(Written by: Ian Manning)
In the 2000’s racing was thriving. The overwhelming support and interest in cycling was bursting at the seams. Sponsors were jumping head first into the sport by supporting teams and races whenever and wherever. The whole world would tune in once year to marvel at the Tour De France. While many would openly idolize the legendary Lance Armstrong at his peak of notoriety, there were those that would be secretly rooting for the Ullrichs, Mayos and Vinos of the world.
Fast forward to the current day sport of cycling and the public will see a completely different image. Whether it is good or bad, the majority have forgotten about Lance. The popularity of bicycle racing has plummeted in North America.
The prosperous times of the 2000’s were full of events, with more added to the racing calendar each year. Participants were aplenty as categories were overflowed. Now, it feels like a desperate attempt to squeeze categories together to even provide a field for some races. Cities and regions no longer seem willing to offer race organizers the opportunity to provide a space for such a historic sport. It’s almost as if the concerns over the liability and closing roads are outweighing the chance to nurture athletes and grow the sport. The financial support that once was has also diminished significantly.
Looking back on it, for myself and many others, preparation for the season ahead would start in November - after a mandatory month of no biking prescribed to you by your coach. Sitting down to design a detailed plan around next year’s racing calendar was the norm during this time. Now this has been replaced due to the ease of communication and study of week-to-week responses of your body.
Designing a proper training program was vital. However, it could be said this is even more important in present day racing due to fewer races being offered. In the past, your season would begin in January and end in September. It was not as important to show peak fitness during the beginning of the season. You would have a long spring campaign to allow you to drag your body through the hard days which would ideally set you up for the remainder of the season. It was quite possibly the perfect training camp.
Training tools were different. Off seasons were usually filled with living down South in a warmer climate. Now we can stay home and skip the experience of the harsh winters thanks to smart trainers and Zwifting. In the past, quite a few of us Canucks would choose Tucson, Arizona due to the amazing route choices, incredible climate and massive amounts of elevation gain to crawl up. This was my routine for four years. Based on the long season ahead we would start the campaign in December. Each year we would pack up the car and take the thirty-plus hour pilgrimage down to the promised land. Our home away from home, one of the greatest cycling meccas in North America, Tucson! (Thirty plus hour non-stop drives are a whole other story in general, and that can be saved for another time.)
It wasn’t a necessity to be in warmer climate for training; but it was an unspoken agreement that those who wanted to get faster would meet and rip each other's legs off, day in, day out -until the season starts. Nowadays our daily lives can continue normally, enjoying virtual camaraderie from the comfort of our basements or garages without the concern of getting skin damage from the lack of sunblock.
Once we were settled in Tucson we got to work. Over the next few months we got in the base miles. Day after day, week after week and until the first race on the calendar this was the routine. Unlike California, Arizona, Texas and many other southern states, we did not have year round racing. Our time was spent building and preparing for our desired goals of the year.
Typically, a training week would consist of a bunch of long rides followed by an equally important two-hour easy ride to the café and then repeat. To elaborate on this, a typically hard week would look something like:
Monday, 2-hour recovery ride (50-60kms)
Tuesday, 5-6 hours (160-180kms).
Wednesday, 5-6 hours (160-190kms)
Thursday 5-6 hours (160-190kms)
Friday, 2-hour recovery ride.
Saturday, bang bang!! The infamous Shootout plus Madera Canyon (190kms 5-6 hours).
Sunday another 4-6 hours (130-190kms) *depending on how roughed up you were from the gun slinging event from the day before.
Each day would have intervals of different sorts. You would split the days into 2-a- days based on TT, climbing or sprinting efforts. Yes, I swear!! I always did my TT workouts. Wink-wink, nudge-nudge. Overall, a week would consist of anywhere between 28-35 hours of riding. It was all dependent on getting the miles in the legs, with the intervals when needed, topped off with the masochistic efforts of motor pacing at 50-55 kph's until your legs could not spin anymore.
Power-based training was new for most of the peloton. I had a power meter on my bike, but I could not tell you what I was looking at the on the original SRM and Powertap screens, nor did I care. Half the time, if you rode in the rain, the device would stop working. Nowadays trying to have a conversation with someone who races/rides without mentioning FTP or w/kg is a victory in and of itself. Numbers overwhelmingly drive today's training approach and protocols.
