Allen Lim is Mr. Everything for team Garmin/Slipstream, the man responsible for coaching to rice cakes and performance innovations like ice vests and space boots.
I had a nice long talk with Allen, starting with the issue that brought him to international prominence – his relationship with Floyd Landis.
Allen Lim: What do you want to talk about?
Andy Shen: A lot of tech stuff, actually, but I’d be remiss not to talk about Floyd a little bit. Is that ok with you?
AL: Yeah, that’s fine.
AS: To this day, do you have an opinion on what the truth is, on that day?
AL: It’s hard, you know? Basically, I…that’s a funny way to phrase the question, ‘the truth of that day’, I don’t know what the truth is, frankly. It’s still as much of a mystery to me as anyone. That being said, Floyd is a great guy, he’s a dear friend, and I only wish the best for him. And I think what happened with Floyd, my experience with him, it really inspired a lot of what we do with this program, so I hope that we can put it behind us and look forward to real positive things in the future and use it as an example for good things to come. In the end, I really and truly believe that your chances of winning clean are far greater than if you’re not clean. The human machine is really intelligent. Drugs are a way that scared athletes try to modify certain aspects of their physiology, but they don’t address the whole. It’s like putting bigger intakes in your car without changing the exhaust, or putting bigger wheels on without changing the suspension. At some point, the modifications don’t help at all and the whole machine just breaks down.
AS: I read that piece Paul Kimmage did on you…
He came at you both barrels blazing, basically accused you of being his supplier. You wanna go on record and clear that up?
AL: Yeah, it’s really funny. Paul is a great guy, and I’m really close friends with Paul. I wouldn’t say that he accused me of anything, let alone being Floyd’s supplier. I’m not even a medical doctor. So it came across as him grilling the shit outta me, eh?
AL: I think he’s just doing his job and I don’t harbor anything against it. But to clear the air, I was not Floyd’s supplier, I didn’t see Floyd do anything unethical or wrong when I worked with him. It’s funny, after Paul grilled me, I was like, “Paul, you know my situation coming out of grad school, going to work with Floyd?”
And he’s like, “No.”
A lot of doping is about economics, and that year that I went to work with Floyd, my dad had just passed away. I was in grad school, just finished, bitter, tired, just needed a break. I was about to move back in with my mom, and just spend some time to reassess, when Floyd offered me this opportunity to go to Europe with him. And that first year, he only paid me, like, 7000 dollars to do all that work with him. And I basically just went and hung out in Europe and had this great experience.
The same was true in 2006, I think I was paid a total of 5 grand or something, working for Floyd. The majority of my salary was coming out of coaching the TIAA-CREF development team. So, in terms of a conspiracy, me being his supplier, for the people who know me well and know my situation there, it’s all kind of funny. Kimmage or anyone else who saw me in that light, it’s really surprising. Sorta funny, but perhaps understandable, given how intimate I was with his data and his information. To that point too, there was a whole network of individuals helping Floyd out that year. Robbie Ventura was doing coaching as well for Floyd, I was Floyd’s power analysis guy, physiologist, that was the role I played. There was certainly a whole team, staff, and so I’m both flattered and embarrassed that I get singled out for either his success or his demise.
AS: When Kimmage saw the performance, his first thought was “he’s a doper”. But you saw the numbers and you knew that it was normal for him, to be able to do a day like that, right?
AL: I knew it was consistent with what I’d seen him do in training, the power values I had for him both for training and racing. It was not a fluke in terms of, “Hey, why don’t you just attack and see what happens?” It was a very well thought out, well planned out day in terms of what I knew he had to do on the climbs. We had that discussion in the morning, that he had to do around 370-390 watts per climb to stay even with the pack. We knew that was well within his capacity, well within his threshold for a series of 20 to 30 minute efforts. We also knew he had to descend like a madman to make up time. He wasn’t going to make up time on the peloton in the climbs, which is a very physiologically demanding task. He would make it up on the descents and the rest of the course, and that was going to be highly dependent on his skill and his savvy.
And the last thing we knew was that temperature was going to be an issue, and the environment was going to be an issue, and that if we were able to figure out a way to keep him really cool that would be a significant advantage. The way I put it to Floyd that morning was if you rode in 65, 70 degree weather all day, and the rest of the peloton rode in 100 degree weather, and could only access 15-20 bottles during that time, do you think you could beat the pack? And the answer was a definitive yes, and that was the strategy behind him dumping all that water over himself.
