Matt Stephens on the Structure of Warm-Weather Training Camps for Pro Teams

By Matt Stephens

In the modern, super-dynamic world of pro cycling where success hinges on a delicate balance of endurance, power and, increasingly, strategy, the preparation for a new season is a truly meticulous process. Different teams will have their own systems in place but fundamentally, they will all have the same objective; to get their riders ready for the season ahead. Warm-weather training camps have become a cornerstone of this preparation, offering a focused environment for teams to fine-tune their riders, both physically and mentally, for the challenges of the season ahead.

These camps provide an escape from the cold winter months of Northern Europe, offering riders the opportunity to train in conditions more akin to those they will face during the racing season. (Although some re-acclimatisation for the chillier opening classics will also be needed once the riders return home).

The camps typically occur in locations with mild to warm climates, with Mallorca, Spain and the Canary Islands being the favoured locations for teams. I’ve just come back from spending time with teams Alpecin-Deceuninck and Canyon//SRAM in Valencia where the weather was amazing and the roads wonderfully quiet; the sort of conditions that allow riders to shed layers and focus on their training without the hindrance of winter weather. (I also managed to add some colour to my very white legs).

Training volume and intensity

At the core of these camps is an emphasis on training volume. Riders will log extensive hours in the saddle, gradually building their endurance base for the races ahead. The roads in these warm locales offer varied terrain, allowing teams to tailor training sessions to specific objectives. In Valencia, there was an ideal mix of flat, undulating and mountainous roads so teams could carry out everything from sprint lead-outs to team time-trial training.

The intensity of these sessions is carefully managed, whereby coaches balance the need for high-intensity efforts, simulating race conditions, with sufficient recovery to prevent burnout and overtraining. Structured interval training becomes a crucial component, helping riders develop that all-important explosive power. I did some sprint training with Alpecin-Deceuninck and ended up sprinting side by side with Mathieu van der Poel. Needless to say, you don’t need to ask me for the result.

Lactate testing for precision training

Lactate testing is a key element in optimising a cyclist’s training regimen. By analysing blood lactate levels, coaches can gauge the riders’ lactate threshold, which is an essential metric in endurance sports in general. This threshold represents the point at which lactate production exceeds the body’s ability to clear it, resulting in fatigue.

Understanding individual lactate thresholds enables coaches to tailor training zones for each rider. This precision allows for a more efficient and targeted training programme, ensuring that the athletes are working at the right intensity to elicit the desired physiological adaptations. I watched the Alpecin-Deceuninck team as they carried out these tests on the climb of the Col d’Ebo. Riders rode up at three different training zones determined by a set power output, before a final all-out sustained effort, with blood being taken after each.

Matt Stephens
Matt Stephens and Tom Pidcock training

Different objectives: Classics vs Grand Tours

At the majority of training camps, the teams will split into two groups, each addressing the specific objectives of different race types, with a focus on either the classics or the Grand Tours. Let’s have a look at the differences between the two.

For riders eyeing the classics, which are characterised by often challenging terrain and short, explosive efforts, training camps emphasise power development, endurance and repeated high-intensity efforts, simulating the race conditions these riders will face in events like the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix.

Additionally, team strategy and tactics are honed during these camps. Riders learn to work together, understanding the nuances of supporting a team leader or executing a race-winning move. Race scenarios will often be played out on the road, with small groups pitted against each other at the end of a 6-hour ride, for example. I saw this firsthand when I joined the Polti–Kometa team at their camp near Alicante in late December.

Grand Tour preparation

In contrast, those targeting the Grand Tours (the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, and Vuelta a España) undergo a different kind of preparation. Endurance and the ability to sustain high efforts over extended periods become paramount.

Long, steady rides form the backbone of Grand Tour training camps. Within these longer rides, climbing skills in particular are refined, with longer individual efforts being carried out before the group gets back together to continue on. These long rides are also an opportunity for teams to bond as a unit, especially where there are new riders who have come in from other squads.

The relevance of altitude training

Altitude training has become a key tool in the arsenal of all top teams. Many warm-weather training camps are strategically located at altitude, providing an additional layer of physiological adaptation. However, not all camps are held at altitude. In my recent stay in Valencia, the hotel had a whole floor of hypoxic altitude rooms that were specially sealed and could be adjusted to whatever height was required. Very convenient!

The timing of altitude training is critical. Riders need sufficient time at altitude to induce physiological changes but returning too close to a race risks fatigue. Teams will carefully plan their training calendars, ensuring that riders benefit from altitude adaptations without compromising their immediate performance upon return to sea level. Both the classics teams and Grand Tour teams will spend time at altitude but at differing times. Compared to previous years, most riders are increasingly spending more time at these sorts of camps because if they don’t, they’ll lose a key competitive edge. I’d go as far as to say they are absolutely vital.

So, to wrap up: warm weather training camps have evolved into sophisticated operations, finely tuned to the specific needs of pros in our rapidly evolving sport. The integration of scientific principles, technological advancements, and strategic planning has honed the efficiency of these camps, providing riders with much more than just a solid base to achieve peak physical shape.

Oh, just one last thing. There are also coffee stops on rest days – that certainly kept me going!