The men who do Fabian Cancellara’s fit, Phil Cavell and Julian Wall of Cyclefit, work in a narrow studio space in Covent Garden, London. What they lack in square footage, they more than make up for in reputation. A mutual friend once said to me, “Phil and Jules are like Penn and Teller, aren’t they?” And he was right. By turns talented, funny, and charismatic, occasionally they even perform some magic, albeit in the mystical realm of bike fit where millimeters can mean the difference between a world championship and a chronic use injury.
Phil talks a lot. He is irreverent, passionate and bitingly witty. Jules is quiet, the classic straight man, studiously serious and able to laser focus when the work calls for it. It is hard to imagine them apart. They are less like two people and more like the two halves of a single personality.
Over coffee in a little cafe across from the London Opera House, they told me about being invited to work with Trek Factory Racing, the mind of the pro racer, and specifically their time with this year’s Tour of Flanders winner Fabian Cancellara.
First I ask if they were surprised to be approached to work with the pro team. How many times have we watched Euro racing on the television and thought how bad all the pros look on their bikes, saddles too low, stems too long, crazy differentials, positions that would cripple most normal humans? And yet, the pros persist in being insanely fast over massive distances.
Jules says, “We felt we should be there, but five years ago the opportunity didn’t exist. We weren’t on their radar.” Phil continues, “At root, all these pros are plagued by little problems, and over time those problems become a cancer of doubt. They stop macro-absorbing improvements and turn to micro-adjustment. So our job is close those problems off, to eliminate that doubt for them.”
Despite their credentials and the support of management, the pros were still skeptical. “The first time we went to work with them,” Phil says, “we stood around all day before the first rider poked his head in the door. It was George Bennett, from New Zealand. After that Andy Schleck came around, but it was just a few to begin with. And the team is interested in what we do, but everything we suggest has to be backed up with technological validation. You have to produce the numbers, not just the position.”
Jules adds, “One of the team’s GC riders always lost time in the TT in stage races and complained of feeling blocked in his legs and having to keep standing in the saddle to free his legs. So we traded aero for power and adjusted his pad height accordingly. The bars were raised by 5cm, and the mechanics had a breakdown. It went against the traditional views of what a Crono bike should be like, but there was a level of trust between us (and the rider) that was strong enough for him to keep his new position despite peer pressure in the team.”
The result of the position change is that the rider finally feels he can generate power from his time trialing position, and so he trains for it more. Jules says, “Psychologically this is very important for his overall performance as he no longer dreads the TT and can relax more on the mountain stages; his times are within seconds, not minutes, of the better time trialists among his GC competitors. This approach to bike position is important at all levels of bike fitting, having an understanding and insight of a rider’s needs and their personality is more important than looking at numbers on a screen.”
It is not all that different, they explain, than how they work with private clients in their studio, “We are collaborators really. We are there with a sports scientist and a physiotherapist. We have a strong sense of internal criticism, each of us reviewing the other’s work. It’s the only way to progress what you’re doing, and we do that whether we’re meeting with a recreational rider or one of the Trek pros.”
Of Cancellara, Phil says, “He is amazingly bright and scary as hell. He has a presence. When you work with him you have to know that he will be on his game, both mentally and emotionally every single day, and you’ve got to rise to his level if you’re going to do productive work with him.”
Then, laughing, he adds, “He and Jules work so well together, because Jules doesn’t speak. He just gets on with his work. If you were to try to dictate to Fabian what he ought to do, you wouldn’t get anywhere. He knows what he wants. You just have to help him get it. The work with him isn’t done yet. We both feel there’s more we can do.”
At this point, Jules relates a story about drilling holes in a pair of Cancellara’s shoes at team camp, while the Swiss eats dinner. He begins to sweat. He can’t figure out why the new shoes don’t match the old shoes. It takes him an hour, but he gets it done and hands them back as Cancellara leaves the dining room.
This, apparently, is what it takes to win the Tour of Flanders.
Coffee ends with Phil showing me pictures of great motorcycles of the ’70s and insisting I see Straw Dogs, a Sam Peckinpah film from that era. Quite how we’ve arrived here I couldn’t say, but such is the magic of Cyclefit. Jules slips away, quietly, and pays for our drinks.