BOULDER—The Boulder Center for Sports Medicine offers no visual foreshadowing save a few photos inscribed by world-class athletes.
Inside and out, the building resembles a place 40-something soccer moms visit to collect flu shots between spin class and carpool. Medical posters and dozing colors say ‘hospital’ more than ‘Olympics.’
In reality, BCSM is a hub for world-class athletes headed for London, including cyclists Taylor Phinney and Evelyn Stevens.
Also tucked into Boulder’s west corner off Mapleton Avenue is prominent U.S. cycling coach Neal Henderson.
U.S. cycling’s power couple Connie Carpenter-Phinney (1984 gold medalist, cycling road race) and Davis Phinney (1984 bronze medal, cycling team time trial, two-time Tour de France stage winner) hand-selected Henderson to train their son Taylor.
“I kind of knew, this was kind of a big deal,” said Henderson, who graduated from the University of Colorado with a master’s degree in kinesiology and applied physiology before joining the BCSM team in 2001.
Henderson, a former professional triathlete and promising decathlete, maintains an upbeat persona and a helter-skelter schedule.
Calling himself an “odd bird” in that he coaches Olympic-level cyclists and triathletes, Henderson also consults with the Colorado Avalanche and regularly flies to Los Angeles (as U.S. cycling coach in women’s team pursuit) and Europe (to train Czech Republic Olympic cyclist Roman Kreuziger).
Named Developmental Coach of the Year (’07) and National Coach of the Year (’09) by USA Cycling, Henderson collected the Doc Counsilman Science Award from the U.S. Olympic Committee this spring for his aerodynamic drag analysis.
More befitting of the BCSM building, Henderson is a science nerd who specializes in transforming physiological testing and data into practical applications, obsessing over each tenth of a performance impact percent.
He trains a total of four Olympians scheduled to compete in London in addition to coaching the medal-contending women’s team pursuit (silver medalists at the 2011 UCI track cycling world championships) and a cadre of junior and masters cyclists.
“Sifting through (data) is critical,” Henderson said. “The background scientific knowledge is critical to understanding this information, and then literally just the hours of time and years of looking at a broad range of that information coming in.
“I see streams of information from literally a huge cross-section of population.”
More than a decade ago when Henderson started, many Olympic cyclists did not train with power meters that monitor heart rate, pace and power. Serious recreational cyclists, the type that complete multiple century rides a year, have those now.
Data no longer is a revelation, but maximizing its use yields difference-making gains.
Stevens, a former Wall Street investment banker whose career change has been chronicled by ESPN and The Wall Street Journal, contacted Carpenter-Phinney to inquire about top-level cycling when her training consisted of riding a stationary bike in a Manhattan apartment. The two still are close; the latter referred Stevens to BCSM and Henderson in May 2011.
Stevens met Henderson at a track camp a year earlier, attending a presentation the coach gave. The subject? Applying Taylor Phinney’s data.
“I remember being so impressed. I was like, ‘Wow, I wish I had a coach who could explain what my numbers meant,’” Stevens said.
Remember, this is a woman that debuted as a Wall Street investment banker in her early 20s.
“Even though I worked in finance, I don’t know if I’m the best with numbers, so it’s quite nice to have a coach who can help you understand where you are physically and what the numbers mean,” she said. “In bike racing, the numbers are really important, but it’s more than numbers and science. It’s nice to have a good balance with the human element.”
If all that sounds too affiliated with the world of medical journals and monotony, consider Bermuda triathlete Flora Duffy’s assurance: you won’t catch Henderson and his athletes mimicking the stone-faced attitude of the Chinese gymnastics team.
During a Skype interview from Girona, Spain, last week, Stevens’ eyes lugged heavy bags. The local time: almost 11 p.m.
“But I go to bed at 9,” Stevens said.
Duffy (interrupting): “You go to bed at 9?”
“Yeah. I go to bed early. It makes me ride my bike faster. You should try it.”
The two athletes and Henderson all laughed too naturally for it to be the first or 10th time.
And Stevens got into cycling to avoid board meetings, not spend more time crunching numbers.
