Learning From The Northern Classics

By Brian Walton

Dominique Rollin (FDJ-Big Mat)
Dominique Rollin rolling.

It all starts with the basics. If you don’t have the fitness, you can’t start. If you don’t have the technique and tactics, you can’t compete. If you don’t have it all, you can’t win.

I went back to Belgium this spring to observe one of my most talented athletes, Dominique Rollin (FDJ-Big Mat) as he prepared for the great northern classics, Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix. I was invited by Dom and his director sportif, Marc Madiot, the passionate cyclist and family man who won Paris Roubaix twice in 1985 and 1991. As I sat across from Marc and listened to his words, I was getting goose bumps and flashbacks to my racing days when I lived and raced in Flanders from 1989 through 1992. It wasn’t my style of racing and I didn’t reap the rewards for years to come, but my four years in Europe taught me how to be a professional and now the learning experiences to hand down to all my athletes.

It was back in 1989 that I rode my first and only Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix. It was similar to my first Olympics in Seoul in 1988 in many ways, in what I would recall in my conversations as one of my “nonevents.” I was a non-factor, a DNF, not even an afterthought in the press. I finished my race at the 180km feed zone after flatting, trying to motorpace back on at over 50mph behind Mike Neale and the 7-11 team car, to no avail. It was the end. After a few miles, Mike and I both knew it and he gave me a jacket and told me to find the soigneurs at the feed zone and hop in the car. It’s a humbling feeling to be told, “you’re done.” I hopped in a car, went to the finish, and watched one of my teammates, Dag Otto Lauritzen get 3rd. Then I drove to Paris that night, woke up, flew to Spain early in the morning, and started Pays Basque at 1:30pm that same day (first stage was a short hilly 150km) and then finished the 6 stages in five days. Immediately after the race, I flew back to Paris and started Paris Roubaix on Sunday; a day after Pays Basque ended. Paris Roubaix was no different than Flanders. I was the first domestique, which meant that my role was to help out in the early stages so my teammates could conserve as much energy as possible for the later stages of the race. My job was to go back and get bottles, keep one of our protected riders, Bob Roll, out of the wind and drop back if anyone flatted. Well, Bob flatted and Norm Alvis and I went back to bring Bob back to the group. Only problem: as we stopped, Bob came back sitting behind the team car at over 50miles per hour. Norm and I…? We had to time trial ourselves back to the group and we started the first cobbled section last and second last. (See picture to get a perspective as to why you can’t move up when riding with 200 of your closest professional cycling friends – Yes, narrow roads. If you are not at the front, you are off the back!) That effort darn near killed us but the nail in the coffin was the Arenberg forest. I had moved up in the group in between cobbled sections (insert importance of bike handling – Tip One!) I was sitting on two great wheels – the two best Irish Cyclists of all time: Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly. Back in these days, you could ride off the cobbles and most riders would shoot for and ride the dirt next to the cobbles. “SSSSS”, Roche flats… another 100m….Kelly flats, I had a clear shot to make the select small second group, and hopefully recover as best as possible in the small confines of the select group before the next section of cobbles. Then, fate struck me…my rear tire, punctured. It was a cruel end to my Roubaix. What made it even crueler was the minutes that went by as I rode my flat to the end of the cobble section, waited quite some time for a spare and then watched Roche fly by with 4 Carrera teammates and Kelly fly by with 5 PDM teammates. I finally got my spare wheel from a neutral Mavic support car but in reality, the day was over, sort of…

As a professional cyclist, and for anyone that strives to be the best at what they do, you need to be adaptable. I believe, the more you can adapt and how quickly you can adapt to the changing situation, the more success and true potential that can be drawn out of you. In the case of me at Paris Roubaix, it wasn’t a game changer for me on the cobbles of France. It was a more of a chuckle. After I flatted and rode by myself for what seemed like another 100miles but was closer to 20miles (I’m sure everyone knows what I’m talking about if they have ever been dropped in a race and faced a tough headwind the last 10 miles home), I came across a wonderful site; a Canadian flag with three exuberant Canadians cheering me on. I looked at them like they were crazy. I was 15 minutes down at least at this point and just trying to find my quickest and shortest way to the Velodrome in Roubaix. “Bingo, adapt. Day was over. Look at that van they are driving!?”“Hey guys do you have room for me in the van?!”“They looked at me, “Jump in Brian! Let’s go to Roubaix!!” Sweet, that saves me another 30 miles grinding it out to the velodrome. We ended up talking shop for the next hour about cycling, hockey and life in Europe. It was a great distraction and it was uplifting to be talking with a few friendly faces and follow countrymen. It was a nice end to the day that otherwise wasn’t very rewarding on the bike.

How can the Spring Classics help you and what can you takeaway from my experience in Belgium and France?

Walton’s Way: Bike handling and pack positioning are essential for every cyclist. If you are not near the front of the group, you are not in the race. Keep your head up, look past the turn, weight on the outside pedal when making the turns and you have mastered 90% of cornering.


Brian Walton was a 12 year professional cyclist on 7-11, Motorola and Saturn, and a three-time Olympian (1988, 1996, 2000) who won a silver medal for Canada in 1996. He has been a USA Cycling Developmental Coach of the Year and has coached athletes of all abilities from beginners to UCI Pro Tour cyclists. Currently Brian is the founder of Walton Endurance Training, http://waltonendurance.com, and can be reached for questions and inquiries at brian@waltonendurance.com.

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