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The future’s orange: In training with CCC

26 Jun 2019

CCC may have lost some of its stars in emerging from BMC's demise, but believes it is building for a bright future. This article was originally published in issue 87 of Cyclist magazine

Words James Witts Photography Sean Hardy

It was Benjamin Franklin who said that only three things are certain in life: death, taxes and the annual scramble of professional cycling teams to find sponsorship. In 2018 it was the turn of BMC Racing, one of the wealthiest squads on the WorldTour with an estimated annual budget of $29.4 million, to clean out the begging bowl.

It was no secret that the US-registered outfit would need a funding transplant after Swiss bike manufacturer BMC announced the end of its 11-year association with the team shortly after the death of its billionaire owner, Andy Rihs.

Many companies were touted as potential saviours, including accounting giant Deloitte, but hearsay doesn’t provide much stability so it wasn’t long before Richie Porte, Rohan Dennis, Tejay van Garderen, Nico Roche and Stefan Kung all announced their exits.

Time passed. It seemed general manager Jim Ochowicz, founder of the successful 7-Eleven squad way back in 1981, had fiscally bonked. But then, on the first rest day of the 2018 Tour de France, fittingly with team leader Greg Van Avermaet in yellow, Ochowicz announced that Polish company CCC would slip into BMC’s shoes.

From 1st January 2019, the red of BMC would change to the orange of CCC, giving the team the green light for 2019 and beyond.

Team building exercise

It’s the end of January, and Cyclist is in the off-season cycling nirvana of the Costa Blanca in Spain, shadowing Van Avermaet on the first day of CCC Team’s training camp. ‘Because the deal was sorted relatively late, it means we’re without a GC rider,’ the Belgian says. ‘They were all taken.’

Van Avermaet says he’s not bitter that his high-profile teammates didn’t bide their time, but accepts that as a rider who has enjoyed superstar status since winning the 2016 Olympic Road Race, the spotlight will always be on him.

‘Of course there’s pressure but I’m cool with that,’ he says. ‘Where I’ll miss them is at a race like the Tour de France, where Rohan and Richie were great support. Or a race like Tour du Suisse, where I might help Richie in the mountains and hopefully he’d finish it off. But I’m sure next year we’ll have a GC rider.’

Van Avermaet certainly looks calm and confident aboard his special-edition gold Giant TCR – a homage to that Rio victory – and is in group one of two for today’s 150km ride as we leave La Sella Golf resort in Dénia, just outside Calpe.

Group one, says head of performance Marco Pinotti, contains the riders heading to the following week’s five-stage Tour of Valencia. The riders in group two don’t race until the week after. ‘This seven-day camp is split into two three-day blocks with a recovery day in between,’ says the Italian.

‘The first block for both groups is overloading, to induce fatigue. The second block depends on the group. The first is down on volume but maintaining intensity – a mini-taper into Valencia. The second will increase volume again. Each block also features a time-trial day in the middle: the first will be individual; the second will focus on team.

‘They take around two hours but we then top up with another three hours on the road. We’ll cap it at that, although Greg often adds on another 30 minutes. Not today, though.’

Engineering graduate Pinotti is known for his attention to detail, both as a coach and a rider. He competed professionally between 1999 and 2013, wearing the Giro d'Italia’s pink jersey in 2007 and 2011. He also claimed victory on the Giro’s final time-trial stage in 2008 and 2012, and was Italian national TT champion six times.

Pinotti spent much of his racing career at Lampre but competed for BMC Racing between 2012 and 2013 before taking up a coaching role with the team. The Engineer, as he’s known, was a key driver behind Rohan Dennis’s 2018 individual victory and the team’s two Team Time-Trial World Championships. There will be no third crown for Pinotti, however, as the UCI has ditched the category from the 2019 World Championships calendar.

Still, with Stage 2 of this year’s Tour featuring a 27km team time-trial around Brussels after a flat opening stage, it’s vital the CCC team works on its TTT skills: the winners will almost certainly wear yellow for at least the two flat stages that follow. ‘It’s why we’re assessing each rider’s time-trial position at this camp,’ says Pinotti.

