Ciarán O’Grady is a performance coach and sports scientist for the UCI World Tour professional team NTT Pro Cycling and operates The Big Chainring, providing sports science and coaching services worldwide. Ciarán holds a Master’s degree in Sports Science from University of Kent in England and is in the final stages of completing a PhD on individualised training methodologies in cycling.
Here he takes us through the teams year to date.
The 2020 season kicked off with a great start for NTT Pro Cycling, which was really motivating to see as it reflected a lot of hard work put into place by the whole team. We had two training camps over the winter where we got to know the new riders and staff members and knuckled down with some very good quality training. Our #OneTeam mindset shone through all the time, with our communication both in-person and online showing some super team spirit.
The first victory came with Giacomo Nizzolo winning Stage 5 in Tour Down Under, which was the product of a plan that involved the whole team and required full commitment. It was clear to see that we were starting off the year in a good place.
Victories and further results came thick and fast; we had three victories in a 24-hour period with Ben O’Connor riding to victory in Stage 4 at Etoile de Bessèges, followed by Max Walscheid taking the top spot in Stage 3 of Tour de Langkawi, and finished off by Ryan Gibbons grabbing the victory at the South African National Championships. Walscheid had also won the opening criterium at Tour de Langkawi, claimed the victory in Stage 8, as well as the overall points classification. It wasn’t even halfway through February, so we were over the moon.
The next major success came from Giacomo Nizzolo winning the team’s first ever stage in Stage 2 of Paris-Nice on a cold and windy day. This was the last race that was contested by the team before the lockdown, so to come away from it with a victory and another good morale boost was very helpful.
It was clear from all the races that we were performing better as a team, both within each race and as a wider group with all our staff and partners worldwide.
When the racing shut down there was lots of uncertainty about how long the period of disruption would be. We had extensive discussions with the team management, coaches, sports directors, and doctors in order to determine what would be our course of action. It was important that we made a decision that was agreed upon across the team and showed solidarity.
We incorporated team-led training sessions and races on Zwift and focused the training of the riders on some fundamental pillars that would lead to success when racing resumed later in the year. Our plan was to knuckle down and get to work, and then when we had brought our level up even further, to take a step back and assess before the racing would start again. Having a clear strategy like this really gave direction for the riders and staff, and meant that we were not sitting around not knowing what to do.
The first few months of lockdown was still pretty tricky, with some riders able to train outside with no restrictions, and others having to spend all their time cooped up in apartments. As a coaching group we worked hard on making sure that we were delivering the right amount of training and support to the riders. Our technological solutions such as the Phila app, our wellness monitoring systems, allowed us to see metrics and data on a day-by-day basis throughout this period. Leveraging the data we were gathering was such an important part of getting through that period; we could clearly see when a rider was starting to slump in motivation and could intervene and get back on track.
In addition to the more social Zwift races held every week, we also took part in two officially sanctioned virtual races; the Virtual Tour de Suisse and the Zwift Tour for All. The Zwift Tour for All was definitely a major success for NTT Pro Cycling, and allowed us to demonstrate that we are on a high level physically, but also display the strength of our communication and integration as a team. We ended the Zwift Tour for All with the overall win, two stage wins, multiple podiums and lots of top-10 positions, so it was a great race all-round.
As soon as the new 2020 race calendar came out it was an incredibly nice feeling to have targets and goals in the training plans. With the season being pretty compact it is clear that the vast majority of the pre-race fine-tuning needs to be done before the first race numbers are pinned on. The time between races will be for recovery and the fine-tuning ahead of specific races. The preparation work that we had been doing throughout the lockdown will hopefully result in riders that are ready to go throughout the whole season.
The second half of the 2020 season will be nothing like we are normally used to. In addition to the rules and regulations surrounding COVID-19, we will be having races in different orders and at wildly differing times of year. This will present some interesting challenges and opportunities that we hope to make the most of.
The lockdown period will have an obvious impact on the remainder of the 2020 season; it’s not normal at all to have an extended break from training just as things were building up through the spring races. The riders who were forced onto Zwift for all of their training won’t have any disadvantage if their training was planned properly; by careful planning of volume and intensity we can make sure to still hit the targets that we want. Now that most countries are allowing outside cycling, the riders who spent extended periods of time on the indoor trainer are now able to get their legs opened up outside ahead of the races.
At NTT Pro Cycling, the COVID-19 situation and associated lockdown has continued to bring us together as a team; from having weekly Saturday morning calls as a whole team to participating in team-wide challenges such as our recent NTT Partner Challenge. It’s so nice to still be able to communicate and engage with people you previously only saw during races and training camps!
If your goal events for this year have been cancelled and you’re finding your motivation down in the dumps, this can be a great time to reconnect to why you started cycling in the first place. Whether that was going for long exploratory rides, or super-fast short smash-fests, bringing back some of those rides into your weekly riding.
Connecting with friends and family through cycling is a great way of getting back into cycling training without needing huge amounts of motivation. Having catch-ups on Zoom and Zwift have been a regular part of my cycling over the lockdown period and have continued even when I’ve been able to cycle outside.
When you are planning training towards whenever your events are rescheduled to, just remember to think with the long-term in mind. Training extremely intensely for a single goal may be very rewarding for that goal, but it could scupper your chances of having several good performances across a longer period of time. If you have no events planned for 2020, but are eyeing up events in 2021, then use the rest of this year to focus on aspects of your training that need work, such as; on-bike nutrition, bike handling, cadence work, core training, and so on. Having more preparation time before your next events will leave you with ample amounts of time to try things out!
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