The Science of Winning

In my last post I waxed poetic on Ryder Hesjedal and cycling. In this post I redress the balance by focusing on the “left brain” aspect of sports performance. David Ebner’s article in the Globe and Mail captures the rigorous and fact-based aspect of Hesjedal’s cycling achievement. The piece, titled “How the Scientific approach paid off for Ryder Hesjedal,” says

On the mountain bike trails around Victoria in the later 1990s, young riders Geoff Kabush and Ryder Hesjedal had a secret weapon: a Swiss-born-and-raised fitness innovator named Juerg Feldmann who lived hundreds of kilometres away in the rural British Columbia interior.

Feldmann’s endurance-building methods helped propel the two teenagers to become two of Canada’s best cyclists. Kabush, on a mountain bike, won six consecutive national championships, competed in two Olympics, 2000 and 2008, and is now readying for London this summer.

Hesjedal, this past weekend, reached even greater heights. He left mountain biking for road cycling in the mid-2000s and on Sunday in Milan he won the Giro d’Italia, the first time a Canadian has ever won one of the big-time cycling tours in Europe.

Feldmann, the quiet guru in the background, had himself been a national team speed skater in Switzerland, before he went on to coach the country’s largest track club, including one long-distance runner who scored a silver in the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games.

When he moved to Canada, Feldmann settled in the forestry town of Quesnel, roughly 600 kilometres north of Vancouver. Through a connection with a businessman in Victoria, who was starting a small mountain bike team with several promising teenagers, Feldmann came to impart his training ideas on Kabush and Hesjedal.

Feldmann believed in technology – measure something precisely to obtain better results. He found and used products that others did not.

One obtained detailed measurements of a body’s performance under physical exertion, which included taking minute blood samples through a pinprick of the finger or thumb to assess fatigue levels. He also promoted equipment from Switzerland called the SpiroTiger to strengthen the young riders’ respiratory strength. He then designed training regimes around the data to maximize long-term gain.

And, most important, he sold Kabush and Hesjedal on the investment of time in what seemed like weird ideas, such as endurance training at lower-exertion levels than the two teenagers could manage. He promised bigger things would eventually flower.

“We’d get some strange looks, this Swiss guy taking our blood,” said Kabush in an interview Monday from New Mexico, where he is training, remembering work as a teenager with Hesjedal and Feldmann.

“Juerg is really one of the brilliant minds in sports science. It’s kind of funny he’s up in Quesnel, of all places. He really gave Ryder and I the confidence to put in the hard work, the fundamental work. That’s what Juerg stressed, that we’d see the pay-off long term.”

It meant, among other things, not ripping up every hill as fast as possible – not exactly the program ambitious teenagers embrace. And it meant regular work sitting with a SpiroTiger, a handheld device that worked the teens’ respiratory system, freeing up more oxygen to be used by the bodies’ muscles.

“For young athletes, [pacing] is really important – they’re chomping at the bit, they don’t get tired, they don’t want to take rest days,” said Graham Duthie, owner of ATP Sport Science Consulting, who works with Feldmann. Teenage bodies can especially benefit from the methods, as they are growing and malleable.

Kabush and Hesjedal signed on to the program with gusto – and it propelled the young training partners. Working together for several years, Kabush and Hesjedal put in hundreds of hours, often on the Galloping Goose, a regional trail in west Victoria. Kabush remembers his partner as a confident and motivated young athlete, with the talent to deliver.

“No matter what happened, Ryder always had the self-belief that he’d make it to the top,” said Kabush.

And the scientific possibilities keep unfolding.

Like Hesjedal, Kabush keeps pushing training limits with the aid of technology. Recently available equipment can offer, for example, exact measures of how much blood the heart pumps, and how well the muscles utilize the fuel.

It generates an “incredible picture” of what the body is doing, and a training program tailored around the data allows Kabush, at 35, to keep pushing his regimes at levels much more intense than he would otherwise be able to. It is what has helped put the rider on the verge of his third Olympics – and helped Hesjedal ascend higher than any Canadian cyclist before.

“It’s amazing, the levels I’ve been able to train at,” Kabush said.


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