How Do Coaches Help Riders Go Faster on a World Cup Weekend?

May 2, 2019 at 7:55
by Pinkbike Staff  
What a run for Canadian Mark Wallace who made short work of the rain to qualify first ahead of Aaron Gwin.

Words: Alan Milway

World Cup racing is a sport of very fine margins. To think that 50 riders were separated by just 10 seconds across 1.9km of technical terrain in Maribor shows that the more we can understand the ‘problem’ of racing across these tracks, try and quantify the challenge, and make adjustments and train for this, the better we will be prepared come race day.

Riders are being more open about their preparation away from the track and, as the videos and photo coverage shows from Slovenia, there is more openness about bike set up and analysis on track.

So how do the riders, teams and coaches understand the challenge of preparing bike and rider for a race run?

1. Go Pro footage
Gaetan Ruffin showing his Commencal Vallnord team mates Amaury Pierron and Remi Thirion some line choice before group B practice kicked off.

Helmet cameras are a vital training aid for riders, and they will all wear them to record runs and then review after. It helps them learn the track, compare line choice and spot new lines developing. Some of the bigger teams also have large TV monitors upstairs in the truck to review footage, and with simple screen splitting you can compare line choice and time through a section.

Having other film footage is also very useful and it can be used to compare different riders, different lines and also show conditions on track at that point – so a woman or Junior in B practice can show their footage to an Elite in A practice for them to see how the track is, before they head up for their practice. All very useful in bike set up and mental preparedness.

2. Coaches and Team on track
Alan keeps a close eye on junior Luke Williamson's line. Photo: Keith Valentine/Propain.

The teams all have staff on track to look at various sections and feedback on line choice. Comparing riders, line selection, and also bike set up. I spend a lot of time on track watching the riders and also filming with an iPad and iPhone to feedback to the riders to aid them. This can reduce time taken to get on to the best line choice and up to speed.

What is interesting though is that one line isn’t necessarily the best for all. A small light rider such as Danny or Troy may choose to ride a different line than one of the bigger, heavier riders as they may be able to slow to get up on to an inside line, instead of attacking an outside line. Take a look at brook MacDonald who surprised a lot of people in Maribor by electing to stay wide all the way around the rock garden and hold consistent speed down to the fireroad. He ended up being sixth fastest through that split, his best of the race, and fastest through the speed trap that was placed on the fireroad.

There is also risk versus reward in line choice - a consistent line might be chosen especially if conditions are changeable. Why risk an off-camber corner that is hard in the dry if the rain is due for race runs anyway? Team radios are a good link from the hill to the pits, and ultimately if the rider has all the info available they can make the best choice with advice from others.

3. Telemetry on the rider

Understanding the physical demands upon the rider is vital to help coaches such as myself prepare the riders for the challenge of racing. What is the rider going through and what do we need to prepare for?

I have linked riders up with heart rate monitors and GPS systems such as Garmin computers for years now so I can build up a picture up of various lengths of track and heart rates achieved. It is always fascinating but the best track data I’ve seen so far was Danny Harts timed qualifying run at Champery. To see the steepness of the track on the graph versus a heart rate of over 200bpm was extraordinary.

Heart rate data from Danny Hart's run at the Champery World Champs - The data selection starts before the run starts, and ends after the run has finished - and his average is 197bpm. His max was 207bpm which was higher than I had seen in any fitness assessment. The steep slope is altitude and the jagged spikes are speed.

Ultimately heart rates are close to or above the maximum you are likely to see in testing, and one error often made is to take these efforts and assume all training has to be done at these for the same durations. Human physiology is more complex than this and needs a different approach – although there is certainly a place for very hard, fatiguing efforts!

More recently, power cranks have been used and are a good insight in to the power, duration and frequency of pedalling on a track. Start gate power is obviously important, but knowing if and when riders have to lay down high power outputs is also very useful for training - the flat fire road section in Maribor is a good example of this.

What is better- out of the saddle pedalling, or tuck and draft for aero and energy saving? There is an interesting link between the two… The problem with power cranks is the limited info you gain when a rider isn’t pedalling- large gaps imply that nothing is happening through the pedals as the cranks aren’t rotating, but as you know this is misleading.

Accelerometers are therefore a very useful next step. They are the little boxes seen between the shoulder blades of rugby players - or any field sport for that matter. The data shows the heart rate, speed and also acceleration/deceleration of the rider and ultimately the load upon them. Where are the peak loads on track, and are we preparing appropriately for them?

I’ve measured peak G’s of between 6-8G on the rider in Andorra. Peak accelerations through the bike will be even higher than this due to the weight of the bike, and the data seems to support this. This could be explained by the equation force = mass * acceleration. So by changing this equation around to give acceleration, acceleration = force/mass. With a lower mass bike and higher mass rider seeing the same force, the bike will measure a higher G as it is lighter.

