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The Tobinator

Velominati Interview: Garmin’s Toby Watson

by frank / Nov 16 2010 / 57 posts

Keepers: We understand you’re fairly new to cycling. How does a physio with little background in cycling end up getting hooked up with one of the greatest teams on the Pro Tour?

Toby Watson: “Little background” is being pretty generous there. I was a blank slate as far as cycling experience was concerned! It was a case of being in the right place at the right time. I had been working with the Aussie track and field athletes (mainly race walkers) for five years, and one of the hitters from that group was Jane Saville. Jane’s husband happens to be Matt White (cycling hardman and now number 1 Director Sportif for Garmin-Transitions), and he would visit Jane while we were on altitude camps in St Moritz, and needed a bit of work done over the years. In 2008 he called me up and asked if I would be interested in living in Spain and working with a Pro Cycling team as they were short on medical-type coverage in the town where the majority of the team were based. Thinking about it for the span of about 7 nanoseconds, I jumped on board: not the toughest decision of my life.

Keepers: Some of our readers might not always realize the kinds of support teams that are involved in keeping a Pro team in competing form. Can you give us a quick overview of what the medical team goes through during a race, particularly a Grand Tour like the Giro or the Tour?

Toby Watson: Our team has a doctor, a chiro and a physio on hand at the big shows. Our first gig is to make sure that everyone slated to go will be right to rock throughout the race, which obviously takes place in the weeks and days leading in to the race. Once on the road the doc covers all of the little ailments that we don’t notice in our normal daily life (like sniffles and stomach aches, etc) but that can have such a massive effect on the boys’ performance. The chiro and I go through all of the boys each day and try and sort any niggles or complaints out that the boys have that their soigneurs haven’t been able to deal with. Atop that, the lads who crash get assessed for their ability to ride on, and treated to maximise their chances of carrying on as racers, not just making up numbers.

Keepers: Describe for us what it was like to be a newcomer into the sport, and to get thrown into your first big race?

Toby Watson: I was lucky to have my start at the Tour DownUnder, which is a very pleasant race for staff to be on: one fancy hotel, small (police escorted) transfers, first world country, shops nearby, English speaking country, and little or no rain. That said, there were moments of terror – my very first feedzone was on a slightly downhill drag on a corner. The boys came through at about 45-50km/hr, and my total instructions and training had been the very informative phrase “don’t move.” I reckon my heart rate was around 160bpm, and I was (dutifully) standing stock still hoping no one would notice the brown stain in my pants. Well it wasn’t quite that bad, but you get the idea.

My first “proper” Euro race was Tirreno-Adriatico, which included 400km transfers, snow, a stage victory for Tyler, 2 lunatic Canadians filming a doco on Ryder and lackadaisical Italian race “organisation.” It was barely controlled chaos, and an absolutely cracking good week. I think I slept for about a day and a half afterwards, but had had a taste of it, and fell in love with the sport.

Keepers: After a season of settling in to the scene at Garmin, how well were you prepared for the Tour?

Toby Watson: Prior to the start of this year’s Tour I was pretty confident that I had things dialled. It was my fifth Grand Tour, so I knew what it was going to be like as far as the intensity, length and hype were concerned. Couple that with having been to two editions of Paris-Roubaix and the Ardennes Week, and I knew there would be some serious challenges for the boys to deal with (and thus for we the staff to help out with), but I was confident we were nicely on top of things. We had high hopes of stage wins and a good GC finish, and going on previous form, these were all reasonable goals for our boys.

Keepers: This year’s tour saw some crazy stages in the first week; you even had to serve as erstwhile mechanic on Stage 3. What was that stage like for the team, on the inside? Was this a step too far, or all fair game?

