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Business, Olympic Edition Rio’s road race the biggest challenge yet

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By: Brad McGee •  4 years ago •  

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I STARTED COMPETING IN CYCLING AT THE AGE OF 10. THE YOUNGEST OF A FAMILY OF 4 BOYS, WE WERE HEAVILY INTO SPORTS AND ALL TRANSITIONED INTO CYCLING AND RACING IN THE 80S IN NSW.

W

e were all quite talented and one of my brothers made it to Junior World Championship level. My nickname, as the runt of the litter, was ‘Nipper’. I didn’t have a lot of early success, and if it wasn’t for my older brothers, I probably wouldn’t have stuck around. Instead, between 16 and 18, things started taking off for me competitively and I was taken up into the national program.

I moved to Adelaide to train with Charlie Walsh, who was the head of cycling with the AIS. It was really sink or swim. Every year we’d start with 15-25 aspiring, healthy, young blokes, and by the end of each campaign, 11 months later, we’d be lucky to have 5 left – just enough to field a team for the Team Pursuit. That was the way it was run.

I was Junior World Champion in 1993, and followed it up with the Commonwealth Games in 1994, winning gold in both the Individual Pursuit and Team Pursuit events. I did 4 Olympic cycles as an athlete, winning multiple Olympic medals. I spent 10 years riding professionally with the French team ‘Francaise des Jeux’, and then one year with Danish team ‘Team CSC’ after which I became their Directeur Sportif (“Sports Director”) for their cycling program.

LEARNING THE ROPES AT ELITE LEVEL

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As an athlete, your only job is to think about your physical, conditional and mental contribution to the team. Because cycling is so tough, everything else needs to be coordinated and managed by the staff so the athletes can do their job. There is a huge amount of coordination, forethought, vision and planning to do. Taking up the new role, I was amazed at how much went on behind the scenes and how much was done for the athletes. With that top team, I was able to learn from the best. I found one way to learn quickly was to have an informal conversation with key staff members to get a better understanding of what was needed, then go back to playing the lead role for making decisions. The staff had a lot of knowledge to give, but were not always asked to provide it, so could feel frustrated at times. I was able to be the breath of fresh air with whom they could share their knowledge. It worked fast and well.

COACH AND ATHLETE DEVELOPMENT

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In 2012, I returned to NSW to work with the NSW Institute of Sport as their Head Coach for cycling. It was the first time the role had become available in 20 years and I was quick to put my hand up. It was where I wanted to be. I wanted to learn more. Alongside various AIS Winning Edge and Melbourne Business School programs, what we’ve learnt is that we need to get out and learn from other sports more, wherever there’s an opportunity, such as observing NRL’s Wayne Bennett.

It’s quite important to have an appreciation for how young the athletes are that we’re developing today and realise their level of development and understanding. Tunnel vision and minimal uptake of information is quite prevalent. With the NSWIS program, I work directly with U19s and a few exceptional 16 year olds, but we rely heavily on the regional programs developing younger kids. I try to coach the coaches there and support them with the U15s and U17s. Typically, talented young athletes start hitting my radar at around 13/14 years of age. I now want to spend more time developing better pathways from U19s so that Australia becomes more competitive at World Championships and Olympic Games.

LAST MINUTE STRATEGIES

My role as National Men’s Road Coach is like a Sports Director role. We have 25 professional riders on the World Tour this year who are all privately coached and very well managed. They’re my pool of talent. Predominately they are European-based, but because of the nature of professional cycling, they could be racing anywhere on the planet at any particular time. I only go hands-on coaching when we go to campaign mode in the weeks prior to a World Championships or Olympics.

My recommendations for Rio team were submitted on the 28th June. I only had to select 3 athletes, with the fourth member to be chosen from outside road cycling. My 3 (Richie Porte, Simon Gerrans, Rohan Dennis) are all currently in the Tour de France and we will start communicating a couple of days after the Tour finishes. We will then have two weeks to prepare for Rio. We don’t want to lose momentum coming out of Tour, so we have one more race, in San Sebastian, in the week prior to the Olympics. The riders need it to keep their performance level up.

No one wins anything in road cycling without teamwork and team strategy. Being such a small team has its challenges. We’ve kept all options open for strategy which will be determined by condition of the guys coming out of Tour. It doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but myself and the athletes are used to working on strategies the night before a competition, so two weeks is considerable. These athletes compete between 80-120 days a year and have been on the circuit for years. Having the Tour de France just prior to the Games is such an influencing factor that there’s no point going too far with strategy until they finish. The athletes have been selected based on what we know of the nature of the course, and now we have to wait to see what level of condition our line up are in.

RIO COULD BE ANYONE’S RACE

At the London 2012 Olympics, we had a big rivalry with the UK, purely based on the course at London. We usually have a rivalry with the Spanish, and the Italians are always up there too. Columbia have a particularly strong team this year. Compared to other, bigger teams, we’re short on riders. It can work in our favour, but I’d still rather have 5 riders than 4. There’s lots of cat and mouse, controlling, attacking, manoeuvring, games of chess in a road race. 5, 4, or 3 riders is a small team by anyone’s measure compared to the 9 we have for a normal World Championship event.

We went to the test event in August last year to see the course, and it’s very challenging. It’s got a lot of differing attributes. The first half is similar to a Spring Classic in northern Europe with cobblestones, wind and steep inclines, and the remaining half is similar to an alpine/Pyrenees style. It will challenge every bike rider. Normally you have a long list of 8-10 riders as potential podium finishers but this will be a really hard one to pick. For the first time at an Olympic Games in modern cycling, we’ll have all of our best road riders in the world – classic, flat, Tour – having a crack.

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