I’ve used this kit for a number of years to also try and understand the differences between elite males, elite females and junior racers. Where are the traces similar or different? Can we improve the trace of a junior to mirror an elite? And what needs to be done to achieve this. Also, is the difference in run time between the males and females shown in the forces through them – could a female ride faster if they could tolerate more load? These are just some of the questions you can attempt to answer with this data.

4. Telemetry on the bike
Canyon's lead mechanic Nigel Reeve installs Stendec instrumentation on Mark Wallace's Sender.

This has been around motorsport for years, and is gradually increasing in its use within downhill. Monitoring the suspension action, use of travel and rate of change of travel will all help the mechanics set up the bike to improve performance. It also helps back up the feedback from the rider and will drastically improve the time taken to get on to an optimum set up.

New systems are now available to link with brake pressure to show where a rider is braking (any comfort braking or dragging through an apex will be highlighted) and the new Stendec system can now be left on the bike permanently and is actually linked with a camera to show exactly where the data points link with position on track. Canyon’s Mark Wallace actually has two race bikes – one with data that is used for every practice run, and then a mirror race bike where the adjustments are made and then raced on (all shocks are dyno matched so exact copies). Very clever stuff.

5. Rider Feedback
Brook and Luca sharing their shoulder trauma stories.

Perhaps with all this technology and data it is easy to forget the most important factor in all of this; the rider. Ultimately, all of the staff, trucks, technicians and coaches arrive at a World Cup to help a rider achieve their full potential, and a happy rider, a relaxed rider and a supported rider will be the fastest. So don’t forget that sometimes simply taking five minutes to sit down with them, and say ‘feeling good up there?’ is the best feedback you are likely to need.

Alan Milway is the coach of a number of World Cup riders including Joe Smith, Joe Breeden, Mike Jones and Brendan Fairclough. Follow him here.


  • + 60
 6. Cattle Prods
  • - 7
flag cliff22 (May 7, 2019 at 13:07) (Below Threshold)
 7. Red Bull
  • + 18
 8: placebo
  • + 6
 9. roids...
  • - 4
flag Xc2dh1 (May 7, 2019 at 14:20) (Below Threshold)
  • + 1
 No pressure, just enjoy the moment! Feel the flow
  • + 2
 Short cuts.
  • + 7
 jordi cortes visit
  • + 8
 10. Beer.
  • - 1
 11. Try hard not to accidently film other teams' line choices.
  • + 2
 French lines.
  • + 1
 12. no brakes
  • + 48
 6. Call you a pussy, say you can go faster, and tell you to quit whining.
  • + 4
 In all seriousness, this is a very interesting video related to the rhetoric you're alluding to.
  • + 1
 @seb-stott: That was interesting.
  • + 48
 Hygenamine Oxilofrine
  • - 2
 These for Whack a Mole
  • + 20
 Great article! I do have to complain about one thing. It is a comments section after all.

That whole part about acceleration of the rider and the bike isn't right. That's...not how acceleration works. You measure acceleration of a body (bike, rider, airplane cockpit, whatever) with an accelerometer. "G"s (gravity) is a unit of acceleration. A bike experiencing more acceleration than the rider has nothing to do with the mass of the bike, it has to do with the dynamics of the whole system. If you were to place a little tracer dot on the rider and the bike and take images every small fraction of a second, you could calculate the acceleration of the rider and the bike graphically. A bike which is accelerating relative to the rider will have a different acceleration than the rider, like when the rider hits a bump and soaks it up with their arms and legs - the bike moves more than the rider, and thus it has a different acceleration.

Accelerometers actually use force (F=ma, everyone loves it), but they measure a very small element inside the sensor - typically a crystal. They don't measure force on the bike, unless you attached a strain gauge to the bike, but that's a completely different story.

You could use an accelerometer and the handy F=ma equation along with the mass of the bike to calculate gravitational forces the bike experiences, but those are of little concern compared to the other forces involved like rider input and suspension.

  • + 9
 Spot on! Classic example in the article of a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. High school physics misremembered and misapplied by a non-physicist trying to sound clever

