040 - The merging of sports and technology with pro cyclist Chris Froome

August 04, 2020

Four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome talks about the intersection of sports and technology, what cycling can teach you about teamwork and what’s on the horizon for cycling tech.

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Daniel Blaser: Chris Froome is a professional cyclist who currently rides for UCI WorldTeam Team Ineos. He's won several stage races including four editions of the Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia, and two editions of the Vuelta a Espana. Chris has also won two Olympic bronze medals in road time trials, and bronze in the 2017 World Championships. He was kind enough to take a break from training today to speak with us a little bit about the intersection of sports and technology, what pro cycling can teach tech teams about teamwork, and much more. Chris, thank you so much for being here. It's really, it's a pleasure to have you.

Chris Froome: No, the pleasure's mine, really. Really happy to speak to you guys, and yeah, got some interesting questions coming up by the sounds of it.

Daniel Blaser: Great, yeah, we're super excited to dive into those. First question, with the Tour de France fast approaching, can you give us an idea of what your training regimen is like right now? Like how many kilometers are you riding every week? How many hours are you spending in the saddle?

Chris Froome: So an average week at the moment looks like 30 to 35 hours on the bike. Bigger weeks would probably be a little bit more, even 36, 37 even. And about five hours in the gym in the typical week as well. Just doing a lot of core stability work. And not many big weights. Don't really wanna gain any bulk or anything. But yeah, I mean, and that 30, 30 to 35 hours on the bike will be broken down mainly into three or four-day blocks, followed by a recovery day, and then another three, four-day block pretty much. So typically in a week, I would have one day where, one day off where I just go and do an hour, an hour and a half of light cycling, maybe even stop for a coffee on the right day. But yeah, basically just to keep the circulation moving, keep the legs moving. 'Cause if in the past, we would actually take that day completely off the bike completely and feel terrible the next day. Legs just feel like cement. And to try and wake the body up again it takes a good few hours. So we have to keep active even on the rest days.

Daniel Blaser: Yeah, that makes sense. And yeah, I guess, so you're almost like in 40-hour work week territory, I guess, which is kind of crazy. If I get a couple of rides in I feel like I've succeeded in a week. And I can't imagine putting in upwards of 40 hours. That's pretty crazy.

Chris Froome: It is pretty full-on. And I think it even gets to the point where it's, I mean, people say it's obviously healthy to exercise. I think what we're doing goes beyond that. I don't think it's healthy to do the hours that we're doing especially with the temperatures and everything else. But I mean, that's pretty much the only way we can get ready for an event like the Tour de France and get the body conditioned for that.

Daniel Blaser: Yeah, totally. Pluralsight's users are the people building innovative products at companies around the world. And this obvious requires a lot of dedication and hard work as well. Can you talk a little bit about how you stay focused and committed to your own personal goals?

Chris Froome: I think, yeah, certainly, I mean, I think setting both short-term and longterm goals are really important in that regard, and having a clear vision. You know exactly what you wanna achieve. And set yourself benchmarks along the way that you wanna tick off. And I think something you have to keep in mind with any plan that you make, whether it obviously being professional sports or in a professional career elsewhere, I think you have to be flexible. Things are gonna crop up. Shit happens. You have to be able to roll with it. You have to be able to deal with it and adapt as well. I mean, yeah. The number of times I've been ticking along thinking everything is just perfect, and five minutes later, absolute chaos, when the bike's broken down, or you get a flat tire, and just at the moment your rival's decided to make the race hard. You've gotta be able to adapt to all situations and deal with the unexpected.

Daniel Blaser: I love that. And I think especially very pertinent this year, right? So much unexpected that's happened.

Chris Froome: Yeah, yeah, I mean this year has just been unprecedented, I guess, from everyone. I mean, working from home. Having to try and get the same job done, but maybe not having all the tools necessary. It's certainly been a challenge for a lot of people.

