Tommy Evans: “I felt dejected and let down after working with Irish cycling team”

Posted on: February 6th, 2012

Tommy at the great wall of ChinaIn his latest column, Olympian and former FBD Ras winner Tommy Evans departs from his usual coaching advice. Instead he writes about his frustration at having worked unsuccessfully with Cycling Ireland and some Irish riders to try and quality a track team for the Olympics. He also shares his new-found love for coaching triathletes and his admiration for his new charges.


It’s been around thirteen months since my change of direction with coaching. For 3 ½ years I worked with cyclists and Cycling Ireland  only in a quest to qualify a team pursuit squad for London 2012.

This task was made more difficult by the lack of a home training facility and the ever-changing qualification process.

I gave up the battle after the World Track Championships in Copenhagen in 2010, feeling burnt out from the 15-17 hr days when on the road for two weeks at a time.

I was fighting a losing battle and felt quite dejected and let down by the attitudes of certain people involved in the project.

It took a full six months for me to feel normal again and rediscover my love for cycling. I was fortunate enough to have been offered the opportunity to work as a consultant coach with Triathlon Ireland, under the wing of high performance director Chris Jones.

What a breath of fresh air this was to be. It reinvigorated my desire to coach.

I entered the coaching world of triathlon with the mindset that “cycling is the toughest sport in the world”. But, boy, how that has changed.

Most cyclists probably think of triathletes as having their heads buried down in between a set of tri bars; pushing a monster gear and riding dangerously all over the road. But I’ve found the total opposite to this cliché.

My first ITU (International Triathlon Union) event was in Ishigaki, Japan, only a couple of months after the enormous earth quake disaster. There I got my first real taste of a proper Olympic distance event.

Firstly a 1500 metre swim, which is normally two laps of 750 meters; involving exiting the water at the end of the first lap…simple enough you’d think…well think again.

It’s a mass stampede of 65 -70 people all looking for the shortest route.

The first turn is the scariest; people being pushed under the water, squeezed into the rope; they even had underwater frogmen to ensure the safety of the athletes because in the past people have been knocked out in the swim.

The total average time of the swim is 17-19min, at threshold and above.

Phase 2 is a simple 40km bike ride; 8 laps of a 5km circuit. It sounds ok…again the sprint from the water in bare foot for 250-400mtrs, then find the bike in transition, place goggles, swim hat, wet suit into their own allocated box or face the wrath of a 15 seconds penalty. Then mount after a certain point (another penalty if you mount too soon).

The first five minutes is like an individual pursuit; riders attempting to bridge gaps to make the front pack.

It’s estimated that if you exit the water five seconds behind the last person in a swim pack, you may not make the cycling pack!

To spice it up, most races have $500 primes each lap on the bike. So a simple 40km bike ride ends up a full-on Belgium kermesse; lots of attacking by those less likely to run fast.

Unlike cycling, if you have the misfortune to puncture there is no neutral service car following, only two wheel stops where you can’t be assisted when changing the flat wheel. In most cases your race is over should you puncture.

Phase 3 is the final charge. Again you must dismount at an identified line which also has penalty implications if you cross it while still on the bike.

You then run through transition and rack your bike at the designated number; again taking care to place your helmet into the box, before a 10km run mostly at sub 30 minutes for the winning split; in total, 1:40 all at threshold and above.

These are world class multi-sport athletes. Many would be good enough for national, swim, bike and run squads. Several have had careers in professional cycling, Ivan Rana for one.

As a cycling coach my job spec was simple; make them ready to run after the bike. My initial thought was; ‘yes that’s easy, just increase their peak power, aerobic capacity threshold (similar to 3-4km pursuit effort)  and tolerance to intermittent efforts so in general they would be more efficient when racing’.

This would be a simple task if they only had to cycle. But I had to deal with two other disciplines that would impact on their daily training regime.

A typical training day could start with a swim at 5.30am…6km. Bike at 9.30am…. 2.5hrs. Then one hour in the gym. And finally a 50-60 minutes run.

In a big week they might train up to and beyond thirty hours with some double session.

One year into the job and I’m finally coming to terms with the coaching terminology of swim, bike, run all in the one package. Understanding the impact of a hard swim set and hill repeats was all outside my cycling mindset.

At present I’m just at the end of an altitude camp with the Triathlon Ireland’s Olympic squad, and cyclist Caroline Ryan, in Sierra Nevada altitude centre.

They faced some of the most challenging training conditions I have ever witnessed.

On numerous occasions over the three-week camp they climbed the 32km climb to the centre in a four-hour ride; having already done 5-6km in the pool.

The outside temperature was anywhere between  -6 deg to 4 deg on a warm day. Then they’d finish off with a 50 minute uphill run to an altitude of 2,550mtrs; all with the temperature peaking at -15 including wind chill, and 4 to 5 feet of snow at the side of the road.

This was all done without one complaint about the conditions or the number of hours they’d had to spend in the van driving down the mountain because it was too dangerous to descend on the bike.

They never complained about how much they had to pay for excess baggage or how much the camp was costing; Triathlon Ireland makes the triathletes pay for most camps and competitions using their sports grants.

It was all done with the desire to improve no matter what it took; a sharp contrast to the attitude of others I had worked with in the past

To this group of people: I take my hat off to you. If I could only bottle this will, desire and determination and sell it as a sports supplement I would be a multi millionaire.

Aileen Morrison, Caroline Ryan, Conor Murphy and Gavin Noble, you are legends in my big book of memories!!