INTERVIEW: Dr Jeroen Swart and John Wakefield of UAE Team Emirates

With aspirations to progress all the way to the very top of world cycling, UAE recently recruited a crew of South Africans to refine their training and racing protocols. Last week we sat down with Jeroen and John for a coffee, ice cream and discussion on the specifics of it all.

UAE, a global outfit intent on climbing higher up the world rankings in 2019.

BN: Lets start with a quick rundown on each of you, what you do, your cycling history and so on.

Jeroen: I live in Newlands and work at the Sports Science Institute where I head up the post graduate program in sport and exercise medicine for the University of Cape Town. I do research in sports and exercise medicine. Most of the research I do is in cycling because I love cycling. I am a former XC racer. We have a lab there as well which John is a part of too. It’s a co-branded lab where we offer cyclists of all levels testing and various other services like bike fit and bio-mechanic services. That’s my 9 to 5.  I still coach about 12 athletes including Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, Florian Vogel  and various other international riders. I started cycling in the 70’s.

John: I live in Cape Town. Work from my home office and split my time between being one on one with athletes, and then in the lab. I got into cycling through rehabilitation from a motocross accident and the bug bit. I met Jeroen around 2005 but began cycling in 2002. I raced on the road in the elite category for a few years. Jeroen coached me for a bit as an athlete and then I worked under him and got into coaching and started stepping back from motocross. And here we are today.

BN: Tell us about some of the athletes you have worked with up until commencing with UAE and perhaps mention a few of their standout performances.

John: Alan Hatherly, winning World Champs, Cathy Colyn the U23 SA Champ, Cherie Vale the SA XC Elite Champ, not to mention Willie Smit and Matt Beers achievements. Then on the motocross side there are SA titles in all classes from Pro Mini to MX1 and then I am still working on Calvin Vlaanderens who is on Honda factory.

Jeroen: Burry Stander is the one that stands out. He had his most successful season when I coached him, he went up to number two in the world behind Nino. He won a World Cup and the Epic in the same year which no one had ever done. Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio who is top five in the world and was second in the Giro last year. And Florian Vogel who is last years European champion.

BN: Jumping to UAE Team Emirates, what are your roles there exactly and, how did it come about?

Jeroen: So, last year I did the keynote address at the Science in Cycling conference which is a conference which happens every year before the Tour de France. There I spoke for 45 minutes about the science of performance testing and really about using evidence-based techniques, some of the myths and fallacies in the sport. From there Inigo San Millan who is the head of performance at UAE got hold of me, we had been following each other on social media for a while, he had seen some of the research that I have done and I followed some of his. He had been approached by the team to put together a combined performance and medical team overhauling the existing structures. From there it got to where we are now. I head up the medical side, primarily the health and wellness of the athletes. But obviously I have expertise in performance, monitoring and cycling biomechanics so I bring those expertise. So, for instance, for the time trial fittings and the road bike fittings, getting those optimized so that they don’t get injured but also have the most efficient position. They were looking for coaches to fill the various roles and I put John’s name forward whose resume speaks for itself. Naturally it went forward that he came on board as a coach. Since he has been with the team he has proven his ability and as a result his role is now much larger.

BN: Practically speaking, how does the whole long distance coaching thing play out?

John: It really makes no difference, WhatsApp is WhatsApp and a phone call is just as easy. Essentially at the end of the day it’s no different to how we would coach someone based here in Cape Town. That’s the incredible aspect of technology.

BN: Flesh out for us exactly how your roles differ?

John: I am on the performance team – I work personally with 8 riders from the coaching side and I have now been given the role as the head of their time trial and team time trial performance. I did accept, after 14 days of no sleep I might add! So that role involves setting the TT protocols for the day. This would include setting up the TT pit with bikes, having their warm up cards ready, ensuring their nutrition is right during warm up, gear ratios and so on. If it’s a Team Time Trial of 7 to 9 riders, I determine the order they go in based off things like their size and power profiles and, also how long each pull is. I will do things like recon the course and make points on important parts of the course etc. There are 29 riders in the extended squad so it’s a big effort.