AS: Until the Kimmage article, I hadn’t heard that talked about nearly as much. Was that something that just occurred to you, something you’d always wanted to try, or something you’d done before?
AL: I find it surprising that people are surprised by it, because in the world of environmental physiology, or sport physiology, everyone knows that thermal regulation, heat regulation, is probably the great limiting factor. The human is only 22, 25% efficient, so if you’re burning 100 calories, 75 of that is going into heat, and your body needs to dissipate that. The primary mechanism is through sweat and blood, literally, having hot blood come up to your periphery, and sweat allowing your body to cool that blood.
The problem is now you’ve got this issue of distributing blood to deliver oxygen to do work, versus delivering blood to cool your body off. And so, our athletes, they burn, they’re able to consume and produce so much energy, that the heat mode is tremendous. A guy who’s doing a steady state of 400 watts, which is well within the realm of possibility for an hour for a lot of these guys, they’re producing a total net of 1600 watts, and 1200 of those watts is heat, and needs to be dissipated. So if you can cool that person off you significantly improve performance. In fact, the literature is chock full of elite athletes producing higher threshold values, higher VO2max values, when they’re exercising in near freezing temperatures.
AL: What’s really funny to me, if you’ve ever ridden on a hot day, you can feel that oppression of that heat, and you’re able to pour ice cold water over yourself, you immediately feel better. I don’t think you need to be a scientist to figure that one out.
AS: I guess cooling is a big thing for you, between the ice vest, fans…
AL: Absolutely. When you think about cardiac output and blood flow and blood delivery as the holy grail of endurance sports, between delivering oxygen and cooling oneself off, well, in the doping world, there’s always the issue of delivering more oxygen. In my world I say, “Ok, how are we going to cool this athlete off so that the body can actually take care of itself?” I think it makes a lot of sense, it’s the other half of the equation that I think people don’t pay a lot of attention to.
AS: All the controversy aside, it did seem like you and Floyd were a very good symbiotic coach/athlete pair. He was very talented, and very open to your ideas.
AL: That’s true with all the athletes I work with. That’s true with all the Americans and all the English speaking athletes. It’s largely about culture and trust. I think people see that in Floyd, in the sense that it was public, they might see that symbiosis. I gotta tell you, working for Garmin, I’ve never been in the situation where, compared to Floyd, the situation on this team, how open the guys are, how willing they are to learn and try new things, it’s really incredible. Not only do we have the most physically talented team, we have the smartest team in the world.
That’s certainly borne out of the culture of American innovation, the way American embrace technology. When you go to Europe, when the Blackberry was getting popular, the only people using Blackberries in Europe were Americans. You could almost spot the Americans by who had a Blackberry. It’s interesting culturally how into innovation and technology Americans are compared to Europeans or other cultures.
AS: So you don’t run into any of the guys saying “I just want to ride by feel, don’t give me all those numbers?”
AL: Not that it’s a problem. I actually, believe it or not, encourage guys to train by feel, listen to their intuition as much as possible. In fact, I’m almost the guy on the team who’s more into the guys telling me how they feel, what are their sensations, what do they perceive, what are they thinking, how’d that last interval set feel? The key here is that when you get the guys to really think about feel in an organized fashion, and you’re able to give the feedback of those numbers and testing and all that science in tandem, then what ends up happening is that they actually learn how to train themselves, they learn how to coach themselves. They learn how to understand what their body needs at any given moment. Because the fact of the matter is, we don’t have them wired for sound the entire time, and the power meter and other technologies really just give us a sense of the output. There’s still a big black box in between whatever comes in and whatever comes out. So the athletes and their ability to articulate is really the little black box that helps us put the pieces together. The whole “I just want to train by feel” has never been a problem, because I encourage that.
But what I do say is, “Hey, we’re going to train by feel, we’re going to train by intuition, but you’re going to teach me as much about what your body says to you as I hope to teach you”. But we’re going to use technology to make sure we have an objective stance about what we’re thinking. We have a history, a frame of reference, that allows us to continue to learn and organize in a constructive and efficient manner.
AS: How much do you monitor the riders? How many of them do you coach?
