Behind the scenes at Team Dimension Data's training camp: riding under the South African sun
We join Mark Cavendish, Steve Cummings, Edvald Boasson Hagen and co on Dimension Data's pre-season training camp
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. First, we’re clipping in with the team under the South African sun.
It seems there are a lot of different perceptions about how pros ride, going by the questions I get asked after trips such as this one. Are they super-fast all the time, or do they ride steady and save themselves for the serious training efforts? Can they enjoy their riding or are they especially cautious to avoid accidents and injuries? Do they ever just do a chilled ride to a coffee shop?
Happily, over the course of a week riding with Dimension Data for Qhubeka in South Africa, I was able to discover the answers to all of those questions first hand.
Let’s start with the easy one - most pros love coffee and their recovery rides are as important as the savage interval sessions. Total rest days are rare because active recovery is more effective, so a barely-touching-the-pedals spin, maybe 16 or 17mph average, to a coffee shop is ideal to freshen the legs.
That’s exactly what Edvald Boasson Hagen has in mind to get the 17-hour flight from Oslo out of his legs on the first day, and he invites me to join him. After a few visits to Cape Town, many of the riders have favourite coffee shops. Boasson Hagen, a real connoisseur, seems to know all of them.
"After a few visits to Cape Town, many of the riders have favourite coffee shops. Edvald Boasson Hagen, a real connoisseur, seems to know all of them"
My Garmin has recorded exactly one mile when we stop at Shift Espresso on Main Road, with Signal Hill looming behind the buildings and the famous stadium between us and the South Atlantic Ocean in front. EBH orders a cappuccino and a bowl of yoghurt with granola; I have an espresso that proves entirely unnecessary for the easy two-hour ride that follows. My heart rate averages 116bpm so I doubt Boasson Hagen’s hit triple digits. We cruise, chat, and enjoy the sun.
It’s a different story the next day when the whole team heads out together for a photo and video session, with me and some other guests tagging along and trying to stay out of the way. The team rides in two neat lines for the cameras on the way out, then, with the shoot complete at the view point atop Chapman’s Peak, the riders from one of the world’s most successful teams turn into a bunch of juniors and race each other back down. A little later, as the regrouped bunch rolls away from the last set of lights out of Hout Bay, we’re suddenly strung out into the climb.
"I bet that's Cav," says a voice behind me. Mark Renshaw’s, I think. I figure he’s joking; Mark Cavendish hates hill, no? With a big effort, I get up near the front and, sure enough, it's the Manxman, the sprinter, who is driving the pace and shelling first all the staff and then a fair few of his team-mates who don't feel like going that deep today, and all for mischief’s sake.
"It’s good to see that top-level professionals still love being on their bikes, playing about, and trying to rip each other’s legs off"
On the other hand, I'm in 'death before dropped' mode. I'm on the wheel of British champion Steve Cummings and that's too special a thing to give up. By the top, I'm absolutely on my limit but still with them and grinning. I can see the guys ahead are working hard, though I suspect that they could do this over and over. It’s good to see that top-level professionals still love being on their bikes, playing about, and trying to rip each other’s legs off.
The dial is turned up another notch the day after when I join Lachlan Morton, Scott Thwaites and directeur sportif Roger Hammond on a ride. It starts casually enough but 40 minutes in, as we reach the foot of Chapman’s Peak, with Thwaites and myself on the front, the Yorkshireman accelerates purposefully and without warning. I'd been careful not to half-wheel him so this isn't a slap down, I think he simply wants to test his legs, and maybe mine, too.
I like to think I’m in good shape, possibly the best form of my riding career, and I resolve to stay alongside him for as long as I can but he keeps ratcheting up the power, just like a ramp test. In the last couple of kilometres I have to relent and get on his wheel, heart rate at aerobic max, but I survive to the end of the 11-minute climb. I'm surprised. He is, too, having hit 200bpm and held 450-500W for the last third. I may have clung on, but he was doing far more work. What’s more, after we have regrouped and rolled back down, Thwaites loops back for another go. That’s the real difference, the capacity of pros to repeat big efforts and to produce that power after 200km. A one-off blast up a hill from fresh flatters the amateur.
