Romain Bardet’s voice is slow and monotone. He sounds tired. He is tired.
“We come here to be tired,” he says.
Yet ‘here’ is not the Tour de France, although undoubtedly voices are as weak as this after two weeks of full fat racing over cobbles, the Alps and into the Pyrenees.
‘Here’ is, in many ways, the very opposite of the world’s biggest bike race, but it is nonetheless a rite of passage for Bardet, his teammates, his rivals, and many of the world’s best riders as they prepare for three weeks in July.
‘Here’ is where the green jersey, Peter Sagan, did his painfully popular gym routine. ‘Here’ is where the polka dot jersey, Julian Alaphilippe, did his laps around the running track on a recovery day with teammate Bob Jungels. ‘Here’ is where the white jersey, Pierre Latour, rode his hard yards alongside his team leader Bardet.
“It’s like pulling a spring,” Bardet adds. “You come here, you pull, you pull, you pull, and tiredness accumulates, and then when you come back down it’s a bit like letting it go, you have this extra energy.
‘Here’ is the Centro de Alto Rendimiento, which translates simply as ‘high performance centre’.
It is a suitable name in a literal sense: the CAR is 2,350m above sea level. A metal clad block of sports centre and hotel, it sits on the shallow slopes of the Sierra Nevada, an incongruously cold and snowy mountain range in Andalucia that overlooks the ancient city of Granada and is on the same latitude as Tunis.
Its ‘Ronseal’ name (it does what it says on the tin) is also befitting of this monastery of high performance sport, a centre run by the Spanish state and open only to elite level athletes and their staff.
As with the now famous Mount Teide on Tenerife, the reason so many riders come here is for the altitude. Resting and recovering in the low oxygen environment has been shown to promote physiological adaptations that improve power output across efforts of varying duration and intensity.
Rest high, train low goes the saying. Bardet, who has been coming here every year since 2014, has even been the guinea pig for a scientific study published by his team sports scientists Sam Bellenoue and Jean-Baptiste Quiclet.
“We know very few athletes in the top 30 of the Tour who haven’t been to an altitude training camp,” Quiclet says.
Morning spin in Andorra, lunch in Barcelona with the misty and dinner with the @LottoJumbo_road boys in Sierra Nevada. Giro team assembling up high to put in some miles in and half wheel each other into form pic.twitter.com/TXkCCBv8oH
— George Bennett? (@georgenbennett) March 29, 2018
Yet this place is about atmosphere in more ways than one. The austere centre with a gym, running track and a 50m swimming pool full of elite athletes from various nations is built for one thing: training.
The pool table is broken. The vending machines are full of nothing but healthy snacks. The bedrooms are spartan and bare. The nearby shops are shut, out of the winter ski season. The nearest town is over 30km away, and the road back up climbs a vertical mile. It’s so hard a climb that riders will regularly jump in a team car to ascend back up to the centre after a hard session down at sea level.
— PHILIPPE GILBERT (@PhilippeGilbert) May 17, 2018
The CAR is a world away from the heat, pressure, noise and distractions of the modern world. This is very much the point.
“It’s just riding,” says Latour. “I would never do 15 days of solid riding at home! Here there’s nothing else to do. You ride, you eat, you sleep. There’s nothing else. And that’s what brings you on.”
Altitude training camp is now an essential period of physical and psychological calm before the sensory storm of La Grande Boucle. Following their stays lasting a couple of weeks in late May, riders descend for the Critérium du Dauphiné or the Tour de Suisse and a two-month block of stress and intensity.
“I like it,” Bardet says. “There’s no pressure, it’s peaceful when you’re there. You know that you’ve got some long, hard days coming up and you know there’s just nothing noisy that can get in the way and distract you from that.”