inside hagens berman axeon: the training camp diary
In a two-part exclusive, derailleur’s resident pro Joe Laverick takes us inside a week with the boys, having kept a diary for us while he was in Pisa with Hagens Berman Axeon (the development team run by Axel Merckx) for what will be his last off-season training camp before exiting both that team and the under-23s. In thes pages, he explains some of the realities of training, eating, sleeping, and hanging out as a professional cyclist. The intimacy of the journal touches on that which makes cycling so lovable — gorgeous settings, massive suffering, and camaraderie between teammates. For Joe and his comrades, all are part of the highs and lows of life on a bike.
I’m conflicted as to whether this is actually day one of training camp. It’s 18:24 and we’ve just left Girona Airport, destination Pisa. We’re due to land in just over 90 minutes, we’ll be met by team staff at arrivals, and drive to our hotel.
Today has been busy — we’re moving from Pinarello to BMC so we spent most of it packing up my Pinarellos to be returned. They had to be cleaned and stripped down. Remember last time when I had an issue with my seat post? The same thing happened today, luckily I realised before I left and went down to the local bike shop for help. A bit of hammering later, we were free, big ups to Boris at DosOffTrack.
There’s five of us on this flight, three returning riders and two new signings. I’m also one of the oldest on the team, both in terms of age and experience. I texted Koos, our head director sportif, to ask if there would be dinner when we arrived. His reply, ‘Yes, but maybe only pasta.’ What a shame, I thought. Only pasta for dinner in an Italian hotel!
I’m looking forward to getting going. The training, the new equipment and being around the boys again. But equally, I’m looking forward to exploring some new roads around Tuscany. Although I’ve visited Italy a lot, I’ve never spent longer than three days at once, so I’m excited to sample a new culture too. Equally, there’s a bit of a strange feeling travelling to this camp. I’m a final year U23, and as we’re a development team, this is the last year I will spend with this team. While there’s still a full season of racing and experiences to come, it’s the first time I’ve ever been in the situation where I know at the start of the year that whatever happens, I won’t — and can’t — re-sign here.
The first 24hrs of training camp are always a little bit mad. We arrived straight to dinner and there were smiles as everyone saw everyone else for the first time since the end of last season. The pasta is bloody good, by the way, but the Brit inside me isn’t too keen on the idea of a pasta dish followed by a meat dish. Just put it all on one plate.
At the rider’s table, there are a few familiar faces. Some teammates from last year, some guys I’ve raced against before, but there are also a lot of new faces. It’s a strange feeling because you’re sure that in two-weeks time, you’ll get to know all of the new guys well and it’ll feel like one big group, but at the start it’s a little odd and can feel a bit like the first day in a new class at school.
After dinner, we headed to the function room of the hotel to get our kit for the year.
First impressions: Holy fuck it’s cool.
That pink, blue, navy fade is incredible. If you doubt me, wait until you see it in real life, not just on social media photos. It’s class. We went to a couple of stations, receiving our new jackets and suitcases before getting an industrial sized bin bag full of fresh kit. When I emptied it on my bedroom floor, it looked like someone had dropped a bomb in an Alé showroom.
Breakfast was at 8am, and I’m disappointed to report that the coffee here isn’t great. The cappuccino was okay, though I think it was the caffeine that I appreciated rather than the flavour.
Anyway, and more importantly, new bike time. We’re riding BMC this year, and I’m excited. The Swiss make nice products: watches, knives, chocolate and trainers to name but a few, you can add bikes to that list. They’re light, aero and feel good. After being on Pinarello for the past year, I’ll admit that I was sceptical - but I’m impressed.
We only had an easy couple of hours with a few sprints planned so we split into two groups. The guys who got here before us went ahead, and we started a few minutes later as it was inevitable that we’d have to stop after an hour to adjust saddle heights etc. Bike riders are a picky bunch.
Rolling out on the Tuscan roads, the pace and our stress levels were low and morale high as we caught up with old — and got to know new — teammates. Yet I couldn’t help but think that there was something wrong.
My saddle height is 800mm, but I often sit around 797. As I was going from a worn-in saddle to a brand new one, I’d logically have to lower it a touch to allow it. I asked Ton, our ever patient mechanic to lower it a touch and I immediately felt better. After the ride, I asked him to measure my saddle height, without looking at all, I called that it was 795. He measured it, and it was 795 to the dot. I’m unsure if ‘knowing saddle height by feel’ is something to put on my CV, but I was proud all the same.
We actually trained today. After spending yesterday faffing around with equipment, today was a proper day on the bike. As always, we split into two groups. The more climber-y guys in one, the bigger guys in the other.
On the docket were efforts on the flat, 20 seconds for each of us at threshold on the front, and then we’d pull off and rejoined the back. Repeat 5 times. The first time, we miscounted and each did six turns. The team coach proceeded to rip us for how we couldn’t do simple maths.
