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Brent Bookwalter diary: Inside the bizarre 2020 season restart

American rider Brent Bookwalter of Mitchelton-Scott compares the uncertain 2020 season to a normal season, where the ebb-and-flow of racing and training is familiar and predictable.

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So far, the bizarre 2020 racing season has been defined by uncertainty.

During a typical season, every detail of the year is planned out and structured. We approach training and racing with a meticulous level of detail. Sure, there are always deviations from the plan, and rarely do things go exactly as we hope, but there is familiarity. And that is totally gone this year.

We did not race from March until August, and during that time we wondered if we could ever return to racing. So, while training and preparation never stopped, the traditional structure of the season was totally lost. And the unknown of whether the season would — or will — stop again due to COVID-19 is a constant undertone. How far will we get? What if COVID-19 gets into the peloton?

In any sport, or profession that is defined by high performance, uncertainty like this rarely produces positive effects.

Deviation from the norm

Bookwalter pulling for teammate Simon Yates at Tirreno-Adriatico. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Let’s compare the 2020 season with a normal one — I’ll reference my 2019 as a ‘normal’ year. In fact, you can very easily compare my lead-in to the 2019 Giro d’Italia with the past months I’ve spent preparing for the rescheduled Giro in October. What’s the biggest difference? It’s the uncertainty and presence of so many uncontrollable variables.

In 2019 my pathway to the Giro was centered on me hitting my best possible condition in the month of May, so that I could help the team target the overall with Simon Yates after his 2018 Vuelta win. So, there were few mornings between December and May when I didn’t wake up thinking about this goal. My appreciation and perspective on being part of a grand tour victory had only increased since winning the 2011 Tour de France with Cadel Evans, and I’ve found continued inspiration in being part of these performances that are bigger than anyone’s self.

So, 2019 started with the team doing a mega-volume training camp across Portugal and southern Spain. I spent time alongside Simon and my other Giro teammates to build a physical, cultural, and social foundation. After that, I recovered a bit, and then returned for a small block of climbing and altitude training before beginning my season at the UAE Tour. These two camps already had me adapting to the big climbing loads needed to race the Giro. Then, a race like the UAE Tour was a good starting point to work on race speed, without being physically devastated by the effort. My training progressed through Strade Bianche and Tirreno-Adriatico, where I got back on the Italian roads and put in a massive racing load. I can’t emphasize how important it was to get exposure to Italian roads and culture, because as a non-European, getting familiar and comfortable with an area really helps during a three-week race.

I got sick the week after Tirreno, but the certainty of knowing how many weeks I had until the Giro helped me stay calm and recover. After a week to reset, my rebuilding continued with foundation work in Girona before Coppi e Bartali, which led me into a final altitude training camp at Sierra Nevada. I linked up with our Basque climbing star Mikel Nieve, and we put in huge climbing rides with 3,000 to 4,000 meters per day (10,000-13,000 feet), in three- to five-day blocks with recovery days spaced between. After some time back home in Girona to sharpen up with some motor pacing and intensity efforts, I was feeling strong, fit, and race-weight. I was ready for the Giro.

OK, did you get all of that? Let’s compare this to the pathway I’ve taken to the 2020 Giro during this tumultuous year, and you will see how the process has been less precise.

By the end of March, half the world was shut down; we traveled back to the USA, unsure of when we would return to Europe, when the race season would begin or if it would restart at all. The team handed down significant pay cuts with no set end date, to add to the uncertainty and anxiety of what was happening with the sport and the world. I spent April and May in a holding pattern back home, thankful to be able to ride outside but also struggling with the uncertainty and lack of focus for any specific date or race.

Time on the bike became more about physical and mental health than about any specific load or skill focus. I rode my mountain bike, explored new road routes, stabbed at a few local Strava KOMs and tried to focus on the simple enjoyment of riding, as opposed to striving toward a bulls eye on the calendar. By June, the UCI had put out an anticipated race calendar, and we began working on logistics and  timeline to get back to Europe. Race programs were discussed, but many guys, including myself, found ourselves in the “reserve list” for races. Thus, our future was dependent on how other guys came out of the lockdown with no competition.

With the team still feeling the economic crunch, as well the health concerns around travel and group environments, management opted to leave us at home, rather than bringing us together for focused training camps. This became a big test of self motivation and drive, especially since the rosters for races were continually evolving.

The Tour de France and Giro now had dates on the calendar, but I wasn’t sure which one I would would do. It was only in the final weeks before the Tour that it looked like the team wouldn’t need me there, so I’d slot into the Giro. This decision came about two months out from the Giro’s new start date. Compare that to 2019, when I knew five months beforehand that I’d be at the Giro.