Machines, sorry I mean cyclists, can be manufactured anywhere now. Which is a good thing but also detracts from the overall draw to the sport which comes down to how exciting and fun racing can be.
But I digress; back to the training and modern-day differences. Tucson was extremely popular among North American pro cyclists to isolate themselves for a few months and use each other along with the whispers of certain times up climbs as yard sticks. With no Strava and no Zwift to contextualize our efforts, we had to have face-to-face encounters or someone there to confirm it took place.
Many of us would train without helmets thinking it was the cool thing to do, and rightfully so, am I right? Like what could happen? We ride our bikes for a living and its very unlikely that the guy in front of you will rub wheels in a pace line at 45kph and take you all out right? Very unlikely… We’ll ignore the picture attached showing the evidence of me being attended to by local EMS/FIRE. The day after I was reamed out by our team DS for not wearing a helmet no less. Something along the lines of it “being a sponsor obligation so you better smarten the f*%$ up and wear a damn helmet!” Moral of that story, always wear a helmet. It’s not about how good of a bike handler you are. It’s about not being able to predict what will happen around you.
After sharpening our tools, we were ready to put them to use. The calendar consisted of a whole whack of racing. The highest racing in North America was labelled as the National Racing Calendar (NRC) and it was loaded with different levels of races ranging from coast to coast. These races also tied into the UCI America’s Tour, which much like the current World Tour, consisted of top tier races offering points while also rewarding the leader’s jersey to the current leader to be worn at all races.
Back then, it was often Svein Tuft who had the honour. Most of the other big name North American riders had spent most of their time in Europe and were unable to accumulate enough points. Since there was a large following and appreciation for racing there were stage races, criteriums, double-header weekends, circuit races, and superweeks all over the place.
Typically, after getting your feet wet at a few local races, it was time to get yourself ready for the gathering of the masses and head to California for the real season to start. San Dimas Stage Race, Redlands Classic, Sea Otter Classic were all stacked and waiting with twenty teams of six to eight riders ready to show their off-season gains. No matter how prepared you were, it hurt.
Early breakaways would go which would often be filled with off-season rider pickups who wanted to make an instant impression. Or the young guy on the team, like myself, would have it as their job to get in it and make it stick for the day. The main idea behind this is to help your teammates by giving them a free ride behind those who will eventually need to chase. As the young guy on the team you are buttered up and told that, “Hey maybe you’ll get lucky today,” or “Every now and then these stick; you’ll sneak away and surprise everyone.” Well that never happened for me, but yes it does happen! It would often just result in being caught by the well-oiled and timed catch of the wise peloton only to be quickly shot out the back. Classic OTF to OTB move. Not that racing has lost this cat and mouse excitement but there are not enough racers to provide the same captivating pursuit.
As a result of this, there is less structure to racing now. Often teams are not large enough to pull back a breakaway single handedly for their sprinter or control the race for their well-timed attack. Racing now seems more like a roll of the dice when lining up. You can still play it smart and follow the wheels of the stronger guys while biding your time to hang on but, with it being such a mixed bag, any move could be the right launching pad.
Within the peloton, racing, results and positioning, were often built on merit and seniority over strength and ability. I remember once it was coming down to the typical battle of sprint trains between BMC, Healthnet, Navigators, Toyota-United and the bad boys of cycling, Rock Racing, as everyone else tried to eat the scraps. Five teams setting up with one goal in mind. Get their man across the line first. That meant you had approximately twenty-plus guys foaming from the mouth with less than five kilometres to the finish line.
I thought; “Okay, I have shown a decent sprint so let's see how our early season fitness is”. I looked to get one of two wheels that I thought would be in perfect position for the battle. My choices were with either fellow Canadian Gord Fraser or Aussie fast man Hilton Clarke. When I said merit and seniority was needed, I meant it.
There I was, 138 lbs, being bounced around between the likes of Karl Menzies, Nathan O’Neil and Juan Jose Haedo. Trying to hold my own while all at the same time trying to stay upright. Finally, during this game of pinball, a hand grabbed my jersey pocket and I was swiftly launched backwards out of the fight as the words “Not this team kid, beat it” were yelled by someone on Healthnet. I won’t name names, but…oh well who cares, it was my buddy and fellow roommate in Tucson Matt Crane who provided the nice gesture.
