Seeing heroes crossing finish lines, arms aloft, pride beaming across their faces it is accompanied by our own elevated heart rate. How much would you give to relish the sweet taste of victory as a professional cyclist? The question should infact be: How much do you have to give for only a chance to savour victory. With a backstage pass to Cervelo Bigla’s team training camp we hit the road to join them to find out.
One of the first things to be noted when we arrive at the athlete’s camp, well after the fact it’s 7:30 in the morning, is the team base for the week. It’s no plush 4 star hotel, instead a rustic but rather luxurious Catalan country house in the back of beyond. I’m talking off-roading just to get there, twisting and turning down narrow lanes, the hire Mini momentarily transformed into world rally car.
It’s breakfast time, as we enter the room there’s a notable turn of heads to eye up intruders; which is swiftly exchanged to gesturing for us to join and eat. There’s a relaxed atmosphere, around a banquet sized table. Whilst there’s mental preparation happening for the day ahead, their first ever team sprint training session is in the morning, followed by team time trial for the afternoon.
The breakfast menu is just your average muesli, toast, fruit and cured meats–nothing too glamorous about that. The monster sized pots of peanut butter is the most impressive condiment on the table, Ashleigh Moolman Pasio, one of their GC riders takes full credit for that. So far everything is looking pretty much the opposite of ‘glossy’. Then there are the industrial sized tubs of antibacterial hand lotion that gives a sharp reminder about the reliance upon details for high performance. The average common cold doesn’t pose too large an issue to the mainstream like you and I, but for the professional cyclist it can be the fine line between hitting the season on fighting form or missing those early season goals.
A glance upwards your eyes are met with what resembles a line of lycra bunting, draped over stair bannisters. Good to see pros have those same domestic conundrums of ‘Where the hell am I going to dry all this kit before tomorrow morning!
Out on the road, bikes are being unloaded, last minute adjustments, there’s smiles, banter, it’s upbeat after grinding it out through the previous days of rain. The mornings grogginess has lifted. For the first time I see four words printed on the thigh of their bib shorts: #Innovate #Sacrifice #Unite #Succeed. Four words meant to bind this family together; there to help a rider lift their head again when it’s hanging in self-doubt. Because that’s one thing you can guarantee as a professional cyclist, those moments will come; a yank on the plug of motivation can drain the hardiest of racers; can shatter the tightest of team confidence.
“That’s why we always choose to come to a residential house like where we’re staying instead of a hotel” explains Xylon Van Eyck, their marketing and PR manager. “It’s to build that family connection that’s so vital for them to succeed”.
So how do you build that family environment that unites the team: “First of all you have to find athletes who are talented cyclists but more important for us it’s good characters. Because the character is important in each individual athlete, cycling is a team sport on the road. Often you have good cyclists but as individuals they can’t fit themselves into a group.” describes directeur sportif, Thomas Campana.
To achieve success a team has to develop a mentality whereby there is an openness to innovation and change, these four words are starting to make sense now. Then there’s that all important word–sacrifice. I wonder what’s the key to keeping that mental switch turned on: “The mentality is pretty much what the rider delivers to the team” Campana emphasises. “We can only give them the guidelines and support. Quality and character has to be developed with the rider, if the basics are not there then of course you are always limited.”
Bringing a team together is a balancing act and for the moment Campana seems to be doing well: “Thomas has done a great job, it’s not easy to put a team together in terms of balancing out the personalities and the characters but we have a really great team” Ashleigh Moolman tells me.
She continues: “Cervelo Bigla might not be the team with the biggest budget or the team with the biggest riders in terms of accomplishments on paper, but we are a team with good character and we fight together and ride with heart”.
But what if, I ask her, if riding with heart means just going after what you as an individual wants to achieve: “We have the challenges in the team where there is individualistic mindset with some riders and it’s trying to balance that out. Of course we all have certain goals ourselves but we have to remember that we are taking part in a team sport”.
This fine line between success and failure at what essentially is your job is hard to comprehend to the average ‘non-professional athlete’. Can you imagine being in your end of year review and having to evaluate the reason for not achieving your goals was down to an untimely puncture, or an unfortunate touch of wheels that brought a peloton to it’s knees. Of course you can’t. Or missing your chance for that year, but then still waking every day and working to ensure you’re available to turn yourself inside out for the rest of your team, for a group of people you consider a kind of family. With Cervelo Bigla I can. Success is already coming to them as we’ve seen at Drentse Acht and Setmana Ciclista Valenciana. Let’s hope that big heart keeps beating for the rest of the season in a similar vein.
What does it mean to be part of a top performing elite level cycling team? A type of sacrifice many of us will never experience–families far away, early nights, picking yourself up off the ground time and time again so you can physically squeeze every last drop out of yourself so someone else can cross a finish line, arms aloft beaming from ear to ear.
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Words: Photos: Robin Schmitt