July’s Super Saturday (racing at 3 Grade one tracks and seven others) was fighting for airtime with not just the Wimbledon Ladies final but with stage 8 of the Tour de France which tackled the iconic Col du Tourmalet. My remote control took a beating that day.
The Tour de France is one of my favourite sporting events, three delicious weeks of endurance and power in extreme heat, altitude and at speeds of up to 80mph. The strategy and tactics of Grand Tour racing could easily form the basis of a three year dissertation and we are lucky enough to have a British Team – the peerless Team Sky – to cheer on. Chris Froome – now three – time winner, Mark Cavendish the greatest ever sprinter and winner of 30 Tour Stages, Geraint Thomas, Sky Team member and winner of this year’s prestigious Paris-Nice race and the new kid on the block, Adam Yates, aged only 23 winner of the white best young rider jersey and overall 4th at this year’s tour.
There is much to delight in but as someone whose main delight is horse racing there is also much to learn from the sport of cycling.
Road racing pits very skinny people on their bikes against wind, gradients and ground conditions. Horse racing pits very skinny people against wind, gradients and ground conditions. But whereas horse racing has focused all its developments on improving the speed of the thoroughbred (naturally and sensibly) cycling has spent millions on researching and developing new ways to reduce wind and weight resistance. Hence, streamlining body position, improving clothing to reduce wind resistance, reducing every extraneous gram of weight, refining team tactics to protect team leaders from wind and redesigning training and rider nutrition.
Of course with horse racing you have to factor in the biggest variable which is the abilities and character of the horse. Not a feat of engineering as Chris Froome’s Pinarello Dogma bike is, more the result of 400 years of breeding and training but still, there are surely cross-overs that racing could pick up.
Especially in the matter of defying wind resistance: in a road race, a Team Leader is protected from the wind, by his team of ‘domestiques’ who ride in front of him in sequence dropping away once their work is done to leave the Leader to fight out the end stage of the race alone. Drafting, riding behind a car or other vehicle, is banned and during cross winds echelons (diagonal formations) are formed to protect the peloton (field) from the wind. Watching the magnificent and relatively small Mark Cavendish shelter behind the huge figure of German sprinter Marcel Kittel only to swing out at the last moment and take the sprint victory, describes the absolute importance of protection from wind.
Preserving energy to the latest possible moment by allowing others to take the wind must also apply in horse racing. How many times do we see sprints won by horses that make all? Very rarely. We applaud the timing and tactics of certain jockeys (Richard Hughes, Jamie Spencer, Paul Carberry) who can produce their horse from behind to win on the line, but if the same laws of physics apply to a field of horses as they do to a peloton of cyclists then surely producing horses late, having been covered up (protected) by the field, is greatly underestimated.
Streamlining position in the saddle and wearing less flappy fabrics might also be something we would do well to pay more attention to. There are a few riders whose silks are made in aero-fabrics (Sam Waley-Cohen for one) but most wear the traditional silks with elastic bands at the cuffs and safety pins at the neck. Literally millions have been spent developing clothing for cycling that reduces wind resistance. Why doesn’t racing take better note of the obvious advantages it offers?
The other area where racing could take a big lesson from cycling is in the field of nutrition. Cyclists put out a massive wattage, burning vast numbers of calories each day of the Tour de France. In the saddle for six or seven hours working constantly, often in very high temperatures, means working out the energy and hydration needs is vital science. A rider is said to have ‘bonked’ if they run out of energy by miscalculating how much to feed before and during the race. Cyclists like jockeys must be as light as possible. Chris Froome is 6 ft. 1 and weighs 10 stone. His body fat % is in single digits. Despite this necessity there is no culture of flipping, sweating off weight or otherwise abusing the body to reduce weight. Top cyclists treat their bodies as precious machines into which the correct fuel must be put to provide the right amount of energy. We are merely at the foothills in racing of understanding how to better fuel jockeys bodies. A team led by Dr.George Wilson at the University of Liverpool that has spent years researching extreme weight making for jockeys, does include the Head of Nutrition at Team Sky, so a cross fertilization of intelligence is underway. We now need to more widely disseminate the lessons of this research.
I would love to see Sir Dave Brailsford, Team Sky’s brilliant leader be invited to talk to trainers about the ethos and management of his athletes. Author of the theory of ‘marginal gains’ whereby the smallest advantages are built upon little by little which is there for all to see at the Tour de France, with Team Sky powerfully controlling the race and showing how constant renewal and a thirst for betterment leads to victory after victory. When he announced some five years ago that a British Team would win the Tour within five years people laughed. But Team Sky has won four of the last five Tours. Open mindedness to new methods is a mark of intelligence and the desire to continue to succeed. Racing could learn from this Team of winners.