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The use of physiotherapists, chiropractors, osteopaths and other therapists has become commonplace in cycling over the past decade or so, and it seems increasingly evident that biomechanical experts will be increasingly be added to that list of essential backroom staff.
Their role is not so much one of ensuring that a rider is in fit enough shape to compete, but one of making sure that the rider is in the ideal position on the bike to produce peak performance and is also optimising the use of their muscles; also, that the power generated by those muscles is being delivered efficiently through the pedals and the bike to guarantee optimum speed for the effort produced.
Over the past few days, some key members of the Illes Balears-Caisse d'Epargne team, including Tour de France stage-winners Alejandro Valverde and Oscar Pereiro, have been at bike manufacturer Pinarello's headquarters in Treviso, Italy, ostensibly to discuss their set-up for time trials. However, whereas the use of wind tunnels to optimise a rider's time trialling position is becoming commonplace, Illes Balears have been following another route, by working with Italian biomechanical expert Alessandro Mariano.
The theory behind this strategy is simple. Wind tunnel work might make a rider more aerodynamic, but any change in position could also make them more inefficient in terms of power output - the bonus of less drag through the air could be cancelled out by less power being generated by the muscles. Consequently, a balance needs to be sought.
Balears team manager Eusebio Unzue has been an interested observer of the tests done this week on Valverde, Pereiro and team-mates Ivan Gutierrez and Vladimir Karpets. Admitting to one Spanish paper that he had been "a bit of doubting Thomas", Unzue has been won over, confessing "seeing is believing".
"We have got no idea how much they will improve or how much time they will gain in time trial as a result of these tests, but we are sure they are going to help the riders in future," Unzue told AS.
The tests are undertaken first on a static bike and then on the rider's racing bike. In each case, sensors are attached to key muscles and data about the use of these muscles is fed back to a computer. After assessment is made, minor adjustments can be made to the rider's set-up - for instance, by changing the saddle height or position, the bars, and the position of pedal cleats. The tests are then run again, with the focus being on working towards developing optimal performance.
In Valverde's case, the tests revealed he puts more load on his cuadriceps muscles in his legs rather than the femoral muscles at the back of the thigh. Very slight - and they should always be so to avoid the possibility of injury - adjustments were made and Valverde could almost immediately feel the benefit.
"We try to ensure that the muscle groups in the two legs work in the same way," Mariano told Marca. This led to changes in the position of Valverde's cleats, and also his saddle height and position. While the move of the cleats worked well, Valverde was immediately unhappy with his saddle height, and the next load of data subsequently backed up his concern as his performance had worsened. But eventually Mariano was able to correct the imbalance in the use of his legs - 65% of the effort coming from his right leg, and 35% from his left. The discrepancy was even greater for Pereiro, and this imbalance tends to lead to injuries and pain in the lower back. Does this sound familiar?
Other interesting points were also highlighted. According to Unzue, world time trial silver medallist Gutierrez "has a very aerodynamic position, but he is not correctly making use of some of the muscles in his legs. Sometimes a rider's best position isn't the most aerodynamic," Unzue explained.
The ultimate goal, of course, is for Pinarello to build bikes that optimises the riders' performance, so that they can give as close to 100% of what they have in their legs. The tests also help iron out inconsistencies in set-up that can lead to injury, which is no bad thing when remembering the severe knee tendinitis that forced Valverde out of this year's Tour.
Coincidentally, the Classic Climbs feature in the new December issue of procycling focuses on the services offered by biomechanical expert Tania Cotton as part of the Chamonix-based GPM10's rides in the Alps. Procycling staffer Peter Cossins is an enthusiastic convert to the philosophy, having benefited from much reduced backache and greater power output. Get the December issue for more details or contact GPM10 through their website for more information on their trips and consultancies with Tania.
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