The rain in Spain stays mainly in... Calpe: riding with An Post-Chain Reaction
Braving the unseasonal weather to join Sean Kelly and An Post-Chain Reaction for pre-season training in Calpe
Winter training camps are a mainstay of early-season preparation for pro cycling teams: an opportunity for new team-mates to mingle and get to know each other, a first official invite for the media to meet the new intakes (and vice-versa), an opportunity for benchmark performance testing to take place and, of course, vitally important training sessions that will shape a rider’s condition for at least the forthcoming couple of months.
Many pro teams have made island destinations their first choice – Tenerife and Majorca the two most popular – while others take selections of their squads to South Africa or even Australia, where the WorldTour gets underway with the Tour Down Under and Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race.
Others, however, prefer the Spanish resort of Calpe. Given the year-round decent weather, access to flat and hilly terrain in an area just south of Valencia, as well as a fully-developed tourist industry that’s ready-made for visitors, it’s become one of the go-to spots for teams to take their riders.
While most of Calpe is an out-of-season ghost town, with the summer tourist hordes some months away, our hosts for our flying visit, An Post- Chain Reaction, are joined by WorldTour big players Katusha-Alpecin and Dimension Data, ProContinental teams Direct-Energie and CCC-Sprandi-Polkewice, and the Team Sunweb women’s squad at the same hotel. With the likes of Team Novo-Nordisk milling about nearby too, this is a time when vast swathes of the peloton comes together to put their preparations for the season in place.
Of course, visiting a training camp hotbed like Calpe requires exploration, so I tacked onto the back of a ride-out with the An Post-Chain Reaction team, led by Irishman and team overseer Sean Kelly, to see what all the fuss was about.
Fable of winter sun
At the official launch of the team, the most experienced rider on the squad (and the only rider over 23 years old - he’s 32), Damien Shaw, is shown on a video reel, pointing out how perfect the location is for the team’s first training camp of the year – great roads, lovely scenery, and above all else, ‘guaranteed sunshine’. Guaranteed, with a capital G.
Well, this is January, and in January precious little can be guaranteed. His pre-recorded claim, incidentally played after our ride-out, brings mirthful laughter from the rows of journalists and team guests – one quick glance outside puts paid to his claim immediately, even to those who didn’t ride.
On arrival the previous day, greeted with glorious sunshine, a steady breeze and 18 degrees on the thermometer, the mood was optimistic.
On waking the next day, the predictability of the notoriously steady southern Spanish weather had deserted the resort of Calpe and the surrounding area.
Heavy rain, three degrees (yes, three), and gusty winds had descended upon the camp, and ride were hastily delayed until the afternoon, when the conditions were scheduled to at least calm down, if not warm up a whole lot.
Still, Shaw’s false promise notwithstanding, the ride goes ahead after lunch. In fact, it’s a rest day for the An Post-Chain Reaction team, with the riders joining us for a very steady roll up one of the local climbs, as part of their obligations to their sponsors, and to us. Everyone’s in a chipper mood, and why not?
Apart from many of the team making the rookie mistake of forgetting their winter gloves – cue much micky-taking on the way up – everyone’s in good voice, with renditions of J-Lo’s ‘Jenny from the Block’ emanating from the riders in time (if not in tune) with a portable speaker German Jonas Bokeloh has brought with him.
Kelly takes the front – he didn’t forget his gloves, for the record – with the team in tow, and general manager Kurt Bogaerts calls the shots as he brings riders forward for their picture with the great man as we rise up a local climb.
As my poor luck would have it, mechanical woes struck me at my moment so I missed my opportunity while I chased back on. It’s clear they want to keep time on the road to a minimum on this, their rest day; the rain comes and goes, hands and feet are already numb with cold – and so once at the top, the team turn back and head back to the hotel, obligations fulfilled.
Exploring the coast
I and a small group of five riders wait behind – a satisfyingly diverse mix of English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh and a Frenchman – and decide to add a few extra kilometres to our ride. At the base of the hill, we turn left to continue north along the coastline, and see what the area really has to offer.
