Stage Racing: A voyage of recovery - 27/03/13

18 year-old Ed Laverack gets going in the prologue of hardest challenge of his career to date; the 2013 Tour of Normandy

For the young riders in the Rapha Condor JLT team, one of the more important lessons that they will have to learn on their way through the ranks is how to cope with the demands of a heavy racing schedule.

John Herety’s riders have been coming to the Tour of Normandy since 2009. The 2.2 category seven-day race covers nearly a thousand kilometers in a week, and is fought out between a mixture of talented and motivated amateur hopefuls from development teams (from the likes of Astana, Katusha, BMC and Leopard), as well as a number of continental (and occasional pro continental) teams, with a few of the strongest French domestic amateur teams thrown in for good measure.

The racing at the Tour of Normandy is hard. The level of competition is high, and the competitors themselves are in no mood to mess around at this time of year. There are no age restrictions or categorisations; everyone from a former Tour de France King of the Mountains to ex-professionals, future professionals, career amateurs, and some of the most talented young riders from all over Europe come to the Tour of Normandy to do one thing: to race.

The weather and the stage routes both conspire to add in difficulties that make for unforgiving bike racing. The stages are long flat and fast, with the only undulations seemingly serving to expose the riders to the freezing crosswinds that routinely batter the race. It is the kind of racing that offers no protection or places to hide for weak or inexperienced riders.

A quick glimpse at the palmares of the race show why the race is regarded as such a serious proposition. Winners in the last ten years include Thor Hushovd, Jérôme Pineau, Samuel Dumoulin and Thomas Dekker.

There is no place to hide in the Tour of Normandy peloton

While so far in 2013 the Rapha Condor JLT riders have been deliberately kept back from being put out of their depth at this kind of event – instead focusing first on learning to win in smaller events – there are certain things that a rider can learn through a week of suffering alone. It is precisely for this reason that John Herety chose to bring the young riders of the Rapha Condor JLT team to the start of the 2013 race in St – Lo.

“Up until this race the riders have done really well at the one day, and dare I say lower level races they’ve been taking part in in the UK. There comes a time though that riders do need to be pushed.”

“We are realistic when we come to a race like this; we are a development team and we can’t expect to come here with ambitions if development is our goal. At the same time we have to be here though, because it is crucial for me to watch these guys and see how they cope with a workload like this.”

In the 2013 edition there was one rider in particular who Herety was keeping his eye on in, what for him was the longest and toughest stage race of his short career; first year senior Ed Laverack.

Earlier in the season Ed Laverack was one of the riders who worked on ‘learning to win’ at the team’s Australian training camp. Image courtesy of Darren Casey

“As one of the youngest guys in the race and coming straight out of the junior ranks there was no pressure on Ed at all in Normandy. All I wanted was to see was how, and if he could get round. The fact that he did, and did so reasonably comfortably without ever going too deep was a big indicator that he has something there.”

Watching for the signs

There are many ways that a young rider develops both mentally and physically, and no two riders are the same, but according to Herety the tell tale signs of whether or not a rider is recovering, are indeed quite universal. It is these signs of a riders physical state that Herety monitors in his young charges during an event like the Tour of Normandy, to make sure that none of them are being pushed too far, and that they are still coping with the enormous efforts they were making each day.

“Often young riders don’t want to look ‘bad’ by admitting that they are tired, or they are struggling – sometimes they themselves don’t even know that they are. I am always looking for little signs to prompt me to ask them for more information. Riders themselves often need to be asked this so they learn to know when they are really unable to recover and when they are just fatigued from the race.”

“I have limited opportunities to actually see the riders in the race from the car, but one of the key things that I do is watch how they are at the dinner table each night. For example if a rider is really red in the face one night it is a classic sign that he’s not really recovered from that day’s effort. Either his body is simply still on overload, or it could hint at the fact that he got really cold in the race and can’t warm up, because he is struggling to recover so he’s gone back to his hotel room and put too many clothes on. Either way that is a sign that they are getting close to their limit.”

“Very simply, it is how their body is functioning and you can see it in very basic things that they are doing. I watch what they eat to see if they are losing their appetite. I watch to see if they are interacting as they normally do, and – in the mornings – their attitude: do they want to get on their bike? You can see that straight away.”

