Training Time

Want to see Alberto Contador, Chris Froome and Vincenzo Nibali in action together? You could wait for the Critérium du Dauphiné in June but, as today’s L’Equipe shows, they will all meet up this month in Tenerife for training camps on Mount Teide. Quite probably they will all stay in the same hotel, setting up an intriguing atmosphere with the three great rivals for the Tour de France sitting down for dinner together, albeit at different tables.

It’s easy to spend hours reviewing the tactics in a race but very little time and coverage is given to what a rider’s job really involves: training.

Training > racing
So far this year Caja Rural’s Luis Leon Sanchez is the rider with the most days of racing: 43 days. It still means for every day he’s raced he’s had two off and remember he’s the exception with the most days. If we look at the trio of Froome, Contador and Nibali it’s 19 days, 25 days and 36 days of racing respectively. They’ve all spent far more time training than racing yet this area of the sport remains a great mystery.

Reduced to its simplest, training involves providing a stimulus to the body prompting it to react. Repeat something enough and the body adapts, whether it’s throwing a ball, lifting weights or pedalling a bicycle.

But what of pro cycling training regimes? A novelty this year is that Alberto Contador’s performance is put down to increased self-belief and improved training in Tenerife under the guidance of Steven de Jongh. Only we don’t know any more about the training, it’s kept secret… which invariably leads to steak “jokes”. But it’s understandable because teams don’t want to share training plans any more than they’ll give away tactics. But all the same, it’s remarkable that we can review a race in great detail but have next to no idea what happens for the rest of the year.

A day in the life
Michael Hutchinson’s book “Faster” details a discussion with Team Sky’s coach Tim Kerrison about a training session on Tenerife for Bradley Wiggins during his 2012 approach to the Tour de France:

“The details of a session would cover an A4 page… A big day. Six hours, with 4,000 vertical metres of climbing – we probably do 16,000m a week. Four efforts: the first on San Miguel climb, two minutes capacity, one minute recovery. Then into 27 minutes of mid-zone three, with nine minutes at normal cadence, nine minutes at 50rpm, and repeat.

Second effort is the same, except that it is 32 minutes; ten minutes of low-to mid-zone three, then a one minute spike at five-minute capacity pace, so you get zone three, a spike, zone three, a spike. Third effort of the day, on the Grenadier climb, is low- to mid-zone three, and ten minutes of normal cadence, ten minutes of torque. Fourth effort is on a different climb again and it’s more a high zone three, but this time every kilometres we do a sprint of progressively 15, 20 and 30 seconds”

That’s not an A4 page but gives you some detail. Note “capacity” is a rider’s maximum five-minute power and Hutchinson says the low cadence is designed to help riders cope with attacks in the mountains, to improve torque for “a sudden acceleration against a low inertial load”. If the plan sounds precise it’s also remarkably similar to a mountain stage in the Tour de France: six hours, beaucoup climbing and a range of efforts that go from being paced up a mountain by team mates to kind of efforts you make on the final climb with accelerations and even sprints.

If all these training efforts are trying to replicate racing why aren’t the riders racing? Because training is about creating structured efforts in a controlled environment. There’s a lot going on in a race and even more outside it. Avoid crashing and once the finish line is crossed the day is far from done, there might be a podium ceremony and press conference and then an hour’s roadtrip to a hotel before massage and dinner in unfamiliar surroundings.

Mental approach
It’s unspoken but I think there’s also a mental benefit to the training camp. The rider is building to a goal and surrounded by supportive staff and they can progress towards a goal. Psychologists call this flow. It means an off day is just that. If the legs feel heavy you can take a rest; if the weather is grim you can cut back or even train indoors. But if this happens in a race it risks becoming a crisis in tomorrow’s headlines and the insecurity of seeing rivals functioning better.