AL: I primarily work with the Tour guys, oversee their program. I’ve kinda stepped away from writing programs, because it doesn’t suit my philosophical approach. My philosophical approach, even with the guys that I do coach, is to make them write training programs for me, for themselves. If they say, “What should I do next week?”, I’ll say, “Hey, dude, write me a program. What do YOU think?”, you know? And they’ll write a program and I’ll end up editing it. And I’ll end up being Socratic with them, in terms of saying, “Why the hell do you want to do this?”, or “This makes no rational sense”, “If you can justify why you want to do this I might agree with you”, or “Have you thought about this?”
What’s it’s really akin to, when I was in grad school writing papers, it was never a situation where a professor wrote a paper for you, right? You did the work, you wrote the paper. But what those professors did, they did a great job of editing your work. So I’d submit a paper and he’d say “Gosh, your hypothesis here is totally wrong”, or “You have no real rationale here”, and I’d go back and re-craft it, and he’d re-edit it. He’d make me go through three or four runs before a piece of work was good.
I find the same thing happens with training programs. If they write the first draft we might go back and forth three or four times before we have a good program, and then I’ll finally give it back to them. But the great thing is because the athlete has gone through the editing process with me, because they were the ones who wrote it, if something comes up, if something changes, they can improv, they can adjust with a greater level of precision than if I had just written them a program and they didn’t understand what it meant.
AS: So if the roads ice over they know what to do indoors.
AL: Exactly. Anyone can write a program and have it work. It’s some weird dog ate my homework thing. We talk about the science of training, how can you really be precise if the language and the ideas haven’t been batted around to some high level. I won’t even say I coach guys any more, what I’ll say is I tell guys to write their own training programs and tell me what they think they want to do and I’ll help them from there. Also, I can’t always be in their heads or be in their bodies. When I was just with Floyd I could see him every single day and I could know what’s up. But outside, say, being with the Tour guys at training camp in the off season, it’s not like you’re living with them every single day.
AS: Lemond had, I don’t know if I fully understand it correctly, when Lemond was interrogating Lance, he had this concept where if you could monitor the performance, instead of worrying about testing for every new drug and trying to figure out what the new exotic drug is, if you could monitor the performance, you could see when things are not right. Or if someone suddenly does some watts per kilo that was previously humanly impossible…
AL: I think that he’s right, and I think that Catlin’s right. I think they’re both right. I think you need to have both. You need cause and effect, you need the stress and the strain, the dosage and the response. The power aspect is what happened, the testing is…the end result’s the response. And so, for example, if you see an increase in someone’s testosterone level or red blood cell mass, that may actually have nothing to do with drugs, it may have to do with more sleep or rest. For example, in the off season you’ll see these values come up when athletes are recovered. In season you tend to see them go down as the training load goes up. So I think that if you saw a situation where these values are going up and the power is also going way up, then you’d have a stronger rationale than having just one or the other.
So I’m actually working on a project right now where I’m putting that stuff on my site and the team’s site where we’ll have both power monitoring as well as our bio information. The theory is easy, but the technically the challenges are pretty immense in terms of the data base, in terms of the number generation, the graphing, the charting, the acquisition of the data, ensuring stuff gets downloaded… What seems like a simple idea has turned out to have a lot of technical challenges, but I’m hopeful that by this spring or summer we’ll be able to unveil this monitoring program on a pretty high level.
AS: Are you putting the actual numbers on the site or the methodology?
AL: Probably a little bit of both. I don’t think it needs to be more complicated than a little ticker, a stock market chart, if you will. I think a lot of market analysis, looking at a lot of different aspects as if they were currency, what currency values mean, that same math applies in terms of looking at regressive mean analysis, that same stuff applies to volume, intensity, it’s all the same type of jargon, except that it’s training value as opposed to currency.
AS: It’s another level of transparency towards racing clean?
AL: Yes, but also it’s a way to share information and to educate people, to educate my riders. I think I’m doing it selfishly to improve performance and to continue to teach my athletes how to be better at what they do. I also think that from a healthcare perspective there needs to be universal metrics to understand physical activity, as physical activity has such a huge role in long term health. If we could develop a system that could work, I think that the simplicity of a system or the goal of any system should be that it could work with any kind of activity whether it’s gardening or going for a little walk or riding the Tour de France. There’s no reason we can’t create a standard for that. So a lot of this also is my hope or my attempt to create a standard beyond cycling, I really feel there is this real need for improving how we interact with our health care system and how we take some personal responsibility for that.