From the moment I knew I was bound for the Giro I continued to plug along, tick the training boxes, and wrap my head around an October lap of Italy. My preparation included the Critérium du Dauphiné for a big race load; then, I’d link up with most of the Giro team, as well as Simon, at Tirreno-Adriatico. Between these events, I wouldn’t have time for specific altitude preparation, or for any massive specific training blocks.

Thus, over the past few weeks I’ve been hitting the fundamentals, and I’ve been staying in a good well-rounded place, both physically and mentally. I’ve clocked more repeats than I would usually deem acceptable on the staple climbs around Girona, and I have done a fairly standard build period into race-specific intensity. Personally, it’s been an OK fit, as I’ve also been going through all of this uncertainty by adjusting to being a new parent as well. If seven months of parenthood has taught me anything, it’s that I’m not the boss and I’m not in control, which seems to be a lesson continually reinforced by this COVID-19 season.

After Tirreno-Adriatico, I’ll bank some recovery and then do some training that will hit multiple systems in the hope of keeping things running. My hope is to go into the Giro ready for a big month.

So, you can see the differences between these two schedules, right? The new racing timeline has all of us trying to attain peak condition at a strange point in the calendar, with a process that barely resembles the one we traditionally follow. To be honest, the month a race takes place doesn’t really matter. What matters more is the extenuating circumstances that we’ve all endured in 2020. With so much uncertainty, plus the gaps in racing, the usual rhythm of the season was thrown out the window. What replaced that rhythm was a sense of motivation — or, sometimes desperation — to salvage something from this year.

A return to racing

Bookwalter took seventh place, 4:25 behind race winner van Aert. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images.
Bookwalter uncorked a top ride at Strade Bianche, finishing 7th overall. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images.

One thing that I’ve learned during my career is that there isn’t really a difference at the top level of pro racing, no matter when it happens. How hard a race is depends on the field’s depth, and percentage of the peloton operating at top form. Those dynamics are being carried into “version 2” of the 2020 season. It’s all comes down to incredible physicality for the guy winning the Dauphiné, regardless if it takes place in August or June.

This year’s difference is that some riders/teams have nailed and perfected the untraditional preparation and timeline, while others have botched it. I won’t name names, but you can see it in the peloton. This dynamic will create some surprises and opportunities for some riders, while it will lead to disappointment for others. We’ve already seen this at the races. And we’re bound to see more surprises coming out of the third week of grand tours.

One pointer: I don’t think there are any clear benefits at the races today that riders obtained from doing big chunks of indoor training during lockdown. The indoor riding was more about staying prepared to prepare, rather than building Tour de France form. As we saw with the e-races, performance in those events rarely translates into results on the open road.

So, what’s it been like in the peloton? As always, the peloton is as fast, nervous, and aggressive. The uncertainty and untraditional timeline just increased hype and anxiousness.

While most guys were locked down and stuck inside for months, we also had an exceptionally long training phase post-lockdown. Then, we had few early season races before the big events. So, racing into form isn’t an option for every rider.

Managing the uncertainty

Bookwalter has spent much of the 2020 restart training for the Giro d’Italia. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Balancing uncertainty while still performing at an exceptional level is one of the essential skills any pro cyclist can possess. That is being tested this year in an unprecedented way. Without the constants of a reliable race calendar, mid-season breaks, or just knowing the start and end of the season, our ability to focus one day at a time and at the task on hand is tested daily. The old clichés of “control what you can control” sound redundant and overused, but there has never been a time in my professional career to use this mantra more.

Some teams and riders have handled this crazy year better than others. Some teams had the economic security to continue paying all their riders and staff full wages. They could jump straight back into fully-supported training camps after lockdown. Others saw riders fighting for government aid to fill pay gaps or missed monthly paychecks.

There are other dynamics creating uncertainty in the peloton. Teams and their sponsors feel the pandemic’s economic crunch. Plus, there is a late transfer season. These two dynamics have created an anxious feeling within the sport. For some riders, this translates into motivation, but for others, it becomes a debilitating burden and they are scraping and searching for their usual form.

The list of riders who are out of contract, but who are actually feeling secure with their opportunities, is short. This is especially true for young riders who are likely to see a pause in their salary growth because few have had a chance to improve. Older riders who are more of a known quantity are motivated because they can no longer guarantee their place on a squad, their salary, or their place within the sport’s typical hierarchy.

The lasting impacts from this year won’t really show until we transition into the 2021 race season. With races like the Sun Tour already canceled, it is still unseen if 2021 will see us return to “normal.” There is no denying that the timeline between the November Vuelta and December/January pre-season training camps will be a tricky balancing act to transition from one season to the next