Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Chris Carmichael, the year 7-11


American super-coach Chris Carmichael is best known for guiding Lance Armstrong to 7 straight Tour de France victories, but there's far more to the story than pulse meters and Watt counters; Chris was a top class pro in his day, and 25-years ago he was part of the fledgling 7-11 team, who changed the cycling decor forever when they became the first ever US team to take part in the greatest race on earth - The Tour de France.
We caught up with Chris before this year's great race kicked off;

BNA - What was your very first impression when you showed up at the Tour in 86?

CC - By that point I’d raced the Tour of Italy and the Classics, so we were used to crowds and big races, but the Tour de France took everything we’d experienced at other races and took it up a few notches. You could feel the excitement, and you could also tell that even the best riders were a bit nervous. The guys who also seemed calm before the start were visibly on edge, and I remember finding that interesting. It was the biggest race of the year, then and now, and that level of excitement and anticipation is hard to replicate before any other race.

BNA -  As rookies what was the atmosphere like after the yellow by Alex and then the stage win?

CC - We were ecstatic! Ever since we’d started racing in Europe we – North Americans as a group – had endured a lot of criticism and skepticism inside and out of the peloton. We were told we didn’t belong, that we should go home, that we weren’t good enough/strong enough/tough enough to succeed in Europe. When Alex won yellow on the first ride of the first day of our first appearance at the biggest race in the sport, it was a giant stake in the ground that proclaimed we here to stay. It was a huge morale boost, but of course we were young and inexperienced and that great feeling didn’t last through the afternoon!

BNA - What was the biggest shock, and toughest part of that experience for you?

CC - The biggest shock was losing the yellow jersey later the same day. It was a split stage, meaning there was a team time trial later the same day. We were excited and happy, but in the process we were careless and failed to prepare for the time trial. In the excitement of the podium and interviews afterward, Alex didn’t eat, and as a team we didn’t pull together quickly enough to get focused on the time trial. As you know, things didn’t go well in that time trial and we ended up crashing, dropping Alex, and generally making a mess of things. We lost the jersey just hours after getting it; it was a huge shock, a big roller coaster of a day.
The toughest part of the Tour for me was the Pyrenees. I had a stomach bug and I couldn’t keep anything down. Those mountains are really hard to race through when you’re at full power, and I was completely empty. I didn’t want to leave the Tour, I wanted to ride into Paris; but in the Pyrenees I reached the point where I just couldn’t go on.

BNA - What is your biggest personal racing regret and satisfaction from those early 7-11 days?

CC -I get the greatest satisfaction out of the relationships that I developed during those years. I still have great friends from 7-11 as well as other teams from those days. In terms of regret, I don’t really have any. I may have had some years ago, but time has changed my perspective on my professional career. Everything that came before is what has led me to the life I have now, and I love my life. So even though there were some bumps in the road, I wouldn’t change a thing.

BNA - With your coaching status now how do you see the way you used to train,eat,  race and prepare back at that time, and were the team really ready for such a race?

CC - The team was ready and we were as physically prepared as we could be. Like today, there were teams of varying strengths in the race, and I think we ranked somewhere in the middle. We didn’t have any experience at the Tour de France, but as a team of riders were neither the strongest nor the weakest in the field. Training, nutrition, and recovery practices have changed a lot since 1986, so we probably weren’t performing at as high a percentage of our full capacity as we could have using today’s practices and technologies, but we were as fit and ready as any other team at the race. Perhaps what is more interesting to think about is how much faster the top riders of my day could have been if we knew then what we know now about physiology, training, power meters, nutrition, and recovery?

BNA - At the time did you realize how significant that ride by the team would be?

CC - At the time it was the accomplishment we’d all been working toward for years, and we had an idea that it was important because we were the first American team in the race, but we were all very young. At some level it was another race to compete in, and there would be another one after it. When you’re a young rider, you think your career is going to last forever and if things don’t go your way this season you can make up for it next season. I know I didn’t think that 1986 was going to be my only Tour de France, but that winter I broke my femur back-country skiing and I never made it back to the Tour as a rider.

