Recent British successes in competitive cycling, including eight gold medals at the 2012 London Olympics and two successive winners of the Tour de France, have pushed cycling to the forefront of British sport. This has raised awareness and interest to unknown heights and spawned a multitude of cycling clubs across the length and breadth of the British Isles.
With some 1500 registered clubs and an active membership of between 15,000 and 20,000 there is an unprecedented level of road cycling training taking place on a daily basis. However, British cyclists face three major drawbacks that limit their competitiveness.
Firstly, road conditions for cyclists are not ideal. A crowded and congested road system means dangerous conditions for clubs and teams who need to train regularly, in addition most UK roads do not have any sort of a hard shoulder thus further exposing cyclists to accidents caused by impatient and inconsiderate drivers. Another limiting factor is road surface quality, budget restrictions and winter freeze thaw take their toll on the tarmac with potholes, loose gravel and uneven surfacing common hazards faced by all cyclists, but for those on competitive training programmes it poses a particularly high risk of injury.
Secondly, the climate represents a major limiting factor. Apart from the risks caused by poor visibility in wet or foggy conditions, low ambient temperatures during the autumn, winter and spring increase the risk of injuries to cold muscles, ligaments and joints and thus the chance of losing valuable pre-racing season training. Another limiting factor is the short daylength from October through to March which restricts many cyclists with fulltime jobs to weekend training.
Thirdly, the lowland nature of much of the British Isles means the almost complete absence of any decent challenging category climbs. Success in headline competitive road races like the Tour de France or the Vuelta de España requires hard training for the demanding climbs these sorts of races include, the success of Chris Froome and Team Sky in the 2013 Tour de France is in large part due to their training programme: by practising sprints once they had completed a long climb their muscles were pre-programmed to make the extra effort when everybody else's legs were tiring.
So what can teams and clubs do to compensate for the inherent disadvantages of training in the UK? The solution taken by the Pro-teams is to install themselves somewhere in southern Europe where road conditions, climate and geography allow them to prepare adequately for the racing season.
One of the favourite destinations on the Continent is Spain. Its varied geography, Mediterranean climate and new road system means there are cycling training camps all over country from Catalonia and the Basque Country in the north down to Andalusia in the south. However, the north tends to be wetter and colder while the south tends to be much hotter during the training months, so top of the list are the Balearic Islands and the Costa Blanca in the Valencian Region as they combine all of the necessary conditions for Pro-teams to prepare for the coming racing season.
Both areas are relatively close to each other and therefore benefit from similar climates, however the Balearics have two principal disadvantages. Firstly being surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea the climate tends to be wetter during the winter and spring so increasing the chance of training being rained off. Secondly, meals and accommodation are more expensive due to the extra transportation costs. This may not be so important for Pro-teams with sponsors but for cycling clubs on limited budgets it is. So for clubs the ideal choice is the area inland from the Costa Blanca, known as Las Marinas, which combines the factors of cost, climate, geography and road conditions they require.
Traditionally teams have stayed in the larger coastal conurbations like San Juan, Javea, Calpe and Denia where they typically lodge in four star hotels with all of the trimmings, but which lack in character and require transits of the busier coast roads before being able to get up into the mountains and valleys away from the traffic. However, improvements in the transport system means cycling clubs can locate in the heart of the Las Marinas region in towns and villages like Tarbena and Callosa d'en Sarriá, with resulting cost savings and direct access to the quieter inland roads.
So apart from the training conditions what sort of support services can cycling teams and clubs expect from their training camp?. Long gone are the days when you had to worry about whether tap water was safe to drink, with some 60 million visitors annually modern Spain offers quality services at competitive rates.
Comfortable accommodation and excellent catering standards are par for the course, but cyclists can also expect alu-carbon bicycle hire, energy gels, physiotherapists, safe lock-up facilities and airport transfers for both riders and their bicycles all included in their training camp package. Plus, once the day's training is done there are plenty of bars for an enjoyable social evening out. Some camps are large enough to accommodate friends and family too so combining a holiday in the sunshine with the training.
Whichever venue is chosen as a base to train from, the Costa Blanca combines all of the features necessary to get the most out of the training programme, maximise competitiveness for the next racing season and enjoy a few days of fun and sunshine.
One of the issues facing British teams and clubs is where to find winter and spring cycling training camps to prepare adequately for the coming season. The author runs the Costa Blanca Cycling Camp in Spain and considers the pros and cons of the most popular destinations for winter cycling training camps.