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Schools Cycling 101

As one aspect of the sporting year comes to a close another begins.  While I figured that I would have more free time in September after the time poor months watching too much Le Tour and Olympics, how wrong I was.  I’ve been coaching the Senior Boys Cycling squad at Auckland Grammar School the last 3 years and September was crunch time for us.

Some intriguing dynamics became apparent to me over the last 5-6 weeks whilst helping the next generation of cyclists do their thing.  Some made me laugh; some made me want to cry.  A few things I thought I would pass comment on in order to demonstrate some realities to young and old athletes alike.

The first reality check for my teams came in July, when they failed to live up to their own high expectations at the North Island Secondary Schools champs.  Having won the previous four TTT’s in the Auckland TTT series the A team went into the North Islands with plenty of confidence.  8th place put a big dent in that.  Losing 1min16 on a dominant Hamilton Boys team was something that had us contemplating what a huge mountain we had to climb to be competitive at Nationals.  We had a bad day, but even so, we had a lot of work to do.

I blamed myself quite a bit.  Motivation at training had been slipping and I hadn’t been able to find the right buttons to push to get us out of the slump.  Part of the problem for us is finding suitably safe training terrain in Auckland to run 20 keen young men around on a regular basis.  Traffic in and around Auckland is making this increasingly difficult.  Our only real quiet roads close to town are out by Mangere Airport but a winter of cold, rain and wind out there was starting to wear a bit thin.  In an attempt to improve this I tried a few new routes but this just turned out to be too dangerous.  We tried an old hardly used Velodrome out in West Auckland but keeping everyone involved for any length of time proved a challenge.  Back to Mangere it was.

At about this time the fast guys in the squad came to the sudden realisation that I had been trying to hint at since North Islands.  If they didn’t get their act together real soon they were going to be left in the “also ran” category at Nationals.  They called an “emergency meeting” and a plan was hatched.  Now I didn’t discourage this new found enthusiasm at all when internally I felt it was all a bit too little too late.  After all, belief that you are making an effort and that is going to make a difference is quite a powerful tool.   With 4 weeks to go I of course was pretty sure that their physical condition wasn’t going to change all that much.  Cycling form improvements take a concerted effort over months, not weeks.

The master plan had us stepping up group sessions to more than the usual twice per week to make sure everyone was gelling and accountable.  In reality though, this plan hadn’t taken into account every athletes various other commitments.  Exams, other sports and part time jobs all took precedent and in fact, all that came out of our grand plans was an increased will to do all we could to improve.  Our regular training sessions did in fact become a lot more focused and most importantly for me was that most of the squad went through a period of good health (something we battled all year).

I was seeing improvements across the whole squad leading into Nationals and had improved my own expectations from a top 5 to a possible medal in the TTT.  Of course I never alluded to this with my teams.  I had to let them think they could win.  The A team started to really look like a well drilled unit and I was sure that I hadn’t seen them hit their perfect race yet.  If they did, then they could be a real surprise.

Race day dawned and we went about our usual routines, preparing for one last big effort for the season.  Now this is where I think the most gains were made in our teams “form”.  There is something to be said for the Grammar machine when it comes to the big events.  Part of it stems from the history.  Grammar has won the trophy awarded to the winner of the senior TTT 19 times.  There is a proud tradition of AGS teams doing very well.  Better in fact than any other school in the history of National TTT’s.  This brings with it an amazing sense of self belief and right from the start of the day, you could feel the energy.  I’ve only experienced this with National teams before, and it’s very powerful.

Our junior teams started rolling out and every team got a standing ovation to send them off from all members of the squad, supporters, coaches & parents.  That is a lot of positive energy.  Our junior team won in a course record.  Boom, energy and confidence levels just went up another 10%.  The seniors now had a challenge.  The intense focus on every one of the senior A squad in their warm-up was far outweighing anything I had seen from them all year.  They knew the expectations and were lifting with all the energy going round our warm-up area.

So, on form, we had been beaten badly at North Islands, and beaten at the last two Auckland rounds and shouldn’t have had a chance of making the podium based on that.  I was still playing down their chances internally, trying not to get too excited.  My boys had other ideas.  The intensity on the start line was only increased by a member of one of our other senior teams giving the A team a bagpipe send off AFTER he had just finished his own race.  Epic!

Once they’ve left the start ramp there isn’t much you can do as a coach but wait, take some splits as they come through the start area with 3km to go and hope.  Taking my own split times to the teams I considered contenders increased my nervous energy tenfold every 2mins, as team after team fell short of our split.  We were not only on a flier, we were running well clear of some more fancied teams and as each team came through I started to dream a little.  No doubt about it, they had ridden their perfect race.  Would it be enough?  Only the favourite for the title was yet to come through our vantage point.  Hamilton Boys had a stellar team and thrashed everyone at North Islands.  In a blur they rounded the bend towards us, crushing my dream.  With 10s to spare they roared by us and kept that up to claim a well-deserved National title.

My boys were 2nd, the hardest of all places.  Close but no trophy.  I was super proud.  It showed me the reward of focus and determination.  It showed how self-belief can count for a lot.  With four of the team still here next year I’m quite keen to get our name back on that trophy.