In short, with billiard-smooth roads and gently rolling terrain, the Spanish roads are a joy to ride. Aboard my Vitus Vitesse Evo VRi bike (now fixed – a simple seatpost clamp tighten and adjustment of the Shimano Ultegra Di2 indexing all that was necessary back on the climb), the going is smooth, with speed remarkably easy to maintain with next-to-no rolling resistance, even on the damp roads.
Sweeping, cambered curves and gently rolling terrain is the order of the day, with extra care taken on the smooth asphalt in its current condition: cold, wet roads giving up the oils of years of traffic.
It makes fully testing the bike, roads and legs an impossibility on this day. Instead, views of the small picturesque and still distinctly orange and yellow-hued surroundings, with hibernating tourist traps around every corner, dominate the experience.
It’s an odd place, Calpe. Clearly it shows its best side when the weather is brighter, but the low traffic levels at this time of year, coupled with the (usually) mild conditions make for an enticing road riding experience – but the impact of tourism is obvious.
High-rise hotels (ours, which is housing six teams as well as a plethora of their guests), dominate the skyline, and it’s only when you head inland that you’re able to really escape their grip.
We turn off the coast road, and make our way towards the town of Benitachell on our way to Xabía, where we plan to use one of the many roundabouts that make up Spain’s general roadway lattice, make a u-turn and roll back. By now, the cold is really starting to tell, so we’re looking forward to a warm shower when we return.
But inland the scenery offers something different. Jagged peaks dominate the horizon, and the roads become more rolling as we crest each rise.
Small towns and villages pass by, most of them deathly quiet in the winter off-season, while traffic is so sparse, even at this middle part of the day, that most roundabouts can be ridden without stopping, with open views of the tributary roads providing more than enough warning of an approaching vehicle.
The smooth surface and open roadways allow you to simply get on with your ride, rather than stopping every few minutes for a frustrating wait at a set of traffic lights.
The Vitus bike is impressing, too. No, I can’t pass a fully-qualified judgement on the new Vitesse Evo’s abilities in the space of one ride, in a position that isn’t fully dialled-in on a cold and wet winter’s day, but the first impressions are that it’s a fully capable machine, able to gather speed effectively as well as maintain it, remaining steady and predictable in the bends, with sharp, race-ready steering part of the bike’s overall character.
It’s been a worthy companion on these Spanish roads, and we shall look forward to a full test in the UK in the near future.
It's time to head home, so we put our heads down and put a spurt on. Our multi-national group has enjoyed the ride – no question – but we’re ready to return, cursing our luck that the one day we had to enjoy the scenery, it was largely blotted out by unseasonably poor weather (for Spain, at any rate).
We’ve been steadily climbing for the most part on the way out, so returning with a bit of false flat descending and hint of a tailwind is a chance to get some speed up, especially as our optimistic kit choices (the lack of shoe covers and full-fingered gloves the most prevalent issues among our motley crew) had proven to be just that.
Winding back towards the coast and along the seafront gives us a chance to retrace our steps, while at the same time giving a different view of the surroundings.
The rain has abated, but the peaks on one or two of the surrounding hills are covered in a smattering of snow, indicating just how nippy the overall ride had been, and absolving the An Post-Chain Reaction management of any blame in ditching us so early – to be honest, on my well-earned rest day, I’d have probably done the same.
It becomes apparent also that the bike beneath me is starting to bare its teeth too. The roads a little grippier this late on in the afternoon, if still damp.
But, with my understanding of the chassis a little more comprehensive given a couple of hours on it, I’m beginning to trust the Mavic Ksyrium WTS wheel-tyre setup a little more, tilting the bike into a bend or two.
Admittedly still not uncorking its full potential, I can definitely see why Sean Kelly’s history with the Vitus name, now owned by the Chain Reaction retailer, is not the only reason it’s used by the team.
It’s a quality build, no question, and particularly striking in the bright red colourway of my Ultegra Di2 version.
At last, we roll back into town, arriving at the hotel ready for the official team presentation and Shaw’s pre-recorded unfortunate ‘faux-pas’ statement regarding the weather.
In reality, we know he’s right, generally speaking – why else would so many teams favour this part of the world for their training camps?
In the off-season, it’s got all the ingredients they need to carry out their all-important training and testing, while the area itself has plenty of spare capacity for them, and more.
Now, if I could just cut a deal with the weather gods for my next visit, all will be fine.