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Thanks to a hotel situated at almost 2,200 metres above sea level, Mount Teide in Tenerife has long hosted pro cycling teams trying to make the most of altitude training. Recent Grand Tour winners have stayed there, and the Cannondale Pro Cycling Team is hoping to emulate them by being based there prior to helping Rigoberto Uran to victory in the 2016 Giro d’Italia. CyclingTips spent a day with the team.
The mountain rears up on the horizon, a shining white triangle against the blue of the Tenerife sky. It’s February, we are off the coast of Africa, yet Mount Teide is covered in a thick skin of snow. There haven’t been conditions like this for at least six years, and the islanders are a little surprised.
So too the pro bike riders. Those staying at the hotel at the top of the road were blocked in for two days, but the ongoing thaw has liberated them from training on rollers and being hemmed up indoors.
As a result they are glad to get back on their bikes, and to begin the long, twisting descent towards the meeting point.
Having stayed close to sea level due to a lack of room in the team hotel, we head up to the same location and wait for them there. After a delay of about 30 minutes, the eight Cannondale riders arrive, rounding a hairpin bend and briefly coming to a stop.
They are accompanied in a van by directeur sportif Bingen Fernandez, a former pro rider, team coach Sebastian Weber and also others from sponsors Cannondale and Garmin.
Some amateur riders have been training on the mountain and two rush over to have photos taken with the team. They are beaming and a little star struck. The riders aren’t waiting around, though, and soon head off, continuing their descent to the flatter roads and another quick stop to strip down to jerseys and shorts.
Much as it is cold at the summit, it’s far more pleasant at the bottom of the climb. The day is illuminated by bright sunshine and the temperature is slightly over 20 degrees.
While they are stopped, Weber takes lactate samples from several riders’ ears. The idea is to track, over time, how their bodies are responding to efforts, and thus to track their improvement during the high altitude camp.
That done, he then gathers the riders around. “Okay guys,” he tells them, “we are going to do a long training ride and also include some intervals.”
First off, he wants them to spend a minute at 5.5 watts per kilogram, slightly below their anaerobic threshold. Pedalling at just 50 rpm, the goal is to recruit their fast-twitch fibres and build power.
This will be followed by a 30-second period out of the saddle, using a higher cadence and echoing the rhythm changes that are often seen in racing. The final part of the exercise is a minute and a half working at between four and five watts per kilogram.
In all, the drill will be repeated several times during the training ride. After some of the efforts he will collect more lactate samples from the riders, adding to a written chart noting down these values.
Instructed as to what they should do, the group clips in and move off once again. As many of them don’t know the island, new signing Simon Clarke takes on the role of road captain. He has been coming to Tenerife for many years and has a clear knowledge of the routes to use.
The Australian brings them out onto quieter roads, where they ramp up the speed and start ticking off the kilometres. The spin will be six and a half hours today, and it’s time to get to work.
Resisting temptation: biscuits and Pringles
In addition to Clarke, there are two other new signings amongst the octet. These include the Frenchman Pierre Rolland, three times a top-10 finisher in the Tour de France and described by team manager Jonathan Vaughters as a major talent. He believes that Rolland hasn’t got close to fully realising his potential and hopes that he will be one of the strongest riders in this year’s Tour de France.
The other newcomer in the group is the Classic specialist Matti Breschel. As for the remaining five, they were all with the team in 2015, and include the talented young climber and Giro d’Italia stage winner Davide Formolo, Jack Bauer, Davide Villella, Alan Marangoni and Alberto Bettiol.
Two other riders are due to arrive on the island later in the day, having just finished the Volta ao Algarve. These are double Giro d’Italia runner-up Rigoberto Uran – another new signing – plus Kristijan Koren.
While they missed today’s ride, they will knuckle down with the team for the remainder of the camp, building form and strengthening bonds.
With the exception of Rolland, who will target the Tour de France, the other nine are likely to be Cannondale’s squad for the Giro d’Italia. Uran believes he can win it, and the others will help him try.
After approximately 20 minutes of riding, Villella punctures. The riders stop and one whips out a spare tube and a pump, getting him back on the road after about five minutes. While this is going on some go to the van and, a couple of minutes later, Weber appears holding a packet of Oreos.
“We need to have to a chat to Nigel Mitchell [the team nutritionist, who moved across from Sky – ed.] about this,” he says in a mock-stern tone. Given that he is wearing latex gloves in order to do the lactate samples, and thus seems to be holding the packet like something tainted, the moment has an additional humour.
“It’s for the van,” someone says, correctly identifying that the biscuits and other goodies were bought for those travelling behind the group. Weber smiles, likely knowing this all along.
That doesn’t stop Pierre Rolland from appearing 30 seconds later with a whole tin of Pringles in his middle pocket, producing laughs from the rest of the team. “We are doing a six hour ride,” he says, smiling, “fat is a good fuel.”
