The notion that professional cycling might be suitable for anyone other than hardmen has been washed away by driving rain, blown clear by brutal crosswinds, and battered by hailstones that carpet the road surface like so many after dinner mints.
As I jump from a car brought rapidly to a halt by IG-Sigma Sport’s directeur sportif, Simon Howes, the wind nearly rips off the door. The temperature is some way below the balmy Balearic climes for which I had hoped and for which I am dressed, and the latest freezing shower has swept in. This is pre-season training on Mallorca, and it is time to begin lead-out drills.
The riders arrive moments later, already soaked by heavy showers on the short ride from the hotel, and battered by crosswinds. Howes gathers his troops and swiftly separates them into two groups, dividing in relatively equal number the ‘diesels’, lead out men, and speed merchants into two sprint trains who will perform consecutively over a two-kilometre strip.
Ian Goodhew, a coach with seven national championships to his credit, is tasked with marshaling the riders from a scooter, while Howes, team mechanic, Steve Davis, photographer, Paul Hayes-Watkins, and I drive behind, alongside, and in front of the speeding trains of riders, who, finding themselves suddenly on a drying road surface and beneath clear skies, attack the task with a desire seemingly alien to the weather-beaten group who had shivered on the barren landscape of a petrol station forecourt minutes earlier.
Ten minutes and three runs along the impromptu drag strip later, and the mood in the car is very, very buoyant. Little is said, but no-one is in any doubt about the significance of what they have witnessed. When riders reach speeds touching 80kmh, words are perhaps unnecessary.
Highlights include Joe Perrett, former European junior time trial champion, flat-backed and relentless, driving through the pedals, seemingly capable of destroying the machine beneath him; Andrew Griffiths, former British under-23 time trial champion, burying himself in a titanic turn; Pete Hawkins, out of the saddle and flying, and Ross Edgar, the track star turned road man, shorn of much of the bulk required of his former calling, but retaining still the sprinter’s outlandish thigh muscles, two pistons that force his bike to skitter and dance.
It has been a similar story in the first train, with Matt Cronshaw in the Edgar role, and 18-year-old Ryan Mullen, reigning Chrono des Nations junior time trial champion, doing a similar job to Perrett (Mullen’s desire for effort is seemingly insatiable: he capped a five-and-a-half hour training ride the previous day with a visit to the local velodrome, beating colleagues from the Irish junior track team in their kilo and pursuit training races before rejoining IG-Sigma Sport for dinner).
A further five hours in the saddle await the riders the following day, and Howes despatches his charges to the hotel, to shower, warm themselves, and relax ahead of another grueling day. Three of the senior riders, however, have other plans.
Hawkins is keen to make the most of his time on the island, and is joined by Wouter Sybrandy, riding again and riding strongly after a career-threatening crash on the final stage of last year’s Tour of Britain, and by James Moss, formerly of Endura Racing, and last year a member of the Malcolm Elliott-led Node4-Giordana squad. The three riders set off on the coast road, a winding loop of punishing but beautiful gradients. This is the Mallorca of the brochure: red earth, stone houses, and foliage by turn verdant and sun bleached. Far in the distance lies a shimmering blue sea on whose surface the much-delayed sunlight glints.
The trio ahead of the hire car, however, has little time to admire the scenery. The pace is steady, but unrelenting. Rain capes are taken on and off with a frequency demanded by the constantly changing conditions, and with a skill that marks the riders as bike handlers of impressive ability.
Hawkins dances up the climbs, while Moss opts for strength training, and a slower but more demanding progress necessitated by remaining stubbornly seated and in the big ring, grinding forwards in pursuit of his Dutch and Irish colleagues. On the descents, he is the fastest, or at least the most committed of the three, all of whom display a skill on their journey to the valley floor that belies the relatively flat conditions on which they ply their trade.
The groups are reunited at the lunch table: a large circle around which the easy and inclusive conversation suggests a group already cohered and among whom banter is the chosen mode of discourse. The team’s management and guests sit at the table adjacent, but there is nothing of the ‘them and us’ sentiment that might prevail among a team less at ease with itself, and with the future.
There will be tougher engagements ahead, but the 2013 incarnation of Team IG-Sigma Sport seems well placed to deal with them. Watch this space.