Toby Watson: Leading up to the Tour we knew Stage 3 (mini-Roubaix) was going to be tough, but with our roster, we actually thought we were a good show of doing some damage. We had Tyler, Johan Van Summeren (Summie), Martijn Maaskant and Dave Millar as four very different cards to play as potential stage winners. We also knew that Christian Vandevelde had always acquitted himself well on the stones when he’d ridden them in the earlier part of his career, so thought he would be a chance of gaining some time on his GC rivals. There was a lot of talk of “it’s gonna be filthy” and “caaarnage” but no talk of it being too much. We were looking forward to it as a team.

The med team were sweating and biting the nails a little, but considering we’ve had a lot of crashes but no major damage to our boys at Roubaix, we figured things would be fine on the whole. And for that particular day, they indeed were. It turned out nothing like we expected, with Ryder shredding it, Summie just missing the break being on the wrong side of a Saxo dust-up and Ty and Millar both in survival mode while VDV had already gone home, but that particular stage was a cracker from our team’s perspective.

Keepers: This season has seen piles of injuries, including Tyler Farrar, Christian Vandevelde and David Millar. Tyler was awarded the Rule 5 Award for sprinting to second place in a Tour stage with a broken wrist and again for winning stage 4 of the Vuelta after puking all day the previous day; what did it take from the physio perspective to get the guys back up and into form?

Toby Watson: There are two key areas and two time frames to what we have to do in these situations. The areas we work on are the damaged/affected bit, and the mind. The time frames we work with are acute and long term.

The main area we work on is the damaged bit, and the main thing we’re worried about is the mind. You see the boys drive themselves into the deepest holes, and store it in your backmind, knowing that they will have recovered enough overnight to think that they’re going to be ok the next day, and then they drill themselves again. So you may, for example, try and talk them into riding “small” for a few days, just getting through so they can feature deeper into the race; and also try and lower the expectations of the rest of the team so they’re not asking too much of the boys on those days.

The “acute” phase response deals with how bad the injury is; what investigations need doing (if any); what we can do to allow best performance on the bike without doing further damage (bike mods, strapping, bracing, etc); and a prognosis for how it should behave. The “long-term” response is about normalising everything again – strength, range of motion, position, coordination, etc. A big part is ensuring lasting damage won’t be done, and reassuring the rider that this is the case once the adrenaline has returned to normal levels and they notice how bloody sore they are.

Keepers: What was it like as a physio and a team player to be a part of Ryder’s incredible Tour performance? When a guy has a ride like that, that may not have been planned for, does it change how you work with him as a physio because of increased performance and demands? In other words, would he require more, less, or the same recovery regimen?

Toby Watson: The Grand Tours are so hard that we can’t afford to leave any recovery strategies up our sleeves for when athletes perform above expectations. We work full gas for all of the boys with various recovery strategies. This doesn’t mean that they all receive the same recipe for recovery, but within the scope of what they can tolerate and what works for them, we give them everything we’ve got.

As for Ryder’s performance itself, we at first were merely breathing a huge sigh of relief that despite all of the adversity we were facing, we still had something to race for. Staring down the barrel of 17 more stages of the Tour just trying to salvage anything positive is a serious drain on the morale of the whole team, so Hesje shook us out of that prior to it actually setting in. Once he got to the final few days I was pretty confident he’d continue to do well. His time up Ventoux last year was one of the best of the whole race – he had missed the split prior to the base of that climb, but then just picked blokes off all the way up, finishing within range of the big hitters time-wise. Thus I figured Tourmalet wasn’t going to be bad, I admit I didn’t think it would be quite that good though! (as an aside, these are all just my half arsed Monday’s expert vibes – I have nothing to do with team strategy or tactics, and am no cycling sauvant)

Keepers: Is there a point where you say, “Alright, mate, you’re fucked – better drop out”? Or do you just keep pointing at the big wall-sized poster of The Rules (which we assume you have) and refer them back to Rule 5?

Toby Watson: I have an abbreviated rules list, consisting solely of Rule 5… Haha.

