For those of you who are unfamiliar, Dr. Sassi is one of the most respected coaches in cycling and has contributed significantly the sport. He first began coaching athletes in 1982 and helped Francisco Moser with his bid for the Hour Record. He is the former director of the Mapei Training Center in Italy and has also written a book (in Italian) ”Dalla parte del ciclismo. Etica dello sport, nuove tecniche di allenamento e lotta al doping” (“Ethics of sport training techniques and new anti-doping”).
Dr. Sassi is currently in Geelong this week for the World Championships. I had originally planned to conduct this interview over the phone but was privileged enough to have caught up with him in person yesterday morning.
Welcome to Australia Dr Sassi. Are you here as a fan or as a coach?
I’m here because of Mapei.We are the main sponsor of the World Championship so I’m here for this business. We would like to use this opportunity to improve our presence in Australia.
Can you explain why the Italians in particular are so passionate about the World Championships versus many other professional races such as the Tour de France?
Because the WC is a jersey that will change the life of a rider in that it’s a victory that remains for all their life.
Have you taken a drive around the World Champs road race course yet?
Yes, I have seen the course by car, perhaps not all in the right sequence. I think it’s a good course, not too hard, not too easy. Not a course for a sprinter, but even not for a rider who would perform well on Mendrisio and Varese.
It’s not as hard of a course for riders like Cadel Evans. It’s not hard enough. There are climbs that are quite short and quite lactic. This doesn’t mean that the race couldn’t be hard because the riders are which make the race hard. Not the course.
Which part of the course do you think the deciding selection will take place?
I think that the final deciding section will be the last kilometer and a half and the final corner. There will probably be 4-6 riders left at that point and the race will still be open.
I’d like to spend a bit of time asking a few questions about your coaching philosophies. What have you seen change in the training techniques and principals throughout the years you’ve been coaching?
Training has become more specific and more focused on the several aspects. There’s more and more on physiological analysis of the measured quality of the athlete. In the 20′s it was to replay the habits of the champion. Then in the 50′s and 60′s in Europe we started a school which studied the physiological demand of the different specifics that developed training methods to stimulate the physiological aspect.
Strangely, the United States is the most advanced in science of cycling, but they are very very late in the introduction to translate this knowledge into training methods.
Was there a time in the past when EPO was very prevalent where you felt you were perhaps wasting yours and your athletes time because you couldn’t compete without drugs?
Also today there are riders that cheat perhaps. I was lucky to have found some athletes that trusted me and wanted to be ethical in the hope that things would change. And eventually in the last few years things are changing. In my opinion the growth of Cadel Evans at the international level is not due to his physiological and professional growth, but is due to normalization of the rest of the cycling domain. Because, when I met him and tested him for the first time in the lab, I suddenly understood that he was the first true stage race riders I had dealt with until that moment.
To what do you attribute the recent success of Australian cyclists? Is this due to that normalization of the other riders as a consequence of the sport cleaning up?
No, this is a a different question. The recent success of Australian cycling is due to the level of the organization [AIS] which has no comparison anywhere else in the world. And also, so big organization ….which is the beauty of the cyclist and to allow for their development
The 6.2watts/kg is a figure that’s been talked about (Science Of Sport and Greg LeMond) since you mentioned it in the Giro d’Italia. You’ve stated that it is the limit at which a rider’s performance is plausible. Do you think that monitoring performance on devices such as powermeters can help in the detect possible drug use?
Too high of a performance can be a element to suspect of unphysiological performance and doping. The problem is how to measure the performance through biomechanics. You have to make estimations, and do to an estimation you always have 3-4% error. If instead you use a power meter, you need to check the calibration of each rider. Otherwise you could have the same errors in the measurement.
What are the physiological traits in riders who get stronger in the final week of the Grand Tour versus those whose performance diminishes?
The capability to be performing well in the final week is a individual characteristic of the athlete. But also the previous work done in the season. In one year we hadn’t expected to match [the TdF] to a rider like Mick Rogers who did very strong at ATOC. So he was at the top of his form for a long time. And you have to aim for the TdF and you have to move your training towards that. It depends on the physiological characteristics but also the decision and planning.
Do you believe Alberto Contador can win 3 Grand Tours in a season like he has set out to do?
Contador is superb. I think that he could win 3 in a season. But such a performance should be certified by additional program of anti-doping control and physiological survey.
Elite cyclists need to constantly push the boundaries between optimal and too much training. What markers do you use as an indication of over-reaching/ overtraining?
There’s a check that my athletes have to do day by day. By looking to how they respond to daily training, by talking to the athlete, by evaluating their perceived exertion in relation to the effort that they’ve done. But the main thing is talking to the athlete. Then there are other methods such as the evaluation of their mood state which is related to the situation in which overtraining can occur.
How much influence do you have on someone like Cadel’s training program? Do you tell him what to do every single day or do you simply guide him in his training regime?
It depends on the period. I would prefer to suggest his work for every single day, but anyway he’s able to evaluate my suggestion and to discuss and to retain the things that he feels at the moment are good for him. You have to treat elite riders in this way because you want to retain a space of freedom to chose base on his perception.
Who is an emerging upcoming talent in the Grand Tours that you see?
Porte, Richie Port. Ricco [Ricardo] would be one of the strongest. Unfortunately he did to many mistakes and now it’s too late to recover from that. (CT: note this article in cyclingnews today)
In stage 8 of this years’ Tour de France Lance Armstrong rode his “I Ride For…” bike in your honor. Reaction? What was your reaction to Armstrong’s gesture?
I appreciated this dedication to me because i know that Lance may have done wrong things to gain his tours, as many other riders did in that period. But with that he’s doing [good] against cancer to overcome over this possible limitation. I understand this now…
Thank you so much for your time Dr. Sassi. I’m getting hungry. You want to go for breakfast?
Video From New Pathways In Pro Cycling Conference
Dr. Sassi also attended the New Pathways In Pro Cycling conference at Deakin University on Monday and Tuesday. He did so as a observer, not a presenter. I’ll talk more about the conference in more detail next week, but I’d just like to say that it was extremely enlightening. It talked about some of the root causes to the problems in cycling such as the lack of economic fundamentals of the sport and the sociology of the peloton. Dr. Sassi was vocal in his opinions and had some profound things to say that I was able to crudely record on video. Apologies for the quality, but it’s what he has to say that is important. Make sure you listen to this.
Aldo Sassi talks about how the definition of doping has changed over the years and what needs to be done to counteract the problem:
Aldo Sassi talks about team management’s responsibilities and expands on the 6.2 watts/kg performance figure:
Aldo Sassi speaks to Floyd Landis and about his new-found responsibilities: