The training camp is almost as old an institution as professional cycling itself. Long, long ago, camps were simpler affairs. Riders would migrate within their own countries, or at least within each team’s home nation – heading southward in search of warmer climes. The idea was to get in as many miles as possible, shave one’s legs and generally prepare for the season to come.
It was also often the first time new signings would be meeting their teammates, allowing the unit to gel together before its first competitions.
At some point all that changed. The training camp became as much a part of the marketing endeavours of a team as it did its performance ambitions. A pre-season camp became the earliest opportunity to take photos of the team in its infinitely more stylish new jersey, and using all the shiny and infinitely more performant kit provided by that year’s new raft of sponsors.
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Video interviews, press commitments and social media posts – as well as plenty of performance testing – were all added to the agenda.
But does any of this make sense in a world still desperately grappling with the coronavirus pandemic?
With an early-season calendar that has been devastated by cancellations and postponements, there are simply no benefits to putting riders’ bodies under a massive training load at this time of year. The professionals don’t need to rapidly get ready for the first races of 2021, because most of the ones that matter have been nixed – or pushed back to the summer. As such, any training camps currently happening are likely to be much more relaxed on the training part than they have been in recent years.
The second thing to consider is weather. Yes, it is January and it is grim pretty much everywhere except the Costa Blanca, but home training has come on leaps and bounds in the last five years – courtesy of Zwift, smart trainers and remote coaching platforms that allow staff to monitor all their riders’ progress year round. There is simply no need to ride outside in Spain when most training goals can now be accomplished in the spare room.
Team Astana - Premier Tech 2021, Training Camp
Image credit: Getty Images
Old professionals often joke about training camps being a chance to see who had gotten fat over Christmas, but now team management already know more about an athlete’s condition than the rider does themself, simply from looking at the data uploaded to platforms like Training Peaks – and can glean these insights from anywhere in the world.
There are other factors too. Worldwide delays on production of bicycle parts have frustrated the attempts of teams to get their 2021 kit assembled ready for camps. Many have not succeeded. This will render most of the photography gathered at these camps unusable for any sort of marketing purposes – because there is no greater sin in modern cycling than failing to be sponsor-correct.
And, of course, there are the various restrictions on travel to and from winter training hotspot countries like Spain and France to contend with. Americans have a tough time getting into Europe at all, while Brits are not supposed to leave their homes, let alone escape from plague island. If you can’t actually get the whole team together, there’s not much of a team-building aspect.
With all these factors considered, to say nothing of the inherent risks of international travel during a global pandemic, is it really necessary or right to fly 30 blokes to Alicante just to ride bicycles? Jumbo-Visma has already come under fire for plans to fly Wout Van Aert to Spain and back “to have team photos taken”.
“I suspect that I will mainly have to have team photos taken there," Van Aert told Sporza. "I will say hello to the road team and will have some good workouts on the road, but my 'cross bike will stay at home. I will be back in Belgium next Saturday. I now benefit from riding kilometres in the sun."
It has since become clear that Van Aert also put pen to paper on his new contract while in Spain, ensuring he got more than a new Facebook photo out of his brief stay in the country.
The juxtaposition between this approach and that of British Continental team Ribble Weldtite is striking. The latter released an announcement about their early-season plans this week, and it is perhaps the line about ‘ethics’ that rings the most true.
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