Team Sky's winter training camp: A day with Chris Froome & Co in Spain
By Matt Westby
Last Updated: 12/02/16 11:14am
For a team who ride Pinarellos, wear Rapha and style themselves on trying to be the best in the business, it’s perhaps no surprise that Team Sky’s winter training base is pretty plush.
The Vanity Hotel Golf sits on the seafront overlooking the bay of Alcudia in Mallorca, just the odd jogger on the beach and sailboat in the shallows animating an otherwise idyllically peaceful view.
There are no guests in these winter months because Team Sky have block-booked the whole place out and effectively taken over, moving their mechanics' trucks into the car park, riders and staff into the rooms and chefs into the kitchens. There's even a blue strip across the glass façade on the street-facing side of the building carrying the words "Team Sky 2016".
Inside, the monitor above reception displays the following day's schedule (breakfast at 7.45am, team briefing at 8.45am, training at 9am, dinner at 8pm), while another screen close by goes into the "Daily Plan" in more detail and a third simply reads "Please use the hand gels".
As I wait to check in the evening before Team Sky's annual media day, Dutch rider Wout Poels walks past on his phone and, over by the lifts, I can pick out the tall, thin frame of Chris Froome chatting with a sponsor. In the bar, 2014 world champion Michal Kwiatkowski shares a laugh with fellow Pole Michal Golas.
It's dinner by the time I've greeted one or two familiar faces and dropped my bag in my room, so I wander down to the restaurant to find virtually all the riders and staff already seated and tucking into a buffet that is little short of gastro-utopia.
You expect professional bike riders to eat healthily, but the variety and quality of meats, pastas, vegetables, salads, sides and desserts laid out is in the next realm up from mouthwatering; far beyond the comprehension of an unschooled palette such as mine - put it that way.
The most surprising offering is a beefburger, which I decide to skip given we're riding in the morning, but which I later find a fellow journalist cutting open at my table. "Take a look at this," he boasts. "Not a drop of fat in it."
The riders don't hang around long after dinner, retreating to their spacious rooms to watch boxsets and the like, so the next time I see them is over breakfast, which, needless to say, is once again a salivating experience.
However, this morning is the second staging of Team Sky's yearly 'Media Race' (more of which to come), so I'm cautious not to overeat and instead stick to a couple of ladles of the team's home-made porridge.
All fuelled up, both the media and team disperse to get changed into cycling gear and then meet back in the bar half an hour later for our respective briefings.
The riders' version is a fascinating, albeit slightly mind-boggling experience. Tim Kerrison, the head of athletic performance, leads it and quickly dispels any presumptions that the team simply venture out in one big group and knock off 120km.
Rather, Kerrison splits the riders on the training camp up into sub-groups, each with different drills tailored to the riders' styles and needs. Today, Froome is joined by four others (mostly climbers), then there's a larger group of 10, and finally, Leopold Konig is on his own.
Kerrison talks through each group one by one, aided by PowerPoint slides carrying enough numbers to furrow even a maths professor's brow.
"Group one," he says, "you'll head north to Pollenca and then west towards Lluc and up Sa Calobra. On the climb, do 10-second bursts every 1km, alternating between in the saddle and out of the saddle."
After group two and Konig have been given their own separate instructions, the riders scatter and hit the road, at which point Sir Dave Brailsford takes the stage, bringing his hands together and breaking out into a devious grin.
"Right then, you lot," he says to the media, "we've got a team time trial for you guys."
Last year, Team Sky preceded their annual start-of-season media afternoon by pitting the assembled journalists together in a race up to a 'summit finish' on the nearby climb of Formentor.
After Brailsford, who came along supposedly as a chaperone, mugged us all by taking the win with a late attack - "I couldn't resist", he apparently said later - the emphasis this year was much less on the individual and more on the collective.
Brailsford introduces the race and then hands over to Rod Ellingworth, the team's head of performance operations, to talk us through intricacies of the TTT.