It is rare that I have to talk to them about hardening up when they’re actually damaged. It’s a standard paradox – when all is going well they’ll bitch about the terrain, the weather, the taste of the coffee, the colour of their sunglasses frames, the hotness of the podium chicks, everything; and when they’re deep in the hurt box they just shut their mouths and get on their bikes. As for yanking them, it is an even bigger rarity. Usually it is a case of knowing they’re not going to be able to start that day, but letting them go through the motions of trying it out. I love it when they prove me wrong!

The only time we will pull someone out is when something bigger is coming up and they’d be better served getting over whatever is wrong quicker so they can be at full gas for whatever the main goal is.

Keepers: What’s the most egregious Rule violation you’ve seen this season?

Toby Watson: I’m not sure if it was a violation, or adherence above and beyond the call of normalcy, but Pozzato having a spare set of sunnies in his back pocket was a hilarious display of the cliche of the poseur Italian. He hit the deck very hard in one of the Dutch stages of the Giro, and took ages to get back up off the ground, let alone onto his bike. He faffed around for a while with his helmet off, checking his hair was alright, then gingerly got himself back in the saddle, rolled up the road through the convoy and pulled another set of sunnies out of his pocket. Absolute gold.

Keepers: So the word is official, Garmin is partnering with Cervelo next year which is very exciting and will bring in some strong new riders. Do you see the team’s plans changing much with the addition of riders like Thor Hushovd wanting to focus on the spring classics?

Toby Watson: I’m no strategist, but I know we already had a very strong team for the Classics. Millar and Tyler figured very highly in Flanders this year, and Martijn and Summie have both gone top 5 at Roubaix in the two editions prior to this year, so I don’t think the addition of the Cervelo boys will have changed the plans, it just puts more bullets in the chamber. It’s going to be an AWESOME Spring campaign!

Keepers: On the cobbled Roubaix stage when you were standing there with a set of wheels praying Ryder’s stage win would not be ruined by the world’s worst wheel change, did the mechanics give everyone a lot of practice changing wheels that morning? Would you have asked Ryder to do it himself as he would have been thrilled to even have a good wheel where there was no team car support?

Toby Watson: Hahahaha!! I was genuinely crapping myself when I realised Ryder was still in the lead coming into my sector! We had no practice whatsoever – I think it’s just assumed that everyone can do a decent job on the change, but I am always upfront about my total lack of ability when it comes to the actual bike. I repeatedly make sure the boys know I am there purely to give them their wheels, not to change them! Team mechanic cum philosopher Kris “Grom” Withington did tell me that even though it feels like you’re taking forever, if you just take your time and get it right, it will only be a few seconds. He is a dead set ninja when it comes to wheel changes though, so I reckon his opinion may be a little skewed.

Keepers: We love your posts on the team website as they are such a good look at the day to day emotion and craziness of stage racing for everyone in the team not just the racers, keep ‘em coming. Tell us about your most thrilling memory in this year’s TdF.

Toby Watson: Thanks for the wrap on the blog! tobbloggan.wordpress.com is my personal one (hahaha – gratuitous plug). I struggle to keep these answers to a single moment, so will give a couple of snapshots that I personally loved -

  1. A brief glimpse of a fluorescent orange helmet that could only be Ryder in the mist behind JQuan Rodriguez at the top of the Tourmalet almost brought tears to my eyes
  2. Seeing Ryder launch out of the dust and murk, and come off the final cobbled section in the lead and absolutely launch himself up the road in the fight for the stage win was equally awesome
  3. Getting to the top of the Madeleine and despite having a good view of the descent for kilometres being unable to see Millar when he was riding solo behind the grupetto was also a great moment as I knew he was still fighting hard despite what could only be one of the toughest of days in the saddle.

I still can’t believe they’ve been paying me to do this stuff for the past two years, but you take it when offered!

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Thanks, Toby – Great luck in 2011.  Make sure to go over Toby’s Flikr Stream; some great shots and hilarious captions available there.

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