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Father and son (1/2)

Hennie and Tom Stamsnijder. Father and son. Hennie became the first Dutchman to win the cyclo cross world championship in 1981 and rode the Tour de France in 1981 and 1982. He works as a marketing manager for Shimano in the Netherlands. His son Tom followed in his footsteps and at 30 years of age is still a professional road racer with Team Giant-Alpecin. We asked the Stamsnijders to join us for a friendly face off. Here’s the first instalment of two.

What’s the biggest difference in cycling racing now and when Hennie rode in the peloton?

Hennie: So much has changed. Just look at how much we have progressed in terms of the material, how we approach training, the medical aspects. We used to ride with five-speed cassettes in the back. Now they have eleven. We shifted on the downtube, now riders change gears on the handlebars. We had shifting cables, nowadays it’s electric. Today everything’s perfectly balanced. Cyclists know exactly how many calories they’ve burned and adapt their nutrition to that knowledge.

Tom: It’s much more scientific. People see how important it is from a sponsoring point of view. Nowadays we look at the smallest details to see where advantages can be gained. But the goal is still the same: first to cross the finish line wins.

Hennie: We rode on steel frames, and now for every kind of race or discipline there’s a special bike. There’s a special bike for time trials, a special bike for climbing, a special bike for cobblestones. 

Which technology in last the five or ten years has had the most impact on the sport?

Tom: Power meters help you to keep the level high. They allow you to publish your data, which people are increasingly demanding. But I think in purely technical terms electric shifting is what has had the greatest impact. It’s pretty amazing to see that it only takes about a week to get used to, but as soon as you have to use an old-fashioned bike again, say a 9-speed with manual shifting, you just can’t go back. In fact, you wonder how you ever managed to cycle on a bike like that.

Hennie: Yes, automatic shifting has been the most important innovation. But for these guys, the power meter is important too because they can keep track of their wattage during training. Let’s put it this way, there’s no way back. We’ve gone from having to figure out exactly in which gear we were in on the downtube to a system where you can change gears and brake in the same place, on the handlebars, so I can hardly imagine anyone wanting to go back to gears on the downtube. 

The grand tours are becoming increasingly crowded, both on the road and on the side of the roads, where a huge number of spectators are close to the action. Are they getting more dangerous, and if so, what can be done to make racing safer?

Tom: With more powerful brakes you can descend much faster and tend to brake much later. But if something does happen, there’s a higher chance of a serious injury because you’re moving at a much higher speed. There are a lot of people on the sides of the roads now. People see it on TV and think it would be fun to watch, but these are often people who have never been exposed to cycling and have no idea how fast we go. We were in Yorkshire this year, for example. Lots of spectators showed up, but they have no idea of the speeds involved. They think we race at similar speeds to normal cyclists.

Hennie: They don’t have a real cycling culture there yet.

Tom: To stop that danger, you could easily issue warnings in papers or on TV. For the rest, it’s not really such a problem. People just need to be more aware of what racing is all about and stay calmly on the side of the road and not do stupid things like run along with the cyclists. Spectators are part of this sport of course.

Hennie: Those idiots in costumes alongside the road who run along, they often come from places where there isn’t a cycling culture yet. They’re just trying to say, ‘hey, look at me, here I am, dressed like goose.’ Shimano was providing neutral service at the Olympic Games in London, and we were amazed how scary it was sitting in one of these support cars. The racers are protected, but once they’ve passed you get a whole caravan of neutral cars, who are there to offer support if something goes wrong. After the peloton goes past, the masses just spill onto the road. But sometimes we need to drive back to help someone, and because time is of the essence, we’re reaching speeds of 120 km/h. I remember driving through a tunnel at a certain point, and you wouldn’t believe what we came across: parents crossing the road holding their children’s hands. What were they thinking? It’s scary.

Tom: We’ll get there eventually by trial and error, but of course preferably with as little error as possible. But these situations can be prevented by warning people to be careful. Spectators are part of the sport, though. It’s a people’s sport and that mustn’t change.

Hennie: It’s a down-to-earth sport, we don’t have sky boxes. The racers are always within touching distance.

Hennie, did you encourage Tom to become a cyclist?

Hennie: No, no! In fact, I always told my three sons that they couldn’t have a bike before they turned 14. But Tom was very sport-minded, always active, doing all kinds of sports.

Tom: I was actually the one who never wanted to have anything to do with cycling.

Hennie: Nothing to do with cycling, but he was always playing football and tennis. But he got growing pains playing football.

Tom: Yes, I grew really fast. And it’s because of the growing pains that cycling came into the picture, because my doctor told me that if you like sports, you can still always cycle. So it made sense to choose a sport that I was good at, and of course my father was a cyclist. He didn’t just give us bikes though, so I borrowed my older brother’s bike. My father told me to find out if that’s what I really wanted. It was, so my father agreed I could have a bike, but he said I would have to earn it. And he wasn’t going to clean it for me – I had to do that myself.

Hennie: I think I was very aware of what you have to give up for cycling. Let’s put it this way, I wasn’t afraid that he wouldn’t do well. He was always a fighter. But I was very aware of what he would have to give up. Imagine: you’re 12 or 13, going to school and have friends. You have to sacrifice your social life.

Tom: He always supported me, but never in the sense of screaming from the side of the road during a race or giving me instructions. But he did warn me about the grand tours once. I had wondered why he never encouraged me to do this sport. And then I rode my first grand tour. There was so much pain, so much effort involved. I remember telling him, ‘now I understand why you never encouraged me’. ‘Why,’ he asked? I told him it’s because you’d have to be crazy to put yourself through this much pain. You can’t force anyone to do this and then enjoy it. I think that’s the essence of cycling. You have to really want to do it yourself. That’s what makes you put in the effort and give up all those other things in life.

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