Daniel Blaser: Yeah. What advice do you have for those who maybe they have a big goal, a big dream that they're dreaming of accomplishing, but it's something that might just kind of seem impossible at the outset. What advice do you have for those people?

Chris Froome: That, yeah, that's a situation that I face almost on a yearly basis. Because I mean, if you see me in November time, I'm probably about five kilos overweight. I've had a good month of just downtime to not really staying fit or anything. And in November is when I've got to start planning, obviously, for the next season and setting myself the goal of winning the Tour de France, which just at that point it feels like a million miles away. If you say to the November Chris Froome, "You've gotta win the Tour de France." I'd just almost be like, "It's not gonna happen. Let's be honest here." But I think, again going back to the goal setting, having the longterm goal, something you really, the dream, the thing that you want to achieve, but then setting yourself shorter, achievable goals along the way. So for me, that's chipping away at that five kilos that I have to lose over the next few months. Obviously, being able to increase the intensity of training as time goes on and building the fitness. But I think it's always, consistency is always key, I think, even if you have a bad day or a setback, if you keep just putting in the groundwork and building that platform that you need to be able to reach your end goal, I think that's fundamental to reaching any big target like that.

Daniel Blaser: I love that. I think that's spot-on, obviously. For those who haven't maybe watched a stage race before, they might not realize the importance that teamwork plays. Can you just kinda provide a quick overview of the different roles that exist on a cycling team, and maybe how the elements of a successful team can translate outside of cycling?

Chris Froome: 100%, I mean, cycling's one of these bizarre sports that, I mean, you see one guy at the end of the Tour de France standing on that top step of the podium. And it just completely neglects the whole team who have actually worked their asses off for the last three weeks to put that guy in that position, which is one thing that's really unfortunate about cycling. But basically, so each member in a Tour de France squad, there's eight of us in a team. We've all been assigned goals to reach that end goal of winning the Tour. And, for example, you'd have, it's like a hierarchy, you'd have your leader. Just behind him you'd have two or three guys who are almost at the level of the leader, but not quite there, and they would be given the roles of basically being there far into the high mountains to basically chaperone the leader for as long as possible and support him in any way that's needed in terms of pace setting, going back to the car, getting drinks, getting food for the leader, and making sure that leader has absolutely everything he needs, so when the moment is right for him to push on and try and beat the other leaders from other teams, he's in the best position to do that. But further down the hierarchy, you've got guys who, you've got your bigger ruler guys who don't go very far into the mountains, but they play an amazing job on the flatter sections sort of protecting that team leader, when the race is kicking off on the flats, maybe there's a bit of crosswind which often splits up the race. And one thing you have to bear in mind in cycling is, the rider who's in front taking the wind can sometimes be spending up to about 50, 60% more energy than the leader who's in his slipstream protected behind him out of the wind, basically. So it's this concept of always shielding the leader and taking the wind for the leader as much as you can in the race, so that when the leader needs to race in the final part of the race, he's as fresh as possible. So that's basically the concept we're working on.

Daniel Blaser: I can imagine that it requires a lot of humility, right, to be on this team but not be the one that is expected to be on the podium at the end, right?

Chris Froome: Yeah, yeah, 100%. I mean, these guys, I mean, for me I see it, obviously, it's easy for myself to be hugely motivated for an event like the Tour de France because I potentially get to stand on that podium if everything goes according to plan. But I mean, the teammates who help me get there are just incredibly selfless, because they have to work just as hard as me. They're doing 35 hours, 40-hour weeks as well. Maybe they're literally just 2, 3% probably off my level, but they're working just as hard as I am and they're basically sacrificing any chance of a result for themselves to make sure that I win the race. So it's an extremely selfless role being a domestique, a support rider, in cycling. And then, even behind the riders, you've got to remember there's a whole support team there as well. We've got a directeur sportif, they call him a DS, who drives, he's almost like, what would you call him? Like a copilot in a rally. So he's on the radio to us. We've all got earpieces. And he's relaying information about the race, what the current situation is, excuse me, and also all the everything that's coming up in terms of corners, if we're on a tricky descent, he'll let us know which corners are tight. He'll be letting us know basically how much longer on the climb we are. Just all the information about the topography of the race course that's coming up. So everyone's got a role to play. And it's all, everyone plays a huge part in, obviously, trying to make sure their leader is protected as long as possible and can deliver that final goal.