Today, the yelling and screaming of a peloton has switched and can certainly be appreciated. No one plans or desires to crash. However, the smallest movement or slight bumping in a controlled environment between cyclists always result in a choir of displeased racers yelling at the culprit.
That was just the beginning of the season and it only would get longer and harder. We would slowly move across the States heading to the Valley of the Sun Stage Race, Tucson Bicycle Classic and on our way to the Tour of Gila. I recall during the TT of the Tour of Gila where Nathan O’Neill blew past me at the halfway point in a 26km TT losing a total of 8 mins. In my defense, I hate TT’s with a passion and he was a 6x time Aussie TT champ and top 10 time trialist in the world. So, I will take that in stride.
Often, at some point of the year all the big names would come and go through Tucson. The likes of Sayers, Danielson, Hamilton, Landis, Zaijcek, Clarkes, Creed, Moninger, Fraser, Hincapie, Zabriskie, Baldwin, Lee, Zirbel, even Lance himself, has used Tucson for training. The cycling community was strong and full of talent that was willing to meet and ride together in a shared and soldiering effort together.
Most of us are aware of the stigma that surrounds cycling and this is where things get a little dark. We know cycling has seen its shadows cast over the sport and as a young rider this became increasingly evident. Often you would be training with these guys as well as sharing laughs, going out for coffee, dinners or just hanging out with them in general.
However, in training, there were many times you would be neck and neck with some but then a month later they would blow your doors off leaving you scratching your head asking, what’s wrong? I am younger and fit; I should be recovering faster as well!?!? Well, it quickly became clear that doping was present. Compared to the big leagues, everyone knew who was taking what. Either you did it to compete or it was evident that you slugged along hoping for a glimmer of hope and chance for glory.
However, doping in North American cycling was insidious and often went unnoticed to the public eye. Many cyclists got away with it for years. The ‘bad boys’ of cycling could come and race fresh off a suspension due to a rule in place allowing them to drop down to a Division 2 (Pro Continental) or Division 3 (Continental) Pro team for 2 years before returning to the World Tour proving that they are now racing clean.
I am not suggesting that everyone was doping but there were more than a handful of riders taking part in the underworld. At best, the races in North America had weak doping control and at worst, doping control was nowhere to be found. Along with that, random doping visits were extremely rare unless your name was Lance…and/or another World Tour rider.
As a young cyclist was there temptation? You bet your ass there was! Knowing that a simpler path towards being faster as well as getting better results would be tempting to anyone. Often, to make the leap towards racing in Europe, teams would not even take you on without some “suggestive” conversation of getting on their program. I cannot assure you that this guaranteed whether that meant doping or not. There were countless amounts of cyclists that competed in Europe from all over the world that were clean and hugely successful. However, during that era, it was hard to go down a list without crossing someone’s name off. I decided to stay in North America as it held the reputation of being ‘the clean version of racing’.
I was never able to stitch together a bunch of results that would put me in this scenario, but at times you would hear the whispers and see the efforts of others were weighing on riders. These whispers were not congratulatory for having achieved a strong showing. They were harsh assumptions that, “Oh, he is looking strong; he must be doping.” “Did you see ‘so and so’ last race? Yeah that guy is on the juice there is no way he is clean.” Shockingly enough, those guys that were linked to the rumours were more than likely busting their ass and doing it clean. The ones that quietly sat in the background collecting results here and there consistently were not.
So, I often catch myself reminiscing about the days of racing in the not-so-distant past. After a small hiatus from the sport I ask myself what has changed over the years when comparing the likes of racing in the early 2000s to the present day? Will we ever get back to that peak and popularity of sport or will the sport peter out and fade away? The answer to that is simple. Yes. Cycling itself is more accessible than ever to everyone and anyone. There are more cycling clubs than ever. There are more grassroots programs than ever as well. However, the wall that needs to be broken down is the one linking cycling back to being a mainstream sport in North America, and more specifically, Canada. There are some incredible athletes currently racing in Canada, both female and male. My hope is they will inspire the next group of young cyclists; just like a certain ‘Head and Shoulders’ hair model who occasionally rode around the track very fast did for me.