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How the pros trained in lockdown and how it could change the way they train in future

Did the months of home training blunt the pros’ racing form or give them a chance to sharpen skills? Illustration: Maria Hergueta

Richard Moore
10 Dec 2020

There were three months between the last WorldTour race of the 2019 season and the first of the 2020 season – 91 days, to be precise. The season began at the Tour Down Under in Australia in late January with the usual sense of a sport emerging from hibernation, in shiny new kit, on sparkling new bikes.

But the off-season was dwarfed by the 143 days between Paris-Nice – the last race before Covid-19 halted sport – and Strade Bianche, the first race since the restart. What’s more, they were not ordinary off-season days but days characterised by uncertainty, anxiety and fear. Days that saw some stuck inside their homes for weeks on end.

For cyclists, who thrive on routine and competition, this period posed particular problems. It also created interesting opportunities and threw up surprising discoveries.

Take Team Sunweb, the Dutch team sponsored by a holiday company. If the nature of the sponsor’s industry, as hard hit as any by coronavirus, created uncertainty in the team’s future, you wouldn’t have known it. Sunweb extended contracts, their women’s team signed the world’s top-ranked rider, Lorena Wiebes, and launched a new kit for summer.

They’ve largely presented a positive, business-as-usual face to the outside world and have worked hard to retain a sense of normality inside the team – at least within the context of the new normal.

‘From the moment we knew they were not going to be racing again in March we started with some activities and challenges – technical challenges on the bike, but also fitness challenges,’ says Hans Timmermans, a coach for the women’s squad.

The team’s mantra is ‘Keep Challenging’. They have a Keep Challenging Centre in Limburg, a residential high-performance facility that supports the team’s young riders in particular. But the two words have meaning beyond being a hashtag on the jersey and in lockdown they assumed even greater significance.

‘We had a Keep Challenging game, with a different challenge every week,’ says Timmermans. One was a track stand competition, standing still on the bike, rolling no more than two metres back and forth. In March, when they first set this challenge, the winner was the young German rider Franziska Koch with an impressive 16 minutes.

In late June they repeated the challenge, asking the riders to film themselves doing a track stand for as long as possible.

‘My colleagues and I thought it would be difficult to motivate them to do longer than 16 minutes,’ says Timmermans. ‘Then Franziska sends us a file by WeTransfer – a movie of her doing a track stand for 34 minutes!’

It was clear, says Timmermans, that athletes who thrive on competition needed something competitive to stimulate them – even, as in this case, standing still on their bikes. He adds that every single rider improved – several others managed 20-plus minutes.

The more serious aim behind such a challenge was to improve bike handling, or rather, as Timmermans says, ‘The goal of many of the games was to help the rider be more at one with the bike.’

The skill factor

How might this translate into results in races? As Timmermans says, technical skills can be hugely important yet in a sport with such emphasis on physical fitness they tend to be neglected, especially during the season. There just isn’t time. One upside of the lockdown was the opportunity to work on technique and skills.

‘Another game we did was to take off your legwarmers on the bike,’ he adds. ‘Because, well, remember Woods…’

Timmermans is referring to the 2019 Liège-Bastogne-Liège, when Mike Woods of Education First struggled to remove his legwarmers as the race – and the weather – heated up.

Woods finished fifth in Liège with one legwarmer on and one off, and admitted afterwards that the fashion faux pas, as well as providing some comedy to an international audience, had been an unwelcome distraction at the most crucial point of the race.

Sunweb have been doing other exercises designed to make the riders better bike riders and racers. Each has a personal development plan that they discuss with their individual coach every two weeks. Some have been tasked with ‘motivating’ the rest of the team.

Others, like new signing Wiebes, have been set the challenge of studying videos of sprinting rivals to analyse their strengths, weaknesses and typical habits (where do they open their sprint? What side of the road do they prefer? Do they like to come off a teammate’s wheel or surf the wheels of others?).

‘Every Thursday we had a meeting with the whole group,’ says Timmermans. ‘We spoke about race situations and we got the riders to prepare, to go through the whole process, as if they were racing.

‘So, for example one week we would do Gent-Wevelgem, and we would do a virtual game. They were split into three groups and asked what they would do in certain situations. For an hour and a half they were in race mode. And what I’ve seen from their heart rates is that they really were in race mode. The stress was really high.

‘This is all about making quick decisions,’ he adds. ‘This is something we have had more time to work on in lockdown than we would normally have in the season, when we just go from race to race.’

Unlike some other teams, the Sunweb riders weren’t necessarily stuck indoors. Many of their squad could train outdoors throughout. But for others the training emphasis switched inside. And some found, to their surprise, that they thrived.

After seven weeks on her trainer at her home in Catalonia, Ashleigh Moolman Pasio went out and did her regular climb, Rocacorba. Her previous best (and the Queen of the Mountains time) was 34 minutes 40 seconds.

After seven weeks indoors she went up it in 31:09 – a staggering improvement. She was in no doubt that the indoor trainer had been at least as effective as training on the roads.

Inside out

Matt White, the lead sports director at Mitchelton-Scott, echoes this. ‘The big revelation is home training,’ he says of the lockdown period. ‘That’s not new but in general professionals weren’t using home trainers that often.

‘Most riders have chosen a location in Europe to live because of the weather,’ White adds. ‘They go for the weather and the roads, which is why they’re in Andorra or Spain or northern Italy.