Thanks for putting it straight @shredteds
  • + 1
 I may be wrong but I think what Alan Milway was saying is to do with the bike and rider being loosely connected masses, and as with all collisions conservation of momentum means that the lower mass will experience the greater acceleration. With a DH MTB, the rider's high mass's momentum acts through the low mass bike into the earth and back again (and the earth's mass is effectively infinite).
  • + 19
 Why have a coach when you can just have headphones with the Sonic "Gotta Go Fast" soundtrack?
  • + 0 that's what i'm singing when i see someone riding with the wrong speed....i guess sonic is the master coach after all
  • + 16
 My athletes thrive on micro and macro dosing psilocybin mushrooms. Very centered and they are also excellent dancers
  • + 3
 Sounds like Joe "wonder if Putin's ever done DMT" Rogan.
  • + 2
 @Boardlife69: dude chimps will rip your f*ckin dick off
  • + 7
 Maybe this is due to lack of resources for a bigger team, but everything described here is something a trainer or analyst should be doing, not a coach. A coach's job is to help position the athlete mentally in a way that they can perform at a higher standard, learn from themselves, and remain in that flow state. Obviously when you're a small team you might need to wear many hats, but this is not coaching.
  • + 1
 Agreed, a more applicable title would be something around how being part of a full ride factory program can help a rider develop, not much in here directly related to coaching, as you pointed out. Though I'm bet "Coach" carries many different responsibilities within various team structures.
  • + 10
 I’m only being helped by my couch on a WC weekend.
  • + 0
 I dunno man, WC weekend usually makes me wanna get out on the big bike. But to each their own!
  • + 5
 MINDSET. Probsbly the biggest component of how he coach can help the athlete starts with helping them process information and deal with stress positively. Without that, the other technical pieces are worthless
  • + 8
 160bpm as the minimum....that boy was hyped up in the start gate!!!
  • + 2
 I was expecting more accelerometers on the rider to get an idea of how (s)he moves. Crank rotations tell only so little when riding mountainbikes. Get meters between shoulder blades, hips, feet and hands so that you can actually model how the rider pumps, stomps, absorbs and boosts off stuff. I saw those Moov sensors one day and I don't know how accurate they are but if it works as advertised it seems to me like you can not only get an idea of the rider performance but also (when you also have telemetry on the suspension) whether the rider is working with or fighting the suspension.
  • + 2
 MTB is far less cut throat than many moto disciplines... In other arenas, they just punt you from the team if you fail to podium, and bring up the next kid who is thirsty for blood.
  • + 1
 moto maybe has a deeper field of talent
  • + 1
 Moto seems to have parents who act as motivators/coaches. Mtb parents seem to be a completely different breed and the culture around it is different too. It's mad really.
  • + 1
 This is so fascinating, especially the part about measuring the amount of G-force to the rider. Would anyone be able to comment further on the question of whether or not female riders would be able to go faster if they would withstand a higher G-force load? Or more specifically, how the difference in females' ability to withstand G-forces compares to the time differences we see between male and female racers (i.e. males have X% higher ability to withstand G-force and are, on average Y% faster than females)? I've been really intrigued by the question of why elite male racers tend to be about ~15% faster than elite female racers during World Cups. Some part of this is certainly down to physical differences between male and female racers, but I often wonder how much strength and fitness accounts for the difference, and how much is down to other factors. Its obviously really tricky to disaggregate these things, but seeing those G-force figures would definitely help!
  • + 1
 Women are in general better at dealing with higher G-forces at least when seated because their heart is closer to their brains so they don't get a G-lock as quickly as a lanky dude gets. So that makes them better fighter pilots. Not sure whether this also benefits them when riding a mountainbike because the core and legs now are more critical, not so much the cardiovascular system.
  • + 1
 Save the G Force effects on body performance for fighter jets
  • + 1
 Riders, male or female, aren't being slowed down by their inability to withstand sustained G-forces because the forces experienced on a bike are so relatively small and brief. I'd wager that speed discrepancy has more to do with systemic bias than physiological differences.
  • + 1
 @jonodavis: This may be my poor word choice or my misunderstanding of the article. The section of the article I am referencing is the "6-8 G's" of force measured through riders in Andorra. My understanding is what the article is getting at is not G-force in the sense of the word we think of when we think of pilots not getting blood to the brain, but in the sense of a rider's ability to manage the impact of harsh compressions they face on a track. So for example, hitting a harsh square-edged hit in a rock garden is not going to cause a rider to lose blood flow to the brain, but it will put a lot of load on their legs, core, and arms to resist that force. I'm interested to know much much males and females differ in their ability to manage that force and how big of a role that plays in the difference in their race times.
  • + 4
 I love this stuff!
  • + 4
 Great stuff Alan!
  • + 3
 Sing the Jucy Fruit song! Makes me go faster!
  • + 3
 Just hire Reese Bobby.
  • + 2
 Real simple son the cops are coming and theres a kilo of Columbian bam bam strapped to your bike time to be a man
  • + 1
 Lost my shit when Wyn asked Pierron if he'd seen the flick!
  • + 3
  • + 1
 Sandstorm on repeat FTW
  • + 1
 Placebo is real medicine!
  • + 1
 This is fascinating, thank you for the behind-the-scenes insight.
  • + 2
 2 cents
  • + 1
 Eric Carter was great at working with athletes at the World Cup circuit.
  • + 1
 They sprinkle chilli powder in the riders shorts...
  • + 1
 Performance related pay makes all the difference
  • + 1
 6. Adrenochrome
  • + 0
 "Bro, just send it."
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