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For the WorldTour elite, when you’re not in the saddle, you’re probably living at thin air.
Jan Tratnik spent 45 days on Mount Teide in the past three months.
Giro d’Italia rivals Remco Evenepoel and Primož Roglič were sharing knowing nods over high-altitude breakfast tables in Tenerife’s Parador hotel before the Belgian came down to decimate Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
And when riders like Evenepoel, Mathieu van der Poel, and Tadej Pogačar aren’t riding up and down the flanks of Teide, Sierra Nevada, or the high Alps, they’re using hypoxic altitude rooms at specialist hotels.
“It looks like there’s a race up on Teide right now. When we arrived, there was Astana, Eolo-Kometa, Bahrain-Victorious, Jumbo-Visma all up there,” Soudal Quick-Step trainer Vasilis Anastopoulos told VeloNews shortly after he left the hulking volcano.
“The whole hotel was pro cyclists preparing for racing.”
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After Team Sky set the trend early last decade, altitude camps have become a routine for any pro team with big money and big ambition.
From increased VO2 max and reduced heart rate, to increased natural red blood cell production and beyond, life at thin air is the natural performance enhancer found high in the sky.
It’s so physiologically effective teams increasingly slash smaller races from their calendar in favor of time atop a barren rocky outcrop.
“We expect notable performance gains from them all our riders at altitude,” Anastopoulos said in a recent call.
“It’s impossible to give a percentage, but if the training camp is done right, some riders could be close to a five percent wattage increase after an altitude block.”
In a peloton constantly looking for the latest half percenter, a potential 15-20W threshold gain is gold-dust ready to be mined out of the flanks of Europe’s highest peaks.
‘You have to do altitude right to make it really work’
Evenepoel and his climber teammates spent three weeks on Teide under trainer Anastopoulos’ watch before the world champion blitzed to his second Liège-Bastogne-Liège title.
Likewise, Roglič and his entire Giro d’Italia support crew spent the best part of this month atop Tenerife’s barren volcano as they brace for battle with the young Belgian.
Roglič said this week he’s amassed a full seven weeks living the monastic idyll at altitude in preparation for his push at the “corsa rosa.”
“There’s a lot of us up here – Primož, the full Giro team, plus a reserve rider. And then from staff, we’ve always got a DS or two, at least one soigneur, a mechanic, and an osteopath,” Jumbo-Visma mountain man Sepp Kuss told VeloNews in a call to the Parador hotel.
“The team makes it so we have pretty much everything we need – the training camps are a huge part of the season for us.”
Altitude camps are an increasingly big deal in the WorldTour, so much so that Kuss’ Jumbo-Visma team has block bookings on the Parador.
And now the entire pro peloton is in on the altitude act, there’s increasing pressure to reap every reward from altitude’s hypoxic environment or risk getting left behind.
“We know that altitude works, that’s why we put more and more focus there. But you have to do it right to make it really work,” Anastopoulos said. “We’re learning more and more how to do it.”
Central to any altitude camp is the “live high, train low” philosophy.
It brings the physiological benefits of living and sleeping in a hypoxic environment while allowing riders to top out their training sessions in oxygen-rich air.
“We stay up at the Parador, but most of the intervals are performed close to sea level, except some specifically for grand tour high mountain focus,” Anastopoulos said.
“You can’t produce the same power up high. Plus if you do a lot of intervals above a certain altitude, you’ll just put a dangerous level of stress on the cardiovascular system. That can be dangerous.”
‘There’s no rule that works for everybody at altitude. You need to manage that’
Altitude is becoming an increasingly sophisticated art.
Trial, error, and developing sport science has seen trainers and physiologists annually refine their approach to camps where there’s as much to gain as there is to lose.
“There’s no rule that works for everybody at altitude, they’re all different. And you need to manage that,” Quick-Step’s Anastopoulos said.
Riders from any team will share a broadly similar routine through the typical three-week duration of an altitude block.
The first days see riders pedal easy to let the system adapt to the low oxygen content of air at 2,000+ meters.
A base of high-volume, low-intensity training follows before the icing is added to racing form in the final week with lung-burster threshold and VO2 max intervals.
A typical altitude camp will see fully-acclimated racers go through a 360-degree finishing academy that includes TT training, strength and conditioning sessions, and race simulation efforts.
Get the altitude program right, get a massive physiological boost.
Get it wrong, riders can overtrain, become prone to sickness, and lose muscle mass.
