inside hagens berman axeon: the training camp diary
Test day. There was a debate at dinner last night about how to pace it and what watts everyone will be targeting. In my eyes it’s pretty simple, just go as hard as you can and see where that puts you.
We had an unpleasant surprise at breakfast this morning — the scale. There’s no way to crack a bunch of bike riders like putting a scale in front of them at breakfast. It’s an important figure to have so we can calculate watts per kilogram, but we’re all convinced that the scale over-reads. Obviously.
Some guys feel nervous about test day. Some are chill. The thing with a twenty minute test is that everyone uses it as a benchmark, but everyone has different strengths. You wouldn’t expect our sprinter to be as fast as our climber on a climb, but that’s to be expected as they’re different types of riders.
We rolled out along the coast, and finally made it to the climb. We all split into groups to warm up and then the test would begin. For the test, we set off individually. It was a power test rather than a race and I had Avicii blaring through my headphones for added motivation.
There’s nowhere to hide in a 20-minute test, and there’s no two ways about it: it’s going to hurt. Hurt it did, yet the steep gradient at the bottom made it easy to push, and the test is all about finding the balance between being comfortable enough to hold it together for the whole effort, but being uncomfortable enough to know where the limit is.
With my personal coach, I usually do 12-minute tests (among others) to measure my fitness. I remember reaching eleven and a half minutes and thinking that if I stopped at twelve, I’d still have been happy with the result. When you have that thought but still have 40% of the effort to go, it’s a little worrying. The small downhill section offered a slight bit of respite, but paradoxically, the descent was equally as tough as I tried to keep the power high. Descending at high power is annoyingly uncomfortable.
I came into the final right-hander way too hot and grabbed a handful of my brakes as I eyed the gravelly apex that I almost hit at full-speed. Around the corner safely-ish, I sprint for the final thirty seconds and then stop pedalling. To put it bluntly: I was fucked.
Fucked, but happy with my numbers. Then all we had to do was roll home. The ride home today was a boring one, there’s no other way of putting it. The roads were just a bit crappy - long and straight through the flatlands. Not much scenery and nothing in the way of corners or hills to break it up. Maybe it’s because I was tired after the test. Maybe I’m just a grumpy bike rider.
Lead outs are always fun. Split into a few groups and go as fast as you can before delivering the sprinter. We were in groups of five and each time we’d switch roles. It was a little comical at times, having one of the bigger guys lead-out and almost drop some of the climbers when it was their turn to sprint. Fun, nonetheless.
Our first proper long ride of camp, and it was a beauty. Again, we split into two groups as riding in a big bunch of 15 isn’t safe, nor good for training on roads with cars. We headed inland towards San Gimignano and were greeted by stunning scenery. The rolling Tuscan hills opened in front of us and the beautiful countryside stretched out as far as the eye could see. The beauty of Tuscany is that it keeps its character. There are very few tall, modern buildings. Everything is just as you expect, just as you picture Tuscany to be. Every few minutes you pass one of the little Piaggio Apes (Italian for Wasp). Built around a moped/scooter but with a trailer on the back, these things are as Italian as it gets.
We must’ve been riding towards either a wealthier area, or maybe an area more popular with tourists as the road quality got better and better the further inland we traveled. The roads seemed endless and I quickly realised how easy it would be to fall in love with this place. The loop rolled, never too hard, never too easy and as you were working in the wheels there was never the need to properly push on.
There were a few tired faces at dinner. Being an older rider, I have “plenty of miles in the legs” as the saying goes and my personal coach is also a big believer in six-hour rides so I’m probably a little more resistant to them than some of my other teammates!
Rest day. Good ol’ rest day. Today we were treated to an 8:30 breakfast, rather than the normal 8:00 on training days. A slow morning followed, until our eventual 10:45 roll out. Destination: Cecina for a cafe stop.
10-minutes down the road, everything was going well. The watts were low, the morale was high, the weather was good. The only problem: my power meter wasn’t connecting. I went to calibrate it, and clocked that it wasn’t connected at all to my Wahoo Elemnt Bolt. It was only then that I noticed that we were on different bikes than we were previously. We have our training bikes and our race bikes, and without telling us, the mechanics had put us on our race bikes for the rest day. If it weren’t for the power meter, I wouldn’t have known. So, credit to the mechanics.
15 kilometers into the ride, the puncture shout came. Sods Law would dictate that someone gets a puncture on the one ride all week where we didn’t have the team car following us. We called Kristof, our soigneur, and he said it would be at least 30 minutes until he got to us.
Still 10 kilometers away from our planned cafe, that became a no-go. Instead, we pulled a U-Turn into the small town of Bibbona we’d just passed through, and what a good idea that turned out to be.
We originally just sat in the sun in the town centre. The plan was to search for a cafe but with nothing in sight, we sat down and concentrated on our tan lines. Leo Hayter disappeared for a few minutes, and came back with the news that there was, in fact, a cafe. Leo was the one who found our cafe on the other rest day too, when everything also looked closed. That guy has a nose for a cafe.
Half of us pulled into the bakery/patisserie and raided it pretty hard, the other half went down the street to get the coffees in. We reconvened on a wall, just outside the ‘Palazzo Civico’ and got cracking on our cappuccinos and crustatas. These are the moments that make the hard training sessions worth it.
Kristof arrived with the wheel, and we slowly got on our way. We decided to finish the loop anyway, and took a detour by the coast to sit on the beach for a little while. The sun was shining. It would be rude not to go to the beach.
