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Performance directors expecting ‘surprises’ as they plan for unprecedented season

Team coaches expect riders to be back at full fitness by Tour de France, but detuned endurance could lead to surprises.

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Cycling’s blueprint for 2020 went out of the window when coronavirus shut down the season in March. And with that, so did the carefully detailed schedules, performance targets, and peaks and troughs of a pro rider’s training plan.

With the restart to WorldTour racing now two months away, team performance directors are attempting to create a coherent plan for their thoroughbred race machines. Riders are facing a spell of racing that has been condensed from its typical seven-month duration into a 14-week spell from August through mid-November, and with that, the opportunity to follow the tried-and-tested build-peak-recover cycle of fitness is gone.

“There will not be a peak in form over three and a half months, this not possible,” said Frédéric Grappe, performance director of Groupama-FDJ. “It will rather be a curve like the back of a camel, more or less offbeat.”

The UCI’s redesigned race schedule for summer and fall 2020 sees races piled high, with riders that go to the Tour de France likely to roll from the finish line in Paris September 20 straight into a densely-packed classics block, or even doubling up to start the Giro d’Italia, October 3.

“Over three months, climbing high, descending, and then climbing high is complicated, it’s way too short… We will have only one bump,” Grappe told AFP. “A rise and a descent, with a more or less long plateau.”

With riders facing the unknown in racing full-gas for three months, some feel those with a strong knowledge of both their own capacity and the characteristics of their rivals may come off best.

“This flash season will be an advantage for experienced riders who know each other well,” said Jean-Baptiste Quiclet, director at Ag2r-La Mondiale. “There will be variations in consistency [and] in performance; super days and others without, and so surprises to wait for.”

The majority of the riders in the WorldTour peloton have spent much of spring in confinement, keeping their engines warm on indoor trainers. It is only since the start of this month that the swathes of pros living in France, Italy, Spain, and South America have returned to the road to feel tires on the tarmac for the first time in months.

With indoor training technology becoming more sophisticated and coaches better understanding the physiology of their riders, Quiclet feels his Ag2r-La Mondiale squad is in a good place, telling AFP they are at “between 80 and 90 percent of their capacity.”

For French teams Ag2r-La Mondiale and Groupama-FDJ, the Tour de France is the absolute pinnacle of the year. Fortunately for them, they feel they have sufficient time to get their riders back into top shape before the Grand Départ, August 29.

“Three and a half months is more than enough,” Grappe said. “Generally it takes 12 weeks to bring a rider to the top when they start from zero.”

In Colombia, Rigoberto Urán (EF Pro Cycling) has only recently returned to training on the road and is similarly confident, telling Marca he feels he will arrive at the Tour “well and without excuses.”

The one question mark that remains is regarding riders’ all-day engines. With many pros missing out on the 30-plus hour training weeks afforded to them in a regular season, and instead making do with a few hours a day indoors while in lockdown, their ability to race over five or six hours may have taken a hit.

“On a home trainer, it’s not easy to work some efforts and yet we have runners close to their maximum [performance],” Théo Ouvrard, head coach of Arkéa-Samsic told AFP. “What is missing is the endurance base.”

Teams are now scrambling to find local options for altitude camps and considering how to return to group training to bring riders’ endurance up and tweak out team tactics. The UCI had its work cut out when it had to squeeze nearly a full season of racing into 14 weeks. Now coaches have the challenge to figure out how to get their riders ready for such an unprecedented season.