Daniel Blaser: Yeah, I think it's just really cool. And we'll talk a little bit about this more in a second, but that was one of the things that really drew me into pro cycling, is once you start to realize all the components and the specialization that's taking place, I think it just adds all these different layers that make it so much more interesting.

Chris Froome: It does, I mean, it's hard for people to fully grasp the sort of the team element of cycling. But once they get into it a little bit and actually understand the dynamics of how teams work, then it gets really interesting. And also the trust and comradery that there is between teammates. Because I mean, you literally have to empty yourselves day in, day out for weeks on end. So it's, I mean, Tour de France, it's 21 days of racing. It's brutal.

Daniel Blaser: As you know, COVID-19 has canceled or postponed a lot of events so far this year. But I know it's also led a lot of pros to spend more time on the trainer. Can you explain kind of from your perspective what the influence of Peloton and Zwift and some of these platforms, what's that influence been on cycling?

Chris Froome: Yeah, I mean, it's been pretty amazing to see, actually, just how the cycling world has responded to this whole COVID lockdown situation. Obviously, a lot of people haven't been able to get out onto the roads and to get their daily fix of being out on the bike. But I mean, for me personally, I've always spent a lot of time training on an indoor trainer. Especially in the last year, I've been coming back from injuries, so a lot of my rehab was actually done on the turbo trainer. But nothing compares to what it was like during this lockdown for me. I mean, I was literally replicating my 30, 35-hour week on the turbo trainer. And I mean, anyone who's sat on the turbo trainer for an hour, two hours will know it's just soul destroying if you don't have something to distract you. So it's been fantastic for me getting onto platforms like Zwift. I've been on Zwift a fair bit during the lockdown. And it's just a nice way to be able to meet up with friends, meet up with teammates even in a virtual way. And even taking part in a few of the races and events. I mean, in training you can only really push yourself so hard. But when you're actually competing against someone, then you can find that extra 2, 3% from yourself. So it's been a great way to stay sort of mentally stimulated, I guess, while spending up to five, six, seven hours a day on the turbo trainer.

Daniel Blaser: Wow. It would be cool to see next year, once COVID-19 finally hopefully kind of is resolved, how much of this sticks around, how much it continues to influence cycling in years to come, definitely.

Chris Froome: Yeah, I mean, I genuinely believe that, I mean, sure, a lot of people might not get back on it at all 'cause they don't enjoy riding on turbo trainers. But I think it's such a good social tool and a good networking option to you as well. And I think the platforms are really improving as well in terms of their interaction in the virtual world and allowing people to get a real sort of kick out of the experience. So I'm pretty sure it's a trend that's gonna stick around for awhile.

Daniel Blaser: Cool, yeah, I think so, too. Something that's always made cycling so interesting to me is this combination of physical conditioning that it requires and also this ever-evolving technology that it sort of embraces. What is it about the sport that makes it so much more open to new technology than maybe some other sports?

