choosing the season
It’s 4pm on January 18th and I’m sitting in Oniria, a small specialty coffee place in Girona - hot take, it’s the best coffee shop in town. The Australian Nationals have just finished - and while the cycling season doesn’t truly start until Opening Weekend, it is well and truly on its way. I’m currently on a little rest block after two big weeks of training, both the intensity and volume have increased and I’ll be flying off to training camp in two weeks.
Old faces are slowly starting to return to town. A lot of people in the pro-cycling world head back to their native homes for the off-season and Christmas period and a gradual trickle of familiar faces coming back means that the season is just around the corner.
As January arrives, training intensity ramps up, and the purse strings of the social wallet get tightened. It is the period of ‘no news is good news’ - you can’t be going too well, but you can’t be unfit either. It’s also the month of hope, everything seems to be going well, training camps are either happening, or just coming up and the race calendar is in front of you. But what actually goes into the logistics of this? Who decides on the training camps and race calendars?
Contrary to popular belief outside of the cycling bubble, it is very rare that teams require you to live in one place. Some continental development and elite amateur teams (such as French DN1) do require you to live together. There are numerous reasons for this, and it can often come down to something as simple as cost. In French DN1 teams, there isn’t the budget to fly riders to races, having everyone in one place means it’s easier to load everyone up into the team van and drive to races. I have a certain opinion on team houses, I’ll save that for another day.
You have more freedom once you move up the ranks, but teams have been known to put a certain amount of pressure to keep riders in one place. Slipstream riders are often Girona based, Sky/Ineos riders are mostly in Andorra or the south of France. Here on Hagens Berman Axeon, we can live where we want as long as we can get to races with relative ease.
The first important date in the cycling calendar is training camp. World Tour teams often have at least two, if not three camps. The first will be before Christmas, where the focus is just as much on media responsibilities and logistics of things such as kit and bike fitting as it is training. Post-Christmas, is when the proper training camps begin and the focus is on getting race ready.
In my team’s situation, these two camps are blended together into one. The first couple of days will be spent setting new equipment up and getting some other jobs done, and then we will crack on with training. Training camp feels like another Christmas, we are told to come with just hand luggage, but we all return home with a suitcase bursting with brand new kit - a niche perk of pro-cycling is that you end up with lots of suitcases. I always enjoy new kit day, and while I never take it for granted, I don’t get as excited as I used to.
At some point, we’ll be called into a hastily set-up photo-studio for all the team shots. This is always pretty fun, but you’ve got to be careful. You can guarantee that a stupid pose will find its way onto the team’s social media. Team photos live with you forever too, even at this early stage of my career I have people at races bringing my rider cards from 2019, which was my first year on the Conti scene. You soon regret a bad haircut or some dodgy facial hair.
In my experience, riders have no say in training camp location or timings. It is a decision that is made much further up the food chain, the first we find out about it is on either an email or group call. We had a big group video call before Christmas to get us up to speed with all of the team’s plans for 2022, it was here that we found out that our training camp was most likely to be in Italy. I only found out for sure when a flight from Girona-Pisa landed in my inbox.
The race calendar is the most important thing for bike racers. We all want to do the biggest races which offer the biggest opportunities - even more so on a development team. Race results are our currency. A good set of results gives you a strong hand when trying to move up the ranks, a bad set of results could mean the end of the road…
Each team has its differences when it comes to planning the race calendar. The further up the ladder you get, the clearer the rider definition and hierarchy. Most will have an idea of who is going to go to the big races. You’re not going to leave Pogačar off the Tour start list, are you?
At World Tour level, there is more stability with the race calendar. WorldTour teams have automatic entry to pretty much any race that they want, which means the calendar is guaranteed. As you move down the ranks, there isn’t the guarantee that the organiser even will grant you an invite. This can mean the calendar is a little more rocky - even more so in the COVID era.
Last year, we saw early season races such as Tour Down Under and Vuelta San Juan get canceled. This had a kickback on the rest of the calendar. All of a sudden, World Tour squads were requesting invites to the smaller races so their guys could get race fit. Who gets flicked? The Conti teams. From a business perspective, we all understand why you’d rather have the Ineos Grenadiers on the start line than a continental team - but it does limit our calendar.
At the start of every year, each rider will receive a PROVISIONAL calendar. I highlight provisional, because this is professional cycling and things never go to plan. Each rider will usually know their first few races, and after that it can become a bit of a free-for-all depending on rider fitness, injury, illness or race invitations. It is extremely normal for riders to get last minute call ups and to be told to jump on a plane to race the next day, COVID hasn’t helped this unpredictability either.
Continental development teams such as HBA will try to give their riders an equal amount of opportunities and race days. We always have a chat with our head DS about what races we’d rather do. This will often start on email, and based on our provisional calendar we’ll tell them what races we want to do and why.
The early season selections will be made, and then there will be another conversation on training camp. The chat on training camp will revolve around a few things such as your perception of your strengths and your current form. Sometimes they listen, sometimes they don’t. At the end of the day, their word is final.
Every race day is an opportunity as a U23. A day in the break at a high-level race could get you in a jersey which puts you on the radar of a WorldTour team. A couple of wins in the U23 ranks is the difference between a lucrative WorldTour contract or not making it at all. We’re all competing for the same contracts. While you may prefer certain races, you ultimately go where you’re told and you make the most of it.
Race invites will depend on anything from your rider roster to whether your DS knows the organizer. I hardly think I’m whistleblowing when I say money sometimes exchanges hands for race starts (even though this is technically against the UCI regulations).
The UCI race classification is complex and bullshit. Some 1.1s attract a better startfield than .PROs, yet other 1.1s attract hardly any WorldTour teams. I’ve been in the ‘pro’ ranks for four years now, and it still makes no sense to me. As a continental team, we can do everything upto .pro classified races (one below .WT). Only WorldTour and Continental teams can do .WT races.
A lot of the time, the race classification can mean nothing. I raced Druivenkoers-Overijse last year, a 1.1 race. The startlist included: Alaphillippe, Remco, Asgreen, Gilbert, Ewan, Hirschi and McNulty to name but a few. When WorldTour teams send their A Squads to a 1.1, it really does feel like they're coming to steal our lunch money.
In my humble opinion, the best race calendar for a U23 involves an equal mix of the following: races where you can be the big boys, others where it is hard, but still possible to be competitive and finally those where you’re there simply for survival and experience. I’m not going to say which classification they are, because race classification doesn’t mean a thing.
You need a good mixture of everything as you learn something different at each level. You need to race the WorldTour boys as it is often a complex reminder of just how good they are, but just how close you are to them. Yet without doing those races that you can control, you’ll never learn to win and progress to the next level.
The level has never been higher in the U23 ranks and times are changing. I’m the same age as Remco, and I feel like there has been a turn in the tide thanks to him. Riders are being signed at younger and younger ages. I think it’s a shame. While I understand that there are always prodigies, going into the WT ranks at such an early age can be a hindrance in my opinion.
By doing some years in the U23s, you get to race with guys your own age, and have fun. Once you get to WT, everything is that little more serious. You'll get a bigger pay cheque and more fame, but there’s something to be said for sticking in the U23s for a bit. Ask Tom Pidcock.
Joe’s next entry is going to come from Hagens Berman Axeon training camp in Tuscany. He’s planning on keeping a small daily diary to bring a little bit of insight into what it’s like on a development teams training camp.