An Inside Look at MotoGP
Behind the Garage Door With Ben Spies and Tom Houseworth at the Gran Premio d' Italia at Mugello, Tuscany, Italy
By Samuel Quarelli Fleming & Melissa Berkoff Yamaha Factory Racing invited Roadracing World editors Sam Q Fleming and Melissa Berkoff to be embedded with Ben Spies's MotoGP squad at the 2011 Mugello race. This level of access has never been granted to any journalist in the past. Some access was restricted to allow Spies to focus on his race routine and to preserve technological secrets from Sam and Melissa's trained eyes and ears. The following series of articles convey the exotic, and the familiar, about racing motorcycles at the highest level.
Deux ex Machina
Brent Copeland, the Man Behind the “Machine.”
Ten years had passed since we last saw him on the eve of his professional roadracing career, and Ben had gained much during that time. The thoughtful, focused 16-year-old had developed into a methodical, driven, successful world champion racer with a wealth of accumulated experience. But in the hollows below his cheekbones and in the sharpness of his jaw, his face betrayed other changes. We could see that, since leaving the U.S., he had also lost something.
Specifically, 10 pounds.
It's hard to believe that there's any fat on there at all. Fortunately the ink doesn't contribute significantly to overall weight. Spies suits up for Friday morning practice while Copeland locates his back protector. Photo by Sam Q. Fleming
The rules in MotoGP dictate a minimum weight for each class of bike based on the number of cylinders, and although a move to a combined bike/rider weight minimum is being considered, smaller, lighter riders currently have a weight advantage.
When Spies was racing in the U.S. his weight was averaging 165 pounds – by no means overweight for a 5'11” athlete, but a clear disadvantage when measured against a rider weighing in at around 115 pounds such as Dani Pedrosa. For World Superbike, Ben Spies version 2.0 had trimmed off about 5 pounds, but for MotoGP Ben Spies version 3.0 needed to be even lighter while maintaining optimum fitness and overall health.
Enter Brent Copeland.
“The Spies's are family to me.” - Brent Copeland. Photo by Sam Q. Fleming.
Copeland's two-wheel background is in bicycle racing. Originally a bicycle racer from South Africa, the 39-year-old Copeland has lived in Italy for the last 16 years and his CV includes work with the cycling teams of Velo Club Lugano and Team Lampre. After racing in Europe for four years, Copeland got certified in sports massage and became team masseur for Team Lampre, and after three years he moved up to the position of Sports Director.
As Sports Director he organized and managed logistics for 60 team members racing in as many as three races simultaneously. He worked with the team through six Tours de France, four Giros d'Italia, five Vueltas a España, eight Tours of Switzerland, and more.
His introduction to Spies came by way of Ben Bostrom who met Copeland when they both lived in Como, and the two had become cycling partners and friends. When Bostrom learned that Spies had chosen Como as his home base in Europe for his move from AMA to World Superbike, Bostom made the introduction.
During Copeland's stint racing in the World Superbike championship he functioned as Spies's masseur and training partner. Spies had won the World Superbike championship in his rookie season in 2009 and had made the decision to move to MotoGP but he knew the premier class would bring its own challenges of physical fitness. The two began talking about bringing Brent on full-time, and after a trial run at Jerez in May 2010 he was officially hired.
They now share a house in Como, where Copeland is always available to advise and guide Spies with his training and nutrition.
“I am loving GP,” says Copeland. “The first year was difficult because I was used to running an organization with 60 people and I came to a place where I didn't have much control. Now I love it. It is so satisfying to work with Ben. I miss the tactics of bicycle racing but everything else is great.”
Copeland now helps Spies set short- and long-term training goals, closely monitors his progress throughout the season, and modifies his training regimen and nutrition as necessary to ensure that Spies hits his targets. Spies has a power meter on his bicycle that records his output to a data file he can download and email to Copeland when they are traveling apart so that Copeland can monitor and advise him from afar.
Copeland keeps a watchful eye over his shoulder while putting Spies through his paces doing roadwork on the bicycle. Photo courtesy of Elbowz Racing.
“Ben is such a machine. He's so precise, it's such a sense of satisfaction working with him. He asks a lot of questions because he really wants to know the meaning behind everything. He is so precise and motivated. I mean, really, he is a machine.
“He is sort of similar to Lance Armstrong. He is very focused. Real champions are different mentally from everyone else. They can visualize where they want to go.”
