ATAC Spring Training Camp: Confessions from the Back of the Pack

When Hamish first floated the idea of the Spring Training Camp toward the end of last year, I was hooked. Cycling in Spain under the Spring sun? Sign me up!

Citrus Cycling had been scouted out by a pair of ATACers last March. Located in Benidoleig, in between Alicante and Valencia, it boasts one of the mildest winters in Europe. It also has some hills to speak of … including, it turns out, one leading right up to the accommodation…

Saturday morning, six of us were picked up in a large van to transport us and our bikes from Alicante airport to Benidoleig.

“Have you heard about the hill?” someone asked. “The serious climb to take you up to camp at the end of every day’s cycling?”

I had not. But still, I thought, how bad could it be? I did a tri camp a few years ago, and there was a relatively steep 1-mile climb to the camp at the end of those rides too.

But this was bad. As the van made the turn to go up said hill, it felt like we were jerked up toward the sky. The driver dropped down to first gear as we struggled up the hill. Up, and up, and up. How long was this?

“How bad is it going to be climbing up this every day?” someone asked.

“How much worse to descend each morning!” I replied – definitely not a speed demon, my descending skills leave much to be desired…

After we were checked in, had done some grocery shopping, and set up the bikes, we went for our first spin. First, we had a steep 200m climb to get to the peak, before we could begin our descent. My “climbing legs” were nowhere to be found. I am not doing that every day, I vowed.  (I stayed true to that vow, and walked up that hill, pushing my bike, every  morning except the last day, when I was running late.)

The descent was kind of scary. After months of riding the flat roads of Amsterdam – okay, to be fair, the flat road of my living room on my turbo trainer – my confidence in descending was low. But everyone waited patiently at the bottom of the hill.

Smiling after the first time we ascended the hill ...
Smiling after the first time we ascended the hill …

After an easy 25km, a few of us called it a day, and had our first attempt up the hill. It was as tough as I’d expected. After uploading to Strava, I finally had the data to back it up: a Category 3 climb. Distance: 2.9km. Elevation: 205m. Average grade: 7%. Maximum grade: 17.2%.

Each day, we were guided by Citrus Cycling host Adam on a ride – from a coastal ride, to a three peaks mountain climb, each day brought something new.

Now, as ATAC’s resident spin instructor, I do hate to admit this: but the truth is, cycling is not my forte. And this trip was full of strong cyclists to illustrate that. As the date of our trip approached, I got more and more nervous about the caliber of the cyclists attending…  How would I ever keep up? Well, the short answer is: I didn’t. But the good thing was, no one displayed – to me anyhow – any impatience. Once you get onto the hills, everyone really cycles at their own pace. On the flat, I could more or less keep up by slipping into the group and getting pulled along. Of course, this did take a lot of my effort, so I never arrived at the bottom of climbs totally fresh … but hey, it’s all good training!

To further slow me down, I’ve been trialing out a different nutrition program for a little while. Triathletes will often hear me say, “never try anything new on race day!” and I would say the same applies for a big training camp. But I’ve been experimenting for almost two months, so I thought I would be fine. I wasn’t. I bonked on the third day. Sadly, this was after climbing against a head wind and then descending to the other side of a mountain. The only way back to camp was up – against some pretty mammoth climbs. Road signs warned of 16%, but my legs and eyes told me some of these roads were even steeper. (NB Strava did agree with me after – I see once part at 29.7%).

Without any energy, and the group cycling further and further out of sight, I fell apart mentally as well. Suddenly all the hills were too steep for me, and I had nothing left in my legs … Now, I mentioned the group was further and further away, but the ever patient (when it comes to me, anyway) Korneel was by my side – doing his best to cheer me up as the tears fell more freely, riding next to me and pushing me up hills. When I needed to get off my bike and walk up hills, he got off his bike and pushed mine up for me. He even stopped for a hug when I needed it.

I was certain the group would be peeved off when I finally made it to the peak, but everyone was extremely supportive. A group of five agreed this was not to be our best day in the office, and the option to peel off and ride downhill with a tailwind all the way home sounded too good. (Actually the “all” the way home was indeed too good to be true – there were still a few uphill sections and some wind to fight, and I’ve got to thank Mark as well here for giving me a push and shielding me from the wind).

Wednesday was our official rest day. For some, that meant a gentle ride to the beach and a stop for coffee there. For others of us, that meant a drive in the car to that same beach. And for the one and only Dick Visser, aka Robocop, this meant a 118km ride.

I fixed up my nutrition issues, and was feeling much better again on Thursday. I did ride with a smaller group the easier option – a 25km gentle climb, and a race to the top of our Cat 3 climb home – shaving 50 seconds off my previous time.

The final day of riding was a three peaks ride – for those at the front of the pack. For us at the back, we were told to turn around once the first of the group started to descend, except for the final climb, Col de Rates, where we would be rewarded with apple struedel. So we called it “Three Climbs/One Peak” day.

The apple struedel was a BIG reward – each piece almost as large as a dinner plate!

Overall, the camp was a great success. For most of us, the rides, company, and post-ride food were above our expectations. I’m looking forward to heading back in 2015. Hopefully this piece will encourage a few other “back of the packers” to give me some company ;-)

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