By Sarah Staber
Mallorca, 2007 – Imagine the absurdity of an entire ProTour team standing in a freezing pool, clad in cycling shorts and parkas; quizzical, uncomfortable looks on their faces. It might have seemed absurd to both observers and the team members at that moment. But now, riders of the team now known as HTC-Columbia jump in willingly when asked — knowing that a cold plunge is ideal for muscle recovery.
Checking the machinery
Back then most of the team’s riders didn’t know quite what to think of Darcy Norman, who had been hired by Bob Stapleton as a ‘Core Trainer’ for his troubled team. He was looking for innovative training that could make the team competitive — without performance enhancing drugs.
“(The) focus was on finding the best practices and most ethical means in each area of performance to maximize the team’s potential and to show the world that teams and athletes could be successful without succumbing to the pressures of using artificial performance enhancers,” Norman said recently. “Bob was a pioneer in this area. He took that American attitude of looking at all the different technology in sports to see what he could use to help his guys.”
At the time Norman was working for Athletes Performance, the company behind the “Core Performance” books and training programs. Athletes Performance had never tested their concepts in the professional cycling, but they knew that, theoretically, the model fit. The question was whether it would work in practice.
Norman was rather shocked at what he was confronted with when he came on board.
“You know, the guys just seemed to ride their bikes” he said, a tone of disbelief in his voice all these years later. “I thought they would be more technically advanced in their bike fitting. The recovery and regeneration techniques were very limited. They came in after a ride, had a massage in the evening and that was it.”
Norman and the staff quickly put an end to that, mandating post-ride hot-and-cold contrast techniques, cold-water submergence techniques and stretching and mobility work.
Darcy saw that many riders c0uld not get into their ideal aerodynamic position naturally; causing pain and back problems.
“A lot of guys would just ride themselves into more aggressive positions as the season went on.” Darcy explained. But, by doing preliminary mobility and stability work to strengthen those positions all year long they no longer had to force themselves.
And it showed. “Robbie McEwen once asked Allen Peiper, ‘What are you guys all doing? All your riders look so stable and solid on their bikes.’”
A focus on technology
Norman introduced other recovery techniques.
“We were the first team and maybe still the only team to be using a product we found in Australia called ‘I-Cool’ — a portable hydro plunge. We have three of those on trucks at the Tour and use them at the end of the stages. The guys go between riding their bikes on a spinner to cool down and sitting in the cold plunge. A big complaint from the guys is that they are so hot from the day that their systems can’t cool down and they can’t sleep. I would hear stories of guys taking three, four or five showers a night just trying to get cool.”
Tuning time – Where? When? How?
Norman is now the full time exercise coach for the illustrious Bayern Muenchen soccer team and rarely has time to be at the cycling team camps for more than a day or two. But, with his system well in place, this is not such a problem. He is responsible for putting together the recovery-regeneration strategies, core training groups and programs as well as catering to individual needs.
The schedule at team camp is strict and efficient. “We come in and re-test the guys right out of the gate. … Then we break the guys up into individual groups and programs are designed for each group,” he explained.
A typical daily routine starts with a morning session of movement preparation such as dynamic yoga to dust off the cobwebs and get the riders ready to sit on their bikes. When they come back from a ride they have their recovery drinks and meet with Darcy and the soigneurs again. “We have each of them on the table for 10 minutes going through a series of stretches to open them up after sitting on the bike for six hours,” he explained.
Core sessions take place in the late afternoon. “These are pillar strength sessions. The riders go through their individual programs and strength programs. These are done in smaller groups to keep an eye on the quality.” Norman said. A cold plunge or contrast baths before dinner aid in recovery. In the evening, massages are given and then it is up to bed and ready to go for the next day
When the riders are not in a camp they do their routines by themselves. Everyone gets a little tool kit — a bag filled with exercise goodies for strengthening and stability — that they can use on the road. Darcy also produced a DVD featuring all his exercises. Riders can reference the exercises that appear on the spreadsheets they are sent by the staff; assuring each exercise is done correctly for maximum efficiency.
At first some of the riders and staff were skeptical of his plans but most, upon seeing the benefits, now sing its praises.
“The guys who have been with the team since the T-Mobile days, like Rogers, Rabon, Greipel, Grapsch and Eisel, they see for themselves where they have come in terms of their movement, stability and coordination. They don’t get those naggy things like low back problems or knee problems anymore and they feel better climbing. They tell the new guys to stick with it and they will see the benefits too.”
A true seal of approval came from Hincapie. “When George came to the team I have to admit that I was a little star struck. I thought this guy has seen, heard and done everything after being with Lance for 7 years. But he came in and said, ‘Hey I am really looking forward to this test. I’ve heard a lot about it.’ He was super open to everything we had to say, was dedicated and worked on the plan. His wanting to continue the plan even though he has changed teams makes me proud.” Norman revealed.
There are however skeptics in the bunch and Mark Cavendish is one. Although Cav’ enthusiastically started with the plan upon his entry into the T-Mobile team, as his winning streak and fame blossomed, his willingness to use Normans’ methods has waned.
“Mark had this feeling that what his body didn’t have is what got him to where he is, so he was nervous to change anything. One day he made the comment to me, ‘You know Darc I’m here and I’ll do this but to be honest with you I feel that my inflexibility is what makes me fast.’”
Norman saw his point; he said Cavendish uses that tightness as a false sense of stability. It is that tightness that helps produce the elasticity needed to be explosive. “Marks’ tightness in his body creates a platform — he puts his muscles on stretch and then they can respond really quickly, which is one of the reasons he is so effective.”
But Darcy points out that Cav’s tightness could limit his ability over longer, more difficult stages. “If he doesn’t have good hamstring mobility and the necessary core stability to go with it, he’s going to put more pressure on his low back. When he has pain in his low back he’s not going to be motivated to ride as much, he might not be mentally able to give full gas or he might miss that break that would take him to the sprint finish.”
The team is now trying to improve Cavendish’s’ stability so that he can muscularly create the tension his system needs to rocket to the finish line and at the same time increase his mobility to make him more effective, say, on a climb. “I have adjusted his plan to keep his pop and power while at the same time help him become more mobile and stable.”
Do new additions fit the well oiled machine?
With so many new riders this season, Norman is confronted with different challenges. Before, he could basically cover all bases with one umbrella, but now there is a need to divide the team. “The new riders are struggling to make it happen. When they see how strong the veterans on the team are it’s very motivating.” What Norman enjoys is that many of the new riders come to the team and say, ‘Hey I’ve heard stories about what you are doing and I really want to be part of it.’
Team building has become one of Norman’s top priorities. He tries to design training that will make the team even tighter. “The biggest compliment is when they ask me back to the camp. They are a great group of people who are super motivated to get better. When you have that mentality and that culture, it is contagious. New guys feel it and they are then motivated to give it their all. It’s not all suffering, it’s fun and the riders know they are being supported 100 percent.”