Monday, January 28, 2013

The Cycling Professor, Marco Pinotti

Marco Pinotti is one of the more appealing pro cyclists around.  This is partly because he has been a vocal anti-doping voice in the peleton, and partly because he's one of the few professional cyclists who managed to complete his degree (in engineering) before turning professional.  He comes across as studious, and he's able to take a step back from cycling in that old gentlemanly fashion, to look at it as something to do while young and carefree, rather than mere livelihood.

And I'll admit that Pinotti showed his grit in my favorite Giro stage of all time, the Strade Bianchi stage of the 2010 Giro, in which he placed 4th behind Cadel Evans, Vinokourov, and Cunego.  Pinotti flatted earlier in the stage and had bridged solo to the lead group.

Pinotti is also sort of an ill luck character, but not in the style of Tyler Farrar whose suffering, for some reason, has gotten to the point where it suggests incompetence.  Pinotti has broken his femur, his hip, his shoulder, and had countless other injuries.  While Farrar seems to feel he's owed something, Pinotti is a sympathetic character, with his old Renaissance face and the patient manner in which he's borne several devastating, bone-breaking accidents throughout a long career, as well as this slip (below) at the London Olympics, where he was in a position to contend for the bronze medal in the time trial.

Such suffering--which I can certainly identify with on a much smaller scale--certainly makes his perpetual rehabilitation and return to racing, even as he approaches 40 years of age, appealing.

When he writes, the most consistent complaint concerns poorly cooked pasta and too much traffic.  He can't understand why the cooks of the world cannot cook pasta correctly.  This seems to be his main gripe, for instance, against the London Olympics organizers--despite brining his own pasta and leaving "specific instructions" on how to cook it, the poor British cook thrusts a bowl of soggy noodles in front of a very saddened Pinotti. 


I first read about Pinotti in a Training Peaks article on cadence.  The article was holding up Pinotti's incredibly constant cadence in his winning TT ride in the 2008 Giro as a model of how to ride a TT.  Constant cadence, the author argued, was more efficient cadence.  Here's a graph showing Pinotti's cadence distribution during that TT:

Pinotti's Cadence from 2008 Giro TT Stage Win
For the purpose of comparison, here's a similar breakdown of a pro triathlete's 40k time trial cadence distribution.
Cadence Distribution of Pro Triathlete During 40k TT
Notice the triathlete's (1) slower average cadence, (2) "fatter" curve of distribution stretching from 40rpm up to 115rpm, and (3) the nearly 3% of the race spent coasting.

Maintaining such a steady cadence, as Pinotti did, especially through Milan's many cobbled and ancient corners, would have been an incredible challenge.  First, it's hard to fathom how Pinotti could have avoided coasting (he spends less than 1% of the race coasting).  Second, accelerating out of corners would seem to require grinding out lower cadences, out of the saddle; yet Pinotti spent less than 3% of the race below 90 rpm! 


Pinotti's consistent cadence suggests a kind of deliberate, conscious effort to pedal at a rate that maximized his efficiency.  He clearly chose gearing, planned his gears, allowing himself to accelerate at high power, but also at constant cadence. 


More impressive than Pinotti's win is the manner in which he won:  with meticulous training and pacing strategies, and against now-revealed dopers such as Contador and Ricco.  At 149 pounds, Pinotti's 374-watt average over 17.7 miles is respectable, especially coming, as it did, on the final stage of a grand tour.  Still, it's not out of reach for many cyclists (I know of one or two local cyclists within 10-20 watts of Pinotti over this duration).  In fact, Pinotti probably put out less power than some of his slower competitors, but he probably applied it wisely to maximize speed.  That's the mark of a smart, meticulous rider--the kind of rider I admire.


What comes across after reading his book is a sense of humility.  A five-time Italian national TT champ, Pinotti has consistently been one of the world's fastest men against the clock, only slightly slower than Cancellara and Tony Martin.  About his own performance, he seems distanced, as if describing the working of not-quite-right device; maybe this is Pinotti the engineer speaking. “To be consistent," he once said, "you actually have to be a little bit dissatisfied about what you are doing, too — that’s when you get curious."


Pinotti the bike racer is very human.  Not superhuman: not Cancellara, bludgeoning opponents with power; not Wiggins, with his "c**ts" remarks and his shady connections with doping doctors and faux-mod powerburns; and certainly the opposite of Lance, with his badgering and his violent humanitarianism and a personal morality of pure ambition.  

He admires Chris Horner for his longevity and eccentricity as well as Lance Armstrong, despite his doping, for making time during the 2009 Giro to visit a cancer ward in Pinotti's hometown of Bergamo.  Pinotti is bitter enough toward the act of doping, but he doesn't dismiss its rewards or attraction as unfathomable.

Pinotti's new book, The Cycling Professor, reads like a series of answers to interview questions, with chapters covering issues--Doping, Training and Planning, The Roads they are a-Changing--and particular memories, strung together loosely by chronology. 

Back to the Pinotti-Armstrong comparison, by way of cadence.  Armstrong, as we all remember, was known for his rapid cadence; Pinotti is [much less well] known for his consistent, steady cadence.  It is an apt way of comparing the two.  For Lance, as he admitted in his Oprah interview, was obsessed with winning and with ego, with going faster at any costs.  


Pinotti, on the other hand, suggests balance, precision, and consistency--the epitome of character.  “The problem," he says, "is sometimes your ego is its own worst enemy. Personally, if you’re in the middle of a training block or a race, I’d recommend not thinking about the consequences of the results you’re looking for, even if it is what your ego wants you to do.  Just think about how you’re going to get there. Focus on the method, not the results. You’ll get there faster."

It is possible to be a professional cyclist, among the top five time-trialist in the world, and to be driven by method, not end; to draw limits around substances and practices; to believe in balance over obsession.  Whether or not Pinotti is balanced, even whether he is clean--I can't say.  All I can suggest is that the idea he holds up is a much more beautiful one than even that of a cancer survivor who won--even if he had won without cheating.  

It's not just cheating that marred Lance's image; it was revelations of his bullying and his obsession with victory over all other things.  I'm not sure what made Pinotti different than Lance.  Of course, most of us are different than Lance.  Who is to say if Pinotti is, in the end, a better cyclist than Lance was?  He is probably a better person, probably happier, and, in my mind, more admirable.  

I'm not sure whether this is something he learned or if it is simply his character.  I'd like to think that Pinotti studied history, held onto the lessons of his grandfather's Europe, which lost millions in world wars, having entire ancestries collapse in the cause of victory, the bitter taste of the victors hardly distinct from that of the lost.

More on Pinotti:
Here's a typical interview, and another one

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