AS: Let’s run through your equipment a little bit. Are you running the Powetap signals to the Garmin now?
AL: We are, we’ve been doing that since last year’s Tour de France. The specific programming that Garmin has done, is sprint zones, feed zones, distance to top of climbs, etc.
AS: In terms of pacing, doesn’t it have a feature where you’re essentially racing a dot on the screen?
AL: No, not yet. The hope in the future is that we’ll be able to see where all of our athletes are, and the guys can get perspective on breakaways and where their other teammates are. I think that can be a really unique feature. In so far as it’s telling you your ETA, your pace, the virtual pacer I don’t think is that big of a deal or that needed. The features that are ready, compared to not having any feature sets, is pretty incredible.
AS: It just seems, pacing in TT’s is such a big deal, if all you had to do was keep up with a dot on the screen and think about nothing else, it seems that would be a big advantage.
AL: It would be a big advantage. Here’s the thing I think people don’t get about pacing in TT’s. Pacing in TT’s is highly dependent on terrain profile. The idea is that you want to go harder, produce more power output on the sections of the course where you go slower. You want to ease off, allow your body to recover on sections of the course where you’re going faster. For example, if you’re going downhill at 55kph, and you try to produce 30 or 40 more watts, you wouldn’t go much faster because aerodynamic resistance is exponential, and power relative to speed is cubic, so that much more power maybe gets you incrementally smaller amounts of speed. Likewise, if you stop pedaling and you get in an aerodynamic tuck, you’re probably going faster than someone who’s producing 300-350 watts on a fast descent. In contrast, if you’re going up a hill where aerodynamic position doesn’t matter as much, 20 or 30 watts more, the amount of time you put on your competitors is immense. So what we try to teach the guys is the ability to go deep in the red on the climbs, just enough so they maintain momentum, and then they can recover on the downhill or fast sections.
It’s a really really tricky situation, ’cause now you’re dealing now with both aerobic energy contributions as well as anaerobic contributions. You’re dealing with a situation where you’re not just maximizing an athlete’s aerobic output, but that anaerobic side too. The mathematics of deciding how much anaerobic energy usage to use before a guy detonates is really tricky math and really tricky physiology. And so in theory, if we could figure out the physiological aspect better, we could get a pacer that literally tells an individual how hard to go on a climb and how easy to go on the descent to get the optimal time with the least amount of power.
We’re really far away from that now, so what we do in training is we do training intervals where the guys practice differenct scenarios and the guys start to learn what the pacing strategy needs to be. What I’ve seen is that it’s a lot easier to teach a guy over two or three months pacing strategy than it is to actually try to figure out the mathematics of it.
AS: So you basically get someone to feel it, as opposed to, on race day, just say “go 50 watts over threshold on the climbs”.
AL: Absolutely. We’d never say “go 50 watts over threshold” on race day, but I will say that in training. What people don’t appreciate is that all of this stuff happens in training. A lot of people think that we get tough on race day and that we’re in the best shape of our lives, and that we’re going to do these incredible performances. But what I’ve realized, in elite sport, you win on an average day, you don’t win on your best day per se. If you’ve never broken a four minute mile in training, you’re sure not going to break it in racing, it just doesn’t happen. So I try to get the guys to do these performances and experiment with these performances in training first. So we’ll say, “Let’s go 50 watts over threshold on all the climbs on this course, and let’s see what happens”. Two days later we’ll go and experiment at 25 watts, or we’ll experiment at 70 watts. So in so much as the scientific method is employed, experiment on the guys, we at least try to weed things out. It’s a bit methodical, hopefully at the end of the day the guys learn how they should pace on any kind of a course, how they feel, but that feel is strongly developed in experimentation and training.
AS: Winning all the TTT’s is a big goal for the team, and you’re one for one so far.
AL: Yeah, pressure’s on, eh? And not only that, we’re coming off two other big wins in the Tour of Italy last year and the Tour last year, so far since the Tour of Georgia we’ve won every TTT we’ve been in, so it’s a nice little streak right now.
AS: The one in Qatar was a road bike TTT.
AL: TTT’ing, all things being equal, all teams being on road bikes, it comes down to a lot of coordination, a lot of skill, how you use your team. It’s never in my opinion the strongest team that wins the TTT, it’s the team that works best together. It’s the team that finishes with everybody completely spent, and if you can figure a way for everyone to leave everything out on the road, then you’re going to have a good TTT.
