Brian Stephens was a professional cyclist until 1991. Straight after his racing career ended, he switched over to coaching. He has worked with Michael Matthews since 2009, when the two met at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, and Stephens is currently responsible for coaching nine Team Sunweb riders, including Matthews and Wilco Kelderman. He talked to The Prologue from the team’s altitude training camp in Tenerife about his approach to coaching cyclists at the very top of their game.

Training World Tour riders

What are the main differences between your work now, and your previous role at British Cycling and the Australian team?

The main difference is that in the past I mostly worked with the men’s under-23s and now I am coaching [UCI] World Tour riders. It is a similar job, but with the youngsters it’s more about developing the guys into well-rounded sportsmen who pick up some successes along the way. With the World Tour men, there is a lot more emphasis on winning races.

What are the differences at this high level?

With these guys, we look physically at how much load, and then how much recovery they need. That’s one of the main things: balancing the load and recovery. This is a complex balance. Sometimes you want to push them to the edge, but definitely not over the edge. You don’t want to be too hard, but not too soft either. You have to know the guys well, I think. Every rider is different physiologically, but also psychologically. As a coach, I try to get to know the guys as well as I can in both aspects in order to coach them best.

Brian Stephens

Are the guys all lazy and overweight after Christmas?

No, not at all! They don’t let themselves go too much. Some of them may have put on a kilo or two over the festive season, but we’ve already had three training camps since then, so most of them are riding near race weight now.

You’re on altitude camp at the moment: is training at altitude a speciality of yours?

Well, I’ve done a lot of it and I am very interested in the subject. I also keep up with all the latest research on the subject—I enjoy it.

Matthews, Kelderman and Dumoulin

Why are you training at altitude right now [early February]?

We always do a preparation period at altitude round about three weeks before the target race or period of races. Right now, for Wilco we are currently targeting towards Paris–Nice, and for Michael Matthews it’s the Spring races.

Tom Dumoulin and Michael Matthews are both with you on this training camp. They are very different riders, but are they training together?

I write Michael’s training plan—not Tom’s—but, yes they are training together. I have Tom’s plan here beside me, and it is not very different to Michael’s at this moment in the training cycle. These two riders have very different bodies but we are trying to fit their trainings with each other right now. With Michael, we are currently focusing on getting to the finish fresh, using race-specific efforts. We don’t start the sprint work until nearer the race.

Dumoulin Matthews Kelderman

Tom Dumoulin at altitude training with Wilco Kelderman (left) and Michael Matthews (right). Photograph: Twitter / @tom_dumoulin

Talent versus work

What is best: a super-talented rider, or someone who just works really hard?

I always say I’d rather coach someone who works hard, in preference to someone who is really talented. I have seen a lot of talented riders who do not have the drive, but someone who is driven will always go further. And if you get both, then you have gold—like the guys I’m coaching now, Wilco and Michael. You see a lot kids who are really talented. Success comes easy to them as juniors, but when they have to work hard they don’t have the right mentality. When it comes down to it, it’s really damned hard work!

It is best for a rider to have excellent power numbers, for example, or to win races?

I’m very big on process. I don’t talk about winning, but doing all the things you have to do in order to be able to win. The reason for this is that if the focus is on winning, once you’ve won, it’s done.

And that can lead to complacency?

It can, but let’s say your goal is to win the Tour de France, what do you once you’ve won it? And if you don’t, you’ve failed. So I strongly believe in enjoying the journey and enjoying what you’re doing every day. And if you win, great, but it’s not the whole picture.

Winning itself is not the main goal. Photograph: Cor Vos.

Mental aspect of sport

How important is the mental aspect of the sport?

Crucial. I am a strong believer in the psychological aspect of human performance. I think it’s very, very powerful. You can put two guys together who have the same physical capacity, and if one is able to push themselves, or apply themselves to their training more in a psychological way, they are going to go further. If you’re hammering up the Cauberg during the Amstel Gold, and the rider who pushes themselves right to edge of their ability at that moment—the guy who thinks to himself that he might be able to get another 10 watts out of himself—is the guy who will win.

Can you train that too?

It’s a lot harder to train than the physical side, that’s for sure. It’s about your approach and putting yourself through psychological barriers that you thought were there but which you can go beyond. My opinion is that the psychology will stop you way beyond you being able to damage yourself when you’re already a highly-trained athlete. I always think the human mind is a bit soft on you: it tends to play things pretty safe. You can often go a lot deeper than you think you can.