“You have to be really careful what you’re doing up there,” Anastopoulos said. “You have to pay a lot of attention to the adaptation phase in the first days.
“I’ve seen some guys going up there and then doing six-, seven-hour rides immediately with a lot of efforts and intervals. That which can lead to a really bad negative result, it can totally burn them out.”
The fear of overloading racers too early in the taxing hypoxic environment sees them undergo batteries of blood saturation tests and physical checks to ensure their system is on a level.
Likewise, any rider needing to lose weight has their diet micro-managed by nutritionists to minimize strain on an already overloaded metabolism.
“We’ve been going to altitude a very long time, and I think we’re close to finding a winning formula every time,” Jumbo-Visma performance director Mathieu Heijboer told VeloNews.
“To be able to get riders to perform at the highest level, we can come very close with altitude training alone. Physiologically, we have all the tools and training sessions in hand.”
Reaping the rewards of altitude has become such a sophisticated science that even descending to sea level is complex.
Some riders complain of feeling “blocked” for up to 10 days while their blood oxygenation resets on return from up high. Yet for every slow adapter, there’s a rider like Evenepoel, who spent just 48 hours at sea level before he rode the peloton out of his wheel at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Staffers use experience of each individual to find the timing that maxes out the short-term performance boost of altitude without the risk of sending them to a startline stuck in second gear.
“Everybody takes a different amount of time to adapt again when they come down to sea level,” Kuss said.
“It could be happening at a more physiological level, with what’s going on with your red blood cells or, or it could be something as simple as you’re doing so much climbing at training camp that you lose that leg speed, or just that your body needs a bit more time to just soak everything in and be fresh again.”
‘The psychological part is just as important as the physiological’
Whether riders like it or not, there are not a lot of distractions when living in the isolated ski resorts and tourist hotels they make home during altitude camps.
The Parador is one of just a half-dozen buildings on top of the crater-like summit of Teide, and Alpine towns like Tignes and Livigno are desolate in the skiing off-season.
For many, that seclusion is a boon.
“A lot of guys have family and kids at home, or other obligations that take time and focus away from their training or recovery,” Kuss said.
“So when they come to an altitude camp environment where there’s not much to do other than train and recover, they can really take that next level up they might not be able to at home.”
At the time of speaking to VeloNews, Kuss had climbed through two full weeks on Teide. The 28-year-old had amassed more than 2,100km distance and 47,000m vert so far. He has plenty more pedalling to come before he returns home.
That day’s four-hour ride was a relative leg-stretcher in a Jumbo-Visma camp filled with six-plus hour days that deliver up to 180km and 5,000m ascent.
And those numbers aren’t an anomaly. Evenepoel and his Liège-Giro teammates rode through successive 30-hour weeks while living on the Parador.
But there’s a lot more to an altitude camp than the training.
The eight or nine riders short-listed for a grand tour or monument head to altitude as one in what becomes a social experiment high in the sky.
“The psychological part is just as important as the physiological, I think,” Quick-Step staffer Anastopoulos said.
“With this last camp, we wanted to put the whole Giro group together beforehand to see how they behave, to get them closer together, to spend time together and socialize.”
Staffers hope time shared over dining tables, coffee stops, and gym sessions make their “wolf pack, ” “samen winnen,” and “band of brothers” hashtags a reality.
Evenepoel was accompanied on Teide by the core of the team that took him to victory in Liège and which will be again working for him through the three-week grind of the Giro d’Italia.
“We hope they make a new group of friends together and develop a good atmosphere before going to the Giro,” Anastopoulos said of Evenepoel and his climber crew.
“They need to be well-connected before a race, or we may consider making replacements. If riders are friends, we believe they will work better for each other.”
‘You savor those moments where it’s not all go, go, go’
But it’s not like an altitude camp involves a 24/7 program of cringe-worthy teambuilding activities and enforced “fun.”
After a full day of shared meals and on- and off-bike training, time with compression socks and laptops on hotel beds is sacred.
“Luckily there was a lot of cycling on television, and then there are standard things like watching series, football matches, listening to music,” Evenepoel said when asked how he staved off the monotony of life on Teide.
“Eventually you get through the days.”
And when some racers spend less than a week at home between descending from altitude and packing up for a grand tour, a bit of boredom can be a blessing.
“When you know there’s a race coming and you’re going to be on the road for weeks, you savor those moments where it’s not all go, go, go,” Kuss said.
“You spend a lot of the time kind of just killing time waiting for the next meal … but you learn to treasure it.”