How technology is helping us understand the human on the bikeBlog
Preparing riders for the start line
I’m one of those people who really loves what they do. I’ve been part of Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka since 2008 and one of the (many) aspects I love about my job is the way we’re using technology to help our riders fulfil their potential and realise our shared dream of greatness.
This sounds awesome – and it is – but there’s also the reality of keeping the team in business. Because the team is a business: a business that relies heavily on sponsorships. To be an effective billboard for our sponsors, our riders have to perform at the highest level. Our role is to help them achieve this.
Each rider works with a manager (directuer sportif) and a coach to define their annual performance goals. Then a science-based annual training plan is prepared to ensure they’re ‘start-line ready’ at the right time. We help the rider to prepare physically and mentally for each race. At this level of competition that takes some doing, and our team has some unique challenges to overcome.
Professional cycling teams need a lot of support to maintain high levels of performance.
For riders coming from Africa, the demands and pressure of international racing are considerable. Races on the African continent are comparatively short and the level of competition relatively diluted. When competing at a WorldTour level, riders have to be prepared to race two to three times the distance or time, at two to three times the intensity, in all-weather conditions, over challenging terrain, and against fierce competition.
These young men have to adjust to European life, as they are geographically distanced from their home countries, cultures, language, and support networks (family and friends). Only those with high levels of talent, drive and resilience adapt and eventually step up to our WorldTour team and perform.
In an average season our WorldTour riders will cycle 28,000 to 32,000km, 850 to 1,000 hours, and compete in 70 to 80 race days; a heavy physical load. They travel extensively across countries, seasons and time zones. This places them at risk for injury, illness and over-training syndrome.
It’s really critical that we’re able to stay in daily contact with each rider, monitor their subjective feedback and proactively deal with issues as they arise. Our goal is to deliver our riders to their races in the right form and good health so that they can perform consistently.
Using technology to bridge the gaps
Technology helps us to connect, communicate, and address health and wellness issues efficiently and effectively. It bridges certain gaps in communication and support so we can keep our riders healthy, keep them training, and help them perform at the highest level.
Over the past year we developed the health and wellness mobile app with Dimension Data. Our riders take no more than three minutes each day to complete the app questionnaire on their mobile phones. They report on their location, sleep, and subjective wellness parameters. They also use the app to alert their support team to any issues (injury, illness, weather, equipment, etc). Their responses are relayed to their management team by email and a dashboard, and are also pushed to the rider’s personal TrainingPeaks accounts to become part of their training load data set.
The health and wellness app developed for Team Dimension Data alerts support staff to issues affecting a rider’s training or performance.
A low-maintenance, high-impact app
We didn’t want to add further pressure to the team by asking them to send detailed daily updates or answer long questionnaires, so we designed the app for riders to use on their phone. They answer questions about their mood, sleep patterns, energy levels and how they’re feeling about their training and performance overall.
It takes just a few minutes for them to capture this information. For the first time, we’re able to monitor a rider’s progress daily. The app helps us assess how they’re doing and acts as an early-warning system to the entire team, so the right person can step in quickly to offer the rider the support they need. Our medical team is now able to pick up on illnesses quickly and start treatment early, for example. It’s also helped us feel a lot more connected as a team.
In just a few minutes, riders can send important information to their core support team from anywhere in the world.
Potential for greatness
What’s great is that we also get an idea of the psychological condition of each rider. The brain is the most powerful organ the body – if we see that a rider is feeling stressed or demotivated, we can investigate ways to get them motivated again.
By combining this subjective data with the objective data we gather from our on bike technology (Garmin units, power meters) on the bikes, we’re able to get a more complete picture of each rider– how they’re doing physically and mentally.
What’s so exciting is that we’re just seeing the start of what technology can do in this field. Further developments, like machine learning and artificial intelligence, could help us identify patterns in training and performance, and gain deeper insights into how we can help our riders develop to their full potential.
We’re getting pretty good at collecting data. The key for us is now is to unlock that data so we have a deeper understanding of human performance and can improve the care and support we give to our team.