Mentoring Cycling’s Future
In the Year of the Bike, Austria’s Bernhard Eisel shares trade secrets with the next generation
For the first time in nine years, Austrian Bernhard Eisel was not amongst the 198 cyclists at the start of the Tour de France, as he had expected. A member of the British "Team Sky", he was "really disappointed". But on the bright side – and with him there always seems to be a bright side – he would have a summer at home.
So perhaps it was not really all that surprising when, one April afternoon in Lienz, East Tyrol, 15-year old Felix Gall spotted Eisel cycling by in the striking black and sky-blue uniform of the British Sky team. Gall was already an avid cyclist, and cheered on by this writer, he screwed up his courage and approached his idol. Could the pro spare a few minutes to talk about cycling? Maybe give him some tips?
Eisel is sensitive to the difficulties young people face breaking into professional cycling in Austria, where he says the infrastructure is not up to standards. He steered Gall to a nearby café, ordered a double espresso and started talking.
Better skills and less pain
Bernard Eisel, a charismatic 32-year-old Styria native with the winsome smile and 24/7 five-o’clock shadow, has become a familiar figure during recent editions of the famed race.
Last year he was often seen riding in the front of the pack where, as Road Captain, he was responsible for leading the race, helping control the pace – and thus was instrumental in the overall win of his teammate, Bradley Wiggins, the first Englishman ever to win The Tour.
This year he will be competing instead in the Tour of Austria (June 30-July 7).
In the café, the teenager listened with rapt attention. "A good cyclist should be balanced rather than obsessed," began Eisel, who placed an impressive 12th in Paris-Roubaix this year. He related how as a teen he didn’t have a regimented training plan, as many do today.
"We just got on our bikes and rode." He encouraged Gall to continue competing in triathlons, a discipline the young athlete enjoys.
"Swimming and running will help you later," Eisel said. "You’ll have better coordination and stability on the bike and fewer back problems than someone who starts cycling at 12 and never does anything but ride, ride, ride."
The lonely road
Gall had been surprised to see his idol on the streets of Lienz.
But racking up thousands of training kilometers alone on the road is all part of the job for Eisel, who started his professional career at Francaise des Jeux, then moved on to Germany’s T-Mobile team and stayed on when it became Columbia-HTC, managed by American entrepreneur and cycling fanatic Bob Stapleton.
When that team dissolved for lack of sponsorship, Bernie went to Team Sky with sprinting star Mark Cavendish, who insisted that his lead out man and best friend stay by his side.
Eisel related how his coach sends him both weekly and daily training outlines. A standard training week for Eisel includes between 20-30 hours of cycling, pushed to 35 when the pressure is on. "The first hour is always the hardest, you have to hurt yourself to keep going," he admitted, "but then, all of sudden, it’s ok."
Eating right for the ride
On a long race day, Eisel revealed he often drinks a protein shake during the first hour of the race, urging his body to turn on the fat burning process. Then it’s lots of electrolytes, bars and gels. Mini ham and cheese sandwiches and rice cakes made with coconut oil and flavored with cinnamon or cranberry juice are also found in Team Sky’s musettes (snack bags handed out at the feed zones during a race).
In the bus after the race there’s "pineapple juice – litres of it, and lots of rice." He laughed. "Lots and lots of rice!"
Eisel follows a strict nutritional routine while training. Trying to get rid of fat during spring training, he only ate protein. "Breakfast was fat-free yogurt, eggs or a protein shake – no carbs, no bread no muesli."
But young people should eat a well-balanced diet and not be obsessed with food. Giving the extremely lean Felix a once over, he chuckled, "You can eat Wiener Schnitzel or ice cream now and again. What’s important is: Don’t worry over your diet or it will end up breaking you!"
It’s not just about the bike
Getting away from the bike is just as important as being on it, the pro told Gall. During down time, he suggested cross-country skiing. "Take breaks, do nothing," Eisel urged. "Learn to shut down your thoughts. Your body can take a lot but watch out for your head, give it a break too." The obsession sets in soon enough.
"Keep me posted, Felix," Eisel concluded, giving him his private number, "and I’ll see what I can do for you." Then he hopped on his bicycle for the 150 km ride back home.