It’s off to altitude again but this time I’m leaving the country with excitement and not the dread from the previous altitude camp back in December. As a team we are heading to South Africa for 17 days, aiming to find some winter sun. This is the only cross-training cycling camp we go on in the year and is meant to provide us with some time away from the pressures and strains that sitting in the rowing position gives us. Instead, the bike gives us even more pressures and strains in places we are not used to, but on the journey out there I’m happy.
We stay three hours outside Johannesburg at the amazing Crickley Hackle lodge in the small tourist town of Dullstroom. It is a mid-way point for tourists heading to the surrounding national parks and has many more miles for cycling in the surrounding country side than we could ever need! Over the years we have moved from road bikes to mountain bikes, which are more suitable for our ungainly 100kg bodies. We tended to build up a little too much speed on the down hills than is safe for our inadequate cycling skills, so a move to mountain bikes was deemed the sensible option. For us it is all about the training on the bikes, not the performance, so we head out each day and turn either left or right out of the hotel depending on the coach’s mood. The ‘left’ route is fairly flat, undulating gently with the countryside, whereas the ‘right’ is painful within 30 seconds of leaving and undulates heavily with the surrounding hills. Every day we pray for the left route but our prayers are rarely met and out of 14 rides, only three are the flatter left route. We ride out each day with the support vehicles behind warning the unpredictable African traffic to give us a wide berth, safety is the priority here especially this Olympic year. No one can afford to have an accident with risk of missing out on the Olympic Games and I take that threat very seriously. I ride with care, sitting a little further behind the back wheel of the man in front than I would normally and reducing my speed on the down hills yet still maintain good, consistent training speeds and get the benefit from each session.
The weight sessions are every other day and conducted in a small gym in the town that has just enough weight for us to complete the lifts we need. This training camp is largely focused on the aerobic side and weights here are used to maintain the strength we have gained from the heavy sessions completed back home. Nevertheless I still finish each weights session feeling strained and empty with no idea how I could get on the ergo later that day.
As usual the ergo sessions are tough. The 30 degree heat and the altitude make adapting to the activity a horrendous experience. The incredibly helpful, friendly hotel staff have allowed us to fill their conference room with 15 ergos but I’m not convinced they knew what was coming when they agreed to it. The air conditioning and three fans provided do little to cool down the room when 15 men are sweating heavily for 80 minutes and the bed sheets laid under each erg to catch the sweat are sodden within seconds. My approach is to use this extreme discomfort as a challenge, to push my body and mind through the pain, which I find makes each session that little more rewarding. I make sure I never complain or even mention the heat to anyone. I keep my scores consistent and gradually, as I start to adapt I push them on, improving as the days pass. I have learnt these are the things that chief coach Jürgen Grobler notices and this is what is going to get me to the start line of the Olympics. Despite the discomfort this is certainly one of the best camps of the year, and through sweat and blurred vision I make sure I enjoy where I am and what I’m doing.