Out of competition
It seems racing used to be seen as the best form of training until the mid-1990s. We saw the ONCE team skip racing in order to send riders home for gruelling training sessions. The story went that team manager Manolo Saiz would fax prescriptive training plans to riders who were tasked with executing them, legend has it they were harder than racing. But they were more prescription plans with riders sent home to train hard while consuming copious banned substances. Races meant the chance of a doping control and back in the 1990s there were no out-of-competition controls leaving riders free to load up.

But there were other reasons too, economics was a factor. Teams ran on smaller budgets and racing meant the team had free accommodation compared to training camp when the team or even the riders had to pay.

Today we have out-of-competition tests but this has merely provoked a change in the game. Some riders try to game the Whereabouts system. You might remember Dane Michael Rasmussen’s claims of training in Mexico. Today isolated training camps have the advantage of being further away from the testers. More recently a deposition by Leonardo Bertagnolli revealed Dr Ferrari was advising him how to exploit altitude training camps as a ruse to cover the tracks of blood doping. To conclude this doping parenthesis riders and teams who employ doping practices have and probably will use any opportunity to dope: they’ll do it at home, in competition and on training camps.

Mount Teide is a volcano on the Spanish island of Tenerife. In fact the island is the volcano and the cones height is the primary attraction for riders who train at altitude. Ironically riders go their separate ways after a race only to end up in the same place. This month it appears Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali are all booked to stay in the same isolated hotel, the Parador de Canadas del Teide, 2,152 metres above sea level. It’s an austere place with nothing to do, the rooms don’t even have internet access. It’s so popular with some teams they stash spares there all year and in April Sky found the hotel was fully-booked. Froome et al had to sleep lower down the mountain. Of course there are many mountains in mainland Europe but unlike other locations riders can train at sea level if they want and it’s warm for much of the year.

Altitude training is complicated. The sport science journals seem to test groups in trials that are at the same time too small in scope to prove reliable yet also hinting that altitude response varies among individuals, it works for some but not others. There are also different goals, you can improve aerobic performance by naturally boosting the body’s oxygen carrying capacity… but you can do this at sea level with an “altitude tent“. What is interesting teams more and more is the experience of riding at altitude and the acclimatization it brings. The blood chemistry is different with pressure, acidity and other factors. Put simply you get used to riding hard at 2,500 metres and therefore gain when a race takes place at high altitude.

Who Coaches Who?
Most riders go home between races to train. Some will have plans from a team, some work with a personal coach but others go for the DIY approach, relying on experience, tips and textbooks.

Ag2r are a useful example. Last year ex-pro Stéphane Goubert doubled as a DS and coach but now they have a full-time coach in Jean-Baptiste Quiclet, recruited from Sojasun. But the coaching isn’t comprehensive. Carlos Betancur is coached by Michele Bartoli who, er, presumably passes on the fruits of years being coached by Luigi Cecchini. Meanwhile Romain Bardet recently tried his first ever altitude training camp, visiting the Sierra Nevada with his father and a stack of academic journals to read up on the subject when he got back to the hotel each day.

Media briefings
Some teams invite the media to a training camp but this is more a PR opportunity, the chance to stage interviews and take photos as opposed a grilling session about sports science. The obvious problem is that sports science is a very specialist field where even the experts in academia publishing articles in the various journals are behind when it comes to practice in the field. In short there are few journalists capable of understanding the physiological data, and if they could then how many readers would be able to follow?

All the training secrecy can backfire. In 2012 Team Sky faced a series of questions in relation to the performances of Bradley Wiggins. It was surprising to see them on the defensive again in 2013 with Chris Froome. A consequence of the media barrage was a belated attempt to explain the training. First came “Le Dossier Froome” in L’Equipe and then, quietly, the team was inviting journalists onto the team team bus for briefings to explain the training. I wonder if they have a plan for 2014?

When L’Equipe looked at Froome there wasn’t much analysis in the paper, more FDJ’s coach Fred Grappe saying Froome’s “performances are coherent” which is the equivalent of those toothpaste adverts when someone appears on screen with a lab coat to do the four second science bit. I don’t mean this as a slight to anyone involved: 99.9% of L’Equipe’s readership wouldn’t understand the raw data. Or put another way a lot of cyclists with powermeters struggle to understand their own data yet so reviewing someone else’s output is hard.