Each team is given a member of the Team Sky staff to set the pace on the road, ensuring wheels are kept close and effort remains maximal, and we are all provided with a team-spec Pinarello Dogma F8.
I've never fully appreciated what people are talking about when discussing the "stiffness" of bike frames, purely because I haven't ridden anything good enough to notice the difference, but the F8 is so rock solid and responsive that it makes my half-decent £1,500 carbon bike back home feel like it's made out of spaghetti. It's love at first ride.
Brailsford is clearly determined for his team to win, but after 8.5km of hugely enjoyable and exhausting racing over smooth-as-Silverstone road surfaces, they finish runners-up by about 20 seconds and the normally boisterous 'Boss' suddenly falls silent. Losing even friendly races like this obviously doesn't sit well.
We stop for coffee and cakes on the ride back to the hotel - a brief chance to bask in the 18C warmth - and are all re-gathered in the bar by 3pm ready for the interviews.
Needless to say with Team Sky, there is no media scrum to speak to riders; rather a carefully planned timetable has been drawn up and we simply have to sit and wait for them to come to us.
First up is Kwiatkowski, one of two marquee signings this winter. He is softly spoken and so quiet that it's difficult to hear him, but the gist is that he's targeting one-day races, one-week stage races, the Olympic Games road race and also an appearance at the Tour de France in 2016. "Just a light schedule, then, Michal?"
Next is Mikel Landa, this year's other big-name acquisition. Thankfully louder than Kwiatkowski, he speaks in good English with a crisp Basque twang and happily tells us about his plans to win the Giro d'Italia.
We ask him what has been the biggest difference between former team Astana and Team Sky so far and he confidently replies: "This. I have never seen this much media at another team. Also the little details - everyone is looking for marginal gains."
Then comes Froome, once shy but now so comfortable with the media that he spends the first couple of minutes interviewing us, rather than the other way around.
"So how did the race go?" he asks. "Who won? TTTs are tough, aren't they? How did you get on with the crosswinds?"
Our grilling over, we turn the spotlight back to him and, after a brief chat about being a new father, the main talk is of his ambition to win the Tour de France, Olympic road race and Olympic time trial.
He looks focused, determined and happy as he speaks, like a man perfectly in sync with his body and environment, and although he stops short of proclaiming "I can win the treble!", it's pretty clear that's what he is thinking.
After chatting for 30 minutes, Froome makes way for the ever-engaging Brailsford. He answers our questions readily but, as media-savvy as always, he has his own message to get across and starts talking almost unprompted about how the release of rider data should be made uniform across all teams in the UCI WorldTour, rather than it being left solely up to Team Sky.
An Italian journalist then does his level best to get Brailsford to say he wants Team Sky to be the FC Barcelona of cycling, but he politely dodges the comparison and says matching his beloved Derby County would be achievement enough.
With the bigger hitters done and dusted, the smaller-name riders filter down from their rooms for their own rounds of interviews.
Poels is bubbly and fun to talk to; the newly signed 21-year-old Briton Alex Peters is charmingly unnerved by the dictaphone being thrust into his face; Danny van Poppel speculates about what type of rider he could turn into; and Vasil Kiryienka looks every bit as rock hard as his reputation suggests (think Ivan Drago on wheels). As I sit opposite him, I can't help imagining that cutting open his chest would reveal nothing more than a motherboard and some wires, yet his words convey only warmth and affection for his team-mates.
After the last questions have been asked, with riders and writers equally weary from the marathon of interviews, everyone heads for dinner and another day at Team Sky's winter training camp begins to wind down.
Tomorrow Froome, Kwiatkowski, Landa and the rest of the squad will be back on their bikes for a more conventional day of preparation for 2016.
Having seen first-hand the wealth of talent in the team and the buoyant, determined mood the riders are in, it's difficult to envisage it being anything but a hugely successful year.