Below is an excerpt of a story I wrote that appeared in issue 29 of Rouleur Magazine.
Road grit dug into my sweat-soaked face as my cheek pressed against the baking tarmac. Pinned like a wrestler to the canvas, I couldn’t get up. My legs kicked and my arms twisted in a fight for freedom. Turning my head, I could see the weight above. I don’t recall the screams and yells but the photographers’ images captured my fear. Like a claustrophobic trapped in a dark closet, the sight of the motorcycle wheel on my chest, crushing my ribs created panic. Everything sped back up. I was racing to get the motorcycle off of my chest. I had to cross the finish line. The damage to my body was secondary.
The heat of the motorcycle, the hot tarmac and the baking sun fueled an inferno around me. My shredded and burned skin was still too raw to hurt. The driver inched the motorcycle off of my torso, while the cameraman on the back balanced the video camera on his shoulder. I now realized I had been under its wheel as they skidded to a stop.
The road etched a smooth black line in the arid Spanish countryside. Beside the road, beige dirt and gravel slopes led to hundreds of kilometers of olive groves. There were no spectators at the roadside to help us up, hear our cries or stand with mouths open as they gawked at our wounds.
Before the crash, the peloton had become a long thin line on the sinuous, undulating roads under the pressure of the fierce tempo set by the leading team. On a short climb the peloton pooled and riders at the back of the bunch yelled ‘mercy’ to the leaders. Our directeur sportif, Johan Bruyneel, encouraged us to “hang on” and “move to the front.” Even from behind the peloton in the team car, he could sympathize with our effort. The subtle intonations in his voice that crackled over the radio expressed either sympathetic encouragement or a command.
The opening race of the season for many of the Classics riders is the Tour of Qatar. The race through the desert is known for high wind, echelons, dust, crashes and sprints. Within the peloton there is an almost constant push for the front as every rider fights to be in the front of the group before it is sliced into echelons. Positioning is crucial when battling the wind as the peloton splits and unless the wind changes there is little change of regrouping. The roads are wide open, often fairly bumpy and are lined with cateyes, or reflectors, which can buck a rider off of his bike in a second if he’s not gripping his bars tightly. Sadly, my race came to an end with two days to go when the rider in front of me hit a cateye and lost control of his bike at over 60 km/h. I hit his bike, fell, and broke my femur and arm. My body was covered in scrapes and bruises. On the upside, the team performed well, the ambiance was good and we won two stages. As my teammates move on to the Classics I’ll be cheering them on from the couch, while recovering and working towards new goals. Here are some photos from the week in Qatar. A highlight for all of us was riding with Eddy Merckx. When we did a few efforts as a team, he tucked in behind the team car, and motor paced at 60+km/h. Before and after the efforts we chatted as we rode. He’s kind and unassuming. On some level I could see he still had a youthful passion for cycling which hadn’t faded despite all the kilometres and races ridden. (The photos were taken by Nick Howes)
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.
After three week long training camps in Mallorca, we’re ready to race. In the second half of January our training sessions were designed to simulate the races with hard intense efforts, motorpacing, team time trial training, sprint lead-outs, and hours of climbing. Here are some photos from the camp:
As we near the first races the intensity of our training rides has increased. Before heading home for a few days and returning for our second stint of the new year in Mallorca we logged a long 230 km ride with several intervals at specified intensities. We finished the ride off with an hour behind the team car. The last week of training has been solid. Today, as we rolled back through town to the hotel, my teammate Davide Appollonio said, “now, I think I’m almost ready to race.”
Through January, Team Sky will be in Mallorca for training camps. The team is split into two groups: the Classics riders who will aim to be in top form for the spring races and the other riders who have targets later in the season. I am with the Classics group, which includes World Champion Mark Cavendish, Bernie Eisel, Christian Knees, Jez Hunt, Ian Stannard, Davide Appollonio, Salvatore Puccio, and Juan Antonio Flecha.The three to six hour rides include interval sessions where we ride at a higher intensity to simulate racing and often, a motorpacing session to finish off the training at a slightly higher cadence. Not only do we build our fitness, but by training and living together, we also build the bond that turns us into a team. Here are some photos Kurt Asle-Arevsen took from the team car which was driven by our Directeur Sportif, Servais Knaven. Race Coach, Rod Ellingworth is riding the scooter.
Each autumn professional teams gather before Christmas to train for the coming season. As the racing season has grown progressively longer the importance of the camps has increased as we are now required to be in race condition by early February, and for those racing in Australia, January. In mid December Team Sky met in Alcudia, Mallorca. Each day we rode for three to six hours at a steady speed with few intervals. To refuel and socialise, we stopped mid ride for a coffee and pastry. The rides usually ended with a heated sprint. Here are some photos from the camp.