Platform for success

‘That’s important but, ultimately, the boss wants to win the Tour de France,’ says coach Jakub Pieniazek while we follow in the car behind the riders. ‘That’s the dream.’

The boss is Darius Milek, the man dubbed Poland’s ‘King of Shoes’ after he founded shoe company CCC SA in 1999. In 2016 Forbes estimated his wealth at $1 billion, numbering his shops at 897 across 16 countries. ‘I think that’s grown to over 1,200 now plus the online presence,’ Pieniazek updates. ‘CCC is found mostly in Eastern Europe and Russia.’ 

Forbes also notes that the 51-year-old raced for Poland’s national youth cycling team. As Milek’s business took off, so did his cycling aspirations. For the best part of two decades, CCC sponsored a Polish team, which last year raced at ProContinental level under the title CCC-Sprandi-Polkowice.

For a while there were rumours that CCC would take over sponsorship of the struggling Cannondale team, but again time passed. Instead it was Education First that stepped in to secure that team’s future. ‘It was the opposite with the BMC deal,’ reveals Pieniazek. ‘I think it was done in two days.’

The move saw six existing CCC riders elevated to WorldTour status alongside those riders still on BMC Racing’s books and new signings. Many CCC riders either left or dropped down to Conti level with a new CCC Development team.

One of the promoted riders is 28-year-old Polish rouleur Kamil Gradek. The colossal but quiet Gradek might already be familiar to UK readers from his time with the now-defunct One Pro Cycling team in 2017. For riders like Gradek, the merger is a great opportunity… if he can seize it.

‘The pace is so much higher at this level, and there’s an intensity that wasn’t there before,’ Gradek admits. ‘But it’s great. At ProConti level you don’t have the resources to employ so many staff. Here, I know I can call on the DS, coach, doctor… I don’t need to sort my flights. On the training camp there are no issues with equipment because of the mechanics. You can just ride. In fact, it’s much easier at this level!’

Van Avermaet later tells us he has been impressed by the CCC riders in training, ‘but the races are the real test,’ he adds. Ominous.

For now, that’s all in the future. In the present, we’re around 80km into our 150km ride. After weaving through sparsely populated villages and fields of olive trees, we divert off the beaten track and onto a stiff ascent. Framed by limestone cliffs and cherry blossoms in bloom, it’s nature at its bucolic best. Of course, beauty cannot disguise difficulty and one rider, Guillaume Van Keirsbulck, decides to take a shortcut home.

‘Lacking energy – not digesting food,’ Pinotti tells me. Another rider, Amaro Antunes, wrestles with his temperamental bike computer.

As for Van Avermaet, he’s where you’d expect to find him: up front. Gradek is in the middle, which prompts a return to what differentiates WorldTour riders from the lower leagues. ‘ProConti riders have to jump from around 20 hours a week to maybe 30,’ says Pieniazek. Pinotti adds, ‘That equates to going from around 800 hours a year to around 1,000.’

You’d think the most rudimentary of training principles – volume overload – doesn’t require the budgets of a WorldTour team. You’d be wrong. ‘Of course, you start with genetics and an ability to recover between sessions and stages,’ says Pinotti. ‘But there is also the support.

‘At WorldTour level you have better possibilities to train in warm places, more time to recover, you’re fed, daily massage… That’s not a marginal gain – it’s a huge one.’

Pieniazek agrees, saying riders like Gradek will stay in Spain beyond the camp. ‘In Poland now he’d be on his mountain bike as it’s minus five and snowing. ‘That builds strength but 20kmh off-road is no good for building speed.’

Centre of attention

Temperatures reach a daily peak of 16°C as CCC crest the climb. The riders stop and soak in the panoramas that are a staple in this part of Spain (as long as you don’t face Benidorm). They’re also ‘treated’ to energy bars, rice cakes and bottles of energy drink.

