In those years the former rowing and swimming coach from Australia has also coached their Australian Sky teammate Richie Porte towards his chance of one day emerging from the rank of their 'wingman' to going into a grand tour as Sky’s designated team leader.
That opportunity is now finally under way at the Giro d’Italia that started on Saturday. Before the race began, Kerrison spoke to Rupert Guinness for Cyclingnews and The Sydney Morning Herald about Porte’s “roller coaster” progression and his status as a Giro favourite.
Rupert Guinness: How do you feel Richie has been tracking towards the Giro?
Tim Kerrison: After a difficult season for Richie last year, he did a bit of soul searching. We did some investigations into his health, ended the season early and pressed the release button. We identified a few things with his health that needed addressing, but also a few things with his approach and the way he has been going about doing things … which he needed to change and has really taken on board. So far the result of that has been a very consistent season for him. We know one of the key things for a grand tour is: you have to be a great climber, you have to be a great time trialler, but above all else you have to be consistent – stay out of trouble, stay healthy and while everyone has some ups and downs, not have a bad day.
RG: Can you elaborate on what “things” you had identified about his approach?
TK: If you were to crudely draw his trajectory over previous seasons, it’s been a bit of a roller coaster. He will go through phases of not really living the lifestyle of a professional athlete and putting on weight and not being as focused as he needs to be. Then as he approaches a big competition he will over do it a little bit, and have to be chasing form and lose weight. He has always been on an upward or downward trajectory.
What we have done this year is smooth that out. He has had to learn how to operate in the middle … how to maintain and be consistent with his training, nutrition and look after himself, his lifestyle. What he has learnt really is that it is bloody easy. When people started questioning him in January – in the way they questioned Brad [Wiggins] in the beginning of 2012 when he was winning races early, and with Chris [Froome] in 2013 - some sounded like a broken record saying, ‘You’ve hit your form too soon.’ All the guys did was to learn how to be consistent and professional and live the lifestyle of an elite professional athlete. Richie is on a very similar trajectory.
RG: What do you think of Richie swimming in the off-season 20 to 25km a week?
TK: It is something he enjoys doing. We talked about continuing less frequently through the season. There is a bit of a concern. We don’t want him to be retaining any unneeded muscle mass in his upper body. But it’s a nice thing for him to be able to do in the off-season, to balance that in training and to give him a bit of variety. Cyclists tend not to do a lot of cross training or have a lot of variety in their training programs.
RG: Either way, Richie seems to be racing now with far more assuredness …
TK: There is a real confidence. It is very reminiscent of Bradley in 2012. When they are on it, those guys are on it. They are always where they need to be. They never miss a beat. They are always in the right position. It’s because they have both the physical ability to be there more easily than anyone else, and … the more commitment and sacrifice they have made to be in the great shape they are in, the more they want to make sure they don’t make any silly mistakes like miss a split. There is an attention to detail that carries over from the training to the racing as well.
RG: Has his program been aimed at reaching an optimal level and holding it, or is it steered towards him reaching another level which we will see at the Giro?
TK: In a race I don’t think we have seen the best of Richie yet. My objective as his coach is to get the best out of him and for him to learn to get the best out of himself in a racing context. I have spoken in the past about some of the impressive things I have seen from Richie in training, and the objective is to for him to be able to perform at that level and to receive that level of performance form him at the Giro.
RG: It is known now Richie set a record for the ascent up the Col de la Madonne behind Nice. Has he bettered that mark since, or did he try to before the Giro?
TK: We haven’t done one going into the Giro. It’s always very tempting when you are in great shape to test yourself on something that, other than gaining from confidence from, doesn’t really mean much. It takes a bit of self control to recognise that you are better off doing a training session that you would benefit from or freshen up which has been one of priorities. When you go for a time on something like that … you can go very deep and do a bit of damage, when what he really needs to be doing coming into a grand tour is make sure he has the right balance of fitness and freshness to get through the three weeks in great shape and still be strong in the third week.
RG: How have his performances in training compared to Wiggins and Froome?