Chris Froome: I think so much of what we do is, I mean, with technology evolving, I think the biggest addition in the past decade has been, obviously, or decade, 15 years probably, has been power meters and being able to actually track your physical preparation. Excuse me. I think also with the number of hours required to be at your best in a sport like cycling. So many people actually end up doing too much and risk burnout. Whereas with the latest technology in terms of being able to really track your training with all the digital means and uploading straight from your power meter on your bike which measures basically every pedal stroke that you're doing and uploading that to basically a training diary, it's become so much easier to track athlete's progression, I guess. Progression, making sure people aren't fatigued, making sure they're taking recovery when they need to take recovery. I think it's been amazing, actually. And it's made the sport, it's definitely put the sport into an area that it's become a lot more calculated. And I think to a lot of the pure fans in cycling, I think they've actually been complaining because you don't see these sort of crazy performances like you used to in the past where people would attack so far from the finish and really just put a lot of heart and soul into moves. Everything now seems to be a lot more calculated and closely monitored, if you like, with all the tracking tools. But I mean, yeah, I think that's just a natural evolution of where the sport's at. Obviously, everyone's got heart rate data everyone's got the power meters on their bikes at the moment. And that's just a way, I think learning to interpret that data is probably still where a lot of development is currently going. It's a great education tool for people as well. People are learning a lot about their bodies, about what they can physically, what they can handle, what's too much. It's been really interesting watching that evolution over the last decade certainly.

Daniel Blaser: Yeah, for those whose maybe don't really know what a power meter is or they've kind of heard of it, can you explain what it's measuring?

Chris Froome: So basically, the power meter is, basically it's a pressure sensor either on the cranks, on the pedals, basically where you're pushing with your feet, with your legs, and it will basically feedback how much force is being pushed through the pedals at any one time while you're cycling. And being able to upload that data afterwards and seeing a graph of if you went up a big hill, obviously the power increases, you hope, to be able to get up the hill. And if you're freewheeling downhill, then there's not gonna be much power on the pedals at all. So it's really a tracking tool to see what kind of exertion the cyclist has put out through the pedals and over the duration of the ride.

Daniel Blaser: And what what is kind of the average output during a stage in the Tour de France versus like me, I wanna go cycling, I'm just kind of an average, everyday person, what does the power output look like between the average person and someone in the Tour de France?

Chris Froome: I think it would look quite different. I'm just judging on mainly just actually using Zwift as a reference point. Because that's one place we really do get to ride with everyday man in the street, if you like. And you can see clearly the difference in speed, difference in speed and difference in power as well. I'd say, I mean, in an average stage of the Tour de France, we're probably averaging close to 300 Watts for five hours of racing. A normal person going out for a ride would probably average, depending on their weight I guess, probably somewhere around the 200 mark. So a good 50% more.

Daniel Blaser: Yeah, wow. And for a lot longer probably for most people than most people are gonna do on a Saturday or something.

Chris Froome: True.

Daniel Blaser: What, you know, looking into the future, what sort of innovations and technology do you think will have a big impact on cycling going forward?

Chris Froome: I think one area where cycling is still a little bit in the Dark Ages and can really change and evolve in the future is the real-time race data available to the fans and spectators watching. I think it could become a lot more like Formula One, allowing viewers to potentially even sort of tune into their favorite team and listen to the communications over the radio. Because obviously we're all talking about tactics. The leader on the road would be giving instructions to the team based on the team's, on each individual's skills. And that would just be, I mean, fascinating for viewers to be able to get that kind of insight. But I think at the same time, having real-time heart rate data, basically to see what kind of exertion people are at, and power data, and that would also allow the coach potentially back at the finish or the start line or wherever the coach is to be able to look at this real-time data and feedback to the directeur in the car who's on the radio to us and basically let the directeur know, okay, this rider's still relatively fresh. You can ask him to do a job. That guy is cooked. You need to let him have a break, or whatever it is. But I think that that real-time data and that aspect, that that can play a big part in the sport going forward.

Daniel Blaser: Is all of this on the horizon? Is this all possible soon? Or is it gonna take a little bit of time to get to this point, do you think?

