Interview with Gene Palumbo -- World Champion

Taylor Phinney just won the U23 World Championships in the TT discipline which makes Colorado's total Worlds TT champions for 2010 two! The other World champion in 2010 is Gene Palumbo who won his title a month or so ago in Austria. I've had the luck of racing on Gene's team a few years ago and now the honor of interviewing him.

[303Cycling] Competing in the World Championships isn't something you decide a few weeks prior to the event, how long has this quest been in the plans?

I began thinking about competing at Worlds about 3 years ago after competing at Nationals. I met a guy at Nationals named Thurlow Rodgers who is a World Champion and was intrigued by his success and the fact that he had rainbow stripes on his kit. I thought, Wow, what an accomplishment and how cool to focus and achieve that level of success. I decided then that I would figure out what it took to go to World’s and what it would take to focus in training for the Time Trial event and if I would even have a chance at getting on the podium if I committed to doing so. I heard the event in Austria was very professional, dynamic and a really cool experience.

[303Cycling] What was you life/training like to prepare for Worlds?  (I don't need training plan details but how intense was your training?  Would have this been something like out of the movie Rocky?)

Everything on a daily basis had to do with sticking with my training plan as well as diet, scheduling with my wife and making many sacrifices including family to focus on cycling. My wife and son are 100% supportive and we all schedule our days, weeks and events around my training calendar. How amazingly selfish and egocentric this has all been but without the support of my wife and son this never would have solidified.
In training for the World’s, I tried to leverage the foundation of training and racing established during the past several years. From 2006 through 2008 I was coached by the same USA Cycling certified coach and in 2009 I ended up coaching myself. I went to the World’s in St. Johann, Austria in 2009 and ended up 22nd in the Time Trial and was very disappointed as well as mad at myself for a bad performance. While in Austria I met a guy named Michael Carter and agreed to utilize his coaching services in 2010 with the goal of focusing on my time trialing abilities and trying to win Nationals and Worlds. A large part of the motivation to focus on time trialing was due to lower back problems that have been getting progressively worse. I have found that spending less time in the saddle for long durations and my position on a time trial bike essentially gave me a new life in racing as I had seriously considered quitting many times. The excruciating back pain and associated physical therapy, stretching, core work and time needed to do all these maintenance things, in addition to training, was becoming too much to handle for myself and my family from both a financial and emotional perspective. Coach Carter worked around my back issue by developing a training plan focused on shorter duration training rides with high power intensity. I was basically spending about 10-12 hours per week on my bike and another 3 hours per week focused on lower back maintenance including core and stretching work. Each month I would go to Coach Carter’s studio for Conconi testing to measure how training was progressing and adjusting the training schedule accordingly to accomplish the Nationals and World’s goals. I don’t know if this was something out of “Rocky” but like any athlete that wants to be successful, I was very focused and dedicated to my training schedule. I truly believed I could win if stuck to the training schedule like glue no matter if I was sick, it was snowing or whatever other excuses could have gotten in the way. I believed in Coach Carter’s reputation and planning but I also believed that if I utilized his training plan and kept the rest of my body in killer shape that I would be stronger than anyone else at Worlds. I did whatever I could to give myself a competitive advantage including projecting myself onto the podium for months while training. Part of my training included a mantra my 8 year old son made up for me: “Ride like a bullet train” During races on out on training rides during the past few years I must have repeated this mantra thousands of times!!! I was pretty much riding 6-7 days per week. Monday’s are usually my recovery or Off day and I typically would treat them as active recovery days.

[303Cycling] Guten Tag Gene, what was it like to be at Worlds?  Did have plans to work around the German's high fat diet?  Did you treat this like "while I'm here mind as well have a vacation or was it all business?

Being at World’s was very motivating. The town of St. Johann in Austria has been hosting this event for about 16 years and they fully embrace the event and athletes. The UCI does an excellent job of presenting a highly professional and expertly managed event. There are banners and signs all over town as well as thousands of athletes from around the world that all feed into the racing events creating an extremely dynamic and somewhat intimidating atmosphere. During training rides around the area you would see hundreds of riders in packs riding everywhere preparing for their respective events. You could simply jump on with a group of riders and get to know riders from all over the globe including Italy, Russia, Netherlands, Spain, Brazil, etc. It was amazing who you could actually be riding with, Olympic athletes, National Champs, World Champs as well as former elite pros that have simply aged a bit. Very humbling in many ways to be surrounded by these types of people. Much like riding around Boulder, you never know who you are talking to and what that individuals accomplishments are.

Yes, the Austrians consume lots of fat and so did my family and I. As a compliment to my FRS, whey protein and l-glutamine I brought along for dietary pleasure we ate fresh bread, cheese and butter every day. We rented an apartment with a full kitchen so we could cook meals and eat properly according to our schedule. So, there was a bit of worjk around the German’s high-fat diet as well as some enthusiastic participation by us.

I rode everyday while there in preparation for the two events I was racing in: the World Cup Road Race and the World Championship Time Trial. This training was mixed in with much sightseeing and tourist stuff like trips to Salzburg, castles and hikes in the Alps. As there was much at stake, I was smart about resting, keeping off my feet on critical days and some days I simply let my wife, son and mother go off on their own while I rode, ate, slept and worked on bikes.

