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Coach speak: A conversation with Rick Crawford

Danielson’s mentor expects big things at the Vuelta

By Jason Sumner, Special to VeloNews

Crawford (left) has worked with Danielson dating back to his college days.

Crawford (left) has worked with Danielson dating back to his college days.

Photo: Courtesy Rick Crawford

He doesn’t have a huge client base or a high-tech, on-line coaching Web site, but you can’t argue with the success cycling coach Rick Crawford has achieved. The Durango, Colorado resident started out working with the likes of Lance Armstrong and Chann McRae in the 1980s, and today boasts a clientele that includes mountain-bike standout Shonny Vanlandingham, reigning USPRO champ Chris Wherry and 2005 Tour de Georgia winner Tom Danielson, who is currently riding the Vuelta a España, hoping to make it to the finish of his first grand tour.

Recently VeloNews sat down with Crawford to find out what he thinks of Danielson’s chances in Spain, what his coaching secrets are, and what he has to say to former domestic pro Matt DeCanio, who has accused Crawford of advocating doping practices to his riders.

VeloNews: Fair to say that the excitement level for Danielson at the Vuelta is pretty high?

Rick Crawford: I’m very hopeful. Before the Vuelta started he was doing these little training camps in various places around Europe and we talked right after he had been up in northern Italy in the Dolomites. He was doing some of the famous climbs and was just absolutely giddy about how he was dancing up the hills. I’m careful to not be too optimistic, but based on his history the Vuelta could work out really well for Tom.

VN: And of course finishing fifth in the prologue couldn’t have hurt that optimism.

RC: Absolutely. Things really played out well on day one and now it’s just biding time until the big climbs of the second week. Then the fireworks will go off.

VN: How much contact do you have with him during a race like this?

RC: It really varies. Sometimes it’s a lot and sometimes it’s not at all. At this point we’ve worked together long enough that I don’t panic when I don’t hear from him for a few days. It’s kind of sporadic at this point. He’s getting amazing care over there. He’s with an organization that’s dedicated more resources to him than he’s ever had. He basically knows what the plan is. He’s really intelligent in terms of what levels he’s supposed to produce.

The contact this year is not like it was last year when he was with Fassa Bortolo when it was daily. It’s a different world now. At Fassa he needed someone to personally look after his program because with Fassa it wasn’t happening. I actually haven’t even talked to him since the Vuelta has started. It’s pretty tight once a big race starts. They just have a few phone calls that they can make, but the way I look at it is no news is good news. They usually only call when there’s a problem and they are panicking. VN: How concerned were you when he had to pull out of the Giro with his knee pain?

Crawford was very optimistic about Danielson's chances as the Vuelta neared the end of the first week.

Crawford was very optimistic about Danielson’s chances as the Vuelta neared the end of the first week.

Photo: File Photo

RC: Really I was more worried about his future than anything else. When you have an injury that pulls you out of a very important event, there are always other events. I’ve wondered about his ability to endure the stress of the big time. You do a race like the Tour de Georgia, which in the grand scheme of things really isn’t a big race, then go and do your first grand tour and something blows up. It makes you nervous. But in retrospect I don’t think it says anything about his overall durability.

There were a lot of circumstances that lead to it. It was probably due to one really cold day at Georgia where he wasn’t protected and it kind of escalated out of control from there. Now we’ve got a handle on it.

VN: So there is still no doubt in your mind that Tom is deserving of all the hype that has followed his Tour de Georgia win?

RC: No way. He’s headed for great things. There’s no question about it. No question. He’s healed from the Giro issue very well and I don’t think there are any underlying concerns. The second half of the season is going to be spectacular. I just feel it in my bones. He’s got some big stuff coming up.

VN: You’ve got another rider who has already achieved some big stuff this year. What went through your mind when Wherry won USPRO?

RC: I was excited, proud, but mostly really happy for him. He’s a guy I’ve been working with for a number of years. We have a really tight relationship. He’s one of the nicest guys out there. He’s had some rough times. He’s got a ton of ability, but when things don’t go right he’s real sensitive to it. His career hasn’t gone exactly as well as it should have, and I take a lot of responsibility when things don’t go right.

I got Chris to move here to Durango because I wanted to be able to control a little bit more of his training life and his lifestyle. I saw that a lot of those things were affecting him.

VN: Fair to say it’s been a good move.

RC: I think it’s been a great move for him. He’s very beloved here already. Everything is a lot more stable. His team situation is more stable. There’s a great infrastructure here in Durango to deal with things that come up for cyclists — injuries and things like that. He’s had some pretty chronic injury tendencies and we’ve been able to address those problems. We’ve been very proactive, going after things and not waiting to fix things until he’s injured. When he was in Boulder I couldn’t get on top of that stuff.

VN: You really like to be close to your riders as much as possible, right?

RC: Definitely. With Chris it was a little bit more difficult to manage him when he was living in Boulder. It was apparent to me that if I was going to have an impact, that I needed more exposure to him. It was cool that he was willing to come here. I know his family is really important to him, and he had to leave them and a lot of friends behind. VN: The doping question is one that always comes up with competitive cycling, and it’s something you have been accused of promoting. What do you say to your detractors?

RC: I get very angry when somebody points a finger at me. I have a fiery personality. I carry a lot of passion and I carry it out there. It’s just the price of success. When your guys start kicking butt, everybody wants to know why. It’s a sad commentary that human nature is that way, but when you start enjoying the kind of success that my athletes have enjoyed it seems like the first thing people say is well they must be using drugs.

