Altitude training has become à la mode for the peloton’s elite riders.
Tour de France favorites such as Chris Froome (Team Sky) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) spend weeks on the flanks of the Teide volcano of Tenerife or high in the Swiss Alps looking for an elusive edge over their rivals.
Conventional wisdom states that riders can naturally raise their hematocrit to levels that will pay dividends for up to three weeks after leaving altitude.
That makes sense for the GC contenders, so why were German sprinters John Degenkolb and Marcel Kittel (both Giant-Shimano) high in the Spanish Sierra Nevada for nearly three weeks?
The German aces are built for speed, and will not be chasing the yellow jersey, but Giant-Shimano officials are convinced that the benefits of altitude training also translate well for the sprinters to meet the demands of the Tour de France.
“We did it last year for the first time, and it clearly worked, so we brought John and Marcel back again,” Giant-Shimano trainer Mattias Reck told VeloNews. “Endurance is just as important as speed, especially for the Tour, and altitude training gives you a boost, so that’s why we came last year.”
Kittel and Degenkolb were the only Giant-Shimano riders to head to Spain’s Sierra Nevada to prepare for the Tour.
Last year, the pair broke convention and became among the first sprinters to undergo altitude training. It clearly paid off, with Kittel winning four stages as well as the yellow jersey in the opening stage on Corsica.
With the yellow jersey once again up for grabs in the first stage from Leeds to Harrogate, Giant-Shimano is hoping to repeat their tremendous start to last year’s Tour.
“To do a good sprint after 200km, a sprinter still needs to have the endurance to last,” Reck said. “We saw last year that sprinting gets a boost from high-altitude training. That is the reason we started last season, and why we decided to come back this year.”
Tenerife and Sierra Nevada have become the two favorite early-season altitude destinations. Froome, Contador, and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) prefer the long, steeper climbs at Tenerife, so much so, that they all were there at the same time in late May. In fact, Froome complained that anti-doping testers were not being vigilant enough by performing tests there.
Giant-Shimano chose the Sierra Nevada because it also boasts a world-class training facility operated by the Spanish government. Called CAR (Centro de Alto Rendimiento), the facility is located at 2,320 meters (7,610 feet) and includes apartments with kitchens for long-term stays, as well as indoor, Olympic-sized swimming pools, running tracks, gymnasiums, and other amenities.
Located in Spain’s Andalucía region, the Sierra Nevada hits altitudes of nearly 4,000 meters (13,120 feet), and on clear days, one can see Africa across the Strait of Gibraltar from its snowy summits. During the winter, skiers race down the steep slopes, but once the snows recede, the ski area base becomes a mecca for athletes searching out the benefits of altitude training.
“I’ve been preparing for big objectives by training at altitude since I was in my junior years, and I know that it works well for me,” Degenkolb said on the team’s website. “Being here with Marcel is a good way for us to push ourselves that little bit more.”
Kittel said the thinner air at 2,300 meters was immediately noticeable.
“You can really feel the effects of altitude as the air is really dry,” Kittel said on the team’s web site. “Just walking up the stairs is hard to start with, but after a few days, you can feel the body adapting.”
Reck said their training program was designed to build their endurance and power for the Tour, but that they would also gain additional benefits from sleeping and training at altitude.
After three weeks in the Sierra Nevada, Kittel and Degenkolb returned to racing immediately, with Kittel at the Ster ZLM Toer and Degenkolb flying in right before the first stage at the Tour de Suisse on June 13.
“The effects last into the third week, so the plan was that we come down from altitude, and have the effect of it going into the first week of the Tour,” Reck explained. “If you would go from altitude right to the biggest race, you would be lacking race speed in your legs. That’s why we combine it like this, with training, and then some racing before the Tour.”
Kittel and Degenkolb were not alone. When they were in the Sierra Nevada, riders from Garmin-Sharp, Belkin, and Movistar were also using the facility as a base for training.
The training regimen of the two sprinters, however, was quite a bit different from the skinny climbers looking to hone their form ahead of the Tour. The pair would train on the flatter roads that splay the valleys near Granada and often would drive back up the 24km climb to the training facility in a car, rather than ride.
If Kittel and Degenkolb come up big again in this year’s Tour, it won’t be just the GC favorites in future years who escape to altitude to gain a competitive edge.