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Rod Ellingworth, Team Sky’s Performance Manager, has been at the heart of British Cycling’s success in both the velodrome and on the road. Having recently published Project Rainbow, a book about coaching the British team to victory at the World Championship Road Race in 2011, Rod spoke to us about working with Team Sky, and how lesser mortals should approach training in the off-season.
Will reading Project Rainbow help people learn how to be better cyclists?
Yeah, some parts will fit with some people. It doesn’t focus on training as such. It concentrates on planning to be as good as you can be; look at the challenges, what’s in the way of you achieving your goals. It’s about planning to get the best out of yourself. That’s a big part of coaching for me, identifying challenges and meeting them.
A revolution has taken place in British Cycling over recent years and you certainly seem to be playing your part.
I think I’d refer to it as a movement rather than a revolution. Being a part of that movement, moving the culture from a nation of time-trialling and turning it to the success on the track with the Olympics and then the road side of things.
You grew up in a traditional British cycling culture. That must have been quite a contrast with Team Sky’s cutting-edge approach?
My experience is the old school of cycling but people were doing things well before computers and power cranks. It’s more about tweaking things to improve, not vastly changing them. I try and work with sports scientists and the riders, getting people motivated, being the glue between team members. It’s about bringing different people together and making a cohesive whole.
You seem to have a very good rapport with all the riders.
I think it comes down to hard work. I always work hard for people, show commitment and they respect you for that. Especially with the young guys, I try to teach them about discipline, that they can do it, and be honest with them.
Presumably it’s about communicating your own work ethic to the riders?
It doesn’t matter what level you’re at, whether you’re a club racer or a professional, what you put in is what you’ll get out. Commit to your training and it’ll pay off.
If you can only give one piece of training advice, what is it?
Identify what your challenge is. For example, what’s going to stop you doing that 100-mile ride? That one question can then be broken down; have you trained, eaten enough before hand, do you have the right equipment. Are you ready?
What’s the key characteristic you see in all the best riders you work with?
I think it’s that they absolutely love it. They love riding and all the guys are prepared to work hard and put the time in on the bike.
Presumably you tailor training regimes for each individual rider?
Yes, they’ll do different things, different kinds of sessions for a mountain climber versus a cobbled Classic rider. They need a different set of tools for the particular races they target, so we try to individualise as best we can. We’ll do large blocks of training together but within them we’ll individualise the training drills.
Are there methods to change a rider’s physiology for particular events. Like Cavendish for the Olympic road race in 2012?
Well, for that it was about getting him to the line, where obviously we all know he can perform in the sprint. So, getting over Box Hill nine times we had to get his weight down, which is something Mark, like some other riders, have trouble with. We gave him a graph, with a selection of powers versus weights, and he picked a weight and targeted getting to that power-to-weight ratio. He was less than 0.1 kilo off that and produced a little more power but he was still doing the same kinds of things in his training.
Do you find some riders are poor when it comes to training but perform well on race day, or is that a thing of the past?
No, I don’t think it happens any more. Some riders don’t get as much out of training as they do racing; Cav might be someone who doesn’t like training that much, but he still puts the work in. There are also ‘king trainers’, who are fantastic at training and produce world-class numbers but don’t translate that into racing. That’s obviously a mental thing.
Is that part of your job as well, to help them address that and motivate them?
Yes, we try and do as much assessment as possible to find out where a rider can improve. But all the riders I work with love riding bikes, they’re ambitious people.
How important is rider input when it comes to setting goals?
Yes, I’ve just come out of a session with Ian Stannard and Ben Swift where we assess what they want to achieve next season. It’s not down to the coach, it’s down to the riders and for them to identify what their dreams and ambitions are. It’s not my life, it’s their life, so it’s the coach’s job to ask them how they’ll achieve those ambitions.
So, what are the winter training plans for Team Sky?
Well, at the moment we’re in the review phase, looking at feedback from the season and deciding what we continue to do, what we stop doing and how to tweak things for the new season. Once that’s done we’re planning over a six-week period. For the riders, some are just getting back on their bikes after time off and others are just finishing. To get ready to race we say, “get yourself ready to train”.
So that involves steady endurance work. Building the base over November and December, then building more hours on top. At the moment they’ll be doing between 3 – 6 hours per day. However Ben Swift is looking to improve his peak power, doing short, sharp sessions working on his sprints. Then he’ll add into that more volume training. Then in January we’ll do race specific training.
What motivates you?
Working here at BC. I’m sitting right now at the top of the Manchester Velodrome [British Cycling’s headquarters]. It’s a hive of activity, the place is full of lots of motivated, professional people. You’ll see the likes of Ian Stannard and Ed Clancy walking down the corridor. People with the discipline to achieve Olympic medals and be part of Tour de France-winning teams, how can you not be inspired by that.
Is it good to mix it up a bit in the off-season?
Yes, definitely. Some riders might vary things, with a little bit of mountain biking, while other riders will spend time in the gym. Everybody’s different so some guys will go running. It’s only a short window, so this is certainly the time to do that sort of thing.
So, what advice would you give at this time to amateur riders and racers heading into the winter training months?
Get out on your club runs or group rides with the cafe stops and enjoy riding the bike. Prepare for the bad weather with the right equipment, mudguards, new tyres and so on. Do a few turbo sessions in the evening if needs be when you don’t have time to get out. Then, in January and February, add more intensity and ensure you are getting the best out of the hours you’ve got.
You’ll be going out to Mallorca and Lanzarote in December and January to train, would you recommend getting out to warmer climates?
Oh definitely, it really helps to get the optimum conditioning for the season. If the weather’s really bad sometimes you just can’t go out on the bike. That’s why we make the camps flexible for riders to come and go. But saying that, if you do go on a training camp be careful not to absolutely smash it doing a 25-hour week and then come back sick and miss two weeks.
What would you say to people who’ve had a bad season and want to improve in the next?
Look at the reasons you’ve had a bad season; what did you do right and what did you do wrong. Talk to others and assess how you might get back into a rhythm. Importantly, do the training that suits you. Just make sure you get out on the bike and enjoy it.