I think one thing that distinguishes us in the TTT is that we’re always rotating. When we go training, it’s not just two by two, double paceline with guys taking five, ten minute pulls at a time. We’re constantly breaking up into smaller groups, constantly doing paceline drills and rotation, constantly doing TTT scenarios, not just on time trial bikes on time trial workouts, but on road bikes when we’re going on training rides as a group. In my opinion, if you have a training ride, you’ve got ten or fifteen guys and they’re just riding in a pack all day, that’s completely useless, they get no skills outta that. But if I can have all those guys lined up in a single paceline, running different scenarios, drills, talking about the wind, getting that kind of solid practice in, then it makes a difference on race day.
AS: Do you have a preference for a rotating double paceline or having riders taking longer pulls in a single line?
AL: There are very very few situations where the double paceline is faster. Almost always the single line pull is faster. The one caveat is if you have a very very homogenous team, where everybody’s of equal strength, and you’re going really fast. If speeds are very very high, and the team is completely equal, then the rotating might be faster. But it usually isn’t because when you rotate you end up riding down to your weakest link. When you ride in a single line you’re able to have the stronger riders take longer pulls and bring up the speed, and have the weaker guys take shorter pulls and maintain the speed.
AS: How do you figure out the sequencing of the riders?
AL: That’s mostly art, very little science. It’s mostly art because some guys are comfortable riding behind some other guys. It’s a bit of science from the perspective that you do want to line up guys in terms of size to optimize draft. You don’t want to put your biggest behind your smallest guy, unless that guy happens to be the strongest physiological athlete. If your smallest guy is the weakest maybe you’d want to do that. Other things to go into consideration include guys who are pace setters, so you don’t want all your fast pacesetters all clumped up together, you want to distribute them so the speed stays even. There are a number of considerations: draft, comfort, pace setters…
AS: Do you have a captain on the road, or do you just try to have the guys work it out together?
AL: It works out beforehand in training, so that when we go into a TTT the order’s already set. The guys have been practicing in that order for a good length of time before they even hit the race. So there’s nothing that happens in the race that isn’t already pre-choreographed. Even the most talented dancer has the whole thing choreographed.
AS: And you have it all worked out where, if so-and-so gets a flat we keep going, if so-and-so flats we wait? All that’s pre-planned?
AL: Absolutely! Especially things like that, do we wait for this guy, do we not wait for this guy? Who can take the kamikaze pull, who’s going to drop off, how many guys are we going to finish with, who’s going to take these corners, who’s going to take this section? A lot of it has to do with a lot of good recon-ing. We play scenarios all the time in training. We’ll make a scenario where, “this guy’s going to have a hard time”, let’s see how we adjust to it. Or, a guy’s going to take monster pulls, let’s see how we adjust to it. Or, Zabriskie’s just going to sit on today, let’s see how we adjust to it, you know?
AS: Am I correct that you try to mathematically predict finish times, you try to work out how everyone’s going to finish?
AL: I do a bit of modeling. Sometimes the models are really good, and you’re like, “Holy crap, physics, I love it!” Other times the models really suck because you forget about wind speed or direction or you have the wrong air density or you don’t account for the guys having bad tacos that morning. In so much it gives the guys a frame of reference about what to expect and about what we might need to do, it’s helpful. Especially if the teams are running slow times and the fast teams haven’t gone yet, and we think to ourselves, “Hey, let’s not get overconfident, the best teams are still going to run 36’s even though the teams are now just running 38’s, so we’re still going to run 36 pace”. So what I try to do is use all the information at hand.
There’s a lot of guessing involved, but the educated guesses are better than the ones where you lick your finger and stick it out the window. The most objective data is how your competitors are going, so how Columbia or Astana or CSC goes is always going to trump the mathematical model. But at least the math model gives the guys perspective coming into the race.
AS: In an ITT would you have an early guy go all out just so you get a reference on how that day is, how the conditions are? For your key guys would you then have a more accurate mark to shoot for?
AL: You’re exactly right. We’re lucky enough that we have really good time trialists and we can get splits off of them and we can see how they pace, then we can give that feedback to our guys later in the day.