One of the challenges for Copeland in switching from training for cycling to training for MotoGP is the duration of the competitive season. He had to modify his methodology to be able to extract a high level of performance from Spies over a longer period of time.
“With MotoGP I don't want him to ever have a fitness peak,” Copeland said. “I want him to be at 95% for the whole season rather than 100% at one point with the inevitable dip after it. With bicycle racing we train for a two month peak but the motorcycle season is so long we need to make sure that he never peaks, or gets sick. You get too low in the body fat percentage and you are susceptible to getting sick when you get a cold wet race like Assen.”
To help ensure that Spies doesn't over-train, Copeland schedules in a couple 10 day mini-breaks from his strict diet and training regimen where Spies doesn't work out at all to allow his body to recover completely, and also to indulge in some of the forbidden foods he's been craving.
If you are trying to maintain a low weight it is helpful to have a personal dietician to keep you away from the buffet in the Yamaha hospitality tent. Spies's trademark Monster hat is visible in the upper left sitting with his posse.
In addition to his competitive season weight goal of 155 pounds, Copeland established a target body fat percentage for Spies of 5.5%. Every athlete has their own combination which allows them to deliver a high level of performance without sacrificing stamina or health, and for Spies this seems to be it. Copeland's cycling-based training and diet program that emphasizes carbs and foods selected based on their glycemic index value* also enables Spies to burn glycogen (energy from carbs that's stored in the liver and muscles) late into a 45 minute MotoGP race, which Copeland says you can see in Spies's lap times.
“The number one priority with training is diet,” Copeland said. “What kind of training you are doing directs your diet choices. We do specific training on a bicycle so that Ben is able to burn carbs into his anaerobic output. Ben can push harder at the end of a race because he is burning carbs all the way to the end.”
At the start of a day of endurance training on the bicycle, Spies will eat something full of energy and easily digestible like a big plate of pasta about 30 minutes before heading out. Just pasta, plain. For a day like that, his target caloric intake will be somewhere between 4-6,000 calories. On MotoGP race day, it's more like 2,500 calories, starting with a breakfast of oatmeal or cereal followed by a lunch of just carbs.
Breakfast in Spies’s motorhome Friday morning before practice. Photo by Sam Q Fleming
The night before a race, Spies's meal will contain both protein and carbs but Copeland emphasizes protein only on high-intensity threshold training days or when doing weights. For Spies, weights consist mostly of work on his abductor and adductor muscles (the muscles on the inside and outside of your thighs that open and close your legs), and psoas muscle (a large hip flexor muscle which connects the lumbar vertebrae to the inside of the femur, stabilizing the lower spine and enabling you to lift and rotate your legs at the hips). He has allowed his upper body and arms to atrophy since his superbike days in order to help make his ideal weight for MotoGP.
Ben with his bike, Crew chief Tom Houseworth, Race Engineer Hiroya Atsumi, Data Technician Erkki Siukola, Mechanic Olivier Boutron, Mechanic Jurij Pellegrini, Mechanic Ian Gilpin, and Mechanic Gregory Wood.
Spies has his own cycling team now, Elbowz Racing, and Copeland is the Sports Director. The week following the Mugello MotoGP Spies and Copeland, along with Spies's friend and Elbowz teammate Simon Essl, and Kevin Schwantz, participated in the Maratona dles Dolomites, a race “for fun” (known as a granfondo) climbing and descending the excruciatingly steep and twisty roads through multiple mountain passes in northern Italy's Dolomite mountain range.
“Bicycling is a psychological break for him; having his own team as well as riding,” Copeland said.
Copeland also functions as Spies's personal assistant at the racetrack, working with Ben's mom and manager Mary, and Yamaha Press Officer Gavin Matheson, to keep Ben on schedule so he can free his mind to concentrate on his riding and racecraft. After spending so much time with Spies both at and away from the track, they have become very close.
“My real family is in South Africa so the Spies's are family to me here.”
*The glycemic index is a concept established by a physician in the early 80s as a way to rank carbohydrates by how quickly they release glucose into the bloodstream during digestion. Initially researched as a way to help guide diet choices for people with diabetes, the index identifies foods that break down rapidly and have an immediate but short-lived effect on blood sugar (i.e. higher glycemic index value) vs. foods that take longer to break down but offer more sustained energy (lower glycemic index value).