Saturday, February 22, 2014

Methodical thinking, and the beauty of cycling's quantitative side. An interview with Marco Pinotti (Part 1).

Photo: Cycle Sport

Cycling is, in some ways, invisible to everyone who is not participating in the actual race. We see it go by in an instant, and television coverage is selective at best when compared to sports that happen in a field or pitch, neatly contained for the benefit of spectators and television cameras. Because of this (along with the fact that early bike races were organized to increase newspaper sales), the sport has always been reported on in an over-the-top, expressive tone. There's talk of suffering, and epic routes, which in turns creates a taste for panache within fans. It's one I too have. But in the mind of Marco Pinotti, there should be room and understanding of another aspect of cycling: methodical, measured efforts that are no less heroic or beautiful. Pinotti's style of racing was not robotic, but merely numerical and measured. It's not a type of racing that should replace or supersede the off-the-cuff, spirited attacks that drew many of us to cycling to begin with. But Marco Pinotti's take on cycling is one worth considering, and can lend greater enjoyment of other parts of the sport.

Now entering his first season working for BMC as a performance coach, Pinotti's career was long and successful. Over fourteen years, he was the Italian time trial champion six times, while winning the Tour of Ireland, winning stages at the Giro, and Basque Country, while being on the podium at the Tour of Romandie. 

Marco holds a degree in engineering (see my interview with David Veilleux who is also an engineer), which in turn helped shape the way he approached cycling, and now colors the manner in which he approaches his job with BMC, where he coaches—among others—Darwin Atapuma. I spoke with Marco about his recent visit to Colombia and his work with Atapuma, which will be in part two of this interview (to be published on Thursday). For now, we talk about how he's adapting to life off the bike, his take on cycling, and lessons he learned during his time as a professional.

(Photo: D. Pensinger)

How are you settling into your new life, and your new job coaching riders with BMC ?  
It’s something you have to adapt to, and some parts of it come easier than other. Like being home more, and spending more time with the family. But the biggest change is not having to ride my bike 25 hours a week. Particularly now, during the winter, I haven’t had to deal with the cold weather, and having to ride outside. But as the spring comes, not riding my bike will be the hardest thing, because I’ll be home, and will want to go out, because I like spending those hours outside, but you have other things to do. It’s something I’ll adapt to.

The other big change in my life is that I now spend a lot of time looking at other riders’ data files from their training. I was always used to doing this for myself, but I now do it for other riders. I like it, but it’s very time consuming. Still, so far, so good.

How much do you think you’ll ride once the spring comes?

Hmmm. Well…I hope I’m still able to get out, and ride. Maybe one hour every day, an hour and a half every other day. Just for fitness, and as exercise. So maybe five hours a week or so.

Photo: BMC

You mentioned the cold weather, anything else you’re not missing from your years as a professional?
I was at the Tour Méditerranéen, I got there the day before the time trial, and one of the team’s riders crashed. He was fine, but looking at him, and knowing that feeling, I realized that crashing is something I will not miss. Just having to deal with bad luck. But then, the day after, going through the time trial course, I thought to myself, “oh, this is a course I would have loved to race on!”

So I miss the competition of something like a time trial, but then there are other aspects of competing I won’t miss, like risky descents and going downhill. That I won’t miss.





Early on in your career, you attended to college while you were racing, and earned a degree engineering. An impressive feat of being able to juggle two very demanding things at once. Do you think most professionals are too one-dimensional or perhaps are too singularly focused in their lives?
Early on in my career, I was two-dimensional, if you want to put it that way. But in the end of my career, I became more one-dimensional. That was simply because it became my job, and I feel that if you want to be successful, you have to be 100% focused on what you’re doing. That’s true in life in general, and for a sport that is as demanding as cycling, the more you are focused on training and recovery, the better you results. This is hard, especially toward the end of your career, when people start asking what you’ll do next, once you retire. But if you start thinking about that, and loose your focus, I think it’s best if you ask yourself if racing is even worth it or not. For me, I was a rider, and I behaved and thought as a rider until my last day on the bike. 

This is just the way that professional sports are. You are so concentrated, you almost live in a cave, but that’s what it takes. Then, when you stop, you are catapulted into a new, very different life, with different rules. And you need time to adapt.

But as far as being one dimensional, I don’t think athletes need hobbies or other activities, because they already get to do what they love. So for me, I never had the need to play tennis, or golf, because I already rode my bike, and that’s what I loved most.