And it’s not just about the pacing for these guys, it’s “that third corner after the roundabout is really tight and you’re going to have to brake”, and “that sixth corner you’re not going to have to brake”. So JV is particularly good at this. He’s so good at, on the radio, in real time, based on his pre-ride of the course, and what we see with our earlier riders, to give guys like Christian or Millar information like “get out of the saddle here”, “stay in the drops here”, “you gotta brake through this”, “you don’t have to brake through this”, and all those little things add up to micro seconds of time.
AS: It’s interesting you say you have good time trialists, and your bike sponsor comes out with an aero road bike. Did you have any input on that?
AL: Oh yeah, that was TOTALLY from the guys and from the team. In our minds there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have an aero road frame. What we said to Felt was that if we could save energy in road races, six hour road races, even if you save five or six watts because your bike is aerodynamic, that stuff adds up in one day’s racing. So if you can make a bike that’s as stiff, that handles as well, is as light as our road bikes… So they started experimenting with that last year and they made us a version that wasn’t light enough for the mountains but was perfect for the flats, and the guys tested it out and they just raved about it. They really felt it was a huge advantage.
You look at the gains you can get by training an athlete physiologically, you’re talking about small percent gains. When you’re talking about the gains you can get through aerodynamics, you’re talking 10, 20, 30 percent gains. So, dealing with resistance…speed is a product of whatever holds you back and your physiological capacity to produce power. Well, there’s much more you can do on the resistance side than there is on the engine side. I think that’s another unique innovation on Garmin, is that the second half of the equation is actually more important than the physiology aspect. So we spend a lot of time thinking about that as well.
AS: It’s interesting, your PhD is in physiology but you’re very involved in the physics side as well.
AL: Absolutely. My PhD is in physiology but half my dissertation involved biomechanics and aerodynamics. My dissertation was actually about speed, and how we understand speed in cycling, speed is about resistance and your capacity to produce power, it’s a supply and demand issue. So you can’t talk about economics without talking about supply and demand, and you can’t talk about performance without talking about what holds these guys back versus what they can produce. The other side of my PhD was about stimulus response cause and effect. The notion of what stress is, what training load is, trying to understand different physiological responses to that. That work, ultimately, made me well suited for this environment.
AS: You just did a stint in the wind tunnel.
AL: We just finished another batch of tunnel testing, which was really productive and really exciting.
AS: You’re very happy with the DA, the Zipp wheels, the helmets, etc.?
AL: Yeah, it’s great stuff. That being said, everyone has great stuff, so part of the work we do in the tunnel is not so much to gain an advantage as to make sure that we are on par with everyone else. I assume everyone else is doing what we’re doing. It’s due diligence.
AS: One thing I find interesting about you, is that you have the PhD, the knowledge, and yet you’re the guy who makes the food in the morning, I’ve seen pictures of you sitting on a laundry machine with your laptop, doing the laundry. Is this a labor of love, you doing the work of a coach and a soigneur?
AL: That gets blown out of proportion sometimes. When people see me doing that stuff, they get surprised, they note it. The reality of it is we just don’t have the tremendous budget. We are still doing our best with not as much money as some of these European teams. There’s certain times where work needs to be done, and our staff works incredibly hard, and as a scientist, I have the luxury of just thinking with my head, calculations and what not, and I tend to have a little more free time, especially compared to the mechanics and the soigneurs. So if I see a soigneur on my team that is at his or her limit, and there’s a load of laundry that needs to be done, I’ll take that load of laundry to the laundromat and sit down and do calculations while that laundry runs.
In my opinion, anything I can do to contribute to the whole entire team, not just the riders but the staff as well and make their lives easier and optimize things for the guys, lead by example and not be afraid to do hard work, I think helps to improve the environment. I don’t have a big enough ego that I think it minimizes who I am or my role on the team. I’m pretty confident in terms of what I bring to the table, so doing the simple tasks, at times, is almost enjoyable.
What’s happening too, it’s changed the culture within our staff, ’cause now the soigneurs, they adopted the cooking, they help make the rice cakes, the snacks, or the post race meals, that are fundamental to performance that aren’t part of other teams’ cultures.
AS: One surprise I got out of the Kimmage piece is that you were a really good racer. It’s not something you really put out there.
