Sonia O’Sullivan: when does a cycling holiday become a training camp?

The greatest fun is on the bike, the distance, the elevation, the pace and all the challenges

It was the perfect cycling break, as hard as you wanted to make it. And everyone was there to work hard and enjoy the effort in the beautiful scenic surroundings

It was the perfect cycling break, as hard as you wanted to make it. And everyone was there to work hard and enjoy the effort in the beautiful scenic surroundings

 

Is it a cycling holiday or it is a training camp? This was the question I had in my head as I stood on the steps of the Ryanair flight from Cork bound for Alicante.

Waiting to board in the wind and rain, I could only imagine the 26C temperature, clear blue skies and sunshine that awaited, only still unsure what the adventure would bring.

De Ronde van Cork, the cycling club I ride with when home in Cobh, had planned its annual Easter trip to the Orihuela Costa Cycling Club, a sister club set up in Spain by one of the members Noel O’Mahony. I’d heard bits and pieces about these European adventures when out cycling around the roads of Cork, but never ventured so far on a bike, and hence the apprehension.

These trips have become increasingly popular with amateur and recreational riders, just like the elites and the pros have done for years. It’s the same in many other sports too, including the many training camps I went on during my own elite running days. How would it feel coming from the other side of things?

Noel had everything sorted in Orihuela, a small city at the feet of the Sierra de Orihuela mountains in the province of Alicante: just pack your cycling shoes, helmet and gear, and a bike could be hired on arrival, all set up with the measurements I sent by email.

This was just like a little piece of Cork in Spain on adventure, something I’d never done before so always that little bit of fear when you hand over control to someone else.

Noel also has some rooms that he lets out, and an organised ride planned each day. It makes such a big difference when you set out on a tried and tested route in a foreign place.

Within an hour of arrival on Sunday afternoon we were changed and out on the bikes. It was about 20C warmer than Cork, and straight out on a group cycle: no big climbs, just a big lap of one of the most stunning turquoise blue reservoir lakes used to irrigate the endless fields of fruit and vegetables.

We cycled past fields and fields of citrus fruit, lemons and oranges, artichokes. The perfume was intoxicating, a few times I had to stop myself from looking around too much and dropping off the pace.

Shorts and short sleeves

So far it seemed this was more of a cycling camp than a holiday, but this was also day one and everyone was excited to be out in shorts and short sleeves.

A few cyclists had arrived a few days earlier so they were already in tune with the weather and what to expect, a mix of general cycling enthusiasts women and men, like myself, and some serious athletes training for the upcoming racing season in Ireland.

The funny thing about heading out with a group of cyclists is you never truly know what to expect. There is a vague timeframe we will be out for, a brief description of the route, but a lot depends on how everyone is feeling, and what the cyclists following a training programme are planning to do.

Typically we would all ride out together for 40km or so – this is just the warm up. Then regroup in a cafe for the morning cortado (short coffee) and apple slice, or if you’re more adventurous and fuelling up for a big effort, maybe the local speciality of bread, tomato and tuna.

I haven’t totally converted over to the cycling fuelling and filling up out on the road. I like to bring my own energy balls and bars and drinks, though I am quite happy to top up on coffee along the way.

A bit of a time-out before the big effort. It’s always interesting how you can have a mix of different abilities start off together, then tackle a climb, sometimes a long drag culminating in series of switchbacks getting steeper and steeper as you approach the summit.

The good thing is everyone can push as hard as they want to, knowing there will be another mini-break and regroup at the summit. The pain is soon forgotten on the descent as we aim for the lunch stop before heading for home.

After lunch you might think it would be a nice cruise home, normally another 40km, but everyone wants to get home as the hours are passing by quickly, and the faster we go the sooner we will be back.

If there’s a tailwind it’s a massive bonus – if it’s a headwind it can take some co-operation, rolling turns at the front and hanging on. Everyone knows if that imaginary elastic band snaps it’s a long way back on your own, though it only takes a very small let up in pace to get everyone back on again, and the charge for home begins once more.

Orange groves

The citrus perfume from the orange groves lingers in the air as we get closer to town. Branches laden with oranges are hanging out onto the road, and the temptation is there to reach out and grab one. The pace is relentless so there is no time for looking around or stopping to pick an orange.

Once back there is the general lying around, trying to get the energy to shower and change .There is also the analysing of the uploaded cycling details on Strava.

It’s truly a luxury to be able to get out on the bike for the best part of the day, often leaving around 10am and back at 4pm. I cycled for five days in row, every day a different route: 50km, 94km, 90km, 125km, 127km.

By the last day the group was reduced to four heading to the hills away in the distance. Others took a recovery day yet still covered 80km. You can feel more confident in a larger group – with just four you need to be tuned in and ready to work from the start, and just hope you don’t get dropped and the legs don’t stop pedalling.

There’s also constant feedback on the bike; speed, heart rate, cadence and even power output. This can make for a more controlled effort overall, and knowledge is crucial when staring down the road with over an hour of cycling left to get home.

In the end it was the perfect cycling break, as hard as you wanted to make it. And everyone was there to work hard and enjoy the effort in the beautiful scenic surroundings.

Also noticeable was the fact that drivers seemed happy to share the road, and always passed leaving plenty of space. The 1.5m passing law is enforced in Spain, and cyclists are given right of way. Cyclists are given more respect than they are in Ireland, Australia or the UK. We can learn a lot from our continental neighbours – to slow down and be patient.

Freedom

There is also a sense of freedom and exploration on a bike, a decent effort will give that empty, hungry feeling when the holiday part takes over in the restaurants and bars later in the evening.

The greatest fun is on the bike, the distance, the elevation, the pace and all the challenges that give back a sense of purpose and satisfaction – everyone chasing their own personal goals.

Just like a cycle is what you make of it, so is a holiday. In this case making the most of it while escaping the normal daily routine, returning home refreshed and energised.

A cycling holiday or a training camp? The perfect blend of both.

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