The cycling coach as sports scientist

Inspired by his childhood dream of becoming a professional cyclist, UM alum Dajo Sanders decided to study Human Movement Sciences. His other dream did come true: he ended up working in pro cycling. He is now a trainer/coach for one of the world’s best teams, INEOS Grenadiers. “The magic of cycling lies in the unexpected.”

From an early age, cycling was everything to Dajo Sanders. Talented and fanatical, he rose through the youth ranks. In high school, his main goal was to become a professional cyclist; studying came a distant second. “After high school, I decided to go to university because fewer contact hours would give me more time for cycling. I chose the programme based on my passion.” He pursued a bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Sciences, followed by a master’s in Human Movement Sciences.

Sanders turned semi-pro and participated in various international races. But it gradually dawned on him that he didn’t have what it took to compete with the best of the best. “I was riding in the under-23 category, and only a few of us would make it to the big leagues. By then, my interest had been piqued in the scientific approach to sports. I was already coaching junior riders. Towards the end of my master’s, I bit the bullet and decided to pursue a career in human movement sciences.”

Areas for improvement

Having set his sights on working in the world of pro cycling, Sanders interned with teams such as Belkin ProTeam, later Jumbo-Visma. He recalls from his undergraduate days a study of the Argos-Shimano team. “It was a performance analysis of their two top sprinters, Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb. To my surprise, the team used the results to decide who would do the sprint in each stage of the Tour de France. It was my first experience of the direct application of sports-science research to pro cycling.”

Sanders obtained his PhD in Sport and Exercise Science from Liverpool Hope University, where he studied the monitoring of training load in professional cycling. He then became a trainer/coach at Team DSM, where his responsibilities included analysing performance data, developing training plans and conducting physiological tests. His ultimate goal: to make each cyclist faster. “The best part is gearing your sports-science knowledge to each individual rider’s personality. You analyse their performance data to identify the most promising areas for improvement, which interventions to use, which aspects of training to focus on. It’s like solving a jigsaw puzzle.”

Off days

He recently moved to one of the world’s top three teams, INEOS Grenadiers (formerly Sky)—a team known for its scientific approach to optimising performance. Sanders is responsible for the riders’ physical preparation and supporting the psychological aspects of performance. “I try to keep them focused on things they can control. But in cycling, you always have to expect the unexpected—a crash, an off day. It’s essential for them to overcome these kinds of setbacks and realise that cycling will always bring new opportunities.”

Working with top cyclists motivates him. “They have these driven, dedicated, disciplined personalities that you have to rein in rather than push. It gives me a lot of energy. How can you help each individual rider get the best out of himself?” Sanders already has a string of successes to his name. Two of the cyclists he coached, Jai Hindley and Wilco Kelderman, placed second and third respectively in the 2020 Giro d’Italia.


The magic of cycling

The research skills he developed during his studies still help him on a daily basis. “They’re general academic skills, like interpreting research and critically evaluating evidence.” Today’s cycling coach is essentially a sports scientist, he says. “During the Tour de France, for every rider you get data on more than ten variables per second. Data from heart-rate monitors, power meters, body-temperature sensors. Even training plans—monitoring trends and progress—are based on all kinds of data. How do you decide which information matters?”

He is not worried that the increasingly scientific approach will make the sport less exciting. “We’re actually seeing the opposite, with early attacking and more aggressive racing. Cycling will never become an automated system—too many unexpected things happen. That’s the magic of cycling.” As for whether the mountain of data is overwhelming for the cyclists themselves, it depends on the individual. “Some riders prefer more freedom and dislike being dictated by data. Others like how it takes decisions and uncertainties off their plate. As a coach, you take their personalities into account.”

Pro-athlete mindset

To work with pro athletes, he says, you need to have a pro mindset yourself. “I work for a team that wants to win big races. That’s the best we can strive to achieve. To do that, it’s essential for everyone, myself included, to keep learning and improving. This is a 24/7 job. I’m always available to give feedback, or on the road supporting the riders. My goal—the thing that drives me—is to be the best cycling coach I can be.”

Text: Hans van Vinkeveen
Photography: Dajo Sanders

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