When I began racing as a pro in Europe in 1980, the norm was to straddle the saddle Jan 1 to begin training for the coming season. The season was very different with most teams holding camps in Europe’s warmer climes, in the South of France, Italy and Spain. Early races, Tour of the Med, even the Paris Nice and Toreno were considered training races.
Things changed towards the end of the 80s, the accrual of race points became far more important to the teams and riders. Suddenly, these races became very serious as riders struggled to rise in the rankings. From race one, early Feb, if you were not race fit, it would be a struggle to hang on. Race averages were no longer in the 30s but creeping towards 50kph. Approaching the 91 season, I was to lead the newly formed Motorola outfit and had to try something new. I began training a month earlier, in mid-Nov. I had 6000kms in the legs by the time I headed to the team’s camp in California by mid-Jan. Even though most of these kms were spent within at a steady state heart frequency, this gave my season a jump start to my season. By the end of February, I had a bunch of wins on the board, including the Tours of Sicily and Mediterranean. My results changed the way the peleton trained through the following seasons.
Training strategies have changed again since the turn of the millennium. Where I would once build up a large base before the season, and use the team training camp and early races for intensity training, riders now are tending to have less of a km base, but beginning early on with more intensity training. The international season begins a month earlier with the TDU or that North African race Fasso? Though the season is longer, the trend is for riders to be racing less days in a season. A typical season for me would be 100-120 days of racing in the 1980s and 90s. Now a heavy season would be 80 days. Lance would have raced less than 50 days in each of his seasons.
When joining a new team, nothing speaks better than early season results. Even for the seasoned pro, the saying you are only as good as your last result, holds true. If early results are achieved, then team support is assured. Training here in Australia with our summer conditions gave me a great advantage over my European colleagues. While I was out doing 5 + hour rides, many of my team mates were snow bound and still on ergo’s or in the gym.
Of course peaking in January can be detrimental considering the length of the season in the 80’s. No point winning 5 races in the early stages of the season, only to disappear once the premier races began. It can be difficult holding early form for too long, so careful blocks of training and racing have to be planned from the outset, so your peaks arrive at the time where it counts most on the race calendar.
Team leaders are given more latitude when it comes to planning their season. We all saw Jan Ullrich arrive at his first races a little overweight and without his July form, but he stuck to a formula which worked well for him. Lance on the other hand had a specifically designed training program which built him up gradually through the season which also included test events where he could measure his progress to achieving his tour goals.
There is a great deal more to early season preparation than simply getting on the bike and hammering out the kms. For myself and any rider, whether for club events or international competition the key is to set your season’s goals.