While the riders are working hard, they are also having fun together.
Lost and found
Tyre inflated, the group rides along the road towards Acala, doing intervals when the traffic becomes lighter. The pace drops again when they head through the town and they chat some more.
Soon afterwards the road starts climbing and they begin making their way up the Los Gigantos ascent. Formolo pushes on ahead while Rolland, who started behind him, leaves several of the other riders behind. He’s still got the unopened tin of Pringles in his pocket and passes it into the van before accelerating.
Their big goals are still several months away but the duo are stretching their legs, showing their form.
The climb continues for several kilometres, then the riders regroup afterwards. However, when heading up the Tamaimo climb, they split again and this time, after the summit, two groups form. One fails to spot the other and goes the wrong way.
Notified as to what happened, Fernandez and Weber stop the van in a small village. They call a rider with the lost group and instruct them to change course and to head to where they are.
In the meantime, a frustrated Weber wants to keep the first group active. “Okay, there is no point in us waiting around,” he says. “There is a climb this way. I want you to head up it and keep moving.”
The riders move off while we return to the van and drive up after them, stopping at the summit and taking in what is a breathtaking view of the glimmering sea. Clarke, Formolo and Villella are equally impressed and stand by the road edge for several minutes, gazing outwards before taking photos for Instagram.
At the same time, a couple of other riders are having lactate measurements done nearby by Weber.
The other group of riders eventually rejoin this group and the eight drop back into the village to begin the long ride home.
It’s all uphill from here
Moving fluidly, the group continues onwards and soon reaches another uphill. Climbing past large plies of grey volcanic scree, Rolland, Breschel, Bauer and Formolo push ahead of the others. Weber doesn’t want them to work too hard, though, and drives just ahead of them, using the van’s pacing to prevent them pushing too hard.
“I want them to do nothing in particular on this climb,” he says. “No racing up it.”
Toward the top there are breaks in the boulders of basalt and green clumps of vegetation spring up. The climb becomes less barren and, once over the summit, Weber hits the gas to keep ahead.
The descent snakes down towards the sea, passing through the sleepy village of Arguayo and then steepening downwards. The riders, regrouped, hurtle past the vehicle. They look fluid, rounding the corners with skill borne out of thousands of hours on the bike.
The group catches an unsuspecting amateur rider and quickly distance him. He pedals hard to get back up to them, latching onto the back for several minutes as they pass palm trees and cacti. He doesn’t last long, but his day is made.
The riders soon reach the foothills of the next climb, a ramp up to the town of Arona. Some stop briefly to get water and grab a snack; a couple have their blood lactate measurements taken by Weber.
They then move off again, ready for another interval drill. “Start now?” says Maragoni. “Yes,” replies Weber. The others are already up ahead, digging in.
Effort done, Bauer stops, panting for air. His ear sample is checked – “3.3,” says Weber, referring to millimoles of lactate per litre of blood – and he takes on more water. The other riders are up ahead, having continued on.
The skies are darkening and there is the threat of rain. Bauer doesn’t seem to notice, being more aware of what is left to do. “It’s 41 kilometres to the top, he says, sounding surprisingly okay about the thought of that.
The van drives on and passes other riders, who are heading upwards in ones and twos. We reach the same small village where we rendezvoused with the group this morning and there each of the riders stop. Some put on extra clothing, knowing that it will be much colder up top.
Formolo looks pretty fresh, but asks for a Coca Cola. An energy boost will help with the final climb. Volunteering to get the drink from the nearby petrol station, we toy with the idea of getting him a Coke Zero (no caffeine, no sugar) simply to see the reaction, but decide not to. We tell him what we were thinking: “No way, man!” he says, relieved that he got a regular Coke.
He then sets off, saying to the others, smiling: “Where is the finish line?”
Rolland perks up and quickly sets off after him, pushed to a rolling start by Weber. “Vai, vai!” one of the others shout [Go, go!].
The remaining riders are less perky and set off at their own pace. The weather remains grey and the island looks bleak but, as the climb continues, the road moves above the cloudline and the view becomes surreal.
Bright sunlight plays on the clouds below, glowing on the vapour, while barren mountainside is broken up by scatterings of tall trees. The snow-covered peak comes into view and it too is illuminated, turned gold by the setting sun.
It’s been a long day for the riders. As we get closer to the summit, some of them are visibly flagging. Clarke is one of those, but still has the capacity for a wry comment.
“Shoot me,” he said as we drive past, referring to the climb and his aching legs.
“Do you want anything?” Weber asks, helpfully. “A shotgun” is his reply.
It’s bleak humour, but after six and a half hours in the saddle and on a climb up to well over 2,000 metres, it’s easy to understand where he’s coming from.