Winter Training

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.

Global warming
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.

Skiing cyclists
Le Nordique, c’est chic
(Photo: Le Dauphiné)

Cannes Festival
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.

Concentración camp
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.

Winter tips

  • 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.

44 thoughts on “Winter Training”

    • Sky (the TV Channel) recently showed a documentary about “British Cycling’s Golden Year” which showed Brailsford getting some after-office-hours training on a similar system. This had safety bars along each side and a clip-on handbar control. These sidebars made start/stop relatively easy. Wouldn’t like to try EBH’s “open” system.

      Mind, check out EBH’s wheelie at the end!! How cool is that!!

  1. While a trainer is just a simulator that treadmill is real cycling. It can be tilted for climbing training. It trains exactly the same muscles in both lower and upper body, as riding up a steep hill does.

    Freestyle cross country is a good training method since it trains pretty much the same leg muscles as cycling while also putting a tremendous strain on the arms and upper body. Great for maintaining body symmetry. 🙂

    Personally I prefer studded tires, a CC bike and merino wool.

  2. How much of an early season advantage do riders from the Southern Hemisphere have? By heading home in the off-season they can enjoy perfect training conditions and even enter some domestic races. Also the Australians aim to be in good condition for their national championships the week before the Tour Down Under.

    • Well it certainly helped Simon Gerrans who carried off the national championship and then Milan – San Remo. But other Aussie riders have found this early year peaking makes things harder later on in the year. Evans will probably enjoy a nice summer break here but he won’t be racing in TDU or the nationals.

  3. You always produce an Outstanding blog with thoughtful insightful comments!

    One small correction though:- Paris – Nice was first run in 1933 and has occasionally justified it’s nickname of ‘The Race To The Sun’.


  4. Nordic skiing will definitely toughen you up, and it’s my favorite way to pass the winter.

    Nordic skiing in a chamois, however, is definitely not cool. It’s the nordic equivalent of riding a road bike while wearing a helmet visor.

  5. I like this time of year. The riding is hard but this makes getting home more satisfying. You feel fresh again and the fitness improvement every week is nice to feel.

  6. As you mentioned, winter training is good for core strength and bike-positioning!

    I usually take a break in November, then December til mid January is focused on long rides at a steady pace, mostly on the inner ring, a few times a week, then from mid January increase the distance while increasing the amount of time spent on the outer ring.

    It’s important for me to get those rides in, even if the weather is ‘bad’; freezing, raining, very windy…riding from Sint Niklaas in Belgium to the coast (where the wind can average 50-60km) and back! Try doing that only in the outer ring! I have this bone-headedness of not giving up, even if I have to blast my way through snow! Then sit in the shower at home thawing out while my wife chews my ears of for being crazy, and all I can think of is “Are my finger/toe tips blue or purple?!”

    (It helps being autistic, as people with autism tend to be very focused when it comes to their passions/hobbies!)

    Pays off though, as the other riders spent the winter on the indoor trainer, and during our first training rides together they are struggling after 100km in strong wind, while I’m sat up with my arms crossed…just to rub it in!!!

  7. A few riders even take to XC skiing which promises a good cardio workout. Cofidis’ new signing Jérôme Coppel even competes.

    Another good combination is speed skating. GDR’s Christa Ludling and Canada’s Clara Hughes even managed to win Olympic medals both as a cyclist and as a skater.

  8. I’ve seen a few of the Aussie boys back home over the last couple of weeks in Perth. Luke Durbridge and Cam Meyer smashing a local time trial competition to name just one. Also pretty sure I saw Chris Hoy out on the roads around Perth (Australia) this week.
    Can’t argue with the weather. 31c here today though we’re expecting 38 on xmas day and it only gets hotter in January.
    I don’t think I could handle the Euro winters.

    • Yeah, I think it was Shane Sutton’s idea and now every year the GB trackies spend 1 month in Perth from mid-Nov onwards for warm weather training. Hoy’s out there as well as Kenny, Hindes, Trott, King, Varnish etc

  9. Hot tip, when embarking on one of those long 5/6hr rides I use a hydration pack inner which fits neatly into a large rear pocket on my mid layer winter top, hot liquid/energy drink keeps the small of my back cosy and stays warm for hours, a great improvement on the bottle full of frozen slush in a cage. :). Just a thought though, is the bag made from the same type of plastic as the infamous BBs ?

  10. Just watching the XC skiing on Eurosport while I read this. The sports are so complimentary it is not funny. Good to see guys sprawled all over the snow at the finish – perhaps both of these sports are coming through their darkest periods, although it is unfortunate that the commentator said at the finish “it is unfortunate for the Italian in 2nd that he just didn’t have enough juice!” LOL

  11. So I guess I’m supposed to feel really bad if I wimp out on a ride, here on the California coast, because it’s “Too cold”, meaning below 40°F. Burrrrr!

  12. Continuing as “luckiest man on earth” I’m enjoying cycling in sunny Santa Barbara, CA at present, where we sponge off the in-laws during the holidays. Mid-January we’re off to Sicily where I might FINALLY visit the location of the Paolo Tiralongo fans club. Once it’s nice enough on the Italian mainland we’ll start our tour season. While none of this wonderful “off-season” training makes me any faster, it DOES keep some of the holiday flab off and make the transition to trying to keep up with our clients a bit easier! Happy Holidays to all wherever you are! MILLE GRAZIE Inner Ring for a great year of blog posts.

    • Yes. His girlfriend Michelle said on Twitter he came home covered in salt… but from sweating. In parts of Europe you get covered in salt now too… but with rock salt that’s spread on roads to keep ice from forming.

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