This article was originally published in December 2022
In order for professional cyclists to win the race during the season, they must have a productive winter training behind them.
Professionals may be much fitter and faster than us mere mortals, but they also share the same dread of not wanting to go outside when the mercury is low and the sky is gray.
However, they continue to ride, sometimes up to 30 hours in a week. Here are some of the ways that all the pros, from Tour de France stage winners to Paris-Roubaix competitors, train during the winter.
The accepted trend is for riders to spend their winter days training for five hours at a low intensity, repeating similar sessions five or six days a week for several months in what is commonly known as accumulating base miles.
“Riding up to 30 hours a week is not an old way to do it,” says former British pro Dean Downing, who has coached riders now competing in the WorldTour. “When a pro starts training again after the off-season, it’s quite inadequate by his standards.
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“So they go into classic aerobic core training for six or eight weeks, depending on when their season starts. It’s more scientific and planned now than it was 20 years ago, but the basics are the same: a lot of zone two, low watts and a steady heart rate.”
Lower end ranges
It’s not all coffee rides and social spins though: some teams and riders like to go for a reverse periodization approach, meaning the rider starts their winter training with hard rides before gradually increasing the volume. This means more regular and sweet spot efforts. “Steve Cummings once told me he was big on sweet spot training in the winter as it made him feel in better shape when the race started,” adds Downing.
All of this doesn’t mean, however, that runners are pounding their legs and doing hard intervals deep into December and January. It’s more that sports science has shown that elite athletes must do more than ride comfortably at aerobic levels.
“If you drive in the sweet spot for 30 hours a week, you’re going to be destroyed,” says Downing. “What the riders do is most of the volume in November and then they start going up through the training zones. The coaches and riders understand that they have to be specific, so that will mean 30-minute blocks between the two zones and three focused on maintaining power. A lot of WorldTour pros are really big on that.”
Steve Benton is a coaching coordinator at Team DSM who helps manage the training loads for the team’s men’s and women’s WorldTour teams, as well as their development team. He says: “Volume is the priority and you can talk about kilometers, kilometers and more kilometers, but what underpins everything in winter training is the rider’s goals, and to achieve these goals they must combine volume with a certain level of periodization.
“Depending on when their first race is or if they want to perform well in February or March, we’ll prescribe lactate threshold training for riders.”
The arrival and explosion of indoor training apps like Zwift has made winter training with a turbo much more manageable and enjoyable for all cyclists.
However, professionals will still do most of their work outside. “Unless it’s safer to train indoors because of the weather, or maybe for a bike fit reason, we don’t recommend that our riders spend five hours every day on their turbo,” adds Benton. “That comes with its own risks.”
Zwifting is a great alternative when bad weather hits (Tim de Waele/Getty Images)
Downing notes that many professionals will decamp to sunnier climes in the winter, but even those in the UK or Belgium still do more on their home roads than sweat it out in their spare room.
He says: “People talk about building character and improving your mindset, and knowing you can ride in terrible conditions is good for that. It’s not easy when it’s cold, but when you have a good day’s weather, you feel great after a day of winter training. It’s also specificity – you can’t get used to riding in Belgian weather if you only sit on the house turbo.”
Most professionals will go to three or four training camps in the winter, most often in Spain. Dénia and Calpe in Alicante have become favorites in recent years due to the combination of available hotels, sunny weather and varied terrain. Girona is also semi-popular in deep winter, while smaller groups of riders will train at altitude in Gran Canaria and Tenerife.
“The training camps in December will be more about endurance rides and less intensity,” explains Benton. “There will be some intensity work, but it will not be as pronounced as the pilots will still be in the base building area. As coaches, we will make the most of having all the riders together and do some field and physiological testing.
“The January and February camps will be where the training will be much more structured and there will be a gradual progression in accordance with the pilot’s objectives. A classics focused rider will be much more advanced in fitness than a GC rider who will be on a different plane.
“If a runner is aiming for the opening weekend, they will put in high-quality 25-hour weeks in December and high-intensity efforts in January to be ready by the end of February. No athlete in any sport has the luxury of being ready at the click of a finger, so they need race-ready legs that grow over time with consistency.”
Teams will also use the training grounds as a place to practice race drills and tactics, with sprints in particular being worked on. Outside of the racing calendar, sprinters almost never have the opportunity to be together to work on their speed and understanding, so training camps are considered a crucial part of that training.
The lines between road and cyclocross are increasingly blurred with the success of Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel and Tom Pidcock in both disciplines.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that all riders ride through mud in the winter, too. “I don’t think there’s a trend of WorldTour riders doing more cyclocross,” says Downing. “Those who have grown up with it and maybe raced cyclocross can do some racing as they are able to handle that load and training.
Image by Andrew Whitehead/Getty Images
“But those who haven’t done it don’t suddenly start doing cyclocross. It’s very intense and it’s the wrong type of training for that time of year if your body isn’t used to it. Riders are not ready to completely change their training.”
Cyclists, however, switch to their gravel and mountain bikes as a way to introduce fun and entertainment into their schedule and avoid monotony. But this driving is done with little intensity and with few risks.
Core exercises and strength and conditioning training are also a regular part of a cyclist’s winter schedule, with the yoga mat being rolled out up to three times a week. Some cyclists will even do strength work in the gym to help improve their power-to-weight ratio, but also to help prevent injury.
In recent years, more and more riders have settled in Andorra, in the Pyrenees, and several dozen riders now practice alpine skiing and cross-country skiing in the winter, a sport that sees the skier attaching “skins” to the bottom of the skis to go up the mountain before skiing down. Teams generally accept this sport as an alternative sport, as long as the athletes are competent skiers and choose terrain with a low avalanche risk. Many runners, such as Romain Bardet and Sepp Kuss, also cross-country ski.
With no races around the corner, runners can be a little looser with their diet and allow themselves a beer or glass of wine now and then. It’s also common for runners to build their December training around the Christmas period, essentially allowing themselves a few easy days over the festive period.
But a successful cyclist is someone who is disciplined for most of the year, and professional cyclists stay strict even when their next race is two months away.
“Riders can’t underestimate the things in their life,” says Benton. “They need to have the right plan that allows them to always recover in the right way, keeps them fit and guides them towards their specific goals.
“You see correlations between runners who have a bad season and the amount of days they miss due to illness, bad planning or bad luck.
“Little things like time off on vacation or a house move can get in the way of consistent training, and it takes rational thinking and planning around a cyclist’s lifestyle. When we work with professional athletes, we’re always trying to avoid obstacles that would prevent them from being consistent.”