As the winter training camps come to a close in the United States and Europe, Shane Ferro takes a look inside one of the NRC's fastest growing teams, Team Exergy, for a valuable insight into the ins-and-outs of an NRC training camp.
It's 2 PM and there are 16 riders on matching 2012 Felt FC's all lined up along the bottom of a private residential road for the annual Team Exergy hill climb time trial. It's the last day of training camp in Ventura, California, and all of the riders are feeling the 30 hours of training they have put into their legs this week.
They have roughly three and a half minutes of suffering ahead of them to the end of camp. But the hill before them rises over 125 metres of elevation in less than a 800 metres, pitching over 25 per cent in some places, so it won't be a comfortable three minutes for anyone.
The Exergy hill climb time trial is a tradition began three years ago as a race to the top of the steep pitch where their host house was located. The first year was a mad dash to the top, not unlike the team itself, which was still an amateur outfit, made up of guys from Boise, Idaho.
Three years later, the neo-pros are gone. They've added riders from four countries, soigneurs, chefs, managers, and sponsorship by Exergy Development Group, but the winter camp atmosphere has largely remained the same.
Every morning they hit the road, descending the steep grade from the host house to the valley floor below, making their way through the surrounding citrus orchards to one of the many tough but gorgeous rides along the coastal mountains north of Los Angeles. They have conquered the most prestigious climbs in the area — about 50 km northwest of home base is Santa Barbara's Gibraltar Road, which rises an impressive 1000 metres over 12 kilometres.
To the southwest is Malibu's Yerba Buena and Mulholland Highways, which rise about 500 metres and formed part of the stage 8 circuit race at the 2010 Tour of California. To the east are the short but treacherous Balcolm and Grimes canyons. To the northwest is the Topatopa mountain range and Las Padres National Forest, where the guys put in 180 km and 4000 metres of climbing on their sixth and last hard day of training for the week.
Over the course of the week, the team puts in five or more hours a day on the bike, with each ride ending in the steep half-mile climb up to the house. They spend the rest of their days making the most of their host's Foosball table and staging pullup contests in the garage (team veteran Kai Applequist has won two-years running).
Seven days into camp, fun and games are over: the guys are exhausted, with legs covered in Spidertech tape, and ready to conquer the last climb out of camp. While they have had to ride the hill every day, most have been using the "paper boy" technique — riding zig-zag across the road to lessen the grade. Today, they go straight, trying to beat last year's record time of 3:14, set by Colombian sprinter Carlos Alzate Escobar.
The winner gets a $100 prize and the glory until next February, but for the past 24 hours, no one has claimed to be ready to win. When asked, each of the riders modestly puts his faith in a different teammate.
Alzate says Sam Johnson is going to win. Johnson looks to 2012 newcomers Serge Tszkov, a Moldovan national, or young talent Logan Loader, both of whom looked strong up the previous day's last 30-kilometre climb. Tszkov points to the 2006 Elite road race national champion Matt Cooke. In the back of everyone's mind is the veteran sprinting talent "Fast Freddie" Rodriguez, who joined the team mid-season last year and is training with a London Olympic berth in mind.
Rodriguez drew number one, so he is the first to crest the steepest part of the hill, as he hits the line where pavement turns to concrete, the clock stops and he immediately clips out, and almost falls over — it's too steep to stand up straight. Coming in at 3:34, he didn't break the record, but set a respectable standard for his teammates. As rider two comes into view, Rodriguez heads back down the hill, turns and starts riding up again with words of encouragement.
One by one they cross the line and sprawl out on the pavement. Fifteen minutes and as many pain faces later, everyone has finished and a new course record of 3:11, three seconds faster than last year's winner, has been set. The riders descend 50 meters to the host house, where Cooke is pulled up onto a cooler, handed a trophy pulled out of a dusty corner of the garage, and crowned 2012's King of the Training Camp Mountain. He lifts it up, celebrating the first victory of a promising new season.
To see a gallery of the week-long training camp click here.