Wherry shows off his stars-and-stripes cruiser outside his new home in Durango.

Wherry shows off his stars-and-stripes cruiser outside his new home in Durango.

Photo: Jason Sumner

I understand the mentality because there was a time when I pointed fingers when I was a professional triathlete. I wish it wasn’t that way. I think that what Matt DeCanio stands for is good. He’s against drugs. I am against drugs. I get ticked off when that finger gets pointed at me, a guy who has pretty much walked a straight line. It ticks me off. I try to act with integrity and good character. These guys don’t even know me. I’ve never met Matt DeCanio. Period. My accusers don’t know Rick Crawford. That chaps me.

If they really want to accuse me of something, they ought to come to town, find me and talk to me. When someone I don’t even know comes from left field, it’s easy to create a conspiracy. The guys I work with are very high profile. It’s easy to say well they are involved with that team and that team had a program, and I know this guy and he said that. Well, you know, rumor and innuendo are very dangerous.

I wouldn’t do anything different. My guys have achieved great things and I know that my involvement has been clean. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that every one of my guys have never done drugs, but if they have I’m certainly not aware of it. And they’d have a problem with me. I don’t want to be associated with that. There are too many good people in my circle for one bad egg to drag us down.

That’s the nature of sport, though. Every sport where there are dollars to be made has been corrupted in some way because humans are a flawed product. I’m a flawed product as well, but in that respect I’m proud of the fact that I went through my entire athletic career on nothing stronger than ibuprofen. And that’s the strongest thing that I’ve ever recommended that my athletes take. Anybody who doesn’t believe that can come down here, dive into my records, do whatever you want. But don’t sit across the country on the Internet and accuse me, because the next time I see you, you are going to have to deal with me face to face.

VN: Who are some of your other high-profile clients?

RC: I work with Todd Wells, with Shonny, Mike Sayers, Jamie Whitmore, who’s a triathlete world champion, and of course the whole Fort Lewis college team, which is a project that I’m really proud of. I love it for its development aspect. I think there are some future Tom Danielsons in that group. There’s a lot of talented riders in the United States that just need a collegiate program to bring them out. Anthony Colby is another one who is an up and comer. He’s definitely going to be on everybody’s list of people pretty quick.

VN: Talk about your coaching philosophy.

RC: The core of my program is managing the central nervous system of each athlete. It’s a very broad term, but what it does is encompass their emotional base, their personality base, really their entire life. There’s a lot more to this than just giving out programs.

When you manage the central nervous system you have to know what’s going on with girlfriends, money, with the job, with relationships, and how those stresses affect the athlete. There’s so much energy that can be freed up for recovery if you are actually aware of how the energy is flowing.

I don’t want this to sound mystical. This is actual physics. This isn’t some cosmic thing. The central nervous system is a hard system to nail down. There are a lot of intangibles and those intangibles affect us more than anything. I think the human body is capable of just about anything. It will not fatigue unless the central nervous system is not motivated. And an unmotivated athlete becomes over trained, under stimulated and depressed. That was the key to Tom Danielson. That was the key to Todd Wells. VN: How did you get your start in coaching?

RC: I stumbled into cycling while I was in high school and fell in love with it immediately. I grew up in a suburb of Atlanta and was the typical jock — football, baseball. I just did a lot of cycling for a number of years. I’ve been an athlete my entire life. I took cycling to a pretty high level, mostly on the track. I was fairly close to making the Olympic team in 1984 doing pursuit.

That whole experience jaded me a little bit. I didn’t make the team and I felt like there was a lot of politics involved. It really sort of soured me, and so I kind of backed out and started pursuing triathlons. At that time the tri market was so hot and it was so easy for me to make money as a triathlete. So that’s where I put my bullets for 8-9 years. I was very successful as a triathlete. I got a lot of experience through trial and error. It was such an extreme sport. If you didn’t do things right you collapsed.

VN: When did you start working with Armstrong?

RC: I started working with Lance in the mid ’80s and that was very enlightening. I was dealing with someone else’s career. He was still doing triathlon at that point. I worked with Chann McRae in that same time period. I started learning exponentially. When you are training yourself there’s no objectivity, so it’s very difficult to make good decisions. But when I started working with Lance and Chann, that’s when I started to get organized and go back in my own records and figuring out what stupid things I’d done that I could help them avoid going through. That’s where the whole coaching thing started. I needed Lance to light that fire in me.

If Lance hadn’t succeeded so fabulously, I don’t think I’d be coaching. There was a little serendipity there. Lance took off like a bottle rocket and lit some fireworks for myself. I’ve never gotten that coaching bug out of my system since. I’ve had a string of motivated and talented people that have kept me focused on coaching. Even when my career was going, coaching was a lot more fun than racing ever was.

VN: It’s got to blow your mind to see where Armstrong ended up.

RC: When I see what Lance has become it’s pretty surreal. He was just a snot-nosed brat from Plano, Texas, and now he’s a comic book figure.

VN: Do you ever aspire to take your business to the level that CTS and Chris Carmichael have ascended?

RC: Chris has an awesome business model, but for me my gifts are not as a businessman. In fact I’d say I’m almost handicapped. I know I have a lot of good things going, and a lot of good things to offer as a coach. But I don’t think I have the same gift that Chris Carmichael has. But that’s not my motivation. I wouldn’t put Tom Danielson on the back burner to develop my business. Tom, Todd, Shonny, Chris and the rest of my athletes come first. Having credibility as a coach is really important to me. It’s not all about dollars and cents.

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