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Michael Barry: The Off-Season

By mid August, the professional peloton begins to yearn for the off-season. The Tour de France is over and the rest of Europe is vacationing in coastal towns or mountain chalets. But while the fatigue from the racing and travel sets in by late summer, the final finish line of the year isn’t crossed until October.

Now that it’s here, the riders will let loose for a few short weeks filling in their time off the bike with everything they were unable to do during the racing season. But after a brief moment of reprieve, and jamming as much forbidden food and drink in to their bodies as possible, they’ll then climb back on their bikes to prepare for the first training camps just before Christmas.

The off-season months should be one of the most enjoyable times of the year. Training sessions are less structured and the riders can settle into a routine at home. With a few friends, they can ride for hours each day to rebuild the foundation of fitness. Most importantly, the off-season should provide a mental break where the riders don’t have to jump aboard planes and spend countless nights in foreign beds. But for the modern peloton, those months of rest at home with family and friends are quickly slipping away.

Last year’s World Champion, Philippe Gilbert, recently addressed his concern over the number of races and their difficulty through a written statement to the UCI. He writes about the extremes to which both the UCI and race organizers are reaching to increase interest in the races. The peloton is expected to race in searing heat or snow and ice, times when citizens are cautioned to stay indoors. Combined with the fatigue from a lengthy season, the attempts to create excitement become unnecessary risks that could not only end a rider’s career, but also his life. Bicycle races need to provide a spectacle to generate revenue, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of the riders’ health. His words are powerful and shouldn’t be disregarded.

Within the peloton, many riders and team staff speak of the excessive demands of modern racing amongst themselves. But few voice their opinions and concerns publically, like Gilbert did, fearing that it will affect their ability to work in cycling. Gilbert’s interest and concern was for the cyclists’ health, which within the sport’s culture has always been secondary to performance and entertainment. For real change to occur these issues must be addressed and the riders must develop solidarity.

In the last 20 years, as the UCI has pushed to make the sport more international, the off-season has grown increasingly shorter, only adding to pressure. No longer a European sport that shuts down through the winter months, the peloton now follows the sun, moving south in the winter. The last races are in late October, the first in January. And they all have value.

No longer do we see photos of riders skiing in Alps during their winter training camps and riders no longer show up to those camps out of shape and fat. Now the camps are now used to fine tune fitness, not for getting fit. To accomplish the training load at camp, a rider must arrive with a relatively high level of base fitness.

During the season, there is little time to rest, as the peloton chases valuable World Tour points year round to remain viable. Sponsorship dollars often come and go biennially, and every race seems to determine a team’s and a rider’s future. By the end of the year, many teams struggle to build rosters for the final races as their riders battle injury or illness. But, the teams must race or risk disappearing.

The front-loaded racing season adds to the pressure, as everybody wants to prove his worth early in the year to ensure security. The racers start the year with enthusiasm, eager to perform and show the world the work done through the winter. Most importantly, they are looking for results that will seal a contract for another season. But for most, the pressure doesn’t relent until the final set of numbers is pinned on. Inevitably, far too many riders and staff are left scrambling to find jobs through the off-season.

The exhaustion from the long season and job insecurity incite risk-taking, which professional cycling desperately needs to avoid, and the new UCI’s president needs to address, to create a safer and healthier environment for the athletes.

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