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The summer’s recent doping stories have served as confirmation — for those seeking it — that professional cyclists are all dirty, that races can only be enjoyed with the mindset that they’re watching a bunch of pharmaceutical robots. It’s simply easier that way, rather than taking the nuanced view that some people will always take shortcuts to achieve anything that’s worth being good at.
The rest of us, though, sweat and sacrifice and fight for every small gain that we can make, doing it the hard way: working for it. That’s why I’m so happy with my 56th place at the Clásica San Sebastián last weekend, but I’ll come back to that later.
I thoroughly enjoyed my summer break, the first time I’d taken three consecutive days off the bike since before the Tour Down Under in January. I may have enjoyed it a bit too much if you believe the bathroom scale, but it was summer in Spain, my apartment had no AC, and I can only resist ice cream for so long. What fat calipers can’t measure, however, is the motivation and rejuvenation gained by slacking off for a bit.
By the time I got back to work, I’d gone without swinging a leg over for more than a week. After one week of coffee rides and another of proper training, I was headed into the French Alps for a high-altitude training camp, repeating the previous summer’s plan that saw me finish the season well.
High-altitude camps are becoming more common as an effective—and legal—way to boost blood values, now that EPO and testosterone are things of the past (editor, can you please use the special sarcasm font for that last phrase?). Camps also build team camaraderie and provide a focused training environment, which is aided by the isolation that comes from living at a ski resort in the summer.
For the less-“settled” riders who comprised this camp, it was a nice change of pace to get away from our usual training routes. We had a support car following to make life easy (especially during the heat wave that pushed temperatures to triple-digits, necessitating more than a dozen bottles for a decent ride) as we explored new terrain. Just like at home, we had only to roll down the driveway and start pedaling our way into the postcard scenery. In this case, the driveway was 22km long, contained dozens of switchbacks, and took an hour longer to climb than descend, but that’s the price of a camp in the Alps.
The camp was a success, getting my legs back under me for the second half (well, the last quarter, but who’s counting?) of my season. I still lacked the sharpness that can only be attained through racing, so it was nice to get that tune-up at a low-key, drama-free race like the Clásica San Sebastián (editor, make sure to apply the sarcasm font to that phrase, too!).
In truth, though, the race provided a real test for me, as it is tactically simple and primarily comes down to strength. I’d had the same preparation for the preceding month as for the 2014 edition, so I could clearly see if I was any better this time around. As it turned out, the first 4.5 hours of my race were exactly the same as in 2014, but this time I stayed with the favorites all the way until the final climb before my legs gave out, two climbs more than last year.
That may not seem like much, but it means everything to me. That small gain was hard-earned, and I look forward to pushing myself to continue improving through the end of the season. The old adage really is true: it never gets easier, you just go faster. It just takes a lot of work to get there, but that’s fine by me.