BN: That’s a big deal! But then TT is a big play these days.

John: Yea, I realized that! The team didn’t really have a TT performance protocol. The guys didn’t have structures and protocols in place. They sort of went into things without a complete strategy. I guess it was overwhelming ja but we have some good systems in place now.

BN: How much time are you going to spend away from home in 2019?

John: At the moment its literally about 10 days every 3 weeks and I have that frequency right up until the Tour. Although from the end of the Giro to the end of Tour de Suisse I am just gonna base myself in Europe.

Jeroen: We have our own schedules but there are overlaps like at the Giro.

BN: There are other South African’s working for UAE too, – tell us about their roles please:

Jeroen: Yes indeed. Four more. We have Adrian Rotunno who was with Dimension Data for three years and is a partner at the Sports Medicine Practice at SSISA. Jason Suter, the most experienced sports physician having worked with the Stormers at Super 15 Rugby. He has done some work with Novo Nordisk and now with us. Jarrad Van Zuydam from JHB who was also with DiDtata. Wendy Holliday, a PhD student in my division doing cycling biomechanics and also physio.

BN: How different is it working with big name athletes who have an existing program, do you kind of work with them on what they have been doing, perhaps making small tweaks or do you push a new program onto them. How do you manage that?

John: A little bit of both really. You obviously want to implement your way of coaching, your style, your periodization etc. So what I did with the guys is I went back on all of their data, I looked back on everything they had been doing to get an idea of the history. And from that with some of them, I just implemented new stuff and they just did it, there were no issues and then, with others, it wasn’t that easy. We had to get them to trust me, trust the process and educate them why they need to do certain stuff, more stuff, less stuff and so on. But it’s all going so well now. Its been a good learning experience for all of us.

Off season team camps are where all the groundwork and foundations for success are laid out.

BN: What’s the gap like between the UAE riders and the top SA riders, so say Matt Beers and Alan Hatherly. Then, the gap to SA amateurs coming through the ranks. Just how big are those gaps?

John: If you take Matt or Alan the gap isn’t that big. It would more just be defining what they need to do to race the World Tour but in terms of physiology and where they are, they could go and do it. The gap below that is a huge jump, like to your standard SA pro whether its MTB or Road, it’s a huge gap. It’s how they execute their training too.

Jeroen: The other big aspect is the attention to detail and the amount of time that you spend with each athlete. We have constant interaction with the UAE riders. All hours, all day. Typically with an SA athlete, you know, you won’t hear from them for a couple of days, a week sometimes. With this World Tour level you have got to constantly be checking everything and making sure that its all executed to perfection.

BN: How do you get around the language gaps?

John: Not really a problem, the majority of the team is Italian so one or two guys speak no English but they have been assigned a full Italian coach. I have a stretch of Italians, Croatians etc but they all speak English. I have also started taking Italian lessons. So it’s not hard.

BN: When is your next trip over?

John: 8th of March.

Jeroen: I am doing Paris-Nice in March and then from there the Giro, the Hammer series in Holland, the start of the Tour de France and then The Vuelta.

John: I do Tirreno Adriatico, Pais Vasco, then I recon the Tour de France TT route and go to Paris Roubaix after that. Then it’s off to the Giro, Tour de Suisse and then to the Tour de France.

BN: Tell us about how you recon the routes?

John: I drive the routes, I might ride it if possible.  I film key sections of it, making notes and highlighting important elements, look at line choices in and out of corners, watch flags and trees for where there might be wind and which way it blows, sharp turns, stuff in the road, off cambers and so on. I highlight those things and make notes to brief the team on.

BN: Let’s shift gears here, obviously the team and riders have their goals, but what about coaching staff? What would your personal goals be with this global gig?

John:  My goal is for the riders I work with to have a good season and be happy with me as a coach. They must be happy with their form. Then on the new role on the TT side, my goal is just to really learn everything about the process. I don’t have really massive long term goals, I want my riders to do well, whatever their role within the team is. I really want to get the TT protocols right and dialled in.

