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Sagan’s success shows altitude camps aren’t only for GC riders

For Peter Sagan, the road to Roubaix and Flanders begins at the top of a mountain, using high-altitude to boost his fitness.

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If you want to find Tour de France favorites, make tracks for Teide, Livigno, or Mount Etna anytime between now and July, but what about classics stars?

Everyone knows GC riders decamp to Europe’s highest mountains for altitude training. Now, this concept is slowly gaining traction with one-day specialists, and three-time world champion Peter Sagan is one of the first to adopt the training technique.

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Coaches convinced the Slovakian superstar that altitude training might be helpful going into the 2016 classics season. His breakout spring that first season, with wins at Gent-Wevelgem and Ronde van Vlaanderen (his first career monument victory), made Sagan a high-altitude convert.

“That is probably my biggest contribution to Peter,” said Bora-Hansgrohe coach Patxi Vila. “I convinced him in 2016 to go to an altitude camp. That is the good thing about Peter is that he is open to new ideas.”

High altitude is now a key part of Sagan’s training program, with at least three camps spread across his calendar. This month, he’ll be stationed on the snowy summit of Sierra Nevada in southern Spain for two weeks of training ahead of the spring classics.

His first block is at Centro de Alto Rendimiento, Spain’s snowbound high-altitude training facility. Later in the summer, Sagan typically heads to Colorado or Utah for better weather and even higher roads.

In fact, Sagan is skipping the opening Belgian races at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, in part to be at altitude. Vila said there just wasn’t enough time to fit in the altitude camp, the Santos Tour Down Under, and the Italian races at Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico, and Milano-Sanremo. Plus, Sagan is a new father, and the team wants to make sure he can enjoy time with his son, Marlon.

“The idea is to be hitting the first peak for the northern classics,” Vila said. “Peter already has a place in history with three world titles. Now he wants to win more monuments.”

Other classics riders have also taken to altitude with success, including John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) and Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin).

The science behind the benefits of altitude training applies to classics riders just the same as it does to GC favorites. The long-term benefits of the sleep-high/train-low program are increased efficiency, endurance, and aerobic capacity. There are no mountains to climb in Flanders, but the benefits of altitude are tangible.

“Roubaix is the hardest race of the year,” Vila said. “It’s all about endurance, and altitude makes you more resilient. We’ve learned a lot over the past few years about how altitude works well for Sagan.”

There’s nothing glamorous about altitude training camps. There are interminable hours camped out in a hotel lobby or inside a cramped apartment.

However, what makes the Sierra Nevada facility so popular is that it is a state-of-the-art training facility. It not only features a world-class swimming pool, indoor track, gyms, and workout facilities, but it also has kitchens, cozy apartments, game rooms, and other amenities to make the long stays tolerable.

Vila said he prefers to take Sagan to Sierra Nevada during the winter instead of the balmy tropics of Teide on Spain’s Tenerife island. Temperatures and humidity in the Sierra Nevada are more in tune with what riders will face in the northern classics and it’s easier to make that transition. It’s too much of shock to be in the mild warmth of Teide for weeks and then parachute straight into the mess that Flanders can be in the middle of March.

A typical day unfolds like this: After an early breakfast and maybe an early yoga or morning warm-up, riders and staff pile into cars and drive off the mountain. They’re usually heading down the 25km switchback road off Sierra Nevada as skiers and snowboarders are heading up for a day on the snow.

What also makes Sierra Nevada unique is that within about one hour in the car, an athlete can drop from 7,500 feet to sea level. When the Sierra Nevada is blanketed in snow and ice until spring, it’s moderately warm even in the middle of winter down on Spain’s Costa del Sol.

“By 11, we are training for three to five hours,” Vila said. “Then it’s back in the car, and you’re back at the hotel around 5 p.m. Then it’s massage, dinner at 7:30, maybe a hot chocolate, a little bit of TV, and then it’s time for bed. And the next day we repeat it all again.”

It’s rare that Sagan will ride down or up the mountain. The team is looking for the benefits of altitude, not necessarily the fitness that would come from climbing the mountain every day. The GC riders such as his teammate Rafal Majka often will ride up, but Sagan typically does his training program down on the flats or in the surrounding hills, and drives back up to the training center.

“We go down to Granada every few days to have dinner just to break it up,” he said. “In February, it’s dark by 6 p.m. We are up on the side of the mountain with nothing to do.”

Sagan does find ways to keep himself entertained. Last year, Vila bought a $20 dartboard, and Sagan immediately became hooked. He played darts for hours on end until he could consistently hit the bull’s eye. Another one of Sagan’s discoveries was the trampoline. Rather than bouncing off the walls from boredom, he’ll be bouncing off the trampolines, doing flips and taking huge air.

So does Sagan hit the snowboard or venture onto Sierra Nevada’s famous ski tracks in between training sessions?

“Don’t put that idea in his head,” Vila said with a laugh. “That is an idea that we try to avoid.”

Altitude doesn’t work for everybody. Team Sky tried bringing its classics riders to altitude five years ago, and it seemed to have backfired. Vila said every rider reacts to altitude differently. About three-quarters of the Bora-Hansgrohe team will do some altitude stints during the season.

“Sometimes we’ll have a pretty big crew, with about 10 riders at a time up there,” he said. “Every rider reacts different to altitude. It can really backfire and it can kill you for two or three months.”

The altitude camps are part of a larger strategy to push Sagan to even more success. The team has been working behind the scenes to improve Sagan in terms of training, core strength, flexibility, and nutrition.

“Peter is leaner, he is a bit lighter, and he has more muscles where he needs to,” Vila said. “When he is in the race, he is the reference in any race he starts. That means that every year we need to be a little better, in terms of tactics, in terms of training. Peter is still improving.”

For Sagan, the road to Roubaix and Flanders begins at the top of a mountain.