I’m always surprised when I meet exceptional athletes by how very normal they look. Meeting with double world champion, Lisa Brennauer, in the lobby of a hotel in Mallorca the same surprise hits me.
I’m not sure what I’m expecting – bionic limbs, zero per cent body fat or protruding muscles that can’t be wrapped up by clothing – but the 2014 Road and Time Trial and multiple Team Time Trial World Champion from Germany looks incredibly human.
She plops herself down confidently opposite me, shoulder length brown hair tucked behind her ears and rubbing her hands in anticipation of my questions (before quizzing me about the whereabouts of the German TWC).
As 2016 looms ahead, I’m eager to hear about her expectations – can the coming year bring the same success as 2014, when this rider claimed three highly sought after World titles?
I ask her what happened in that year that made her name unforgettable and she replies, somewhat philosophically for someone whose first language is not English: “In 2014 I was just going further on my path, on my way. I’d been mostly on the track, and after the Olympic Games in London I decided to focus more on the road.
"I wanted a new challenge, I was enjoying it so much and was working with a new coach. The result was that 2013 was a good year for me – but due to all the new, hard training, and all the road racing compared to what I was used to, by the end of the season I was burned out.
“I wasn’t able to deliver at [the 2013] Worlds what people already expected of me. So I was quite unhappy with my eleventh place – well, not unhappy, but everyone expected more, especially me as I’d been top ten all year - to end up eleventh at Worlds was a pity."
“In a way, 2013 was the build-up, 2014 I got the pay off."
Disappointment can fuel success – and for the next year she made some small changes – “I learned from 2013 that you can’t only race, race, race, and perform well all year. So I tried to structure a bit more and I set my goals – the big goal being the World Championships. I did less racing and prepared for a big peak of the season, I think that’s the only thing I changed. In a way, 2013 was the build-up, 2014 I got the pay off."
During road races Brennauer has often been the team captain for Velocio-SRAM and this will remain the same as most of the riders join the roster of new team, Canyon//SRAM.
However, time trialling is her speciality and the art of hovering your effort level just over the line of what can be achieved holds a special place in her heart – she tells me: “I’m quite a good team player which makes me love the road races. But I would say that TT is something special to me, and the team has put so much energy and love into the TTT that it gets a special meaning."
“In a TT you only have those 40 mins to show what you have inside of you"
Riding a time trial well, to your upmost ability, is a special art. Go too hard and you’ll burn out before the course is covered, leave just a little ounce of energy remaining and you’ll always know you didn’t achieve your potential. Thousands of amateurs attempt it up and down Britain’s roads on a weekendly basis, but none to the success of Brennauer. I ask her what she focuses on.
“I do focus a bit on the power data, but I’ve found out that it can drive you crazy as well. It’s always good to have some numbers, seeing them allows you to say ‘hey, you can go harder, I know it, I know it’. It has to do a lot with mental strength, taking your body to the limit and further. Earlier times [in my career] I found myself going away from my thoughts in the time trial - sometimes the road is boring, but the better I got the more I tried to stay 100 per cent focused throughout the race.
“I tell myself ‘you have to go faster, you really have to go faster’ that’s the sentence going through my head a lot of the time. Also the strong meaning of the word ‘yes’ instead of being in the ‘no’ mood plays a big role for me, trying to motive myself."
“I concentrate on the important things, I tell myself ‘you have to go faster, you really have to go faster’ that’s the sentence going through my head a lot of the time. Also the strong meaning of the word ‘yes’ instead of being in the ‘no’ mood plays a big role for me, trying to motive myself."
There’s more to it than keeping mentally positive, however – she adds: “also being totally focused on the course [is important], knowing what’s coming up. I always try to have the next step in my head – for example there’s a corner coming up in 500m, and that keeps you focused. And I’ve found that very important to not lose concentration."
A time trial is a fine balance of the athlete’s physical power, and aerodynamics. Precious time can be lost if either is sub optimal – I ask the expert which she believes is most important: “I think that it’s most important that you are in a position that you can deliver the most power in, or that you feel confident in it."
"I found myself doing the best numbers when I was confident with my position and when I was able to deliver good power."
"Of course if the numbers of the aerodynamics – the difference that can be made - are very big you have to find a compromise and go for the aerodynamic factor. But I found myself doing the best numbers when I was confident with my position and when I was able to deliver good power. But you mainly have to find the best comprise between the two and aerodynamics is a big aspect of course."
Many of the riders within the team have a track background, and Brennauer is clearly no exception. Discussing if she thinks it makes a difference – she says absolutely: “I do think it helps with everything I’m doing right now – if it’s the cadence you have on the track and also the power output. So the whole school I’ve been going through on the track helps me a lot on the road and with the TT as well. Especially TTT is something that I can take a lot from my knowledge from the track. The position on the bike and the love for that kind of discipline I think contributes a lot too."
Though the TT holds that special position, road racing is of course high on Brennauer's agenda. And it’s very different: “In a road race, concentration is very important. In a TT you only have those 40 mins to show what you have inside of you. In the road race you are with your team and have hours of racing ahead. You have to observe what’s going on around you, have to observe team tactics."
"It’s more thinking about what is our next step as a team, how can I use my team in the best possible way. Tactics you calculated before don’t always turn out – unforeseen things happen – so you have to be quick in your decisions and always stay in the race and try to make it you race and your team’s race. As I’m often team captain I have to think a lot about my team – where are they – how do they look, is everyone still good, who is best to carry out the next step."
“And you have to know you competition. That’s very important - to know their strengths and weaknesses. You have to do your homework."
Despite her friendly nature and openness, I get the feeling you don’t want to be on the opposing team – and if you are Brennauer is doing her research – she adds: “And you have to know you competition. That’s very important - to know their strengths and weaknesses. You have to do your homework."
The team roster consists of many riders who Brennauer has shared multiple successful years with, and a few new faces.
She says: “I want 2016 to become a very good year and I think that within this team I have best opportunity, team mates and staff and structure, to be prepared. It’s a special year with Olympics of course. I feel good and have lots of positive thoughts about next year, but I try not to stress too much about it. I think I have been on a good path in the last few years, so I just need to focus on staying fit and healthy in 2016."
I expect a lot of us could learn from that very relaxed, very normal, very human attitude behind this extraordinary athlete.