Jeroen: Its really just delivering the best service that we can, making sure that the riders are able to give their best so they are not constrained by any health-related issues, injuries or otherwise. To let them achieve their talent potential. And that applies especially to people like Fabio Aru who  obviously has had a disappointing couple of years compared to after he won the Vuelta. We want to try get him back to his best or even better than he was in the past by having all the resources required to stay healthy and injury free.

BN: How reassuring is it for the riders to know that they are on a team with big aspirations with the right budget to follow through? Do you think it relaxes the riders a bit, which in turn benefits their ability to focus on the task at hand?

Jeroen: I think it’s a massive factor. We see it already with the team as a whole. Considering all the changes you would expect some disruption and disharmony and in fact, we have had the exact opposite. Everyone has come together, been very welcoming and open and I think everyone has worked together as a team and the riders see and feel that. They can sense the attention to them and everything that has been put into the background to support them and it’s very difficult to quantify but everyone is in agreement that there is a very positive feeling within the team. There is a lot of enthusiasm and I think that’s gonna translate in the results and hopefully we are sitting here smiling come July and August.

BN: Where would you say you are focusing your coaching efforts? Off the bike tech, on the bike tech or a combination of those? Perhaps just give us an overview of your strategy, if you can.

Jeroen: It’s a big factor that people get wrong and have the wrong understanding of. I think SKY was a big propagator of this paradigm where they sold this idea where if you bought special pillows, special mattresses that you would win the Tour. The reality is and I have spoken about it, if you look at the application of scientific methods, you know, really well validated scientific methods, the application in cycling and in sport is really just poor. If you actually just consistently, on a day to day basis over a period of time, apply good quality scientific methods that have been validated, you have that consistency, you will reap the benefits. That’s the biggest difference that we are gonna make at UAE. It’s just making sure the a,b,c’s are executed on a daily basis, week in, week out for the entire season. I think you are gonna see some very big changes in terms of the results after that. There is always room for those special bits and pieces you know, nice new TT apparatus, skinsuit, whatever it needs to be. For sure. But getting the basics right and doing them consistently day in and day out is where you see the biggest gains. And then you top that off with a little cherry on top with the toys which can make the extra difference.

BN: One more question and let’s loop back to riders in SA. What advice could you offer young SA riders coming through the ranks here to help them work towards being a Matt or Alan, and moving from there?

John: Cement.

Jeroen: Ja. In Europe, it’s a blue-collar sport, its sink or swim. In SA the majority of riders are all upper middle class who are pampered. When they get to the first little bit of adversity, they cry. So they have to really learn to put in the hard yards because cycling is a hard sport. Key principles wise, they need to develop the skills because to ride in Europe in the pro peloton you need some really good skills. And it’s the same if you are going to participate in XC, we have too many easy marathon races that are not technical and the guys don’t have anything near the skill that is required to achieve the kinds of speeds that the guys do internationally. They must go race in Europe, do crits, race on the cobbles, race the big climbs, descend 20km downhills at 120kmh and learn to ride their bikes in those sort of situations. And learn those skills before you really start focusing on training. And when you do start training, get a good coach. That’s a big bug bear, get someone who has a really good reputation. Have fun, learn skills and don’t look at getting a coach until you are 16 or over.  Do as many different disciplines as possible and then later on get really good advice and work hard.

John: Find a coach who has taken on a struggling athlete and turned them around. That’s the sign of a good coach. They don’t have to coach a world champion. Anyone can coach but not everyone can make an athlete progress, and that’s the difference. SA riders just need to stick it out, push. Guys like the idea of being pro but they don’t know how to be a pro.

BN: Thank you guys and all the best! Ciao!


IMAGES: Courtesy UAE Team Emirates, Photo Fizza, Bettini Photo, John & Jeroen.

SPECIAL THANKS to UAE Marketing and Communications boss, Andrea Agostini



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