This article was originally published in December 2022
For professional cyclists to be in race-winning form during the season, they have to have a productive winter’s training behind them.
The pros might be much fitter and faster than us mere mortals, but they too share the same dread of not wanting to head outside when the mercury is low and the skies are grey.
Yet they keep on riding, sometimes as much as 30 hours in a single week. Here are just some of the ways in which every pro, from Tour de France stage winners to Paris-Roubaix contenders, train during the winter.
The accepted trend is for riders to spend their winter days training for five hours at low intensity, repeating similar sessions five or six days a week for a few months in what is commonly referred to as accruing base miles.
“Riding up to 30-hours a week is not an ancient way of doing it,” says former British pro Dean Downing who has coached riders now competing in the WorldTour. “When a professional starts training again after their off-season, they’re pretty unfit by their standards.
“So they head into classic aerobic base training for six or eight weeks depending when their season will start. It’s more scientific and planned out now than what it was 20 years ago, but the basics are the same: lots of zone two training, low watts and a steady heart rate.”
It’s not all just coffee rides and social spins though – some teams and riders like to opt for a reverse periodisation approach which means the rider begins their winter training with intense rides before gradually increasing the volume. That means more regular, sweet spot efforts. “Steve Cummings once said to me that he was big on sweetspot training in the winter as it made him feel in better shape when the racing began,” Downing adds.
All this is not to say, however, that riders are thrashing their legs and doing hard intervals in the depths of December and January. It’s more that sports science has proven that elite athletes need to do more than just riding comfortably at aerobical levels.
“If you ride sweet spot for 30 hours a week you’re gonna be destroyed,” Downing says. “What riders do is the bulk of the volume in November and then start to move up through the training zones. The coaches and riders understand that they have to be specific so that will mean 30 minute blocks in between zones two and three focusing on sustaining power. A lot of WorldTour pros are really big on that.”
Steve Benton is a trainer coordinator at Team DSM who helps manage the training loads of the team’s WorldTour men’s and women’s squads, as well as its development team. He says: “Volume is the priority and you can talk about miles, miles and more miles, but what underpins everything in winter training are the rider’s goals, and to achieve those targets they have to marry the volume up with some level of periodisation.
“Depending when their first race is or if they want to be performing well in February or March, we’ll prescribe riders lactate threshold training.”
The advent and explosion of indoor training applications such as Zwift has made winter training on a turbo much more manageable and enjoyable for all cyclists.
Yet pros will still be doing the bulk of their work outside. “Unless it’s safer to train inside because of the weather, or perhaps it’s for a bike fit reason, we don’t recommend that our riders spend five hours every day on their turbo,” Benton adds. “That comes with its own risks.”
Zwifting is a great alternative when the bad weather hits (Tim de Waele/Getty Images)
Downing points out that many pros will decamp to sunnier climes in the winter, but even those based in the UK or Belgium still pound their home roads more than they work up a sweat in their spare room.
He says: “People talk about character building and improving mindset, and knowing that you can ride in awful conditions is good for that. It’s not easy when it’s freezing cold, but when you get a nice day of weather, you feel fantastic after a day of winter training. It’s also specificity – you can’t get used to riding in Belgian weather if you only sit on the turbo in the house.”
Most pros will go to three or four training camps in the winter, most often in Spain. Denia and Calpe in Alicante have become the favourite in recent years because of the combination of available hotels, sunny weather and varied terrain. Girona is also semi-popular in deep winter, while smaller groups of riders will train at altitude in Gran Canaria and Tenerife.
“The December training camps will be more about endurance rides and less intensity,” Benton explains. “There’ll be some intensity work but it won’t be quite as pronounced as the riders will still be in the base-building area. As coaches we’ll be making the most of having all the riders together and doing some physiological and field tests.
“Camps in January and February will be where the training becomes a lot more structured and there will be a gradual progression in line with a rider’s objectives. A rider focused on the Classics will be much further along in their fitness than a GC rider who will be on a different plan.
“If a rider is targeting opening weekend, in December they’ll be doing high quality 25-hour weeks and high intensity efforts in January to be ready for the end of February. No athlete in any sport has the luxury just to be ready with a click of a finger, so they need race-ready legs that build over time with consistency.”
Teams will also use training camps as a place to practise race drills and tactics, with sprint leadouts in particular being worked on. Outside of the racing calendar, sprint trains barely ever get a chance to be together to work on their speed and understanding, so training camps are seen as a crucial part of that training.
The lines between road and cyclocross are becoming ever more blurred with the success of Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel and Tom Pidcock across the two disciplines.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that every rider is also riding in the mud in the winter. “I don’t believe there’s a trend of WorldTour riders doing more cyclocross,” Downing says. “Those who have grown up with it and maybe competed in cyclocross might do a few races as they are able to manage that load and training.
Image by Andrew Whitehead/Getty Images
“But those who haven’t don’t suddenly start doing cyclocross. It’s really intense and it’s the wrong type of training for that time of the year if the body isn’t accustomed to it. Riders aren’t prepared to change their training completely.”
Riders do, however, switch to their gravel and mountain bikes as a way to introduce fun and entertainment into their schedule and to stave off monotony. But that riding is done with low intensity and with few risks taken.
Core exercises and strength and conditioning training is also a regular part of a cyclist’s winter schedule, with the yoga mat being rolled out up to three times a week. Some riders will even do strength work in the gym to help improve their power to weight ratio, but to also help towards injury prevention.
In the last few years more and more riders have set up home in Andorra in the Pyrenees, and several dozen riders now partake in ski mountaineering and ski touring in the winter, a sport that sees the skier attach ‘skins’ to the bottom of the skis to climb up the mountain before skiing down. Teams are generally accepting of this as an alternative sport, providing the athletes are competent skiers and choose terrain that has a low avalanche risk. Many riders, including Romain Bardet and Sepp Kuss, also go cross-country skiing.
With no races around the corner, riders can be a little looser with their diet and afford themselves an occasional beer or glass of wine. It’s also common for riders to build their December training around the Christmas period, essentially permitting themselves a few easier days around the festivities.
But a successful bike rider is someone who is disciplined for most of the year, and pro cyclists remain strict even when their next race is two months away.
“Riders cannot underestimate things in their life,” Benton says. “They have to have the right plan that always allows them to recover in the right way, keeps them in top shape and moves them towards their specific goals.
“You do see correlations between riders having a bad season and the amount of days they lose to illness, bad planning or bad luck.
“Little things, like some time away on holiday or moving house, can get in the way of consistent training, and it requires sensible thinking and planning around a rider’s lifestyle. When working with pro athletes, we’re always trying to avoid obstacles that would prevent them from being consistent.”