WorldTour teams are like migrational beasts that follow the same paths every season.
Always searching out eternal summer, the itinerant band of professional bike racers tread familiar ground year-in and year-out. In the spring, they wallow in the mud of Benelux. Early summer sees them trodding into the inviting confines of Italy’s boot before stampeding into France for summer’s delights. By autumn, it’s off to Spain’s Mediterranean beaches ahead of a short respite of lazy repose.
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The cycle resumes each January in the tried and true ritual of pre-season training camps. New bikes, new jerseys, and new teammates bond and build for a season of new adventures that lie ahead.
Despite a raging coronavirus pandemic, those traditions continue in 2021, with a few important tweaks.
The destination hasn’t changed. This month, teams have returned to their favored pre-season training grounds. Spain’s Costa Blanca remains the preferred terrain. Head there right now, and you’d find at more than half of the WorldTour peloton plying the narrow inland roads between Valencia and Alicante.
Some teams head back to the same hotels year after year. The BMC/CCC team would decamp at the same golf resort just outside Denia, while Deceuninck-Quick-Step has been staying at the same hotel on the beach at Calpe for years.
This year at the dawn of COVID season, however, teams are changing a few things around. Quick-Step’s favorite hotel is closed, prompting the team to stay in nearby Altea. Other teams are searching out splendid isolation. Movistar is down on Spain’s spectacular and isolated Cabo de Gata, far from the maddening (and infectious) crowds.
Looking to reduce the risk of infection or mixing with the larger public, Bike Exchange (formerly Mitchelton-Scott) rented out an entire golf course hotel near Oliva, Spain, for most of the month of January.
“We’re taking over an entire hotel,” said sport director Matt White. “The ‘race bubble’ worked pretty good in 2020, so we are going to apply that to our training camp and into the early races. We don’t want to be hanging around big groups of people.”
Teams reintroduced strict COVID protocols, requiring pre-camp health screenings for all staffers and riders. Everyone wears masks and uses disinfectant at every turn.
On the bike, the training camps remain intense for their long rides to put in base miles ahead of the racing calendar. It’s off the bike that riders are seeing the biggest differences. Long gone are the relaxing chats over coffee between teammates old and new.
“The camp is a bit different this year with the COVID controls,” said Trek-Segafredo’s Jasper Stuyven. “We can’t be together at the dinner table or chat together at the coffee bar. Once we are on the bike, everything is pretty much the same. Off the bike, we are observing the social distancing and health rules.”
Another big change is the virtual element of press conferences. Annual media days, when literally hundreds of journalists and TV crews would pile into a hotel to interview riders and staff face-to-face, are ancient history. Most teams have opted to push their media operations into the realm of Zoom calls and pre-arranged group chats.
Nearly every team is in Spain right now, in part because the training and weather are ideal, but they’re also there to stay close to a series of early-season races slated along Spain’s Mediterranean coast and in nearby Portugal for the Volta ao Algarve. Everyone has their fingers crossed that those races will be contested.
Israel Cycling Academy is in a hotel near Girona, Spain. Why? Most of the team’s riders live in the thriving cycling enclave in Spain’s Catalunya region and the team’s service course is also based nearby.
Among the major teams, only a few are beyond the reaches of the Iberian peninsula. Bora-Hansgrohe chose the Lake Garda area of northern Italy while Ineos Grenadiers is decamped on Spain’s Gran Canaria. UAE-Emirates is close to its title sponsors and took advantage of available vaccines for its entire lineup and staffers.
The pandemic also saw several early season races canceled at the start of 2021, including events in South America and Australia. That means most teams are returning to the old-school way of staying closer to the milder climes of southern Europe. Long-running races in France, Portugal, and southern France are seeing record interest due to nearly everyone preferring to stay nearer to the European base instead of risking overseas travels, quarantines, and shutdowns.
Despite a few key changes, teams are starting off 2021 with hopes that the main thrust of the European season will unfold as planned. Right now, everyone has their collective fingers crossed. Cycling proved in 2020 it can largely co-exist with the coronavirus. If health authorities give the green light next month, riders and teams will be toeing up to the line.
The cycle continues. The fact that pre-season training camps are being held this month without disruption across much of Europe is an encouraging sign. The wheels will soon be back in motion. The spring classics are just around the corner, and the grand tours are already beckoning.