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Michael Barry’s Diary: Back in the saddle again

In a sterile hotel presentation room, roughly 40 male and female cyclists, dozens of staff and seven managers and directors, sat and listened. The group was pushed into the last rows of seats while the front two were empty — like school kids scared of the front, the spotlight, or the teacher. A contrast to our poised powerful cycling positions, the riders slouched in their lethargic off-the-bike state, with their legs up and resting on the backs of chairs in front of them.

The team is now very different than it had been a year ago. In 11 months we have come together as a group. At the end of horrendously grim 2007, a new team was built as the roster was slashed and new riders were hired. The group was solid but our future was not always clear. We knew that the team would be different on many levels. Without a sponsor, we not only needed to prove something to the public but also, as a group, to ourselves. We all had a youthful desire to race and win, which was the spark the team needed to boost the early season and transcend the problems of the past.

The back of the room was quiet as Bob Stapleton spoke about the weeklong camp, the past season and the coming season. We had won, but we needed to do it again. The team had matured in a year due to the stress of 2007, and the defeats and victories of 2008. Cavendish went from being a rider who could win to a rider who could lead a team. He quickly became the central figure in a colorful season of victories and near misses. During the meeting we were reminded that our previous success was not something we could rest on but simply something we can build on. In a sport where any victory is hard fought, the room of riders was prudently confident.

The camp opened with a night of celebration. We then quickly switched our focus to next season. After a few days of testing, physical analysis and logistical planning we moved to structured training. The weather was foul at the start of the week but the team remained motivated to train; some rode in the cold rain, some ran, others spent extended periods in the gym. Nobody sat idle.

As the week progressed, the weather improved, and we rode further, with more intensity and structure to the training. Now accustomed to core/gym workouts in the mornings and evenings we work through the sessions methodically, even though we are tired from the day of riding.

Riding in a group pains my legs in a different way. After spending the first weeks of the month riding alone in Girona, with my nose in the wind, at a steady speed, the rhythm of the group was a change. Together, we ride faster than I do alone, but work less as we spend more time sitting in the draft. The change of speed is evident, as different pairs of riders increase or decrease the tempo as they take their turns at the front. These fluctuations opposed what my legs were accustomed to from riding alone and this noticeably affected my muscles in a different way. These changes are the reason we have camps; alone we train well but adaptation becomes progression in fitness towards racing. In the group, we always ride a little harder, pushing each other, as we are all innately competitive. On bikes together, we create our own finish lines, whether they are on mountaintops or at road signs.

Daily, our directors rode with us. The group of six is recently retired from racing, and most are fit enough to hold the tempo of the team while a few are fit enough to push the speed of the group. For many our off-season is their season as they can ride more, with more time at home and less in hotels and team cars.

Eric Zabel, now a consultant for the team, rode with us as well. And, as he is racing the coming six-day races on the track, he is likely in better condition than most of the riders on the team. He will retire after the last of the six days, and now he stops at the cafés with us, something he has never done in his long career. Last season when he joined us on rides, he circled the town, unwilling to stop for a moment, and pedaled as we sipped drinks and chatted. His focus is unwavering.

The management not only shares a passion for racing but also for riding — something not always true in professional cycling. Many riders retire and never again touch their bikes despite their continuing involvement with the sport. Some raced with their childhood dreams intact and never stopped riding while others continued their careers solely for the money and retired without the desire to ever pedal again. For many, in retirement, it is simply difficult to get on the bike as they can no longer pedal with the same fluidity they felt as professionals.

At the camp, there were no initiations for the five riders added to the roster. They slid into the team quickly — on the bike, in the gym, and at meals they became a part of the group and there didn’t seem to be a need, or even a desire, to force them to assimilate through college games. While riding people open up, becoming talkative and are less guarded.

With plans in place, the season sketched out, our training regimes set, and several long rides in the legs we now seem ready to go. I returned home from the camp and suddenly found the climbs I had ridden a week earlier seemed easier. I felt more agile on the bike. The adaptation had started.

In Girona, we have a small group that meets in a café daily. Under sunny skies or on wet roads we pedal for hours, stopping momentarily for warm drinks and pastries in packed, small-town bars warmed by wood fires. Steaks grill in the fireplace, the locals lay down playing cards with their leathery farmers’ hands while nursing cups of brandy, and a waitress bounces from table to table with trays of food and drink. The atmosphere is warm, taking the chill out of our bones and making the long rides some of the most enjoyable of the year.

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