Six men have gathered on an eight-metre platform, a BMX start ramp at a track here in the Fraser Valley east of Vancouver.
It's mid-morning on a grey summer day. The slight smell of manure percolates through the air from the neighbouring agricultural fairgrounds. At the centre of group atop the platform is a lone rider, Tory Nyhaug, a 23-year-old from suburban Vancouver who is Canada's best shot at a medal in BMX racing, a sport of mayhem, at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
The Games might be a year away, but time is short: Nyhaug trains with an eye focused directly on Rio, working on a major overhaul of his starting technique.
He stands poised on his bike in the start gate, at the edge of a ramp that falls precipitously to a big jump and a winding course of bumps and jumps. It's a 400-metre-long whirl that lasts barely half a minute as elite riders rip around it at 40 kilometres an hour.
The start is essential. Among eight racers in a contest, the one or two who break into the early lead almost always stand atop the podium at the finish.
"Riders ready?" a recorded voice intones from the start box. "Watch the gate."
There are four GoPro cameras mounted on the chain-link fencing at the start and down the ramp. Nyhaug's technique is also recorded on an iPad and iPhone. Nyhaug's hips are up, his body pitched forward, his front tire against the metal start gate.
Beeeeeep! The gate drops; Nyhaug hurtles ahead and down, pedalling furiously, and in a flash he's on the track and over the first 12-metre jump.
The other five men, Nyhaug's team of experts, huddle to confer. Technique is dissected in slow motion on the iPad and computer monitor, frame by frame. Nyhaug returns after circling the track. "C'est pas mal," says the coach, Pierre-Henri Sauze, a Frenchman. "Not bad at all."
This is a glimpse into how an Olympic medal contender is crafted. The effort is expensive, intense and involves a sprawling team. On this Thursday, the third of a three-day camp of sessions on the start ramp and off-track meetings, there is Sauze, Nyhaug's long-time coach; Paulo Saldanha, a physiologist; Richard Monette, a psychologist; Matt Jensen, a biomechanist; and J.D. Miller, co-founder of B2ten, the Montreal group that connects private cash with potential Olympic medalists. In the early afternoon, physiotherapist Damien Moroney joins the group.
Small nuances are the focus in the effort to improve Nyhaug's starts. In the past – including in a silver-medal performance at the 2014 world championships – the 6-foot-1, 200-pound rider has relied on muscle to generate power, at the expense of ideal technique. For Rio, Nyhaug needs to change. His pelvis and hips are dipping, his team has concluded, rather than powering ahead, so his torso straightens, rather than driving forward in a tilt.
The result is Nyhaug produces a strong push on his first turn of the pedals, leading with his left foot down the ramp, but then his second, third and fourth turns are not as powerful as they could be. These are small fractions, but getting out in front keeps a rider ahead of the fray and race-ruining crashes.
"This is parsing out the last 2, 3 per cent," Miller says at lunch at a nearby restaurant. BMX, once a subculture sport such as skateboarding or snowboarding used to be, has changed, an inevitability since its debut as an Olympic competition at Beijing in 2008. "This is where the game is played at this level," Miller says.
B2ten emerged from what Miller and a small group did for moguls skier Jenn Heil starting in the early 2000s, which helped lead to Heil's gold medal at the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics. B2ten has grown ever since, helping to support dozens of athletes. Miller is an evangelist for specialized training for the most promising individuals. Everyone here is convinced the best results come from the group working together, in person. For instance, Monette, the psychologist, sometimes acts as translator if Nyhaug doesn't initially absorb instructions from other team members. B2ten contributes about $100,000 a year to support Nyhaug.
The work on Nyhaug's start is similar to the effort that turned swimmer Brent Hayden, another B2ten athlete, into a faster starter ahead of the 2012 London Olympics, where Hayden won bronze in the 100-metre freestyle.
Nyhaug has struggled with injuries. At 14, he broke both his arms in one crash. He has twice ruptured his spleen, first in 2010 and then again in the months ahead of the 2012 Games, in an accident that also left him with a concussion and fractured wrist. Two months later, he raced in London and barely missed the semi-finals.
His silver at the 2014 world championships was a beacon. Then, at the end of the year, Nyhaug smashed a bone in his left foot, and six screws were permanently embedded during the reconstruction. Recovery took months. He is only now returning to race form – but, as in 2012, he has pulled off an impressive comeback.
At the training track, Nyhaug explains the focus on his starts.
"If you come off the start in a final in fourth or fifth, realistically, the best you can probably do is a podium – squeeze second, third," he says. Gold can vanish in an instant. "The chance of you winning at any major race if you get cut off down the hill is pretty remote."
Moroney arrives and applies six pieces of therapeutic Leukotape in the shape of a capital I to Nyhaug's lower back. There's a stiffness to the tape, so if Nyhaug rounds his lower back – which he's not supposed to do – he'll feel a tug. It's a physical cue. Nyhaug does a couple standing starts on his bike on flat ground. He immediately likes it. "I should have this on all the time," Nyhaug says with a smile. "It makes my posture better."
Up on the ramp, with Nyhaug in the start gate, Moroney says: "Don't think too much." A pause. "With six people around you." There are laughs. "Today's goal is not a perfect start."
The beep sounds, the gate drops and Nyhaug is away. "Pretty good, pretty good," Sauze says. Miller approves: "He learns quickly. It's amazing."
At lunch, Nyhaug and Sauze sit across the table from each other. Six years ago, Nyhaug first sought out Sauze, a BMX rider from the 1980s and veteran coach. Nyhaug, in high school, had promise, and there wasn't any sort of national BMX team in Canada.
The two look at each other. So much has happened since then, and now, the goal is clear.
"To win that medal," Sauze says.
They smile, and bump fists.