For Ed, who started last season as a third category junior, the race was undoubtedly the hardest challenge of his career. The seven-day race was, for him a voyage of discovery, where he would find out the hard way how he would cope with the extra distance and days in the saddle. As with most of the challenges so far set for him in his first few months with the team, it was something the young man from Llanelli seemed to take in his stride.

“The first few days, obviously I was quite fresh so I felt like I went OK to start with, but then the fatigue started to catch up towards the end of the week. It started to get hard on Thursday and Friday. Then by the last day I was just counting down the kilometers, you don’t feel the fatigue then because you know you’ve just got to hang in there.”

Adaption to discomfort

For a rider like Ed whose longest race until this point was the Herald Sun Tour in Australia (392km over four stages as opposed to the 995km they faced over seven stages in Normandy), the physical workload of the race was enough to force him well into the deep end. This is a place that Herety believes a rider has to go from time to time to push himself to learn, and to adapt to certain discomforts.

“I saw Ed at the back of the group one day and he was stretching his back every few minutes. I spoke to him about it and he thought that he had some sort of back problem, but he was just getting used to the stress of being in that position on the bike for so many hours over so many consecutive days. That is just the normal adaption process that he’ll have to go through.”

Laverack, in sunnier climbs, prepared well for his first season amongst seniors, but still has a lot to learn

Just as Herety had hoped though, for Ed the high speeds of the race were less of a challenge than the sheer physical and mental fatigue of the overall race.

“On the 180km stage on Saturday we did the first 40km in 48 minutes it was super quick, it wasn’t too bad because the roads were quite big but even in the climbs the speed was pretty solid then.”

“To be honest it was both the distance of the stages and the fact that the race was so long. All the stages were over 100 miles apart from the last day but I think it just became an issue of doing those big distances day after day. There was a 204km stage that was really long and then there was a 180km stage on the Saturday as well.”

Learning the routine

Under the watchful eye of Herety and the rest of the team staff – who Herety routinely talks to on a nightly basis at a race like this to find out if any riders are carrying any injuries that he should know about, Ed was given the freedom to make his own conclusions as to how best get himself through the race in one piece.

In a race as hard as the Tour of Normandy, for Ed, every single second counted, and he quickly worked out his stage race routine; something that will stick with him now all the way through his career.

“Recovery is the most important thing there. When I got back each day I got into the habit of getting everything done straight away. I would already have all of my kit for the next day ready within 20 minutes of getting in the hotel, and after I had done all those things and got everything sorted I would have a shower, and then I would have some food and relax.”

“I knew that there wouldn’t be a mad rush in the morning, but once I had it all done I had time to relax so that was important to get everything done and the maximum amount of time to recover.”

Knowing your place

As well as off the bike there were lessons that Ed (and all of the team’s young riders) learnt from a tough week of racing at the Tour of Normandy. According to Herety though, the most important thing that they should take away was not the fact that they were finding themselves struggling in the latter parts of the stages, but where they were in the bunch when they started to struggle.

“It is common for a young rider who knows that he won’t be strong enough to be in the action to just stay out of the way and not get involved in the racing at the front at all. But that not only makes it harder, it stops you gaining the confidence you’ll need in that kind of bunch later in your career. If you look at the Rabobank Under 23’s for example, there are plenty of them getting dropped, but they still rode at the front.”

“That will be the best tactic for Ed and these youngsters now; to ride at the front regardless right up until they get dropped. Then in the next race it’ll be a bit longer before they are dropped and so on, but what they will do is learn how to be in that little bubble at the front of the race and how to fight to stay there.”

Tired riders struggle at the back of the bunch

What Next?

Taking the Tour of Normandy as a staring point for his senior international career, Ed will now have to assess, with the help of Herety and his coach Darren Tudor, just what it is that he can look to learn and work on. The plan from here it seems, given how well the young Welshman has coped with the first big test of the year, will be to keep going.

“Another thing that we are doing with Ed this weekend is to send him to Boucles d Artois (a two day event in France this weekend – ed), just to see how he backs up after a stage race to see if he is capable of benefitting from the first stage race, as that was quite a big overload. After this weekend he has an easy month, in which he can go home and recover and hopefully let the lessons that he has learned quite quickly in a very intense environment, sink in.”