Road

Docker warns of a peloton frayed at the seams come fall

EF Pro Cycling’s road captain warns of mental burnout as pros face keeping the legs turning from January through November.

Mitch Docker is carefully storing both his mental and physical matches as he enters a transitional period between lockdown and competition.

EF Pro Cycling’s Australian road captain feels the peloton could be at breaking point at the conclusion of the revamped season in November, and so for now, is resting as hard as he is playing.

Like many of his colleagues, Docker first turned the pedals in anger on January 21 at home race Santos Tour Down Under. And for all he knows, he might not hang up his wheels for the year until the Vuelta a España rolls to a halt in Madrid, November 8.

“I honestly feel like I haven’t stopped since the start of the year,” Docker told VeloNews. “Normally we have small breaks through the year. And even though I haven’t been training or racing as hard as I would have, nothing’s really stopped. I’ve been spending the whole time doing three hours or four hours of Zwift a day, or 20, 25 hours a week out on the road. It’s still nothing to be laughed at, it’s still something.

“It’s not like we’ve just been on off-season for two months and suddenly we’re raring to go,” Docker said. “I think a lot of people are gonna hit this unknown feeling or lack of motivation, and they’ll be wondering ‘what the hell… What’s wrong?’ Well, it’s still a whole season as well.”

It’s been just more than a month since the UCI confirmed its revised WorldTour calendar, set to start on the dirt roads of Strade Bianche on August 1. Since then, riders have been transitioning from an enforced lockdown into a period of preparation for the season and returned to riding on the roads.

Riders across the globe encountered different circumstances through the spring as coronavirus took its grip. Like a host of other pro cyclists, Docker has been locked away in his adopted home in Girona through spring, keeping the engine warm on the indoor trainer as he waited for the world, and the cycling season, to emerge from the peak of the pandemic. Similarly, cycling hubs in, France, Italy, and Andorra were placed in strict quarantines, forcing riders into spending more time on Zwift than they may wish to remember. Meanwhile, riders across Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the UK continued to train on the roads.

What united riders globally, however, was a nagging sense of the unknown and the need to adapt to the stress of a world facing a raging health crisis and a wave of restrictive measures designed to halt its progress. Top that off with the dilemma of whether to train or rest in the absence of fixed race dates, and the accumulated tension could see the peloton fraying at the seams come fall.

Docker is one of dozens of riders who may close their racing season 10 months after it started in Australia this January. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

“Everyone’s just thinking ‘yeah, we’re gonna hit the ground running because no one’s raced and everyone’s so fresh,’ but everyone’s still been riding every day, and we can’t underestimate whatever stresses this situation is put on everyone,” Docker said.

“Sometimes the racing is the easy part – you go to a race and everything’s done for you and you know all you have to do is race. Yes, you’re physically tired. But that’s sort of the easy part. So now everyone’s been trying to work out life at home. And I think they’re gonna underestimate the amount of energy and stress that it had on us.”

EF Pro Cycling goes into the restarted season with a youthful team stacked with promising under-25-year-olds such as Sergio Higuita, Hugh Carthy, and Americans Logan Owen and Neilson Powless. The team has paired up all its racers with personal mentors from its coaching and directing staff to provide guidance and oversight. Docker feels the role of the experienced voices in the team has become more vital than ever in keeping young heads cool as the race season gets closer.

“The younger guys really need to rely and lean on those guiding them a lot more than they think in previous times,” he said. “It’s important for these younger riders to go back into racing in a good spot, mentally – relaxed but ready to take what comes.”

Docker and his guide, sport director Ken Vanmarke, have mapped out a pre-season schedule that will see him balancing short but intense training blocks with total downtime that will allow him to totally immerse himself in either rest or play. The all-or-nothing approach is one that Docker knows many of his teammates are also adopting for the next eight weeks before racing resumes.

With a 14-week racing block that allows little downtime and complex logistics looming on the horizon, riders have a light at the end of the tunnel after an unprecedented five-month pause. Figuring out how they navigate toward that exit in the following months is the next challenge for them to take on in a year that has already seen relatively little racing but an exceptional amount of stress.