At the end of 2017, we were given behind-the-scenes access to Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka’s first off-season training camp in Cape Town, South Africa. Now we’re sharing this rare access with you through a series of four features, providing an insight into the team’s preparations for the season, from riding with the squad and social media training, to medical check-ups and the arrival of new kit. You can read part one here, when we joined Africa's Team on the roads of Cape Town, or read on for part two.
Professional cycling is a profoundly demanding occupation. The point was reinforced once more, during one of the team meetings we were joined at the Dimension Data for Qhubeka training camp in Cape Town, South Africa, late last year. The riders were reminded of their expected training volume: 80-100hrs per month; 28,000km (17,400 miles) per year. Minimum. None of them so much as batted an eyelid at those numbers.
In asking so much of their athletes, the team assumes a great duty of care for their health and wellbeing. That’s a responsibility Dimension Data for Qhubeka takes extremely seriously and it was no coincidence the presentation moved directly from the vast training load to the team’s new health and wellness mobile app.
It’s called Phila (pee-lah), which means ‘to live’ in Nguni, and it was developed for the team by Dimension Data. It gathers information on daily physical and mental well-being information, shares it with the coaching and medical team, and correlates it with data from TrainingPeaks. Riders tell the app how long and well they slept, and rate their mood, motivation and stress levels.
The latter appears to be rising as the app is explained; it looks a bit time consuming and several riders pipe up to say so, with others muttering agreement. The staff are on the spot and Rolf Aldag steps forward to run a demo with Edvald Boasson Hagen, asking him each question and entering his response. It takes around 90 seconds, and it would no doubt be significantly faster to fill in for yourself and once used to it. The dissent dissipates.
"Our goal was to keep the questions to a minimum, but extract the maximum data to identify any factors that could jeopardise our riders’ ability to train"
The team’s head of performance sport and medical chief, Dr Carol Austin, explains: “Our goal was to keep the questions to a minimum, but extract the maximum data to identify any factors that could jeopardise our riders’ ability to train."
Alongside ensuring every rider is in direct contact with team staff every day, the data is also recorded for analysis and referencing against training and racing information. The hope is any patterns identified will lead to greater learning and, ultimately, improved performance.
There’s a suggestion one or two riders might feel inclined to troll the app by telling it they feel unbearably tired, miserable and stressed, just to see what happens. One Mark Cavendish is singled out as a likely mischief maker. Well, if he wasn’t going to try it before, he will now.
The other side to rider care at a team camp is almost entirely empirical and also compulsory under UCI regulations for WorldTour and ProContinental teams.
The Wednesday of the camp is given over to a series of medical tests mandated by the UCI to be carried out either annually or bi-annually. The programme consists of a 24-point blood test, a stress electrocardiogram on a treadmill, an eyesight test, a lung-function test and a sports medicine interview.
In addition, Team Dimension Data carries out its own musculo-skeletal [MSK] and body composition assessments, the latter using a combination of electro-analysis and traditional fat-pinching calipers.
At this November camp the riders aren’t held to such high expectations as they will be come January, let alone the build-up to a Grand Tour, but nor can they afford to leave themselves too much work to do. No matter, they’re professionals and all look ready to race. Besides, it’s an exercise in data gathering not fat shaming.
We spoke to some of the riders to get their feelings on the tests, and quickly found a pattern.
“The cardiology caught some of us off guard," Scott Davies admits, the Welsh neo-pro being one of the newest riders on the Team Dimension Data roster. “Very few of us ever do any running, so it can be hard to get your heart rate up on a treadmill. The perceived exertion is way higher."
"They said it was an eight-minute test. I told them I’d get my heart rate up in five minutes. I got to 160bpm and told them I was done"
The team used the nearby Life Vincent Pallotti Hospital for most of the tests and a treadmill is standard practice. Veteran lead-out man Mark Renshaw was particularly unimpressed at being made to run.
“They said it was an eight-minute test. I told them I’d get my heart rate up in five minutes. I got to 160bpm and told them I was done," laughs the Australian.
For Davies, it was more of a new experience but still far from daunting. By the time a rider becomes a neo-pro on a WorldTour team, he has already been cycling at a very high level for years and Davies says he’d undergone some of the tests previously as part of the British Cycling Academy.
While the treadmill itself may have been a surprise, the Brit adds: “The cardio stress test was good to do because you hear about guys having to retire from heart problems even late in their career.
“It’s all routine. They’re just gathering data so it doesn’t feel like a test you have to pass."
There were some pleasant surprises, too. “The optometry was far more straightforward than I expected. It was one test, in and out in five minutes. And the MSK – you just lay down for five minutes and get scanned."
The musculo-skeletal scan is of more importance to riders with injuries, such as Ryan Gibbons, who crashed hard on stage one of the Tour of Guangxi in October, injuring a shoulder just three weeks before the camp. For Gibbons, the scan is a chance to see how his injury is healing and set a reference point for its progress.
The health monitoring programme reveals a lot about life on a WorldTour team. The riders have to dedicate their bodies to cycling, to the team, and push themselves to extremes. In return, their well-being, mental as well as physical, is monitored and cared for to an equal extreme.
The most cold-hearted might argue any team is simply protecting its assets but there’s more to it than that. It’s about striving for a shared goal and leaving no stone unturned in its pursuit.
To donate to the Qhubeka charity, visit Qhubeka.org