“Allez, allez, be smart girls, be smart!” These are the words coming from the sports director of Le Col-Wahoo, Nicolas Marche. With one hand, he holds the race radio to shout commands, with the other, he drives the team car up the winding Spanish climb of Vall d’Ebo.
Through the windscreen the Le Col-Wahoo riders are racing hell for leather to the top, out of the saddle with their teeth gritted, attacking the hot tarmac beneath their wheels. I sit in the back of the car, watching with eager eyes, my heart beating and palms a little clammy.
We zoom past the group to the top of the climb, jump out of the car and wait for the riders to reach the top. It’s a furious two-up sprint to the summit. I feel myself drawn into the drama as if it was a real race — I almost want to cheer for the winner. I have to remind myself that these riders are simply doing a race simulation effort, competing against each other as teammates, preparing for the start of the season which is fast approaching.
It makes me wonder, if this is how motivated they are in training, what can we expect from this fiery young team in a real race?
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by Le Col-Wahoo’s hardy determination, though. This is a team with history. Formerly known as Drops, they’ve been fighting for their spot in the peloton among the world’s best for years. Overcoming adversity and focusing on the task at hand is one of their strong suits. Multiple times, the team has been on the brink of folding, left searching for sponsorship to keep them in the peloton. On occasion after occasion, they’ve saved themselves and proved that they are a worthy cause through brave attacks and results which punch well above their weight.
Now in 2022, the team has more security than ever before in its 5-year history. They’ve attracted two big sponsors: Le Col and Wahoo, and both brands have made a long-term commitment to supporting the team. Their striking pink and blue jerseys display these two companies proudly. From spending a few days at the team's February training camp in Calpe, it became clear to me straight away that both the riders and the staff are passionate about giving their new-found sponsors a return on their investments.
“You can see how motivated they all are,” says Marche from the team car. “You can really feel that everybody's looking forward to starting racing again. Not only the riders, but also the staff and the whole team.”
This camp has been a crucial part of the team’s build-up to the season. It’s the second one they’ve had so far this winter, with the first being in Belgium earlier this year. The camp in colder climates served as an opportunity for everyone to get to know each other – six new riders have been signed – with a focus on getting used to new equipment and partnerships. It’s not only the riders that are new, either. Ex-professional rider from Team DSM, Julia Soek, also joins the team as assistant sports director for 2022.
Assistant DS Julia Soek speaks to Portuguese Champion Maria Martins ahead of the training session
Now in sunnier Spain, this second camp is all about performance. “Now we are really focused on the training and intensity,” explains Soek, sitting in the passenger seat, surrounded by notepads, maps and spare water bottles. “Today we did race simulations so now we really want to make that last step towards being ready for the races.”
Both Marche and Soek see race efforts as a crucial part of preparing for the year ahead, especially before the early season Classics which are notoriously intense after a long winter. “The spring Classics are really important,” says Soek. “We have really good riders for those types of races.” Marjolein Van 't Geloof is likely Le Col-Wahoo’s Classics hope. Finishing 5th in Le Samyn and 13th in Paris-Roubaix Femmes, the Dutch rider is well-suited to the cobbled terrain.
“We want to try to make these race simulations as close as possible to the real thing,” says Marche. “We need to put the riders in the situation just like they’d have in the race so they can think about things like who is my competitor? How can I win?
You can feel they give 100% in these efforts. They don't have a number on their backs but they feel like they do. They enjoy the small wins.”
The evening before, Soek and Marche had briefed the riders on the session ahead of them, splitting the team into two groups and assigning a team captain to each. They then gave the riders maps and course information for the ‘races’ they would undertake the next day and left them to come up with their own tactics and strategy. “We said: ok, it’s over to you. They were already in the race mindset in the team meetings last night and you could already feel the adrenaline,” says Marche.
British rider Eluned King
These race efforts aren’t to improve the riders physical shape alone, however. Soek explains that it gives them the chance to go through the motions exactly how they will on a real race day. They can test their skinsuits, nutrition and race wheels, practice coming back to the team car for bottles and jackets and get used to having to speak to their sports directors through a race radio.
“Some experienced people already know how this works but when you come over from the juniors, I think most of them still need to learn all of these things,” says Soek. “When it's hectic in the race, there's no time to nurture the techniques, this is actually the perfect time to learn.”
This holistic approach to creating riders who are well-rounded in skills extends beyond the bike too. Each day on camp the riders complete a stretch and gym session and have daily checks with the team doctor. Health checks are, of course, crucial in the current climate. The threat of covid is still rife among the team, even with strict requirements around the team bubble.
April Tacey gets fuel for the day ahead
As we drive behind the riders back to the hotel when the efforts are done, Nico’s phone rings. On the screen pops up Lizzie Holden and Anna Christian, two of the team’s riders for 2022, both self-isolating together after returning positive tests. Holden and Christian are debriefed on what they’ve missed from the training that day, and Marche checks how they are coping in their quarantine. The start of their 2022 season has been curtailed by the pandemic once again, with the team being forced to pull out of their first race, Volta Comunitat Valenciana Fémines, due to the absence of Holden and Christian.
“It’s disappointing to start the season like this, but we don’t want to replace Anna and Lizzie with riders who are due to race all the Classics. It’s not good for them from a performance perspective,” explains Soek. “There is a long season ahead, so there will be more races.”
Despite the anti-climatic season beginning, morale among the group is still high as they look ahead to opening their campaign at Omloop het Nieuwsblad instead. Le Col-Wahoo will be able to enter this race with confidence that they have done everything they can to be in the best possible position to fight for a result.
Even rest days on the camp are productive, with the team using their easy ride as an opportunity to have a descending masterclass with Jonny Towers, a multiple motorcycling champion who races in prestigious events like the Isle of Man TT. Towers gives workshops to the riders before they head out on the roads, explaining which lines are the most efficient on the descents, and how they can safely push the limits when it comes to cornering.
Young riders Flora Perkins and Alice Towers
“With the upcoming days we have some downhill sessions,” says Soek. “I think that, these days, you have to be super complete as a rider. The physical part is important but I think it's also more than that.
You have a lot of hours where you're just riding and I think it's just really useful to make use of these hours to focus on skills on the bike. It’s about being a pro athlete and doing your mobility sessions in the morning as a warm up before you ride, really getting it in your routine, it's just a better way of working,” she explains.
Despite the clear focus on performance, however, both Soek and Marche are keen to create an environment where the riders are having fun as well as working hard. Looking at their smiles after the 5-hour race simulation session they’ve just completed, I think it would be fair to say that the sports directors manage to strike this balance perfectly.
“When we do serious business, we want everyone to be super focussed but when this is done, they need to have fun,” Marche says. While the team has ambitions to make it to the WorldTour next year, and show themselves in the biggest races on the calendar, it’s crucial for the riders to be happy along the journey. “Cycling is hard if you're always too focussed, you can’t lose the enjoyment.”
Rouleur's content is supported by Le Col. Find out more about Le Col here