BNA - If you and 7-11 hadn't been invited to ride how different do you think your future wand the international face of cycling would be now?

CC - We were an easily recognizable symbol of a much larger evolution in European cycling at the time. The influx of Americans, Canadians, Australians, and Kiwis, was unstoppable by 1986, so European cycling was going global whether we were invited to the 86 Tour or not. All the same, I think the 7-Eleven team played a role in inspiring the next generation of American cyclists, and I’ve always said it was a great experience to be part of that team.

BNA - How differently do you feel about having ridden the Tour yourself and coaching a multi Tour winner - which is most satisfying?

CC - I don’t think there’s any doubt that I’ve accomplished more as a coach than I did as a rider. I was a good rider and I did my training, did my job for the team in the races, etc., but there were guys who were stronger and faster than me. I think I’ve had the opportunity to be more successful as a coach because of the type of rider I was. But in terms of satisfaction or fulfillment, the athletic and coaching sides are very closely connected for me, so I don’t know that I can choose one over the other.

BNA - How much has your personal experience in that Tour played a part in the coaching of LA?

CC -  I think my personal experience as a professional cyclist has been instrumental in my success in coaching cyclists as well as elite athletes in other sports. In cycling my own experience led me to believe that young American riders needed to get over to Europe for training and racing, and when I started working with US Cycling in the early 90s I took team of young riders, including Armstrong and George Hincapie, to Europe. They were kids, but so was I when I first went overseas as an amateur. It was a great learning experience, and I think we’ve seen in more recent years that the US U23 program based in Izegem, Belgium, has been quote successful in helping to cultivate young US talent.

BNA - Looking at the riders and races of your day compared to now what are the stand-out differences - and are things tougher now?

CC - The overall performance level has come up significantly, meaning that today’s domestiques are closer to the performance level of the team stars than they were in my day. And the impact of that is huge, because it means the depth of talent within teams is greater. More riders start big races with a legitimate chance of winning, and more riders have to be considered potential threats when they go up the road in breakaways.

BNA - Having been so involved with the Tour on both sides, if you could change 1 thing about how it/grand tour racing is from an athletes point of view what would it be, and do you think the race is humane?

CC - Grand Tour racing is hard, and will be extremely hard no matter what changes you make to it. There are a lot of politically-charged topics around potential changes to Grand Tour racing, but without getting into those and thinking about day-to-day life during a Grand Tour from a riders’ standpoint, making an effort to reduce the length and difficulty of the transfers would be a positive step. To race hard for four to seven hours day after day is hard, and adding two and three hour post-stage transfers to the mix makes it difficult for riders to recovery properly and perform the following day. They deal with it quite well, but it’s telling that riders are absolutely elated on the rare occasion they get to sleep in the same hotel – only a few kilometers from the finish - two nights in a row.

BNA - How do you feel about the way the team and US bike racing evolved after that time?

CC -  I can’t speak for my teammates, but at the time I certainly didn’t think amateur and professional cycling would eventually rise to such prominence in this country. A huge number of factors have influenced the growth of cycling in the US, from successes in big races overseas to iconic sports figures, the rise of live television coverage of European racing and 24-hour internet coverage of cycling worldwide, and the advancing age of Baby Boomers who are turning to cycling because it’s a lower-impact way to stay fit and competitive. The 7-Eleven Team played a role in getting the ball rolling, and in the intervening decades the growth of cycling in the US has been fed by many complementary sources.

BNA - Do you think the the atmosphere and camaraderie that existed in 7-11 is still around these days, or are things more clinical these days?

CC - The camaraderie is largely still there, but we’re all a lot older these days. A few of the guys are still racing: Alexi Grewal and Raul Alcala are making comebacks! Most of us are still active in the sport in some way, and most of us are still in reasonable condition. Getting together with the group is a lot of fun. We harass each other like we used to and retell old racing stories, but we also have families and kids and careers, and now we get to harass each other about those things too!

You can find out more about Chris's training services at www.trainright.com