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Altitude camps the next hurdle for grand tour contenders

Travel restrictions and questions over flights lead grand tour riders to seek alternatives from typical training locations atop Mount Teide or Sierra Nevada.

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A trip to the thin air of Tenerife, Gran Canaria, or the Sierra Nevada has become a rite of passage for grand tour riders as they look to suck up the physiological adaptations provided by living and riding in the clouds.

Team Sky / Ineos has long been sending its grand tour dominating leaders to the Spanish Canary Islands, and teams across the peloton have been quick to follow suit, with long blocks at altitude in the winter and the months preceding the Tour de France becoming the norm.

With the Tour now three months away, top squads are turning their minds toward high-elevation camps to tune up the engines of riders who have spent the spring spinning away their days on turbo trainers. With Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announcing recently that his country’s borders will reopen in a month, team staffers are considering their options.

“We take into account different scenarios and there are more possibilities for altitude internships in Europe,” Servais Knaven, Team Ineos sport director told AD. “All previous years we have been on El Teide [Tenerife]. Riders and trainers like to be there. It is a place they are used to and training is familiar there.”

However, it’s not as simple as all jumping onto a plane to Tenerife as soon as the island opens its doors again.  With Ineos’s top stars scattered across Europe and defending champion Egan Bernal in Colombia, which recently imposed a travel restriction through August 31, there is the issue of departing flights to consider as well. “The question is who will be able to travel,” Knaven points out.

Recent reports suggest that Bernal and the dozens of other riders currently in Colombia will be granted the exemption to leave the country early, however, with flights still a rarity and recycled air of an aircraft posing a wealth of health risks, Jumbo-Visma is looking at alternatives.

“We are still waiting a few weeks before planning altitude camps, because flying remains difficult,” Jumbo-Visma sport director Merijn Zeeman said.

Unlike the likes of Bernal, Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Uran, who have been reaping the rewards of living at high altitude Colombia through coronavirus lockdowns, a trip to altitude is an absolute must for Jumbo-Visma’s captains ahead of their all-in challenge for the Tour de France.

Primož Roglič confirmed this weekend that he hopes to pack two spells at high elevation into the months before he heads to the Tour with his Dutch team this summer, and teammate Tom Dumoulin goes as far as to write off his chances without a few weeks at thin air.

“I believe that it is not possible to train properly without altitude training,” Dumoulin told Wielerflits, Tuesday. “You can get close to a good shape, but not the top shape to target the podium in the Tour de France.”

With the team looking to mitigate risks and logistical riddles associated with international flights, Jumbo-Visma is instead looking more locally.

“They are looking for options to reach heights,” Dumoulin said. “Most likely we will go to the Alps, if possible in July… It is also very important that we can go to the Alps by car. We will try to avoid flights as a team where possible.”

The Alps boasts a number of high altitude ski stations, such as French destinations Isola 2000 and Tignes, both of which have been used as training bases by pros in the past. However, with the major volume of altitude training typically being carried out through winter, when Canarian sun contrasts the plummeting mercury of northern Europe, Alpine locations are often overlooked.

“I like the Alps much more anyway, but that is not possible in March and April because of the weather,” Dumoulin said. “Everyone goes to Tenerife for the good weather, for no other reason.”