Chris Froome: Unfortunately, I think there's still a lot of politics involved in cycling, and I think there's a lot of debate over who actually owns the intellectual rights to the power data, the onboard cameras. Some guys are putting cameras on their bikes now already. And there seems to be a big of a power struggle in cycling about who actually owns that data. So for the time being, I don't think many people are actually making that kind of data available yet. But as soon as the sport sorts itself out and everyone gets on the same page in terms of being able to commercialize the use of that data, then I think we could see some really big improvements there. And it would change the viewing, it would change the way people can basically watch the race. And it would also change the way that the riders would race the race. Because I think having real-time feedback from coaches and people who actually understand that data would definitely change the race in certain aspects.

Daniel Blaser: Very cool. I know I mentioned before, I've always been kind of drawn to the technology aspect of cycling. But I think it's also great, like you said, for anyone who's interested in data. Looking at their own data, comparing it over time. There's so much there and there's ways to just reliably collect that data and then analyze it. I think that's very different if I wanted to go shoot the basketball around, right? There's not a lot of data as an average person I can look at and analyze my own performance. But cycling provides that, which is cool.

Chris Froome: Yeah, definitely. I mean, that's one of the beautiful things about the sport is, I mean, no matter if you're a professional or you're someone who rides once or twice a week, I mean, you can still, if you go out once or twice a week but you have a favorite climb where you can go and test yourself, really, you can go and do that 10, 15-minute test, whatever it is, and you can come back and you can have a look at your data and see over time how you're progressing. It's quite a cool sport for the data nerds as well.

Daniel Blaser: I think that's a perfect lead-in to the next question, which is, one positive outcome of COVID-19 is that a lot of people are buying bikes or they're dusting off the bikes that are already in their garage. What advice do you have for those people that are picking up cycling right now?

Chris Froome: I would say definitely set yourself, start off with more realistic goals. Set yourself a shorter ride. And once you've basically nailed that on one weekend, then try and stretch it out. Don't set yourself too big a goal too quickly, because I think you're gonna risk running out of energy, running out of muscle fatigue, all the rest of it. And you actually probably won't enjoy yourself quite as much if you do reach that point. And chances are you won't get on your bike the next weekend. So set yourself realistic goals. And gradually increase that and build up. And when you're ready, and hopefully when the world goes back to being a little bit more normal again, then try and hook up with one of your local cycling clubs. It's a great way to meet people. It can be a really social sport as well. and I always find it's great when you know, say, on a Saturday morning you have to meet the guys at eight o'clock at a certain location, that will definitely get you out of bed better than if you were just gonna go and ride for, a ride on your own. So yeah, get out there, meet people, and most importantly, just enjoy being on the bike.

Daniel Blaser: I love it, I love it. Alright, one final question for you. For those who maybe haven't watched much pro cycling, but they might be interested in tuning into the next Tour de France or another upcoming race, what should they be watching for? What tips do you have for the at-home spectator?

Chris Froome: I think certainly pick your event to watch. I mean, I've gotta be completely honest here, and there might be a small bias as well, sprint stages are boring. You can tune into the last two, three minutes of a sprint day and you'll pretty much catch all the action you need right there. But pick a big mountaintop finish, or even a one-day classic like Paris-Roubaix, where the guys are racing over cobblestones and there's lots of action, lots of crashing, lots of drama. It's a nightmare for the cyclist, but it's probably one of the best races to watch in the season. But yeah, and really look out for the whole team element of the sport, because that's where you really get the insight into what's happening in the race. Look out for the jobs that the domestiques are doing. Pulling in the wind. I mean, obviously if you pick a mountaintop finish, you'll see the roles that people have within the team before it gets to the final leader who's gonna make his move at the key moment of the race. But those, in my opinion, would be definitely the most in the stages to watch.

Daniel Blaser: That's great. And hopefully everyone watching this will maybe get the opportunity to watch you in one of these upcoming races as well.

Chris Froome: I hope so. I hope so, that'd be great.

Daniel Blaser: Well, thank you so much once again, Chris, for, like I said, taking a break from your training. I know you're really giving it all you can right now, so we really appreciate you talking to us a little bit.

Chris Froome: Thank you very much and it's been an absolute pleasure. Thank you. Cheers.