Riders spend more time training than racing but it’s all out of sight. Every detail of a race can be reviewed but few will know what Froome, Contador or Nibali are doing today. They will all spend May riding lots but there’s not much more to know.

But even if we could have full access to everything would we understand what was going on? Would you want to know that Nibali spent today doing low cadence drills at 420W or Alberto Contador rode his time trial bike in the morning before eating a salad with beetroot for lunch? Perhaps there’s some appetite from fans and keen cyclists but for the wider audience such technical details aren’t a concern.

Then again as we keep seeing time after time there is a big appetite to know why so-and-so is so fast. We might not want to know every session but come July and even the wider public wants to know what training means. When a rider says “I train so hard” it’s hard to quantify or explain. Being able to pull out a folder or a sheet of A4 with the distances ridden this so far, the calories burned, the hours in the saddle and the vertical metres gained can provide some handy context to fill the vacuum.

48 thoughts on “Training Time”

  1. I don’t care much about the training. Sadly, there are RACES going on these fellows could participate in, but this secret training is now the accepted norm if you want to win Le Beeg Shew in July. Greg LeMond was (unfairly I think) blamed by Eddy Merckx for putting too much emphasis on LeTour but I blame BigTex for the current situation. Only time will tell if the benefits are from the secret training regimens or something more nefarious, but for now the training regimens are believed to be key. All those claiming a North American sports franchise model is the answer to all of pro cycling’s current woes might think of what the effects are of having most of its big stars in July invisible for so much of the season. I understand that the Giro d’Italia might be too taxing or uncontrollable as a training scheme but now there’s even a glorified training race in California for the stars to attend…but instead the big contenders toil away in secret.

  2. “I wonder if they have a plan for 2014?”

    tbh INRNG I think you could – and should – ask the same question of Tinkoff-Saxo, because if Contador is in yellow during the race (which I think there’s every chance of being the case), I’m not sure that a repeat of the team’s instructions to the press during Contador’s presser on one of the rest days in last year’s Tour – specifically ‘Only 2 doping questions’ – will fly this time, somehow.

      • In which case…’I wonder if ‘they’ (Team Sky or Tinkoff-Saxo or Astana or…whichever team) have a plan for 2014′


        • I thought INRNG’s point was pretty clear: Sky floundered when grilled by the media when Wiggins was in yellow in 2012. The same thing happened in 2013 when Froome was in yellow, despite how predictable it was that the media would come at them with the same questions. He was simply asking whether they’ll be better prepared this year.

          • Sorry Tom, but you’re trying to apply something sensible (the article above) to a pack of journos who couldn’t be arsed to even say “well done”.

            This predictability you speak of depend on being able to provide an answer to a question that can’t be answered. The press KNEW Team Sky couldn’t answer the questions – and that’s why they were asked.

            What would you have Team Sky do? Give all the journos all their data? Not going to happen. I asked JV a couple of weeks ago on Twitter what his answer would be if he and he alone, were asked to hand over all of his teams data – whilst all the other teams keep theirs.

            His answer was something along the lines of “I’d say go f*ck yourself”.

            Honestly, when will the conspiracy theorists stop with all the arguments of association, and finally realise that the burden of proof lies with the accusor – not the accused.

          • Dscaper: at the risk of this becoming all about Sky rather than Tinkoff or Astana…. when you ask “What would you have Team Sky do?” we have the answer in that they started to do several things to explain training in the third week: release power data to L’Equipe, get another team coach to review numbers, invite the media for briefings and presentations on training. I’ll stress it’s all PR but good PR is being ahead of the game rather than sitting back and responding when events start to overwhelm.

    • I’d be content if Mr. Bilharzia and Mr. Cavernoma made public whether they have or not specific medical certifications/authorizations by the UCI (and if yes, made them public, too).