A slow afternoon followed, a massage, and a bit of time writing. We ate like kings with a sort of flatbread style pizza.
Life is good.
Today was tough, but bloody good fun. We started with some 5-minute efforts, the first two were ‘hard’ but easily manageable, and the last one was full gas - it turned into a race with about a quarter of us. We have a few junior riders on camp. Based off today's session, keep an eye on Antonio Morgado on the junior scene. That Portuguese guy can climb frighteningly fast.
A small roll around the hills before we split into two groups and cracked on with the next part of the training. Two lots of 15-minutes through-and-off along the flat, the first one we kept reasonable, hard, but reasonable. The second turned into another race. The first 10-minutes were again hard, but reasonable, and the last five became survival of the fittest. Chop (pull turns) until you drop, go until you blow, whatever you want to call it. It got silly in the final minute with just three of us remaining, and I was bloody happy when we put our hand up to end the effort.
However, there are a few cracks starting to appear now. While it’s nice to be at training camp, to have meals and bikes prepared for us, this hotel is starting to feel very small. There’s only much shit talk you can have with your teammates. The others are getting more tired too. But it’s only couple more days to go, before we fly back into the real world.
It was the last dinner with all of us together as the Portuguese boys had an early flight out the next day. The hotel made us a big cake wishing us luck for the year and while I can’t remember the exact flavour, I do remember it tasting very good. Everything tastes better at the end of a training camp too.
Axel [Merckx] made a speech, wishing us all the best for the season and thanking the staff members for their help to make the camp run smoothly. Whatever happens over the next twelve months, we’re all HBAxeon riders, all a part of the team. Every team claims to have a “family feel” and that claim is often bullshit, but not here. Ask any former rider, and they’ll say the HBAxeon years are up there with some of the best in their career.
We’re a tired bunch. Today was the final day of proper training and we had six-hours on the cards. While the previous six hour day was great, you could tell everyone was worn out today. At a guess, at least half of the ride was done in complete silence.
I didn’t eat enough either for dinner last night, or breakfast this morning. I could tell because I was a bit grumpy. It didn’t matter how much food I threw down my throat, I was in a deficit somewhere and paying for it. While I was feeling okay physically and more than capable of getting around, mentally I was struggling. It was very much a case of counting down the kilometres. I spent a lot of time staring at the map screen of my Wahoo telling me how many km’s to go. Some days it’s a case of just getting through the day and ticking it off. Today was one of those days.
It threatened to rain twice which was annoying and it got super cold in the final hour. At the final stop we all gloved and caped up before the final descent to the hotel. There were a lot of weary faces.
It’s safe to say that the resulting lunch was a quiet one. I was grateful for a massage this afternoon, just because it let me lie down and relax for an hour. Dinner tonight: very good. We had a beautiful steak (did I mention the food at this hotel is great?) and a glass of red wine each. The work has been done.
Goodbyes were said as many guys have early starts tomorrow. Some guys I’ll see in Rhodes when we head there in a few weeks for our first race block, other guys I’ll see at some other race throughout the year. The end of training camp is strange. This group will never be together again, ever.
The goodbyes are casual as everyone will technically see each other again. But we’ll never be together like this, in this one big group. Two weeks ago some of us were strangers, but you grow closer at training camp. You eat every meal together, train together and hang out together for two weeks. There are few situations in life where you spend every living hour of everyday with a brand new set of people and it does bring you closer. Over this year we’ll all have to rely on each other at some point or other, go into battle together at races. Those bonds are started on a training camp.
The final day. I was woken up by my roommate who had a silly o’clock wake up call for his flight. A muttered goodbye and I rolled over and went back to sleep. It was a slow morning at a depleted breakfast table. Another three or four guys left earlier, so it was just the Girona boys and Leo, who was flying to London.
From breakfast, we got straight onto the bikes for an easy hour before the flight. We unsuccessfully went looking for a bakery and turned around when it started to rain. Easy, tranquillo. We’re a bunch of tired bike racers.
Then, a very slow afternoon. I called my coach, spent a bit of time writing and packed my suitcase. Our ride finished at 11, but the airport pick-up wasn’t until 5pm. We arrived at the airport early, very early, and we couldn’t check in. We had a lot of luggage too, it looked absurd. From check-in, we went in search of a panini, and it was unfortunately quite disappointing. I’m writing this on the flight home now, it’s just coming up to 9pm and I’m tired. I’m ready to get home. Training camp has been good. The whole group got to know each other well, we got our new kit and we trained very well. Yet however silly it sounds, I’m looking forward to waking up in my own bed, making my own bowl of porridge in the morning and having a nice walk around town.
Sitting on this plane, the end of this training camp is a strange one for me. It doesn’t matter if I win twenty races and become World Champion this year, I’ll never do a Hagens Berman Axeon training camp again. I’m ageing out and we’re a U23 team. My time is up.
I’m heading to Andorra in a week for final preparations before my season opener in Rhodes. It’s almost time to race, time to prove it. It’s a big year for me, make it or break it, some would say. I feel the pressure, of course I do, but I wouldn’t say I’m stressed. At least not yet.
Every year, training camp finishes and there is so much hope and excitement for the year. The race calendar is laid out in front of you, and there are all of these opportunities sitting on that piece of paper where we know that, if we take them, we will step up to the big leagues. That’s not to say it’s easy — everyone is at a good level as an Under-23. Still, I’m in a good place. I want to start racing as soon as possible.
It’s time to get results. It’s time to step up.
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