Van Avermaet is bang in the centre of the group as they chat, sweat, fuel and reflect. His supporting cast, the CCC Avermates, crowd around. Even when not verbally engaging with the Belgian, their bikes and bodies point in his direction as if towards some sort of walking, talking Mecca.

I later ask him how he feels about being the focal point of the team. ‘You’re not necessarily born with leadership qualities,’ he replies. ‘For me, it has come from playing the support role and then racking up good results.’

He’s alluding to the fact his major victories have all come in his thirties. His twenties, despite the occasional triumph, centred on domestique duties. Pinotti agrees that a former life on the front line resonates with the other riders. ‘When we’re sorting groups, they’re all saying they want to be in Greg’s group. I cannot make his group 20 strong!’ Pinotti says.

‘He ensures everyone feels connected with the goals that we’re trying to reach, and that each rider can be the rider that they want to be.’

Two riders who are new to the CCC party are Simon Geschke and Laurens ten Dam, signed together in the off-season from Sunweb. Both highlighted their former team’s reluctance to commit to contracts they felt they deserved as the main reason they decided it was time to move on. Both felt that Sunweb had clipped their racing wings.

‘The lack of GC at CCC means tactics will be more open in the Grand Tours,’ says 33-year-old Geschke, the German who memorably soloed to a mountain stage win at the 2015 Tour de France.

‘That’s something I missed at Sunweb. I liked racing for Tom Dumoulin but it was too one-sided. At the Tour, it was only about overall. No looking left or right – chances for breakaways, chances for stage wins. For me, that was a bit sad.’

Ten Dam echoes Geschke’s sentiments of discontent after Sunweb told him they were to split him and Dumoulin, despite the Dutch rider having been instrumental in helping his compatriot to 2017 Giro victory and second at last year’s Tour.

At 38, this will arguably be Ten Dam’s final team, but there will be no retirement – he already has a successful cycling-focused brand in place, ‘Live Slow, Race Fast’, which comprises a podcast, quarterly magazine and even its own coffee blend.

‘We also run a gravel event in Germany called LtD Gravel Raid,’ he says. ‘Last year we had 350 taking part – this year the capacity is 500.

‘Friday night you arrive. Food, fire, small party. Saturday race day. One loop of 50km or 70km. Come back to event area. Have eggs, bacon, bread, beers if you want… you can do a second loop or stay on the beers. In the morning, a hangover ride and then watch the World Championships.’

Ten Dam certainly speaks at full gas but together with Geschke and 35-year-old Serge Pauwels he represents a reassuring sextet of shoulders for both the existing CCC riders and Van Avermaet to lean on.

No ‘I’ in ‘team’

‘Before cycling I played football but, while it might not seem it, teamwork in cycling is just as important,’ Van Avermaet says. ‘We work together and we can bring riders with us. Just look at Patrick Bevin at the Tour Down Under.’ Bevin won a stage and was in contention for GC until crashing.

While the CCC subplot is the team, the main narrative is all Van Avermaet. He has had a reasonably successful first half of the season, winning stages in Valencia and the Tour de Yorkshire, and taking second behind Zdeněk Štybar at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, giving motivation to the team and boosting his confidence after a 2018 that failed to hit the heights of the previous season.

‘It’s not necessarily about confidence,’ he says of the fine margins between winning and losing. ‘When you win, it’s actually a relaxed feeling. You’re less impulsive and you make better decisions. Also, last year everyone was watching me.’

Van Avermaet will once again head to France in July in search of stage wins and yellow jerseys, and then there’s the World Championships in Yorkshire. The Belgian has form in ‘God’s Own Country’: he won the Tour de Yorkshire last year and his stage win 12 months later helped him to second overall this time around.

‘It’s going to be a tough race but it suits my profile,’ he says. ‘I’ll examine the parcours in more detail closer to the time. It could be my last real chance to wear the rainbow stripes.’

Van Avermaet is keen to retire on top and estimates he has two or maybe three years left in him. When it does happen, it’ll be a near impossible task to fill his shoes. Thankfully, CCC has several million to choose from.