There’s a bit more pain to come, though, as Lachlan introduces us to the steep climb of The Glen. Despite being just a couple of days back into training after his post-season break, the Australian climber makes short work of the 10% grades. “This is a nice pace," he says, around halfway up. “Okay," I gasp, glancing at his computer. It says 350W. That’s ‘nice’ to a pro.
Lachlan is another coffee fiend. His favourite shop is closed so he takes us to his back-up option. It has a relaxed, off-the-wall feel that suits the Australian perfectly. There are too many people smoking for my liking but the soya flat white is undeniable. We chat about his unusual journey through the sport (“I won a junior title while on holiday in America and got on the Garmin development squad"), to life on this team (“It has a great vibe, it's quite chilled"), and his Grand Tour debut (“So hard. You're just super tired. It feels like you've only had three hours’ sleep even if you've had nine"). Sufficiently revived to negotiate Cape Town’s hectic streets, we roll back to the hotel.
So far, each of these rides has followed an identical route down the M6 coast road, over the Suikerbossie ridge and down into the town of Hout Bay, and then up the deceptively hard drag to Chapman’s Peak, overlooking the bay itself. To head in any other direction from the city centre would mean miles of urban sprawl and the traffic is too unpleasant for that. Thankfully, what Cape Town lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality – this is a stunning road, with fun, writhing descents, and climbs that can be made to hurt or cruised as you please. And the views are incredible. There’s no chance of getting bored in a week.
"What Cape Town lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality – this is a stunning road, with fun, writhing descents, and climbs that can be made to hurt or cruised as you please"
Even so, on the Wednesday, while the riders are all having their medicals, I take the chance to get in a longer ride, all the way down to the Cape of Good Hope. It’s an intensely South African experience. Approaching Noordhoek, into uncharted territory after the week’s earlier rides, I briefly ride and chat with a local rider in Dimension Data kit who tells me he’d raced for the development team for a year. A few minutes later I meet another rider, who turns out to be Mark Cheyne, the composer of the Qhubeka charity’s song, Qubaquba, who is at the camp as a special guest. As we pedal, he tells me how the song came about.
“I’m a music producer, writing jingles and songs for corporations, and a fan of the team," he says. “I had this idea for a Qhubeka song. A friend of mine had (Qhubeka founder) Anthony Fitzhenry’s number and when I called him on a Monday he said he had chills because it was on his job list for that day to look into a song. When I played him a demo, he teared up. The song is in Zulu and Qubaquba means ‘pedal pedal’, an encouragement, just like ‘Allez!’ in French."
When our routes diverge, it’s just me and my bike. Appropriately, I’m riding a Swift Ultravox TI, loaned to me by friend and Swift founder Mark Blewett. The South African former pro rode 10,600km from Cairo to Cape Town in 2015, taking just 38 days and smashing the previous record.
The most direct route to the Cape takes me across to the east coast of the peninsula, where the wind gets even stronger. It’s a hard slog down the coast, up into the pretty Table Mountain National Park, and then down the increasingly exposed road to the tip, the sea close on both sides now.
The Cape of Good Hope itself is something of an anti-climax. There’s nothing there except for a sign proclaiming it as the continent’s most south-westerly point, a slightly tenuous sounding claim to fame, because while it’s Africa’s most famous extremity, it isn’t the southern tip. I’d been hoping for a gift shop to buy a can of Coke and a postcard.
As I turn north for Cape Town, progress is brisk with the wind finally at my back, though it’s also blowing in great, dark walls of rain. They’re visible from miles away, giving me time to don my gilet and brace myself for another soaking.
Nearing home, the skies clear once more. At an intersection I stop next to a school bus packed with kids singing their hearts out in a traditional harmony. It might be the most joyful thing I’ve ever heard. That’s South Africa right there: it’s been through some dark times and it’s hoping for a brighter tomorrow.
Indeed, South Africa may provide beautiful training roads and (rain showers aside) the opportunity to escape the northern European winter, but that's not the only reason the team returns to its homeland each year. Dimension Data's riders speak with genuine affection for the Qhubeka charity, the work it does in South Africa and its tie-in with the team, and after my ride to the Cape and back it is easy to see how they find such inspiration.
To donate to the charity, visit Qhubeka.org