  3. If I were running a team, and someone asked for details like this, I’d tell them they were having a laugh. Not because I’d like you to know the efforts involved – I think it’s good that people can appreciate it. But it means our competition can counter/improve on it.

    Come to think of it, how much training data do you get from any other sport? And how many top athletes in other sports give away A4 sheets detailing their achievements while training?

    • Perhaps you don’t have to give away big details, it’s why the A4 factsheet’s an idea. It’s like the ingredients list on bottle of Coca Cola, it tells you what’s inside without giving away the recipe.

      • For sensible people; such as yourself, inrng, then I like the idea – being able to see what makes the difference between a tail-ender and a GT contender, would make for great insight.

        But then we have the people who love the conspiracy – you know the ones. One minute they have no problem in seeing past the histories of their favourite riders, only to throw stones at someone they don’t like, just because they beat them.

        Once you hand these people a sheet of A4, you’re basically handing them a baseball bat – and if there’s one group of people that are probably doing more to damage cycling than anyone else (including the dopers), then it’s these lot.

        Vayer will be colouring his A4 sheets in with yellow, orange or red markers and PK will handily ignore all the non-Sky A4 sheets and ask about the spaces in-between the words. General cluster-f*ckery will undoubtedly follow.

        Good article tho.

    • Both of you have good points. I think that if doping can ever become a minor issue, then effective training will become more important. The special details will then become more secret, but “Coke ingredients” could become part of the PR program.

      • Try imagining that the condition you propose is true– that we are already (suddenly) in an era when doping is indeed not a major factor, meaning that major races are won by clean riders on a regular basis. That seems like a reasonable standard, and also seems pretty plausible right now. In that cleanish world, getting ridiculously skinny, fiddling with altitude training and all that really would/could make the difference. Hopefully that is not too much of a stretch for fans to believe that, and if they can they may dig this post.

        • What little I know, I know it’s not true. Doping is the way of life in professional sport.

          In cycling, the passport’s one hour testing window quickly created micro dosing and, with the money involved, the best new drug therapy is in the bodies of the wealthiest top athletes long before it’s in the news. I think the sport’s a little cleaner, but the dopers are more clever.

          • The riders – any and all athletes in testing pools – have to be prepared to be tested 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. There is no ‘1 hour window’ for their testing time. They give 1 x 60 min slot per 24 hours in the ADAMS and equivalent systems where they can be found and which is their preferred time for that day. However, testers from both the NADOs and the intl sports feds AD units, can and do turn up at any time – and the athlete cannot refused to be tested (or if they do, it counts as a ADRV).

            I have several acquaintances across a couple of sports inc cycling who’ve had testers turn up to test them outside of the specific 60 min slot they’d plugged into ADAMS. I know of a track cyclist who had testers turn up at their home several times ahead of a major track championship recently, and every time was outside of the 60 min slot the cyclist had entered into ADAMS.

            Sometimes I think The Secret Race has a lot to answer for. Some seem to take it as a snapshot of how AD works now, rather than what was happening and what they got away with in the late 90’s to early 00s, when anti-doping was in its infancy.

            As for substances – they can be detected in the sample quite some time longer than an hour after the injestion.

            And now micro dosing. Micro dosing – even if you do it for several days (and you cant do it too many times) – has little major effect. Certainly it cant be compared to a fresh pint of blood, or a slug of EPO, when it comes to degrees of performance-enhancement.

          • If the athlete is part of a Registered Testing Pool – either a National or International – then the whereabouts requirements are enforced by ADAMS. These requirements are based on the current International Standard for Testing (IST), available on the WADA Web site:

            A 60-minute time slot must be entered for each day in the quarter where the athlete has to be available and accessible for Testing at a specified location. This time slot must take place between 06:00 and 23:00

          • LM: you posted If the athlete is part of a Registered Testing Pool – either a National or International – then the whereabouts requirements are enforced by ADAMS. These requirements are based on the current International Standard for Testing (IST), available on the WADA Web site:

            A 60-minute time slot must be entered for each day in the quarter where the athlete has to be available and accessible for Testing at a specified location. This time slot must take place between 06:00 and 23:00′

            Yes. As we agree. The additional points I made included the fact that the testers are not limited to that 60 min time slot. They can turn up at any time 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And I know from anecdotes from acquaintances who are athletes in the testing pool, as well as other sources, that they do.

