at a particular race, I have a more of an umbrella effect now.”

BMC, Orica and Sky all have the necessary technical and financial resources to be successful in the world’s major races, so it will be interesting to see over the next few seasons which team’s approach proves the most sustainable.

The highly respected Peiper, in what he calls his “dream job,” appears to be the best placed to make a long-term success. With his racing background, and having direct access to every part of his BMC team, he can implement the latest technical and training innovations while keeping close tabs on how they are accepted by the riders and their directors. Neither Orica’s Bannan nor Sky’s Brailsford competed as pros, and, like soccer coach Villas-Boas, they like to run their teams in a tightly controlled manner that favors science-based coaching methods and rigid tactics over the less-complicated, freeform style of a Sherwood, Rodgers or Peiper.

So, besides watching the big-race results of Sky, Orica and BMC in 2014, I’ll also be keeping tabs on how Sherwood’s Tottenham and Rodgers’ Liverpool fare in the second half of the Premier League season. Soccer and cycling may be very different sports, but there are a great many similarities in how the teams are run and how the athletes are treated. Both scientific and empirical coaching methods have their merits, but, like most sports fans, I’ve always preferred a traditional, more aggressive style of competition.

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