TK: As time moves on, at some point times that were being done in training or racing by a previous generation will move on. Richie is redefining the standard for our training group, and it is a pretty good group. We have had Bradley and Chris … All the guys at Tenerife with Richie were top 10 grand tour finishers … The beauty of such a strong training group is they continually re-set the bar for each other, in performance standards, behaviour and professionalism, and in the way that they look after themselves - the way they fuel themselves, and look after their body composition.
RG: Many have noticed how Richie has lost weight and that he is now down to 58kg. Can you quantify how much stronger he is or not by losing that weight?
TK: Richie has lost steadily from the beginning of his season that really started at the beginning of October when he started training … He raced the Tour Down Under in the low 60s and has gradually come down to 58kg. It is difficult over that time to quantify what happened with his power; but his power to weight has significantly improved. The trade of off is for time trialling. The performance requirement of time trialling is slightly different. It’s not so much power to weight but power to drag. You don’t want to lose too much raw power and [in the Giro] there is a 59.5km time trial. We don’t want to lose so much weight that we also lose that time trialling ability.
RG: Many talk of Richie’s bad days in a grand tour, but from the seven he has raced he had just two - in the 2013 and 2014 Tours. How much of a worry is it?
TK: His first [grand tour] was the 2010 Giro. The thing that caught our eye was not his pure climbing ability or time trialling ability, but consistency for his first ever grand tour. He got that result partly because of the day there was the big split, the day he took the jersey (stage 11 to l’Aquila), but as well as that he didn’t have a bad day. He was consistent. In the five years since, he has improved his level significantly in time trialling and climbing. Add the extra demands of really fighting out those mountain stages, really competing at the sharp end of the race, it makes being really consistent a lot harder. You have to focus much more on what you do from stage to stage and recover from the demands. You are right, he has had a couple of days, particularly in the Tour – in 2013, the day after he came second on Ax 3 Domaines [stage 8] and was sitting in second in GC, and then in 2014 [when] it was not so much that he had a bad day … he just went from being very good to being sick and had a bad half of the race. We recognise consistency is an absolute requirement … He recognises that you can’t win a grand tour or podium without that. It is his objective and our objective for the Giro, to be as consistent as possible throughout the race.
RG: Many people see you as the numbers guy who calculates the data and works out what Richie has to do in training, but listening to Richie there is more …
TK: The tag is a part of a sport that is so data intensive. Anyone who coaches in the sport has to take on board all the information that is available. In modern coaching - in any sport - there is an element of data and utilisation of data to make more informed decisions. We don’t let the numbers make those decisions for us. But it is about balancing input from all the information that is available with what we know about the athlete and how they respond to training and how they respond to different situations. It is about the relationship we have with those athletes, understanding them and what they need and how they respond. I met Richie first at the end of 2011 when he joined the team. It’s been a journey for all of us in the team for the last four years to help him grow. He came to the sport relatively late. He came in to a team where he certainly served his apprenticeship. Probably more than just about anyone in the peloton, he sacrificed his own opportunities to support the other leaders in the team. The number of times he has ridden for Chris and sacrificed his own performances for Chris and Bradley. He served a long apprenticeship and during that time he has learnt and we have learnt how to get the best out of him. So its great to arrive at this point where he is the number one GC rider in the world this year and he is as well prepared as he ever has been to come n a take on a grand tour and get the result he deserves.
RG: Richie posted on Twitter a picture of the interior of a double pop-out motor home that he will sleep in during the race. What is the reason behind this?
TK: We are exploring some opportunities around how we operate and testing some things during this race. It is part of that pilot project. We will keep a room for him in the hotel in this initial case, if the parking location isn’t great or if it’s noisy or because of security concern. It’s just a familiar environment he can go back to every night. He has got into a routine where he prefers to be on his own ... skip desert and go back to his room after dinner, speak to Gemma [Nicole Barrett, his fiancé] on the phone and then get to bed early. Sleep and recovery is so important. But we will play it by ear. There may be times where he will prefer to have a roommate.
Rupert Guinness is a sports writer for The Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax Media)