Winning at Winter
The recent spell of cold weather across Northern Europe brought us many social media posts of gleeful professionals out riding in the snow. Mountain bikes, ‘cross bikes, road bikes – any excuse to generate a hashtag. And today’s professionals can afford to be cheerful about winter training. They know their flights to Tenerife are booked. If they’re going to do 10,000 kilometres by the 1st of March, most of them will be tan-enhancing.
It was all very different 30 years ago, when I was starting to learn about the concept of putting in the winter miles. Back then, in the days of wool leggings, Belgian winter hats and toeclip indentations on your overshoes, I used to greedily consume any pictures of professionals out training. Ideally with a background of snow-covered fields in Northern France. The epitome of hardness was Sean Kelly, famous for staying lean and fit during the winter, then smashing the opposition at Paris-Nice and the Spring Classics.
30 years ago the road season ran from February to October, as it does now, but the early season races were in Europe rather than Australia and the Middle East. Traditional season openers like the Etoile de Besseges in the South of France might be pleasantly sunny or downright freezing. And because the squads were smaller, the riders were expected to be fit enough to race for the whole season, on any terrain, in any weather.
Eddy Merckx’s winter training runs have become legend. His Faema team, which later become Molteni, was formed entirely around the Cannibal, and every New Year his domestiques could look forward to several weeks of punishing riding. The team would meet at Merckx’s house on the outskirts of Brussels every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and every day, regardless of the conditions, they rode 200km into the Flemish Ardennes and back to Brussels. The old cliché that races are won in the winter seems apt here. As with Kelly, Merckx was always ready for early season classics, and importantly so was his team. To have loyal domestiques with you in the finale of Milan San Remo or the Ronde Van Vlaanderen is a big help for any team leader.
Nostalgia about the epic winter training of times gone by is, however, misguided. Professional cyclists have always done whatever they need to get fit for the season. If there is an air of masochism about those who choose to stay in Northern Europe rather than flee to Majorca, well, that’s entirely within the spirit of our masochistic sport isn’t it?
Riding in winter in Northern Europe has a unique set of qualities. The emphasis on long steady rides with friends, without obsessing about data, just going out and exploring, enjoying being outside, gives us valuable mental space. There’s a different set of challenges, physical and mental. And a different aesthetic – the landscape is stripped, the sun hangs low in the sky, there is a romantic bleakness. Underneath the Instagram bravado, most professionals share this love for simply being out on the bike, with no pressure. And when you get back home, there is deep pleasure in being snug and warm, with a solid meal in the oven.
In Le Métier, former pro Michael Barry wrote: ‘Winter meals and late nights with too much wine slow us on the bike, but for now we need these vices to escape from the structure we will soon endure. A cyclist cherishes the moments he has to relax, as they are rare in the midst of a chaotic season. We know that, come March, the job will require unrelenting focus.’