At the back of the group I freewheel in the slipstream. Ahead, my teammates crunch their bodies towards the top tubes of their frames to become more aerodynamically efficient. The effort is progressively draining their energy. Like a team of harnessed horses, four pairs of riders form a tight formation against the shoulder of the road. For now, my legs spin, barely putting in an effort as the riders on the front cut through the wind creating the bubble of still air which almost pushes me along. Beside us, ancient stone walls line the road. Beyond their massive beige blocks sheep graze in green pastures and olive trees form rows up and over the hilltops. I chat with my teammates who are also sitting in the slipstream. The duo up front doesn’t say a word. The effort requires their concentration and oxygen. Occasionally, they’ll release their grip on the handlebars to point out a pothole or stone in the road. As the intensity increases so does their breathing. Only when their legs tire do they speak, end their turn on the front, and allow a fresh pair to replace them. For hours, the group circles through the Mallorcan countryside on tiny lanes. The rhythm is only broken when we are required to split into groups to do specified workouts.
From the middle of December until the end of January we–the team members who will be racing the early season Classics–attended three training camps. Progressively, we gained fitness as the workload increased. In December we built a foundation by accumulating hours of steady riding. Within the rides there were few intervals and little intensity. After Christmas, we were riding faster, having lost some weight, and started to increase the intensity and quantity of the intervals. By the end of the month, during our last camp, the rides were as tough as races. The maximal capacity intervals, the first violent efforts of the new year, left the taste of blood in my mouth, as my lungs weren’t yet accustomed to fierce transfer of air. On another day, we climbed mountains at our anaerobic threshold for an hour, which left our legs empty and sore. And, on another day, the team raced along the coast in a tight echelon at over 55 km/h as we trained for the team time trial. All the work had turned us back into bike racers. By, the end of the month we were worn out. But we are ready to pin on our numbers.
Cycling has evolved. No longer are camps held to burn of Christmas excess and bring the team together for the first time. Now, few cyclists have the luxury of relaxing for more than a few weeks in the off-season. Before the New Year, our body fat was already being monitored. Daily our training data is uploaded to Trainingpeaks, an online logbook with analytical features, for review by our coaches.
During the 90s, when I first attended pro team training camps, the rides were less structured. Teams rode at a steady tempo for hours to build a foundation. On occasion the pace might lift on a climb but otherwise the rides were controlled. We were expected to be in reasonable enough condition to handle the pace and workload but few riders were fit enough to race. But, by the 90s expectations were already greater than they had been in the 70s and 80s, a time when riders had barely ridden their road bikes before showing up at camps. Images from that era show riders Alpine skiing together, a sport which many teams now contractually forbid their riders from doing for fear of injury. To the riders then, the important races were still distant and they could use the early season races in the warmer southern European climates to develop their fitness. Now the first race of the season in Australia has as much value in terms of points as a mid summer WorldTour stage race. Teams have adapted to the demands of the calendar, the fight for points and the higher level of competition.
In the late afternoons when I lay on the massage table, my legs ached as if I had ridden a race. The efforts we had done earlier in the day and through the week had left knots which the therapist dug at until they released. Out training, the team had ridden a searing but smooth tempo along a flat coastal road. With a start line, kilometer markers and a finish line, each effort was ridden like a race. After we crossed the line, the team pooled together, panting as we freewheeled to recover. The effort was discussed. We critiqued and congratulated our errors and strengths. Mark Cavendish, wearing the World Champion’s rainbows, was our vocal leader who galvanized the group.
At the dinner table he brought the riders together in the same way he did on the road. His awareness of his teammates is acute. His personal expectations lift each individual’s and the team’s. His work ethic is exemplary.
In the last day, of the camp fatigue had set into the team but there was still a lead-out and five hours on the schedule. In an odd way, the fatigue felt good. The work had been accomplished and with rest we would lift our level yet again. On an open six-kilometer stretch of road, the team wound up the intensity, with our sprinters tight in the slipstream in their final positions. In a crescendo of speed each of the seven riders would take his turn in the wind on the front of our line before peeling off, depleted, to allow a teammate to take over. Cavendish sprinted over the final 200 meters in a burst of speed.
After finishing my turn on the front I watched my teammates race up the road. On a rural road, without a spectator in sight, it was beautiful to see the team riding together as if there was a podium at the finish. Competition and commitment are always present no matter where we ride, or play.