Yesterday’s post on points explained the importance of March and April for teams and riders alike. But if the start of the new season is a month away, most of the peloton faces damp and cold roads. Some find snow and ice block the way.
It’s a case of fight or flight. Riders can don the thermals and do battle with the winter and adopt alternative training plans. Or they can fly to somewhere warmer, lodging in out of season resorts where weak sunlight and quiet roads await.
France is an ideal country to review because you can go from citrus groves in the south to the wild Atlantic coast in the west, then head north for leaden skies and across to the eastern border where snow and sub-zero temperatures are common. Different regions, different challenges.
The video above is from 2008 but I only found it the other day and it’s relevant today. Cofidis’s Mickaël Buffaz needed to do a 20 minute test effort and so he heads off into the countryside outside the city of Lyon to take in a climb and record the power data. No chance of warm roads, instead he’s slicing through the slush on the slopes of Mont Pilat. Watch the clip and you’ll spot the rear fender and hear the painful creak of the pedals. At least he’s got his trainer in the car to offer warm words and hopefully he climbed into the car to go back down. By the way Buffaz should be warmer this winter as he announced his retirement.
It’s a change from the cycling of yesteryear when riders would use the early season as training. Paris-Nice is essential these days with TV coverage, beaucoup UCI points, a week’s block of racing and effectively a mini-Tour de France in March. Yet it began in 1933 as les Six Jours de la Route, the “six days of the road” and was designed to allow the stars of the track to get used to tarmac after a winter spent on the boards. More recently the Tour Down Under played a similar role but with World Tour points it’s become a scrap, certainly for the sprinters.
The extreme cold can both slow and shorten rides. Clothing is arguably the greatest technological leap in the last 25 years but wearing 20 items of clothing from underlayers to overshoes makes things harder even if its less bulky and more breathable. Icy air constricts the lungs and colder temperatures mean more calories go to keeping warm than moving forward. The colder the air, the greater the density meaning you ride slower for a given effort which might be good for work but it’s hard on the mind. Some swap the road bike for a mountain bike or indoor trainer, at least for some sessions.
A few riders even take to XC skiing which promises a good cardio workout. Cofidis’ new signing Jérôme Coppel even competes. It seems to pay as he started 2012 with a win in February’s Étoile de Bessèges, a race itself hit by snow.
Many flee. An article in Le Parisien today explains how Parisian riders Stéphane Rosetto (BigMat-Auber) and Yoann Offredo (FDJ) have been renting an apartment in Cannes. The town is known for its film festival every May but in reality it’s year-round retirement village, le Florida français. Indeed the area was little more than a fishing village until moneyed monarchs from Russia and Britain exploited new railways to escape cold climes. Their wealth funded the expansion of the coast, in turn bringing tourism. No Imperial Tsar, Rosetto’s salary is not enough to allow fund a permanent base on the Mediterranean coast so the temporary rental helps him escape the cold of the Paris region now and then.
But many have moved for good to Mediterranean coast, flocking from all over France to the Côte d’Azur where citrus plants grow free of frost. Nearby Monaco attracts many pros because there’s no income tax to pay but few would reside if it was on opposite corner of France known as Finistère battered by the Atlantic. Plus there are some great roads with for training. The same for Girona in Spain. Lance Armstrong might have gone to escape French controls in 1999 but stayed because of the mild climate and good roads and today many live in the area.
Most teams have been holding pre-season training camps – known as a concentración in Spanish, which conjures up all the wrong images. These allow for many long rides. So long that Lotto-Belisol’s Adam Hansen has been tweeting photos to show the fatigue. But these get-togethers are also the chance to do more, for example teach core strength work and work on positioning. And there’s plenty of paperwork and seminars on subjects from correct use of Twitter to explanations about the changes to WADA’s Whereabouts software. FDJ’s influential team coach Fred Grappe gave a good interview with cyclismactu where he sets out the role of the pre-season camp in his typical methodical style:
“Those in winter are the only ones where we have practically all the team’s riders because there are no races and they are available. The first camp includes a large proportion of admin with some training tagged on. In December it’s 70% admin and 30% training… …The pre-season camps are an essential ritual for the riders to ride together, to meet up, to know the coaches, the support staff… …Later in the year we can put in place specific mini-camps with particular riders in defined places, in the mountains for example. But it’s only in December that we see everyone together.”
As Grappe suggests a team is rarely together. Riders are doing different races, support staff are in the service course. If a team is to work as a team then such gatherings are vital. Indeed it’s often the moment to initiate new riders with bizarre and secret induction rituals.
40 hour week
Not all max out on the admin. According to William Fotheringham in The Cycling Anthology this time last year Bradley Wiggins and Edvald Boasson Hagen rode for 40 hours a week in Majorca. The Spanish island is a popular winter destination with good roads and calm weather. Like Cannes, there’s an out-of-season emptiness where the other visitors are normally senior citizens from Germany. In general riders and teams head south for the sun but don’t venture far, the Euro teams stay in Europe.
The video below shows the ultimate solution but it’s only available to a select few. Norway is a country that borders the Arctic so adaptation is essential. Filmed at the end of 2010 watch as Boasson Hagen trains indoors using the Norwegian ski facilities which including a giant treadmill. The audio is in Norwegian but the images speak for themselves.
- You can’t predict the weather but can assess the climate and pick a place with milder weather whether for a week’s training or a permanent move
- Pick your spot with care. Moving south can bring sunshine but often the combination of sun, sea temperatures and inland mountains means high winds. Parts of the French coast are sunnny but get blasted by the Mistral and Tramontane winds. Great for windsurfing, less so for cycling
- Dress for the weather. In summer the shorts and jersey combo can work across a big temperature range but in winter you need to get the layers right
- An indoor treadmill looks better but it’s probably the same effort as a €250 indoor trainer
- Pros need better weather because they have to prepare for races that can be five hours long. No matter how good your clothing, a five hour ride on icy roads is difficult. But others training for races that are two to four hours don’t need to copy the migration
- Michael Buffaz might look tough but fall on ice and you risk spending the early season doing rehab instead of races
Mountain passes are closed too all but skiers. Even the April rain is a warm shower compared to today’s drizzle in Flanders as the thermometer sits a few degrees above zero. Many team-issue bikes are caked in mud and salt, at least until a rider dutifully hoses them down.
Apart from the Australians, New Zealanders and South Americans, most of the peloton is wearing gloves and thermals today. Most will migrate to the sun at some point depending on their goals and the team’s budget. In the past the cycling calendar embraced the seasons but these days the racing hots up in January even if the weather can’t.