Friday, September 11, 2009

Hosing down the fans

The first time I met Tyler Farrar, he was spraying down some Belgians with a water hose. I was walking along a canal in Ghent, spotted the Garmin kit and team-issue Felt, and recognized Farrar. I first heard of Farrar when, in 2008, at the Tour of California, he'd worn the yellow jersey for Garmin in its first major race.

Later that year when I ran into Farrar in Ghent, the sun was out on the old stone streets and buildings in the old town center, and I was wishing I still had the bike I'd borrowed earlier when I was in Bruges and Oostende. Farrar had asked to borrow a hose, had gone to turn on the water without checking the state of the nozzle. When it came on, water sprayed on everyone nearby.

Farrar was obviously embarrassed and apologized. He seemed like a shy kid to me rather than a professional racer. Almost pudgy, he lacked the veins and reticulations, the sun-dyed skin that define the physiques of the old pros.

"Tyler Farrar?" I asked. "Congratulations on California."

He was in the middle of wrestling the nozzle of the hose, but acknowledged me and set about apologizing to those he'd soaked.

Farrar also happened to be on the plane back to DC to race in Philly and the CSC Invitational in Clarendon. We stood next to each other waiting for our luggage. I envied his sweet Garmin luggage and bike carrying case. He was quick to help a mother of four who had her hands full, helping her offload her luggage from the conveyor.

At that point I decided, "I will always root for this guy."

This week, when Farrar failed, after his first Grand Tour Stage win, to open the champagne and give the crowd a proper hosing, I thought back to his earlier success at soaking bystanders. Give me a bumbling kid over a slick superstar anyday.

Last year Tyler wasn't much of a sprinter. Since Garmin had lacked a true sprinter, Farrar decided to focus on sprinting. In the offseason he worked with team physiologist Allen Lim, spending hours in the gym to increase his power.

Sprinting improvements of the kind Farrar sought are hard to attain. Farrar's teammate Bradley Wiggins' transformation into a climber in this year's Tour de France has been hailed as miraculous, but Farrar's transformation--from time trialist and roleur to powerful sprinter--is, to me, an even greater metamorphosis.

Sprinters must be born with a certain amount of quick firing muscles, the kind of short-burst power difficult to build through training. Anyone who's lifted weights for years knows that, eventually, you reach a plateau. You don't get stronger and stronger unless you gain a great deal of weight. And even weight gain is not always productive.

In my opinion, power is much harder to build than endurance.

Track sprinters for the shortest events average nearly two hundred pounds. Sprinting is an exercise in blunt force, right there with punching through concrete and pulling tractor trailers with a rope. Marty Nothstein, for example, put out almost 2,200 watts when he won gold in Sydney. He could squat well over 500 pounds.

To win the kind of sprints that come at the end of Grand Tour stages, contenders like Farrar and Boonen regularly put out 1,800w or so. One of the advantages that Cavendish has over Farrar is his size, says Mark Renshaw: ""He's so much smaller than the other sprinters, and so saves a lot of watts. That's his big gain."

Nothstein tried--and failed--to transition from the track to the road in the years following his Sydney gold. He couldn't lose the weight and go the distance in longer races.

The coming offseason will probably mark a significant point of development for Farrar. Can he continue to progress as a sprinter? Or will he plateau?

I'd like to think he can continue developing, not only to take Cavendish down a notch or two, but to prove that power and speed can be earned through hard work, just as endurance and climbing ability can.


Tim Rugg said...

Enjoyed reading. Keep up the good work!

qualia said...