Think to become a great cyclist, all you’ve got to do is cycle? Writer and cyclist Amy Sedghi discovered that some of the most important elements of a professional cycling training camp happen off the saddle.
Signing up to a virtual training camp with a top professional women’s cycling team was always going to be a physical challenge. I’d expected achy legs, fatigued muscles and even saddle sores, but it never occurred to me that it’d be the seemingly “gentle” core workout that would knock me for six. Days later, my stomach muscles were still on fire.
To give you some context, professional cycling teams organise training camps – a dedicated block of time away from home with a schedule of activities and rides – ahead of a new racing season. They’re often based somewhere sunny and warm (think Majorca or Tenerife), with selected media invited for a glimpse behind the scenes and a desperate attempt to keep up with the pros.
As with pretty much everything, the pandemic has changed the way things are done, including this year’s spring training camp for Drops Le Col s/b Tempur. So, while the athletes are together in a team house in Belgium, I’m joining from my living room over Zoom.
Core workouts are central
“It will feel a little sore, but that’s when you’re doing it well,” says Marjolein van’t Geloof, 25, with a knowing smile as she leads a cycling-focused strength and conditioning class. As well as being one of the 14 pro riders on the team, she’s also a trained physiotherapist. “People really focus on trying to get the (core) muscles really strong, but if your stability isn’t right, you won’t be able to use those strong muscles in the right way on the bike.”
We start off gently, lying on our backs to activate our core muscles, before slowly progressing to rounds of dead bugs, plank rotations and some killer plank-hold tuck-ups using a towel. While cycling may involve a lot of leg strength, it’s only part of the equation if you want to get stronger on the bike.
Think about the position you sit in when on the bike – how you adjust your shoulders and hold your arms. It makes sense to also focus on these areas but they’re so often forgotten about, explains Marjolein. As such, she recommends incorporating a strength and conditioning session into your cycling routine once or twice a week.
You don’t necessarily need to spend hours on the mat, either. Some of Marjolein’s teammates will do a shorter session before going out on rides, to activate their core muscles. “It prevents so many injuries,” she adds, again highlighting that as well as working to strengthen the core, it’s vital to practise the stabilisation.
Clocking up the miles
“I got into a really good routine of doing (the exercises) back home,” says Anna Christian, 25, Marjolein’s teammate who’s heading into her fifth season with Drops Le Col s/b Tempur. Hailing from the beautiful but unforgiving Isle of Man, Anna spent lockdown training on the familiar roads near her parents’ home. Adding core work to one of her easier training days (i.e those that don’t involve a long endurance ride or intervals) has been a nice way to mix up her training, she says.
Anna trains six days a week and clocks up an average of 200-250 miles during that time. She admits that in the past, she’s been guilty of neglecting the strength and conditioning aspect of training – but as soon as she starts practising the exercises, the difference is noticeable. “It definitely helps,” she says, describing how it’s most perceptible for her when it comes to holding a time trial position.
As the Drops Le Col s/b Tempur riders prepare for Liège-Bastogne-Liège (a hilly, cobbled monster spanning 141km and one of the most iconic one-day cycling races in the professional calendar) their training has tapered and they’re focused on recceing the course. We’re told that to mimic this, we can do a three-and-a-half-hour ride with a steep climb on Saturday, followed by a two-and-a-half-hour ride with lots of climbs on Sunday.
So far, so physical. But this camp isn’t just about building muscular strength and endurance.
Focusing on wellbeing off the bike
Drops Le Col s/b Tempur has just launched a rider wellness programme – a huge step that’s been lauded as groundbreaking within the women’s peloton. As well as focusing on areas such as sleep, mental health and nutrition, the menstrual cycle is a key topic.
Co-founder and general manager of Drops Le Col s/b Tempur, Tom Varney, recalls the shock he felt at having a conversation with an ex-pro cyclist who told him that she hadn’t had her period in three years. “Some of those stories you hear… I don’t want that to be my daughter,” he says openly. As well as encouraging menstrual tracking, the programme is looking to tailor training and nutrition around cycle phases.
“One of the things we’re seeing repeatedly in the media, not just in cycling but across a lot of sports, is Relative Energy Deficiency Syndrome (RED-s),” explains Dr Claire Rose, team doctor and former professional cyclist. As well as leading to a loss of periods, it’s also associated with long-term health problems in areas such as fertility and bone density.
“A huge part for us is raising awareness and identifying anyone who is at risk of it to work out where the issues are. Ultimately, that all leads to improved performance and health.”
It’s a hot topic of conversation that was recently brought into focus by the story of Bobby Clay, who was tipped to be athletics’ next biggest star. Speaking to the Daily Telegraph earlier this year, she shared how she’d been diagnosed with osteoporosis as a result of years of overtraining and undereating.
“I think growing up, maybe I didn’t have the right message within sport on wellbeing. I didn’t realise that what you’re doing now can damage your future self,” Anna tells Stylist. She’s delighted that her team is now focusing on wellness and health on and off the bike.
“It’s amazing how the menstrual cycle has become a conversation now. I remember being on teams where people would talk about losing your period as if it was a good thing; (it meant) that they were really training hard, pushing themselves and had lower body fat.”
She even recalls associating her period with feelings of negativity: “I remember getting it and thinking ‘am I not pushing myself hard enough? Is this normal for an athlete to get?’” She’s amazed that at the time, she didn’t realise getting her period was actually healthy. Since educating herself about the menstrual cycle and how it can affect performance, however, Anna now understands how to tweak workout load around her cycle.
It’s made a huge difference for athletes like Anna having a female doctor on the team, with whom they can discuss often sensitive health matters. “It shows that (the team) really cares and that they look at you not just as a bike rider, but also as a woman.”
Essentially, it all comes back to mental health and how that can affect performance. As Anna sums it up: “Having the mindset is so important in racing. That saying about ‘happy head, fast legs’ is so true,” she says with a smile. “I really believe in it.”
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Images: Amy Sedghi/Rhode Photo