The Off Season
Floating in the belly of the peloton, my thoughts drifted to the off season, as they often did during late autumn races. A team rode at a steady speed on the front of the group over the undulating course. The tempo was just high enough that nobody was chatting as we sat in their slipstream. But it was not hard enough to push us into a long, single line. The computer on my handlebars said we had completed 174 km. We would soon be passing the 20-km-to-go banner, which was posted at the roadside of every race. At that point, the speed would increase and the banality induced by the pace would shift to a chaotic surge, as we whirled under the banners marking 15, ten, five, and, finally, one km to go.
We were always counting everything down, looking ahead at what was to come, at the next challenge, the next day off, the next finish line. A task deconstructed is no longer insurmountable; a year of tens of thousands of kilometres, a hundred days of races, mountain passes, cold rain, searing heat, nameless hotels, becomes manageable. A racing season was periodised into blocks that built towards targets. Races were broken down into stages, stages disassembled into climbs, cobbled sectors, and kilometres, which were further cut up into metres. For every cyclist, the off season becomes a moment of reprieve from the constant pursuit. Progressively, that break is disappearing, and it is the riders’ careers that are suffering.
With the internationalisation of what was once a predominantly European sport, the break has become increasingly compressed. The peripatetic peloton no longer races principally in Europe. Races aren’t unimportant spectacles like they were in the past, where unfit riders could race without concern. They have become targets on the cluttered calendar, where valuable UCI ranking points are awarded and a rider can make his name. The speed is relentlessly high from the first race in January to the last in October.
In 2009, as we sat in the bus, worn and cold, after the peloton had completed a hilly stage of Paris-Nice at an infernal tempo under pouring cold rain, our directeur sportif, who had raced in the 80s and 90s, commented with amazement at how things had changed. When he rode Paris-Nice, the speed only increased in the last hour. There was an understanding among the riders that the bulk of the race would be ridden at a controlled speed, as the season was long and their bodies needed time to adapt. He said that the entire peloton even stopped under bridges on occasion when the rain was thrashing down until it eased. As we listened, it was hard to imagine a controlled race where the riders acted as one, like factory workers acting with solidarity.
The shift began in the early 2000s when governing bodies and organisers began to stretch their tentacles beyond Europe. At the end of the last millennium, teams would meet in January to slowly work their way into fitness. In the past, most professionals would take a month off after their last race, go on vacation to somewhere warm, where they could lie on a beach and then perhaps, they would work in a few weeks of cross training before the camp.
Riders arrived at the training camp hotel, usually in southern Spain, France, or Italy, with a layer of Christmas fat and few kilometres in their legs. To work away the weight and wear in their legs, the rides were long and steady with little intensity. Towards the end of the camps, the team might ride up a few climbs at a higher tempo or swap turns in a pace line in the last kilometres of a ride, to begin conditioning their bodies to race speeds, but chiefly the camp was to build a foundation of fitness and to develop team dynamics between the new recruits and veteran riders.
Most riders used the first races of the year to build their race form. The starts would be leisurely, the pace steady for the majority of the day. In the last 40 kilometres, the speed would increase and those in form would race for the win. Of course, there were always those who would show up fitter than the rest, having done more work through the winter, and they would win with ease. But for the majority of riders their targets were down the road. Progressively, that strategy changed.
Riders no longer show up to race out of shape. They don’t even show up for training camps out of shape, like they once did, as they all know that without fitness their jobs are in jeopardy, as every race has value to a team and a sponsor due to the pursuit of UCI points and media exposure.
With live media coverage at most races and the online cycling sites posting results minutes after the riders cross the line, the stakes shifted. Every kilometre ridden now has more value. The fruitless early attack is now documented. Historically, newspapers only printed the results of the top ten for most races, but now every rider’s name is listed in finishing order, increasing, even if only minutely, the value of a top-thirty result. Twenty years ago, by comparison, all that mattered in lower level races was the win, a top three in a mid-level race, or maybe a top ten in a top-tier race.
In the early 2000s, professional teams began to stage training camps before Christmas to make sure their riders were on track for the season and to acquaint them with their new teammates. At first, these camps included some cross training, team building exercises, and a night or two out on the town. Some teams even went skiing for a day. The training rides were easy and fun without specific intervals or a determined pace. Ten years later, the pre-Christmas camps had become structured, as the early season World Tour races in the southern hemisphere were just weeks away. Body fat was tested, power meters were monitored, and training rides included interval sessions. With barely a beat, in early January, after a Christmas spent at home, we were back at camp, tuning our fitness by motorpacing, testing ourselves on climbs, swapping positions in a pace line, and simulating sprint finishes. We were lean, fit, and expected to start winning.
As the off season vanishes and the stakes increase, careers will become shorter due to physical and mental wear. There is little time to recover and rejuvenate the body and mind. The job is always on a cyclist’s mind: every morsel eaten is considered, every hour of sleep is counted, as the next training session or event can determine the future. Over the last few years many top riders have prematurely retired such as Peter Kennaugh, Taylor Phinney, Marcel Kittel. This list of retirees in 2019 is extensive and many aren’t veterans.
In the last ten years, expectations have changed, as the majority of riders have more exposure to social media and are not only paid to ride but also to sell their image and their sponsors’ products through social media. The online image is as often as important as the result. And, the internet never sleeps. Even the off season is documented, further reducing the break from work. There is little time to relax, be with family, and disconnect from the job. The incessant demands of an already tough job can quickly erode a career.
While the stars of the sport relax for a few weeks and shift their attention, the downtime can be a period of anxiety for those who have yet to sign a contract with a team for the coming year. There are teams that won’t finalise their rosters until just before Christmas, leaving riders questioning whether they’ll be continuing to pursue a career in cycling, or have to go back to school or be on the hunt for another job. As time passes, options close, and the teams have more leverage concerning the rider’s future. It’s a precarious period for anyone in the lurch.
As the peloton sped through the countryside, I daydreamed of how I would pass the six weeks I had at home, before I was off on a plane to a training camp for another season where I would spend nearly 200 nights in hotel rooms. In a flash, the break would be over. I would spend two weeks completely off the bike, before training began again. Perhaps, we could go on vacation to somewhere warm, or visit family in Milwaukee and Toronto. They were two weeks where I didn’t need to think about training sessions, packing a suitcase, or diet.
At home, my mind would drift momentarily from the job, but after about ten days, the passion for the bike, the desire to ride in the countryside for hours with my wife and friends would lure me back out. We would ride without a plan, enjoying the bike, the weather, the scenery, and comradeship. It was everything I enjoyed most about the sport, while it formed the foundation for the coming season.