‘In the past, as with Mat Hayman when he trained indoors for Paris-Roubaix after breaking his elbow, people have done it because of injury. But I think a lot of people have actually now seen the benefit of doing specific work on the home trainer. A couple of our guys have actually come out of this lockdown period stronger.’

Yet it is one thing to set a PB on a climb, even one as long as Rocacorba, and another to embark on a multi-day stage race after so long without racing.

One coach who had to think about how to prepare his charges for the biggest challenge, the Tour de France, is Xabier Artetxe, who looks after 2019 winner Egan Bernal. The challenge was to balance keeping his riders in condition – he looks after most of the Spanish speakers at Team Ineos – but not race-fit when there were no races.

Then, with races resuming in early August and the Tour itself coming later the same month, the question became how to get the riders race-ready without a big block of racing. After all, the first Grand Tour of the season, the Giro d’Italia, normally comes after three months of racing, not three weeks.

‘My approach at first was to hold them back,’ says Artetxe. ‘To stop, reset, then start planning again. And when we knew that races were coming, to start again with a real plan.

‘It’s really difficult to keep working hard when you don’t know when you’re going to start racing. It was important to rest for a small period and then start again slowly. It’s important that they’re fresh mentally and physically because it’s like a new season.’

Artetxe sounds ambivalent about indoor training, neither fan nor critic. ‘I have discovered a parallel cycling world,’ he jokes.

‘I tried to understand a bit more about the different platforms – Zwift, etc – to see how they work and how we could use them. That has been really useful for the future. Now, when a rider has crashed and they can’t train outside, we know more about indoor training than we did before.

‘I remember when Egan crashed in the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya two years ago, he returned four, five weeks later at the Tour de Romandie. He had trained indoors in that time and he was really impressive. You can maintain fitness effectively for two, three weeks.

‘But cycling is outside. You cannot compare. For high volume, and the feeling of a climb, of moving on the bike and feeling the pedals, you need to be on the road. The riders will always prefer to train outdoors.’

And as a coach, Artetxe prefers being on the road with his riders. ‘I haven’t had the opportunity to train with or follow the riders, apart from Castro [Jonathan Castroviejo, a fellow Basque on Team Ineos], and I have missed that.

‘When you are face to face with a rider and you can follow them in training you have another feeling. It’s not just about analysing the training file with power and heart rate and all the other data.

'When you follow them, you see how they feel, their cadence, how they are when they finish an effort – that’s a lot of important information.

‘Some riders send you pictures of their Garmin with all the info and data, and that’s helpful. For some riders communication is more difficult. But compared with other sports we are very lucky with all the information we can get – power data, heart rate, VAM [speed of elevation gain].

'A lot of really accurate data that we can analyse to have a precise picture of how they are doing and their condition.’

Proper preparation

Bernal posts most of his rides to Strava so it’s possible for anybody with access to a computer to see the bare bones of what he’s been doing.

‘He loves to ride the bike and he loves these long rides,’ says Artetxe, and it was clear that Bernal had been doing a lot of what he loves most when Colombia eased lockdown restrictions.

In the first week of June Bernal rode 34 hours, covering 1,161km. He maintained 32-hour training weeks for the whole month. By way of comparison, the opening week of the Tour covers 1,257km. In essence, Bernal has been riding almost the equivalent of the Tour every week, but alone, more slowly of course and with a lot more climbing.

‘The most important thing for Egan is to prepare for racing by doing the volume on the bike, to build his aerobic base again,’ says his coach.

By early July most of the riders were planning, or already on, training camps. Ineos were heading for familiar roads on Tenerife, although Bernal arrived in Europe too late to join the rest of the Tour group. Still, they were inching towards business as usual but with face masks in public, even more care around washing hands and no cafe stops.

Like everyone, the teams are concerned about the threat of Covid-19 but are markedly less so about the fitness of their riders or their ability to race after such a long break. As Artetxe says, ‘Our priority was to make sure our riders were supported to train as normal.

‘We didn’t want them to lose any training days because they didn’t have the resources or the kit. It has not been easy to send equipment, nutrition or the other things they need, sometimes to the other side of the world.

'It has been complicated, but we made a big effort to provide riders with the best support.’

Richard Moore is a cycling journalist and author, former racer and co-founder of The Cycling Podcast

In sickness and in health

Keeping riders and team staff safe from Covid-19 has created an extra challenge beyond the usual dangers of racing

It’s not just the riders who had a major adjustment to make as racing resumed. Team staff arguably faced an even bigger challenge as they prepared to do their jobs in addition to being responsible for a lot of new health and safety protocols.

One WorldTour team doctor said that he and other team doctors, who form a medical group, were worried that a lot of the UCI guidelines were too vague and open to interpretation.

As a result they were looking at introducing their own measures: ‘Doing our laundry at 60°C (although some of our kit can’t be washed at 60°C), and bringing more water bottles, because we probably can’t reuse them.’

And one of the main concerns for doctors was dealing with the kind of ailments that are common on stage races: ‘The management of upper respiratory illnesses, which are very common, will be tricky. And given the implications of a suspected Covid-19 case, we’re worried about under-reporting of illnesses too.’

Stage racing poses particular challenges with teams going from hotel to hotel: ‘There are a lot of things we can’t control, such as the hotel staff or where they’ve been,’ says the doctor. ‘But perhaps the biggest danger is the peloton itself.’

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