Do you think you could have finished your degree later on in your career?
Possible, yes, but I would not have been as competitive as a rider. Plus, there are some things that you can only really do when your body is at its maximum peak, say between 18-25 years old. When you’re 30, your brain is just not as efficient as when you are 20 years old. And I know from experience, back when I was 20, I could study, go train, come back and study. I never needed rest. I’m open to the possibility that maybe I became lazy over time, but I still believe that your brain is at its prime when you are younger.

Photo: Cycle Sport

Every engineer I know has a very methodical way of looking at the world. Their education tends to shape their approach to life, or maybe they were drawn to engineering as a result of their personality traits. Is this true for you, and do you think that perhaps engineering changed the way you think about cycling?  Did you apply some of the lessons from your schooling into your life as a professional?
Yes, definitely. The mindset I have is all about numbers. And cycling is not just about the numbers, it’s about passion, about panache, and about living for the moment. But time trialing is more about the numbers, and your ability to put out a certain amount of power in a certain amount of time. So I was a time trialist, but I was an engineer first.

So is that was cycling was to you, a balance of methodical, numerical thinking and panache?

No, for me, it was all methodical. As a fan, I enjoy panache, but as a rider, I wanted to know what power I needed to be at the top. I wanted to know what was needed for a course, so I never liked things that were not within my control. I never liked uncertainty, so I never liked descending.

(Photo: Velonews)
So time trialing really was perfectly suited for you, not just physically, but also mentally. It's a numbers game. Plus, you can't quantify panache.
Yes, exactly. 

You mentioned descending as a time within a race when you are not in control. Did you have particular experiences descending that caused you to think this way?
No, I never had problem following a descent, but sometimes people would attack on a downhill section, and put other riders in danger. To me, of course this is still part of the race course, but a rider should show his strength on the climb, or on a time trial. But by doing this [attacking on the descents], puts others at risk, simply because you want to show you courageous you are.

Maybe that’s your methodical thinking at work. Quantitative versus qualitative. Uphill versus downhill. Wanting races to be won by the rider who is quantifiably better than others, and there’s no real way to quantitatively analyze something like courage, which is nebulous at best.  
I mean, I understand why they attack. It’s part of their strategy, but I want the strongest rider to win, not the one that takes the most risks. And it puts further risk into a sport that is already very dangerous. ◼


Part two of this interview, which will be published Thursday, deals exclusively with Marco's trip to Colombia during the off-season, where he worked with Darwin Atapuma, who he now coaches for BMC. Marco's insights into Colombia as a whole, as well as Darwin as a person and as a rider are as astute and insightful as one might expect from a rider with his background and experience. Stay tuned. 



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Marginalia

"Sport is the best way to shape our children's values. Discipline, commitment and sacrifice". Note that the image to the left has been reversed, and the "Colombia" on the jersey is backwards. 

1.
Politicians using sport as a way of reaching the masses is nothing new, and doing so is certainly not unique to Colombia. But the sheer propensity to do so, as well as the significance of appropriating sporting victories in such a highly class-conscious society as Colombia presents certain issues (see past posts that deal with this subject and give further examples here and here). The ad above was tweeted out by five-time BMX world champion and Olympic medalist Maria Pajon. She included the following text:

"The use of my image and name were not authorized for anyone to use for political gain"

As much as social media has been maligned by many (and admittedly, I'm still rather indifferent about the whole thing), it's interesting to see a Colombian athlete be able to respond to an issue like this quickly and possibly to an even larger number of people to whom the politician was communicating. In a country like Colombia, where politicians hold power, and their subjects stand several rungs below, the shift in power dynamics (perhaps not a shift, but at least giving others a voice) is fascinating to watch.

2.
A question for all of you, when does the road cycling season start in your eyes? San Luis? TDU? Oman? Maybe as late as San Remo? For me, it's usually Omloop and KBK. Thoughts?

4 comments:

  1. I feel like Oman and such are a chance to tune up in nice weather, and the prize money is probably good. I don't pay much attention until San remo

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  2. Also, great post and I totally respect Pinotti's approach to the sport- but a scenario where someone like Sean Kelly descends like a madman to win Milan San Remo is really exciting to see

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  3. I agree. For me the 'real' season doesn't start until this weekend.

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  4. De Omloop is the real start for me. And when KBK was cancelled last year I had a really bad feeling about the 2013 season. In the end it turned out to be a great season...

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