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Pre-season in a pandemic: How teams are preparing for 2021

Deceuninck-QuickStep
Deceuninck-QuickStep will begin a 10-day training camp in Spain on December 7 (Image credit: Getty Images)

The 2020 season was like no other, and the consequences of the global coronavirus pandemic will continue to affect the 2021 racing season, with teams opting for more protective winter-training plans, more team bubbles and a flexible, pragmatic approach to the early season racing.  

Team Sunweb will be the first to hold their virtual team presentation on Friday, and Deceuninck-QuickStep will head to Altea in Spain on Monday, December 7 for a 10-day training camp, but most other teams have opted for a more low-key, stay-at-home approach to 2021, with most only gathering for COVID-safe January training camps. 

Some, including EF Pro Cycling, Trek-Segfredo, Groupama-FDJ and Movistar, have yet to put plans in place even for a January camp.

Cyclingnews understands that Ineos Grenadiers will gather in Gran Canaria in January, opting for the Canary Islands due to the warmer weather and especially the low number of COVID-19 cases there. Chris Froome will travel to Israel to join his new Israel Start-Up Nation teammates, while Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar and his UAE Team Emirates squad are due to travel to the Middle East for a get-together and training camp in January.

"It was a stressful and long season for everyone involved, and so I think most teams have taken a more gradual and protected approach to 2021," Mitchelton-Scott team manager Brent Copeland told Cyclingnews.

"The loss of the Tour Down Under changed most teams’ plans, and especially for us because it was always a major goal. We should have left Europe on January 2 to train in a quarantine bubble and then race. Now our January will be very different, giving the riders more time to train and teams more time to prepare for the season ahead."

De-training and travelling home

Most riders enjoyed a well-deserved off-season in November after riding the Classics deep into October, with the Giro d'Italia running until October 25 and the Vuelta a España not finishing until November 8.  

The spring lockdown and the rescheduled calendar meant that riders raced on average 20 days fewer than in recent seasons, but many spent most of March and April in lockdown or racing virtually before training camps in June and July, and then intense racing in the subsequent packed four-month calendar. They were physically and mentally tired. 

Trek-Segafredo revealed that their riders were encouraged to 'de-train' during November, with no pressure to jump back into intense training due to the first races now scheduled for late January or early February. 

Travel limitations meant that riders were unable to journey to exotic destinations for a sunny holiday. A few headed to Dubai, but most were happy to stay at home, relax, go hiking or, at the most, do a few mountain bike rides. Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) had a long spell with his family in Slovakia, while Giro d'Italia winner Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers) enjoyed three weeks at home in London, catching up with family and friends. 

Most of the American riders travelled home to Colombia, Argentina, Canada and the US. A number of Australian and New Zealand riders headed south, too, but others opted to stay in their European homes, with some about to face their first winter in Andorra or Monaco.  

"We felt it was only right that some riders travelled home for the winter. They deserve it," Copeland said. "The riders in the Southern Hemisphere will ride their national championships and the national-level events that will replace the Tour Down Under, if they go ahead."  

The Australian riders faced 14 days in quarantine in a hotel on their return home, and have to pay the costs, but consider it worthwhile to enjoy the Southern Hemisphere summer.

Pre-season testing in bubbles

In Europe, riders are now gradually getting back into training at home, while team management and staff are busy preparing for 2021, completing UCI registrations, building new bikes, and preparing for nine months on the road. 

Winter get-togethers and December training camps usually provide an opportunity for riders to get a bike fitting and set up all their new equipment, as well as undergoing medical checks, including heart screenings and eye tests. There are also meetings with team management to finalise goals and race schedules, along with media training, dietary advice and photo shoots. The first camp is particularly important for new signings, but also for when teams have had sponsorship changes. 

Much of this work is being done online this winter or in small groups to limit the risk of COVID-19 contagion. 

The Mitchelton-Scott riders have undergone medical checks in groups of six in Turin, Italy, on different weekends and also talked in person to performance staff and directeurs sportifs about their 2021 goals and race programmes. 

"The winter will be different this year, but most of the riders and staff will come together for a training camp in Spain in January," Copeland explained. "There'll be 70 or so riders and staff, and we'll form another protective bubble."

Jumbo-Visma and Lotto Soudal have already begun the preparation process at their services courses in the Netherlands and Belgium, respectively, with more riders to pass through as the month progresses. Jumbo's Wout van Aert has already collected and tested his new Cervélo race bike before diving into his cyclo-cross campaign. In the case of Lotto Soudal, their Belgian riders have all been in, with the foreign riders to arrive around the middle of the month. 

AG2R La Mondiale are inviting riders to their service course in Annecy near the French Alps over a week in mid-December. The riders will arrive and leave in small batches, ahead of a proper training camp in south east Spain in early January. 

Groupama-FDJ are doing the same later this month, with riders in each group staying for two days, while Astana are bringing their plans to the riders, according to where they're based. Bora-Hansgrohe are due to gather in Germany in December for a few days, but their training will turn serious in January at a get-together near Lake Garda. 

Lotto Soudal are even taking the bubble system into their training camp proper in south-east Spain from January 8, resurrecting the system they used for training and racing when the season resumed this summer. 

The team will be divided into three groups, loosely along the lines of sprinters, Classics riders and climbers. All three bubbles will head to the same area in Spain and will stay and ride separately from each other, with the aim of minimising contacts and mitigating the potential knock-on consequences of any COVID-19 infection.

January and the season ahead

While some teams have deemed it still too early to plan a January camp, and will only look at the matter in the coming week or two, the majority of WorldTour teams have plans in place for full-scale camps during January. Given the cancellation of the Tour Down Under, these are stretching further into January than usual.

Jumbo-Visma's and Sunweb's main camp will take place in the second half of January in south-east Spain, while Astana will be in the same region from January 8-21.

All the major riders and teams will come face-to-face at the start of the European season, while a few, perhaps including Sagan, Remco Evenepoel or Julian Alaphilippe, will ride the Vuelta a San Juan in Argentina between January 24-31.   

The revised Clàssica Comunitat Valenciana 1969 is scheduled for January 24, and so kicks off the European season, with other teams heading to the Challenge Mallorca series from January 28-31 or the Grand Prix Cycliste la Marseillaise on January 31, and then the Etoile de Bessèges between February 3-7.

Other races continue in February, with the UAE Tour due to start the WorldTour calendar from February 21-27.

"There's no Tour Down Under, but we're planning and working as if the 2021 season will go ahead normally, with the early races in Europe, and then the Classics and the Grand Tours," said Copeland. 

"We'll then adapt and change as necessary depending on the COVID-19 virus and any restrictions."