Canada is sending what is probably its strongest Olympic cycling team to London since the 1996 Games in Atlanta, when Canadian cyclists won five medals. Pretty much every member of the Canadian cycling community knows about riders such as Catharine Pendrel, Tara Whitten, Zach Bell and Ryder Hesjedal, and the broader community are getting to know them also, through the increased media attention as the Games draw closer.
But Team Canada is not just athletes; it is made up of the support staff that work before, during and after each competition to make sure that the athletes can focus fully on their races, confident that everything is in place for what is likely the biggest races of their careers.
Over the past few months, we have interviewed some of the people who will also be at the Games, out of the limelight, making sure that everything possible is done to help those athletes shine.
Dan Proulx – National Mountain Bike Coach
Dan Proulx, based out of Victoria, BC, is Canada’s national mountain bike coach. In addition to overseeing the High Performance program, he is involved in scouting for the next generation of Canadian riders who will perform on the world stage, and working with administrative staff to coordinate national team projects such as the world championships. He also coaches some athletes himself, including current cross-country world champion and Olympic medal favourite Catharine Pendrel.
Catharine Pendrel gets an update from national coach Dan Proulx at Mont-Ste-Anne World Cup
This is Dan’s second Olympics; at the first – in Beijing – he had the position of Team Leader, where he was the manager for all cycling disciplines (Jacques Landry, High Performance Director, has that role in London).
By the time the Games start, most of Dan’s normal duties, such as working on selection criteria, helping to choose athletes for projects and overseeing training programs, are done – the athletes have been selected, they are (hopefully) in top form, and there is just a countdown to the racing. So what does a national coach like Dan Proulx do at this point? Especially since the mountain bike events are on the final two days of the Games.
Plaxton, Batty, Pendrel, Kabush and Proulx
“Well, in addition to coaching Catharine and Max [Plaxton, one of Canada’s male mountain bike riders for London], I’ve got a management role for the program overall, which includes making all the final travel and program plans. It’s sort of a funny question, because the role has been two years in the making. Actually, if I was being truly honest, there isn’t much left to do between now and the Games, because it’s already done.”
“We’re in good shape. We’ve had our individual meetings with the athletes and staff. Done. As I said, we’ve been working on this for two years, and we’ve had training camps with all the potential athletes, as many as ten athletes at a time, but they’ve all been involved in the process, so now we’re just having these short meetings, because everybody already knows what’s going on. They know the whole plan in detail.”
Dan Proulx checking out the Olympic course in 2011
“So, basically, my job now is to implement the plan we’ve been creating over the last two years, so every athlete has the best staging possible, so that we can look at, in the best sense of the word, the best performance possible on the day. So the CCA and my role is to make sure that the stage is set, so the athletes don’t even notice it, it’s in the background. There’s no drama, they just focus on riding.”
So what are the sorts of things you have to do to set that stage?
“We’ve done quite a few things. For example, we’ve brought in their pro team mechanics, they’re part of our team, and I don’t know the last time that happened. So, the riders are working with their normal mechanics, and that took a lot to engineer, to make sure that we had accommodations for all these guys, and that they fit in with the Team Canada structure.”
“The planning document I wrote for this is 100 pages, and it covers everything from the detailed plans during the Games to life after the Games, to friends and family – how they can be prepared to best support the athletes at the Games. If I look at what we did before the Beijing Games compared to what we did this time, it’s a quantum leap.”
Rt: Proulx heads to Tech zone with team provisions
“I don’t know how else to say it, but this is actually the easiest time, leading into the Games, because we did all the heavy lifting earlier.”
So after the Windham World Cup, with roughly five weeks to the Olympic races, how does the schedule break down for the team?
“Well, riders are doing some different things right after Windham, and then we assemble for the Val d’Isere World Cup (in France, this coming weekend), where they are with their pro teams. Then the next day, we assemble for a pre-Games staging camp at the bottom of Alpe d’Huez. We’re training, but it’s a pretty open schedule, the mechanics are there and even some of the significant others, like Catharine’s bringing [husband] Keith, and Emily’s got Adam [fiance and coach], so we create a good atmosphere for the week going in.”
“We leave France a week before the races [August 5th], flying from Lyon to London. Then all but Geoff will go to the Olympic Village for a night; Geoff’s going straight to [the accommodation the Canadian team has sourced within five kilometres of the race site in Hadleigh]. The next day the rest of the riders will head out to Hadleigh as well. Our first day of training on the course will be Tuesday [August 7th], the first day the course is open. And then train until we race Saturday and Sunday.”
So when you get to the venue, and the riders are training in the final run up to the races, what is your role?
“We have some phrases we’ve been working with all year; one of them is ‘Know Your Normal’ – it comes from the Canadian diver Alexandre Despatie, but we’ve stolen it (laughs). So, what that means is that whatever is normal for you [the rider] we try to maintain that as much as possible. Another one is ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. ”
“But, in all reality, this is not a race like any other and no matter what anybody says, it’s an incredibly special day, and the most important competition on our calendar. But, at the same time, the best approach for a special event like this is to be as normal as possible, and then bring something extra special to the race.”
“I’ve told the athletes that this will be the fastest race you have ever encountered, because the person who is ranked 30th has nothing to lose and everything to gain if they can stick their nose at the front of the race for even 30 seconds. So nobody will be holding back in any way. So getting them prepared for that will be key.”
“It’s a pretty cool team, and over the past few years I think they’ve developed a fair amount of respect for each other. I went for dinner with them in Windham, with just the four athletes, and you can tell they are proud of each other, and are proud to sit at the table with these other athletes. That’s a pretty cool thing.”
“I’d say our Olympic team hasn’t been built overnight, it’s been a couple of years in the making.”
On the day, since it is different from other events, the staging is earlier, entry to the venue is more complicated … so I assume you’ve been working on that as well?
“Yeah, the Olympics are the greatest competition we have this year, but also the hardest to perform at, because there’s all these obstacles. It’s almost like everything around the Games is designed to be counterproductive. You’ve got [different] clothing, you’ve got extra responsibilities with media, race times are scheduled for television, not the normal World Cup times, and you’ve just got all this extra hoopla to deal with.”
“So part of it has been acknowledging that we are going to have to be prepared for that, and we’ve been working on that for two years. We have a list generated by the athletes of 47 odd things that might happen, and what is the strategy around them. We got that from women’s hockey; they did the list, and all of the weird ones were the ones that actually happened … so we’ve tried to nail everything we actually can, but we’re preparing for it by relying on our routines, and those routines will allow us to have extra energy for the race itself.”
Canada, especially on the women’s side, comes in with a lot of focus on it, because they’ve been identified as one of the medal favourites. So there’s the media attention before because of being favourites, and then the media attention after either because you did win a medal, or because you didn’t, and why didn’t you…
“Yeah, exactly. We can only control the things that we can, so we’ve tried to anticipate the possible situations and control the pressure as best we can. So our sports psychologist has been working with all of the athletes, preparing them to expect it. And we’re lucky that we have a mix of old and new – two experienced Olympians [Pendrel and Kabush] and two beginners [Batty and Plaxton]. One of the things that has been stressed is that just because you are at the Olympics for the first time doesn’t mean you’re a rookie. When you do this week in and week out as a pro, there’s a lot of essential learning that has already gone on. The Olympics is structurally different, but the racing is the same. The race is the race.”