  4. I’m actually very interested in training, I had ordered Hutchinsons book when it was reviewed here.

    In particular, I’m curious about hours per week and intensity…how many of those hours are spent building the aerobic base? I remember reading that a German track team spent most of the year on aerobic base, only increasing intensity within 12 weeks of the target event.

  5. Sky’s training, for something where they control the environment etc, seems to be resulting in a lot of their riders getting sick this year – in fact it’s not just Sky… is it worse this year than usual?

    • It seems worse this year, but they’re just following the same pattern that’s worked for them over the last two seasons. I doubt there can be a link.

  6. You could always follow the Pro’s on Strava…here is a link to Niki Terpstra which includes his win on the Paris – Roubaix

    • Strava is a garbage in, garbage out. Don’t make the mistake of comparing rider X to rider Y using Strava’s site. If you treat strava like a time waster like facingbook or twittering, then go for it.

      A simple example: set a gps app to sample every minute on a popular cycling route. Upload the gps track to Strava. You’ll find the track is not fit to the other rides on the same route. You’ll also find Strava has created all kinds of nonsense calculations based on the nonsense uploaded. The problem gets geometrically worse as junk data is compared to other junk data.

      If quantifying your rides is a big deal to you, you are much better off using golden cheetah.

      • Fair enough, but why would you only sample every minute? I don’t even know of GPS units capable of such slow sampling rates. I would do 1 Hz at a minimum.

        Don’t blame strava for not knowing how to work the switches on your device!

  7. On this topic, I’d love to see a piece about riders’ blogs.

    Cameron Wurf, from Cannondale, has a great one. He mostly posts after racing and once in a while he writes about training. Even if it’s not detailed stuff, it gives you an idea of their routine. He’s been staying at the Tenerife Parador and has written about meeting other riders during his stay. His stream of consciousness style is very entertaining and his positive personality definitely comes across in his blog. I look forward for his posts during the Tour de France.

    Do you know any other riders that have good blogs? That could be a nice topic for a post.



  8. It wasn’t too many years ago when riders would report how many kilometres they had ridden over the winter. It sounds old fashioned but that was the way of measuring it. Today it seems we know even less and that’s despite all the social media sources.

    Fast forward to July and I can see another three weeks of Sky and others having to defend themselves because public and media alike have questions to which the teams have no answers. Maybe they don’t give away the results today but they could show July’s performances comparable to other rides.

  9. Interesting article in many ways. The flaw with this type of “modern” approach is that if the Big target for the year is missed. Then it looks like star rider has been slacking etc. etc. I agree the conspiracy theorists can have a field day with this sort of thing. Also, sponsors like to see riders Race as do fans. All in all I don’t like much this modern way. It was more interesting seeing the pounds come off and the cheeks sink as the spring rolled into summer. mentioning no names!

    • Thing is that the race-less approach can easily pay off. Take what’s happened with Gilbert for example: no success in the Ardennes since his 2011 clean sweep, and then this season Allan Peiper said forget the cobbles, its too much ahead of a serious Ardennes campaign – and Gilbert goes and wins Brabantse Pilj and AGR

  10. I can think of so many reasons why a smart cyclist would prefer training to racing if performance is concerned. Less crashes, you can stick to the optimal program, no bad weather to give you chest infections (?), etc. It is a pity though that the TdF is so important that many don’t bother to race much more than that. I don’t need to see more riders using races again for training. When a big name rides a big race ‘for training’ and only puts in a dig a few times and remains anonymous for most of the time I find that very disappointing. But I’d like them to set more goals per season, so we can see them trying their best more often. But the self-perpetuating top position of the TdF makes that difficult.

