Life as a professional cyclist might appear glamorous from the outside – travelling the world, getting paid to ride a bike – but the reality is often far less appealing. Dirty hotel rooms, time spent away from loved ones, constant fatigue, not to mention the pressure to perform — it can be a challenging existence.
For the past few months, Drapac Professional Cycling’s Adam Phelan has been putting together great little videos from his time spent travelling and racing around the world. In his latest video, Adam shares his experience from a block of altitude training in Salt Lake City ahead of the Tour of Utah and the USA Pro Challenge. Enjoy.
It was a scene from my nightmares: I was submerged deep underwater, disoriented and confused, the pressure in my head increasing with each second. It was as if someone had their hands inside me, gripped around my lungs, tightening with each rapid breath. Every muscle and nerve in my body screamed. But there was no breaking to the surface – no release from the lack of breath. Because I was not underwater, I was drowning in fresh air. This was no dream.
It is a memory from my first experience of riding up the Stelvio Pass in Italy. I was riding on ‘hairpin 12’. The ride is etched into my mind and married to the feeling of suffocation. The hairpin number cruelly denoted how many out of the 48 infamous – and violently sharp – bootleg turns were left before the reaching summit of the mountain. A summit 2,757 metres above sea-level. Hairpin 12 is at about 2,500 metres, and I honestly wasn’t sure if I’d make those final 200.
I could barely see straight anymore, my vision turned into a bright blurry haze. There just wasn’t enough oxygen to go around. My light-headed sickness the harsh cost of overexertion at those heights. They say ignorance is bliss. That’s bullshit. I still wish I had the power to travel back in time, to sit myself down and yell: “Don’t go so hard for so long!” It would have saved me a lot of pain. But in the words of C. S. Lewis: “Experience is the most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.”
You dance a fine line when riding at altitude. You can be perfectly fine if you acclimatise properly and are intelligent about your effort. Yet if you get too excited, if you go too far and hit the limit for too long, your whole world can implode. My world imploded that moment on the famous and beautiful climb in Italy. I had gone too far and I was paying the price.
Three years later and I find myself in Salt Lake City, Utah. I am at the humble altitude of 1,500 metres. I sit with my laptop and a cup of coffee in front of me, listening to the voices of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin float up from the television downstairs. It’s the Tour de France and Chris Froome leads. I have half my cycling kit on, but my training can wait.
I have come to love it here in the mountains. The fresh crisp air. The moments when the sky is big and empty, save for the deep sea of blue rippling across the horizon. The striking beauty of the rock-faced cliffs, their presence both intimidating and awe-inspiring. It is a world of its own, uniquely endearing, and yet one that, as I have so brutally learnt, demands respect.
July seems to be a month haunted, or blessed – I’m still not sure – by high altitudes in my life. Following my time at Stelvio Pass, I had another training camp in Livigno the following year with the Australian National Team. Last year I raced with Drapac at the Tour of Qinghai Lake in China, the Tour of Utah and the US Pro Challenge all in one trip. Nowadays, my relationship with the mountains endures.
Downstairs, I hear the sounds of racing continue: the screams and cheers from the half-drunk Tour de France spectators, the horns and cowbells, the rhythmic sounds of bikes – it mixes together to form the unique music of cycling. It excites me.
It’s been a month since my last race, the Tour of Korea. The taekwondo shows, love hotels and fighter jets all so distant now. We are still two weeks out from the opening stage at the Tour of Utah. Two weeks to get used to breathing in this oxygen-depleted air. But my legs itch. I’m ready to face these mountains. I’m ready to race again.