The Improbability of the ‘Complete Rider’
Over the weekend, Andrew Hood of VeloNews posited that the upcoming year could be the one for Fabian Cancellara to win the Tour de France. Hood’s logic is that with the emphasis on the individual time trial and the de-emphasis of summit finishes, Cancellara, the best time trialist of our generation (ever?), who can be a fairly effective climber, could, in the fashion of Miguel Indurain, vanquish a Grande Boucle of the kind we shall see in 2012. Of course, being teammates to the brothers Schleck makes this line of reasoning a non-starter; however, Hood is not the only one who thinks that Cancellara could contend for the final malliot jaune.
For what little it’s worth, I wholly agree with Mr. Hood’s assessment and nominate Cancellara as the most compete rider of the last 10 years, may be more.
He can win on most any terrain and type of race. The diversity of his wins is unmatched by any rider in the current pro peloton. His time trial ability is unquestionable, despite Tony Martin having the upper hand this year. He can win one-day classics on cobbles and gravel (Roubaix, Flanders, E3, Eroica). He can win where sprinters typically prevail (Milan-San Remo, flat Tour stages), and in 2011, nearly beat the sprinters on their own terms with a second at MSR, a fourth (third??) at this year’s Copenhagen Worlds, and fourth on the Champs Elysee. He can win in the one week stage races with significant climbing (Tour de Suisse, Tirreno-Adriatico).
On Monday, Bernard Hinault celebrated his 57th birthday, and Cyclingnews paid tribute by asking if “The Badger” was the greatest of them all. Hinault is the last rider to win in a Grand Tour, a Cobbled Classic, an Ardennes Classic and a World Championship, laying the foundation for his claim to greatness. It also makes him the last of the complete riders, who could ride, and win, from late winter through the spring and summer into the fall in any kind of race.
Arguably, only Cancellara has come closest to matching Hinault’s swath of victories, and even he falls well short, at least so far. Why is it that in the past 25 years since Hinault’s retirement no other rider has been able to truly take on the complete rider mantle?
The answer may lie in a strange irony. Fitness.
Specifically, the idea that today’s pro cyclist is a fitter, stronger, more precisely honed machine than ever before.
When Francesco Moser took on the Hour record in 1984 he opened the flood gates to whole new method of scientific based training that was elevated by Greg LeMond and made the indispensable standard by Lance Armstrong. Riders today, and not just the pros, but even we weekend warriors, can train to such specific peaks in ultimate fitness so as to time them for pre-determined goals. To be competitive at any race on the calendar requires riders to be within one of their peak fitness windows.
The science behind this training also tells us that humans can only achieve these sustained performance peaks for a few weeks at time only two, may be three times a year at most.
While sports medicine was around in Hinault’s day, it was rudimentary by today’s standard. It would be fascinating to look back and know whether Hinault and his cohorts raced in a perpetual state of over training or under training. Ignorance being bliss, they raced on for nine months of the year simply because they had no reason to do otherwise.
Today, Cancellara and every other rider in the pro peloton, knows from the outset that defining specific goals necessarily requires sacrificing others. With riders so specialized in a particular style of racing, the odds simply don’t encourage Cancellara to sacrifice the spring for the summer.
Much ballyhoo has been made on both sides of the argument for and against banning radios to improve racing. But, if what we yearn for is a return to the halcyon days of the complete rider, then instead of banning radios, we should ban practitioners of sports medicine, nutritionists, physiotherapists and osteopaths, along with power meters, heart rate monitors and the rest.
Or, we can simply accept progress for what it is and revel in the moment that we are in, and look forward to what the future has in store, while we recall the greatness of what once was.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International