The final of these repetitions happened to start on a rolling road and then finish up a bit of a climb. “Threshold” became a loose term and the screws were turned a little bit for the first time this camp. There were a couple of shouts of “easy” and “calm it” in our train, as we were all suffering and some were getting a little annoyed at this new interpretation of “threshold”. As the stopwatch ticked 12-minutes for this effort, our hands went up and we all started to go easy. There were a few wry smiles in the bunch and a couple of sarcastic jokes about suddenly over-reading power meters.
It always happens, especially with so many new riders.
Guys are all measuring each other up, and the first burn-up always takes that little bit of tension out of the air. While it’s not necessarily tension as you’d imagine it, there is definitely something there before that first effort together. We’re all competitive, and we all want to be the best that we can be. Before those first efforts, there’s a little bit of uncertainty as to where everyone stands. Maybe it’s a primal pack instinct, or maybe it’s just what happens when you get a bunch of young guys together who want to push each other to the limits.
That afternoon brought my first massage of camp, followed by a bit of downtime in my room where I caught up on some writing work. I always travel with my coffee set-up: hand-grinder, beans and aeropress. I gambled that there would be a kettle in the room. There isn’t. I honed my best Italian on Google Translate and built up the courage to ask for some hot-water. My afternoon decaf coffee while writing is sacred.
We conducted our first rapid COVID test of the camp, chatted crap over dinner and then headed up to our rooms before bed. We all share a room with one other guy. My roommate is Iván Romeo, the insanely talented Spaniard who’s in his first year as a U23. He is also one of the happiest dudes I’ve ever met.
I can still remember my first training camp as a U23 when I was racing for Madison Genesis. Just writing that makes me both feel and sound old. It was slightly different as it wasn’t a U23 team so there were a lot of older guys, but I remember looking at the final year U23s and thinking I’m miles away from that point. It occurs to me suddenly that I’m that guy now. I’m the older, more experienced one on the team.
It’s a strange feeling.
I’m actually writing this on the morning of Day 5 because I’m forgetful but anyway, Day 4 was a typical training camp day. Five hours of endurance with some low cadence efforts.
The team photographer turned up, so we split into separate groups and he hung out of the car getting riding shots of us before we reached the climb of the day. Everyone set off individually to do their torque efforts (4 times 8 minutes, if you’re interested). We then regrouped at the top of the climb, and continued along our way riding low zone-2.
On a 10-day camp, it can be easy to get carried away like we did yesterday, but today everyone kept it under control. It’s a good time to get to know your teammates. Riding next to each other one-on-one, you get to know more about everyone individually. From where people live to their family situation to who is or isn’t in a relationship. Everyone has a different story as to how they got into the sport, and onto the team. You can learn a lot in five hours.
All in all, it was a long afternoon. We often finish riding around 2-3pm, after which we go straight to lunch. Then there are no commitments until dinner at 8pm. Netflix was deployed. My phone buzzed about an hour before dinner and Axel Merckx, the team manager, invited me down for a quick meeting. There were three of us: myself, Axel and Koos Moerenhout, our head DS. It’s low stress, just seeing where I was at, chatting through the calendar some more and ironing out if there are any potential issues.
Meanwhile, dinner was super good. We had some sort of Ravioli followed by pork. A perk of staying in an Italian hotel: the pasta is amazing. And I know I say that everyday.
Rest day, always a strange one. Breakfast was shockingly still at 8 AM as we had team photos from 9. My dream of a lie-in was gone.
Photo day is always fun. It involves a lot of messing around, and a lot of not doing that much. We had full team photos in the morning before shooting the individual portraits in the evening. This happens every year at every cycling team at every level, so it’s relatively normal for me at this point. The group photos are always a laugh, but sometimes the individual ones can be a touch awkward. You can never be too sure when the photographer is going to pop up, and you never know which photos will or won’t see the light of day.
Sandwiched in between was our rest day ride. We headed down the coast in search of coffee. Disappointingly, most places were closed. After a lot of searching (and a lot of standing around) we came good with a random hotel. Twenty guys drinking coffee and having a snack probably made up a good percentage of their winter income.
Our new signing Leo Hayter, a fellow Brit and the winner of U23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège — one of the biggest races on the U23 calendar — had spotted an old abandoned castle on one of the hills. Of course some of us decided to climb up a short but outrageously steep gravel road in order to go and see it. I’m not going to take this story any further, nor will I disclose whether we did or did not climb over a big gate that was locked in order to find what we thought would be a cool view. What I will say is that this was one of those situations where the journey was better than the destination.
The afternoon brought dinner and rider portraits. We have the boring rider portraits, and then the fun ones. I commandeered all the Oakley glasses in the vicinity for my fun one. Then a few of us headed out to the local town for ‘lifestyle’ shots. This was a welcome excuse to go for a walk and get out of the hotel.
With dinner still being at 8pm, the afternoon started to drag on and I was saved by Kasper’s PS5. The legend packed his PS5, so it was FIFA all round for the rest of the evening.
Then, dinner and bed.
It is test day tomorrow.