ROBBIE’S RIGHT-HAND MAN
Victor Popov is the man who keeps Davitamon-Lotto’s Robbie McEwen on the straight and narrow. This is the third year he has spent July in France, making sure the Australian sprinter is in the best possible physical shape to contest the super-fast finishes of the Tour de France. The rest of the year Popov works as a physiotherapist for the Brisbane Lions Australian Rules football team.
His first Tour was, perhaps, the hardest Popov has ever worked during his career as a sports physio. McEwen fractured two vertebrae during a crash towards the end of the first week and needed constant treatment. “I was working on Robbie for two or three hours every day because he was in a pretty bad way,” Popov explains. “Without the work
he wouldn’t have got through the Tour but he won the green jersey.
“It was a really good introduction to the Tour de France. We knew Robbie was badly hurt and immediately I suspected he had fractured a couple of vertebrae but because of the swelling it was impossible to diagnose it. However, I knew that it was really a pain issue.
“If Robbie could cope with the pain then he wasn’t going to do any permanent damage. I asked him, ‘How much do you need to know?’ He said, ‘Not much. If you say it’s OK, I’ll race.’
“After that the job was keeping him aligned so that he didn’t experience any knock-on problems,” Popov adds. “He was in a lot of pain but we straightened him up every night, and sometimes in the morning before a stage too.
“It was touch and go some days and if the Tour had been a day longer he may not have made it.”
Popov first met McEwen when he was working for the Australian Institute of Sport and the rider was an up-and-coming amateur. Popov’s introduction to cycling came when he worked with the Australian women’s team that rode the 1987 Tour. “That was a great event. The women rode shorter stages, over the second half of the men’s course,” said Popov.
“I worked with the national team and met Robbie when he was racing in the Commonwealth Bank Classic.”
But Popov’s career as a physio took him to the Brisbane Lions in 1999. Then an under-performing Aussie Rules team, a new coach swept through the backroom staff and appointed Popov.
“I love working for the Lions,” Popov says. “Rugby was my game when I was younger but you can’t beat footie. I’m the head physio and we have a team of three who work on the players.
“It’s a contact sport and the players don’t wear any protection. They wear vests and there’s no padding underneath. In a way it’s similar to cycling. When you get hurt, it stays hurt because there’s nothing to cushion an impact.
“You see the typical impact injuries in football. Broken bones, knee ligament problems from bad landings, sciatic injuries, bruised shoulders, muscle injuries. During the pre-season you get the overuse injuries from training. It’s a professional sport so the job is to diagnose and then get the player fit again as soon as possible without taking risks.”
All professional sports are the same, the club or team want their assets back in action as soon as possible but Popov knows you can’t rush recovery. “There’s no point. Perhaps in a particularly important part of the season — or like during the Tour de France — the job becomes more about keeping the player or rider going and limiting the damage rather than solving the problem,” he says. “All injuries need rest. Sometimes there isn’t time for the rest so it’s a case of being sensible and getting through without long-term problems.
“We call it athlete main-tenance and a lot of the job is prevention rather than cure.”
Popov works alongside, rather than instead of, Davitamon-Lotto’s four-strong team of masseurs. His association with the team has turned him into a keen rider and he races back home in Australia when he can.
“I do Robbie’s massage because I know him and his body so well and I look after a couple of the others too,” he says.
“My job is to give physio to prevent niggles developing into big problems that may force a rider to quit the race. For example, Christophe Brandt’s elbow got hit by a motorcycle mirror. The pain is causing him to ride in a different position and that could give him a problem in his hip or knee. We try to straighten him up so it doesn’t affect his position on a bike.
“Most of my work is about alignment. If a rider is crooked on his bike he will get problems. Not only that but it compromises power. I can sometimes see a rider and think he should be in a different position but setting a rider’s position is not my job, although I’ll make suggestions.”
POPOV’S ADVICE TO AMATEURS
Victor Popov’s two golden pieces of advice to any amateur rider is to get their position analysed and amended, if necessary, by a specialist and to get advice and treatment for injuries as soon as they occur.
“Performance relies on position and flexibility,” Popov (pictured) says. “It’s important to work on core strength and flexibility because if you are strong and flexible you will be more resistant to the more common injuries that can occur. It’s essential to get your position and alignment right too. If you are in a good position to start with you can avoid a lot of problems.
“As for injuries, don’t ignore them. So many amateurs get a pain and think they can train through it but if it continues for more than three or four days get it checked out. Every day you leave it you are doing more damage — and not just to the area immediately affected by the injury, you’re also causing more problems as your body tries to work around the injury.”