  11. Froome’s racing days would be down because of injury and illness this year, wouldn’t they? What were his racing days at this point last year?

    And Luis Leon Sanchez? Maybe, like a lot of us, he hasn’t got the application or discipline to hit high intensity goals during training, so he does a lot of racing.

    Riders should do whatever works for them.

  12. From experience using racing as training can be quite variable and create not enough or too much stimulus – get dropped on the key climb and you spend half the race soft pedaling with the groupetto, go too hard and spend the next week riding easy trying to recover.

    Training on the other hand allows you to control and build towards a peak training load.

    • Half and half: yes because of the island’s choice place in the past but also because it’s one of the few photos of pro cyclists I have in Tenerife, the Cor Vos agency visited for an Armstrong training camp when they won’t go and see Liquigas or Astana there. I went for a wide shot rather than focus on the individuals.

  13. A few people have mentioned ‘secret training’. As Inrng has noted the place they’re staying down to the hotel and the roads they’ll be riding, I think maybe secrets a strong term. Especially since you could go and watch them on public roads. As for training in general, I can’t think of a single sport where competitors compete more than train. Most sports would have a ratio of between 10-15/1, training hours/competition. Even golfers practice more than they compete and at the other end of the scale,marathon runners who might race for 6-7 hrs a year but train for over 20 hrs a week. I’d suggest this is more to do with our understandable difficultness in believing that the only thing going on is hard work than a concerted effort to keep everything secret by the teams (other than the proprietary things all sports team jealously guard).

    • Interesting, thanks.

      I think the difference in cycling is the tactical aspect so teams/riders want to protect particular aspects of training, eg is someone doing a lot of steady reps vs sprinting because this could be useful to know. For example ahead of the Giro let’s imagine we know Rodriguez has been working on his sprint a lot, this means we know he’s banking on the time bonuses.

  14. There are many ways for UCI to force riders to race more. For example, minimal racing hours/UCI points to qualify for TDF GC competition; or even set up a serious of qualifying races. Just some very crude ideas here to illustrate the point.

    However, what have we missed if riders aren’t racing more? Does having the like of Froome/AC racing cobbled classics really adds that much to the sport? And is it really that much more fun to watch another Lemond or Merckx to dominate all year round from PR to TDF to all those late season classics? Or is it more fun to have stronger competition in each type of races (eg. the Boonen/Cancellara rivalry in classics or when Andy & Evans duelled it out during the 2011 tour)?

    The problem isn’t over specialisation or all training no racing (I’m all for those if they mean more frenzy competition). Rather, it’s about Sky dominating TDF, and more crucially, TDF dominating the whole calendar. The solution of which does not lie in having a weaker Sky or less important TDF, but how other teams should catch up at TDF and how other races could make themselves more successful.

  15. There is no real mystery about training. Mr. Hutchinson description is common. Learning more about how the pros train may help, you can’t train like the pro’s with out the physiology to handle it. A good Cat 3 in the US will have a functional power (1 hour TT) around 4 w/k. A pro is more like 6 w/k. This is not a linear scale. The difference is exponential. Each pro or each Cat 3 needs to have the training, the boring structure, defined based on their level. Getting the mix correct for amateurs is even more difficult because other elements of life; job, spouse, family, vacations, etc, have a much larger impact. Also, amateurs often don’t like this much structure. The pro’s job is to get better on a bicycle.

    Racing as training has waned because racing breaks riders down instead of building them up. Racing often is less work (kilojoules) than a structured training day. Too much time racing is spent saving energy to be efficient training, but the intense efforts often reach higher levels and without structure. When the race goes, the leaders goes with it or his/her day is done. Some riders respond well to more racing, some get more benefit from altitude training, some ….. Teams are finally tailoring the training to the team/riders goals and physiology.

    I think the mystery comes from the media’s lack of understanding or more likely because training does not make the best copy.


Comments are closed.