During my 14 hour drive to Athens, Georgia, from New Jersey on Monday, I started thinking a lot about cyclists who go South for the winter for training. As the hours ticked away and I realized I wouldn’t be riding at all that day (or the day before, because of packing/trip prep craziness), I started wondering: was the three weeks I’d be spending in Athens worth the 30 hours of driving and at least three days of missed training? My answer is a whole-hearted yes, for reasons I’ll get to in this article; but for a lot of people, is it really worth the stress of traveling?
Our lovely editor here at Embrocation, Nathaniel Ward, and I had been tossing this concept around a bit in a flurry of emails the week before, because, as he pointed out, New England is pretty divided. Some stand by cross-training, indoor rides, and straight up riding in the cold. Others seek warmer climates. The results are mixed, and there’s no clear “right method” for training for road season, as anyone who’s ever tried can tell you. But still: for most people, travel means time, money and energy, so is it ever worth it?
For a lucky handful, like pros and people like myself who secretly (OK, not so secretly) want to be pro, and work from home and are currently sans lease until March 1, going away for the winter makes sense. Wow, those are specialized circumstances!
In my case, I don’t mind training in the cold in New England. I’ve always done it and never had a problem, other than when driven indoors from blizzard-like conditions. This is the first year I’ve seriously started thinking about road racing though, and after a long cyclocross season, both racing and reporting for Cyclocross Magazine, I was “cracked,” as my co-editor likes to say. Having an escape for February, even if I’m still punching a clock, means leaving behind the day-to-day stuff I let get in the way of long rides, and provides a distraction-free mental break from my “real life” that I desperately needed. Plus, if you drive half a day and commit to staying somewhere for three weeks with the express purpose of training, you damn well better take advantage of it.
So sure, I’ll get the quality miles that I may not have squeezed in if I’d stayed in New England. (OK, I know I wouldn’t have gotten them in.) But it’s not really about the weather, it’s about the mental outlook for me. In Athens, I’m a bike racer with a job on the side. Back home, I’m an editor trying to be a bike racer. There’s a huge difference in how I feel when I wake up in the morning here compared to at home. I’m not thinking about work right away (or wanting to hit snooze 17 times.) I’m psyched to get up because I’m riding like it’s my job; because for the next three weeks, it is.
And of course, besides the pros and freelancers, there are the people looking to try their hand at reaching the next level of cycling and choosing to spend some serious time in warmer climates focusing on training. Case-in-point is my friend Donny Green.
“My situation is a bit special. I was presented with the chance to make a big change in my life, leave my job of four years, and move to new town. I needed some sort of change, but the driving force behind all of this was the serious pursuit of bike racing.”
He elaborates: “So I decided that the best way to train during the winter months was to travel to somewhere warm, and for me that’s Tucson. By doing that I knew I would be able to focus completely on my training with few distractions. As far as it helping, I’m almost three weeks in and I’ve been able to get in more quality training hours than ever before in my life. The biggest factors contributing to my quality of training are the weather—sunny and warm almost every day—which makes it easy to get out and ride, and that I have the freedom and time to focus completely on my training without the distractions of home and work.”
Again, while Donny is getting in better miles than he might be getting in New England, a big part of his impetus for leaving is psychological. He could have stayed home and left his job to train, but to commit to doing that took the dramatic step of actually buying plane tickets and finding housing in Tucson.
As for me, my psyche and I are loving Athens so far. A five hour ride seemed like a good idea for day one, and looking back, it certainly was. And I’ve been behaving like a bike racer, too: eating really well (remember those french fries? I picked the salad instead!), stretching post-ride, getting enough sleep, doing 100 pushups because I have a pushup contest when I get home… OK, maybe that last one isn’t really conducive to being a great cyclist. But the ability to do that is pretty impressive, right?
So, clearly this is working for Donny and I (or at least, it seems like it is. We’ll see come Battenkill). But what does a coach have to say?
Al Donahue, perennial New England hardman and race winner, and head coach of Cycle-Smart, elects to stay in New England over the winter months, and is arguably one of the top cyclocrossers and road racers to come out of Western Massachusetts. But he knows that New England in January may not work for everyone:
“Going away can be good if you do it right, and doing it right is very case dependent. Timing, and what you do on this trip are key factors. I have seen plenty of people go away and come back no better; but done right, a rider should come back with invaluable training that can’t really be replicated in the cold. Believe me, I’ve tried for the last 10 years. Riding inside is even worse, I have done base outside all these years with no more than three hours per week inside.”
Next time I write, I’ll have been in Athens for over two weeks, and I’ll be able to give a better opinion as to if it’s working. And I’ll be talking to more coaches and more pros to find out what they think about traveling for training. If it’s good (or bad) enough, I might even include my coach’s thoughts once he gets a look at my training numbers and food diary from down here.
In the meantime… there’s one down side for those of us who go away but don’t take a break from work. Turns out riding five or six hours a day does leave time to get work done, but I forgot to take into account how beat you are after those rides! So for now, it’s naptime.