AL: I don’t know, I’ve been racing a long time, I’m really out of shape right now, but I don’t think there’s anyone in the sport who wasn’t at one time or another been really into bike racing or been a bike racer themselves. You need to have that experience to understand even a little bit about what these guys go through and how to help them out. That being said, my days of racing were when I was a kid, and I can’t nearly say that I know what these guys feel or go through on a day to day basis. It’s pretty amazing what they’re able to do.
AS: I read somewhere about your philosophy with TIAA-CREF, if you’re good enough, great, but if you’re not good enough it’s ok to do other things, you can still contribute to society. You don’t have to be a bike racer no matter what.
AL: It’s fundamental. I could give a shit about cycling, who cares about cycling? What does cycling mean, you know? What I care about is individuals living their life to the fullest. I would rather burn a kid out at 21, 22 years old, and have them know that they gave everything to something, and have them leave with that sense than to perpetuate the myth that everyone is going to make it. When in fact not everyone makes it. I think the amazing thing about physiology, genetics, biology is that we’re all suited to do something great. It’s about having the opportunity to find out what it is.
If you’re lucky enough as a kid to have a vast amount of experiences, then you’re probably going to find something that you’re really well suited for. And at that point you can do the hard work to be as good as you can. But I don’t think this sport is suited for everyone. I think it’s really really hard, I think there’s a lot of suffering, I don’t think it’s a great way to have to make a living. It’s labor. But at the same time, if you can succeed at it, it can be a really amazing thing.
So yeah, my philosophy, at least with the developmental riders, is they’re young enough that they have opportunities in many more areas than they think they have at their age. If I train them so hard that they detonate and they don’t make it, hopefully they’re young enough that they can go back to school, they can gain other skills, and still be productive and continue to ride and race their bicycles at whatever level. When I go out and ride my bike for two hours at a quarter the wattage that the guys I train ride, I know I still come home with the same level of satisfaction that they come home with. I think it’s that level of satisfaction regardless of the category that you’re in that matters the most.
AS: I was just wondering if the fact that you were able to walk away from it to pursue something else helped you come to that way of thinking.
AL: I was lucky enough to have the balance between the athletic stuff as well as the academic stuff. Again, you can’t discount culture, and I was raised in a pretty traditional Chinese family, where education is really really pushed, and where there’s this unspoken expectation that you’re going to do really well in school. That’s why your parents sacrificed and that’s why you’re in this country. I don’t think it’s lost upon me that America is the land of opportunity. All the clichÃ©s about you can make something of yourself I think are really really true. I firmly…as cynical as people might get out there…I really believe America is the one place in the entire world where you can have a shot, if you want to work hard to make it. I saw it happen in our own family history. It’s something I at least try to bring to the guys.
AS: I’m laughing because you just gave me a flashback to my childhood.
AL: What’s your background?
AS: Taiwan, moved to Seattle when I was 13.
AL: Yeah, my dad was from Shanghai, my mom from Fujian, they both ended in the Philippines, my dad after the cultural revolution, my mom after the Japanese invaded. Then from the Philippines to Taiwan and from there to LA. Crazy stuff. I grew up in Chinatown in East LA for most of my childhood, and by junior high we moved up to the ‘burbs and there was an exponential contrast in living conditions, from living in the ghetto to living in the posh ‘burbs. Crazy, very typical Chinese immigrant LA story.
Nothing crazier than being an asian guy in Europe on a pro cycling team. There’s exactly zero of us. I was in Italy last year, driving in the caravan, and people would literally point and stare. There’s an asian guy driving a team car in the Giro d’Italia! It kinda got on my nerves, ’cause every day I was hearing shit like “Hey Jackie Chan!”, “Hey, kung fu man!” Oh man, it was kinda gnarly at times, actually.
AS: Yeah, the kung fu comment is always welcome.
AL: Yeah. You know Chann McRae, one of our directors? He’s been teaching me muy thai, all this kick boxing shit, we do it in the evenings. It’s really funny, this white guy teaching me martial arts. We wanted to do the full thing in Europe, before the race starts, I do some sort of kung fu routine, spar with the guys and slap the gloves on and shit. Throw our competitors off and make them think we’re really crazy.
AS: That’s probably what they expect. “Oh, that’s why that guy’s there! Now it all makes sense!”
AL: Yeah! If we can’t fight the stereotypes we might as well perpetuate them and use them in our favor. He’s the the science math guy that does kung fu for the team. Ancient Chinese secrets and shit.
Allen came to New York to give a forum on training. Video snippets of his talk can be seen here.