“Making the switch in my career, I get to live out what I love to do every day. Overall, I’d say I’m a lot happier. That’s probably the biggest change in my life,” she said.
Stevens’ latest Boulder stint lasted nearly two months starting in May. Now she and Henderson communicate via Skype and Blackberry.
The Bermuda tri angle
Duffy remained in Boulder weeks from her second Olympic go-round.
In Bejing, she got lapped on the bike leg and disqualified. The disappointment threatened to force her from the sport for good.
Incidentally, Duffy sat one row behind Henderson and Carpenter-Phinney during a 2008 flight to the Games. Duffy’s coach recognized Carpenter-Phinney. The triathlete halted her white-knuckle anxiety and offered Henderson a brief hello.
“I was too concerned about the 10-hour flight,” Duffy said. “The plane was super old. It was like Air China from the’70s. I was like, ‘Oh my God. We’re not going to make it.’”
Duffy grew up swimming and running in Bermuda, a British territory in the North Atlantic Ocean. She returned to the island after the Olympics, working in a shop and temporarily halting her education after attending boarding school in England.
Recouping, she decided to attend college at the University of Colorado on a friend’s recommendation. Duffy had joined the CU cycling team in a low-pressure way to feed her competitive side and began training with Henderson.
“In the back of my mind I knew I’d probably want to get back into triathlon at some point, but I didn’t want to move somewhere with the sole purpose of doing triathlon,” Duffy said.
“Neal was coaching me and kind of guiding me slowly back into racing at the top level, little did I know.”
Duffy, a world-class swimmer and cyclist, struggles at times with the final discipline. Through a BCSM running gait analysis, Henderson found Duffy slammed her feet in part due to weak glutes and improper hip alignment.
Between fixing her form and dealing with plantar fasciitis, which slowed her most of the winter, Duffy has logged triple-digit miles on an AlterG treadmill. The device features a skirt-like apparatus that covers athletes’ lower bodies and creates a sense of weightlessness.
“Someone on the track randomly on Tuesday after I did my workout, he was like, ‘Wow. You know, you look really good when you’re running, especially for a triathlete!’” Duffy said. “I was like, ‘I’ll take that!’
“That’s all you can think about when you’re on (the AlterG), staring at a blank wall: ‘Run properly.’”
Duffy hopes for a breakaway group of about a dozen on the triathlon-opening swim, which would allow her to pursue a top-10 finish.
“That gives me the ability to really push the pace on the bike and separate us from everybody else. For me, that’s crucial. If that didn’t happen, I’d be a little flustered,” Duffy said.
Henderson will be on hand for her race, but was denied a one-day Bermuda accreditation (conflict of interest).
The coach knows difficult logistics. Phinney finished seventh in Bejing’s individual pursuit. Barred from the Olympic velodrome due to a lack of credentials, Henderson waited outside during pre-race training sessions to grab Phinney’s SRM (a type of power meter), then rushed to his hotel to download the data. The two would Skype, after which Henderson scrambled to set up a meeting with a U.S. official to get the SRM back to Phinney in time for the next day’s workout.
“It wasn’t ideal, and I knew I wanted to have some way of being part of the games on the inside,” Henderson said.
Phinney won the individual pursuit at the 2010 and 2011 UCI track cycling world championships. Henderson pursued accreditation for the 2012 Olympics.
But the International Olympic Committee and the Union Cycliste Internationale discontinued individual pursuit as an Olympic event with a 2010 vote. Phinney is headed to his second Olympics despite the switch in disciplines.
“His career has blossomed incredibly well,” Henderson said. “It’s amazing that he was actually selected for both the time trial and the road race this year.”
Though cycling sites suggest they are not favorites, Phinney (time trial) and Stevens (road race) are medal contenders.
Henderson and Boulder at large have plenty to follow in London, as events begin in less than two weeks.
“UCSM has been a huge help for me qualifying for the Olympics and going into the Olympics in such a confident position,” Duffy said.
“We’re a bit secluded from the Who’s Who of Boulder triathlon, which is nice. We can kind of hide in Boulder. I’ve just learned to tune all those people out and just listen to Neal.”