Profile: Alex Sans Vega, coach of Unit Nutrition athlete David McNamee

Profile: Alex Sans Vega, coach of Unit Nutrition athlete David McNamee

 — By Matthew Johnston, Toronto-based film producer

Alex Sans Vega is still an enigma in triathlon despite taking David McNamee from 11th to 3rd in his two appearances at the Ironman World Championship. These results are no surprise for anyone plugged into the pro-cycling circuit because Alex Vega is the youngest Directeur Sportif to win every pro cycling tour on the planet. A Directeur Sportif (DS for short) is accountable for the entire operation of a ~$20M per-year pro cycling team and responsible for delivering results in competition. My favorite story features Alex’s work to bring the first team from South Africa to the Tour de France and engineer a stage win on Mandela Day.    

Over drinks I ask Alex an obvious question; “so how will you make David faster on the bike?” Alex looks thoughtful for a second, then starts brainstorming out loud; “well, we could put a motor in his bike” and he followed this with a few other funny ideas. I chuckle at the joke and notice Alex turned down an opportunity to impress in favor of some fun. The answer comes out later when Alex is feeling introspective: “The mind is everything. Confidence and motivation. That’s my priority.”    

Growing up in Barcelona, Alex and his friends learned to handle a road bike darting through the steep, twisting, narrow streets and lanes, carving a line through busy traffic. “My Dad got into cycling when I was about six and we started riding together.” Alex has warm memories of him and his Dad going out on long rides together on the weekend. Alex and his friends also took advantage of the nearby Velodromo de la Vall d'Hebron that was built 2 kilometers from his house. Barcelona hosted the UCI World Championships in 1984, then the Olympic Games in 1992. Alex started racing when he was 13 years old with his Dad as his volunteer support crew and number 1 fan.

While football (soccer) is the national sport, cycling had been hugely popular in Spain since the 1940s. Every era of modern cycling features a list of outstanding Spanish riders. During Alex’s youth it was Pedro Delgado who won the Tour de France in 1988. “He was my idol,” Alex confesses. In the late 1990s Alex was riding for Sport Ter-Tedesan, a local cycling team that was based in Girona, a ninety-minute drive north-east of Barcelona. At the time Girona was a small factory town that produced pulp, petrol and rum. “The area around Girona was beautiful, perfect for cycling. But back then the city was smelly and rough” says Alex. “For cyclists, if you wanted a coffee you had to go to a bar and sit with all the drinkers.”

Alex has noticed the changes technology has brought to coaching. There is much more data available which is a positive, but technology has also eroded the human relationship between athletes and coaches. The trend is for coaches to carry a roster of mainly remote “clients.” Coaches will download their client‘s Training Peak numbers and upload a workout plan for the following week. In this scenario, contact between athlete and coach is mainly emailed with a little bit of skype. This may be adequate for conditioning, but Alex’s 10,000 hours have left him with the view that a coach-athlete relationship needs to happen in real time.  

Alex’s riding career was cut short after he was involved in a serious crash. His injuries healed, but his confidence as a rider never came back. A Danish DS named Johnny Weltz needed a crew to cover a few events. Alex went to work for Johnny, launching his second career. Fast forward to 2008, Alex was now working on the CSC team when one of its riders, Carlos Sastre, won the Tour de France. After Carlos’ big win, CSC’s bike sponsor, Cervelo, wanted to build their own team around Carlos. With Carlos’ support, Alex landed his first gig as a DS for what became the Cervelo Test Team in 2009.

Alex looks at an athlete holistically, focusing his attention on the intangibles of human psychology. Conditioning and equipment are table stakes for elite professionals at David’s level. But on race day it’s confidence and motivation that will separate good from great. Two factors that will impact confidence include the way the athlete feels in training and the build of their race season. On that second point, David has been hit with bad luck. David caught a stomach virus in the days leading up to IM Austria and settled for 15thplace. In Vichy, France, David was leading the bike when a flat tire took him out of the race. These types of setbacks, no matter the cause, can affect David’s ability to visualize himself winning.

The upside is David’s training: “We know he has better endurance, he can hold big watts on the bike longer than what he was able to do last year. We’ve moved him on to a bigger chainring every year for the last three years now, holding the same cadence.” On race day, David can leverage these improvements by cutting his bike deficit, coming off the bike fresher for a faster run, or some combination of the two.”

“A number of the pro riders on the Cervelo Test Team lived in Girona, so I was spending more time there. I moved to Girona in 2004.” Alex’s former employer, Johnny Weltz, became the tipping point for Girona. Johnny was a former pro cyclist who lived and trained in Girona and knew what the area had to offer. Johnny became the DS of the US Postal Service Team and moved the team to Girona in 2002. Alex remembers when the four American riders, including a Texan named Lance, moved into a flat on Carrer de la Forca. The rest is history.

I ask Alex if David’s difficulties inside British Triathlon still affect him. Alex knows David is still working through that experience, but says that David also recognizes it for what it is. “When David turned to Ironman, his results quickly proved that he has a place in the sport. He built on that.” (For the record, David won his first Ironman sending him to the World Championships in his first season where he finished 11thwith the fastest run split of the day.) “David has put himself in a good place, he has a great circle of friends around him, he has a wonderful girlfriend.” After last year’s third place finish, Alex has noticed a shift in David’s confidence. “He sees himself now as one of the best. David would never tell me that, but before last year’s race he was talking to me about 10 or 12 people he was thinking about. This year it’s 3 or 4. So that’s how I know.” 

Leading up to the race, Alex shares an interesting conversation he’s been having with David about motivation. When you arrive on race-day, there is an important difference between being the best versus winning the race. Winning the race is a more tactical goal that can be bargained down under circumstances. Trying to be the best can’t be bargained down, it’s a position that requires steadfast self-belief, desire and purpose. Being the best is all-encompassing, it creates a visceral response. Framing the objective in a different way creates a different mindset that will drive more successful behaviour.

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