Now that is a close finish!

[303Cycling] What was the course like and what was it like to be in the moment?

The course is fairly flat, following a river grade down until approximately the 9k mark where an approx 300m, 11% uphill grade to a false flat turnaround. Then going back to the finish the course follow the river grade up stream to the finish. Typically, it is a tailwind out and headwind back. This year it was opposite with a headwind out and tailwind back.

The UCI cancelled my race registration as I discovered after going to race headquarters to check the start list the day before the TT. After they fixed the problem and got me back into the race the only spot available to start was first out of the gate!!

After arriving at the race start/finish I went to the tents set up by the USA athletes and support folks to warm up. The warm up tents were set up about 40 yards from the start ramp and leader board to you could see and hear everything that was going on. While I was warming up my cleat broke, my Zipp 1080 wheel cold not accept any more than 30lbs of tire pressure and I found out I was not on the start list again. Fortunately, there were several people there to help me out and while I warmed up it all came together just a few minutes before I had to go into the corral and get my bike checked in.

First out of the gate is a bit stressful. No one to chase or to gauge your speed with. As I stood on top of the ramp with my feet clipped in for a minute before my start I simply thought “ride like a bullet train” from start to finish!! The officials began a 10 second countdown and I visualized myself on the #1 podium. At the same time, my wife, son and mother were reminding me to leave nothing on the course and if I did not to bother coming home. There is lots of activity at the start/finish area and it seemed to become dead quiet as I concentrated on what I needed to do. Before I know it I was on course sprinting off the ramp getting up to speed then down in the saddle, aerobars and into position. At that point, I was just focused on going as fast as possible.

At the 3k mark I thought I was going to blow up but had top remind myself that the lactic acid would go away and I would settle into a better rythym. The surprising headwind didn’t really change my race strategy at all because the course distance simply dictated going as fast as possible the whole time – no adjustments necessary!

I made a conscious decision to stay in my aero position and in the saddle for the 11% grade at the 9k marker. I kept the cadence I wanted and powered up the climb to a false flat to the turnaround where there were a few hundred people yelling and ringing bells. The turnaround wert well - I had practiced it about 50 times during the week.

Part of the race strategy, according to Coach Carter, was to drill it for the last 3k to the finish. This was funny to think about as I approached the 3k marker as I was, in my perception, “drilling it” already. So, I found some extra energy and tried to drill it even more through the finish line.

[303Cycling] Did you know as soon as you crossed that you had a very fast time to beat?

Since I was first out of the gate and was not passed by anyone on course, I came across in first place - allright. I didn’t know my time for a few minutes because the leader board was right at the finish line and I had to make my way back to it after catching my breath. When I got there my number #427 was in first place with a time of 25:22. This time would have won last year as well so I was feeling good and bad. Good because it was a screaming time but bad because I now had to wait for 70 other guys to finish. The 50 minute or so wait as other racers came to the line was pure torture and agonizing!!! My 8yr old son stood watching the leader board for that whole duration with fingers crossed on both hands for good luck. Another friend was standing at the finish line with the start list and crossing off racers names as they finished. The last racer on course, was the current World Champion, Dzmitry Buben, and I was still in first place by 1.7 seconds. When Dzmitry crossed the finish line and they showed him, #514, at +1.26, and then his number popped into second position I knew I had won. This was solidified by the race official announcing me as the 2010 World Champion. The USA folks were jumping around, my family and I as well as friends were embraced in a group hug and some tears were shed. It was a tidal wave of emotion and elation.

[303Cycling] Standing on the podium, getting the Gold, wearing the jersey, what was that like?

Standing on the podium was absolutely awesome and humbling at the same time. Flashes of riding in the rain and snow, my son asking me to stay home and not go for a training ride, riding injured with my teeth grinding from back pain and my wife making every adjustment possible to support me over the years were just a few of the many things flashing through my mind in this brief moment. When the awards ceremony was over I wanted to remain up there for the night and camp out.

After the announcer introduced me as the World Champion I was able to climb up to the #1 spot on the podium and stand there with my hands in the air with hundreds of people cheering for me. The awards ceremony was in downtown St. Johann and under the lights. Lots of flags from many nations blowing in the night wind, a bigscreen TV showing the podium for people in the back to see. My wife son and mother right in front of me watching the whole thing. After the 2nd and 3rd place finishers were announced I was presented with my rainbow jersey, gold medal and trophy. Francesco Moser, “The Sheriff”, and cycling icon, presented me with these trophies and I got to shake his hand!!! I got to hold up my trophy again with my rainbow jersey on. The other two athletes were presented with their medals and then the USA national anthem was played while the American flag was raised. I felt very proud to be an American and representing my country in the #1 spot. Sounds corny but it was a very powerful feeling of patriotism and pride. I wore my jersey and medal out to town to celebrate with some cappuccino, ice cream and a glass of Austrian white wine with my family. Many people speaking different languages were congratulating me around town and wanted to hear the story!

[303Cycling] Now back to life, family and work, what will 2011 be like, will you defend the medal?

2011 will be very similar to 2010 as I am continuing to train and ramp up to defend and win again next year. This time around however, I am last out of the gate…

Snippet of Gene's 2010 results, Click for full results

News Item: