BABOCO group ride © Christine Vardaros

BABOCO group ride up the hills. © Christine Vardaros

We’ve been talking training camps a lot recently (see our piece on training camps, Skills and Fitness on the Fritz? Consider a Clinic), and Cyclocross Magazine contributor Christine Vardaros has provided us with an insider view of a training camp in Spain.

by Christine Vardaros

It’s still four months before my first cyclocross race and season preparation is already in full swing. It was kicked off by our BABOCO Cycling Team training camp in Benidorm, Spain. We were treated to eleven days of road riding in the mountains under warm sunny skies. It was especially welcome after a long, bitterly cold winter spent in a paper-thin skinsuit.

The training camp is for our cyclocross team. All cyclocross teams here in Belgium do at least one to two training camps per year. It is for bringing your fitness up that next level. They are always held in the mountains for mountain riding. My goal was just like everyone else’s – to bring my fitness up another level. And of course, the team training camps are also held to help bond team members.

In addition to my team members, there were two special guests at the camp. One was Jonas Bruffaerts, my husband – always special to me! The other was BKCP-Power Plus rider Dieter Vanthourenhout (stay tuned for an in-depth interview on him here on Cyclocross Magazine). Dieter, big brother of my BABOCO teammate Michael, was there using it as a pre-training camp for the one his team was holding in Benicassim, Spain three days after ours ended. We also had special bikes that arrived the day before camp, courtesy of our new bike sponsor, Stevens. Now we are on the same bikes as BKCP-Powerplus, Dura-Ace and all! After riding them for only ten minutes we quickly realized what all the hype was about. When built up with our TRP Brakes and Miche Wheels, the bikes are well under 7 kilograms [ed. 15.5 pounds].

I went into the training camp a bit apprehensive of what to expect. I was the only girl on the team, which was something new for me. I also stood out a bit as I was the only one who couldn’t understand the West-Flemish regional dialect. Heck, Flemish is hard enough for me when spoken by those in my own town!

In addition, my fitness was a bit of a question mark; I had no idea if I could even pedal a bike. Since the end of ’cross season back in February, I have been on the bike a mere handful of times – each of them ending shorter than planned due to debilitating IT Band pain. This came as a side effect of cracking my pelvis back in December at Zolder World Cup.

Thanks to some miracle homeopathic work done by my sports doctor here in Belgium a few days before camp, my pedaling worries were resolved. I found on the first day of camp that I was able to ride my bike – almost pain free. But with no kilometers in my legs, keeping up with the boys in the mountains was a near impossibility. Instead of attempting to ride myself into the ground to make it happen, I opted for a compromise. On their easy days I joined in with pleasure. Then on hard days, Jonas and I would start with the team but eventually venture out on our own to conquer the mountains at an abbreviated, more comfy pace. It worked out well. [Ed. Note: To find out more about Christine’s experiences with homeopathic medicine, check out her column in our print magazine.]

When on our own, Jonas and I usually followed a pre-programmed loop he had in his Garmin. It was usually something between a distance of 90-110 kilometers and 1200-2000 meters of climbing. It was real work to lug myself and my bike up the mountains but it felt so very nice to ride long distances after spending the last eight months doing mainly short rides. On one of these rides, we were joined by teammate Valentijn who was experiencing knee pain and needed something a bit less race-pace. Naturally we made full use of his presence on our very concentrated training session. We took turns taking photos of each other at one of the tight corners near the top of a mountain. After viewing the photos that evening, I quickly realized that the race-like effect of some of our photos was a bit compromised. In the background of these photos you can see the other “film star” freewheeling back down the hill in preparation for the next photo op up the hill. Oops.

My favorite moment on the bicycle was easily the last hour of our last day of training camp. From day one, the team was talking about a super steep hill just behind our hotel. Aptly named by the locals, “Cardiac Hill” was two kilometers of 15% gradient that led straight up to a religious spot – marked by a wooden cross that perched above everything around it. Naturally we all swore to give it a go before returning to Belgium. Jonas and I took that challenge at the very end of our training camp, but not without a bit of trial and error. In an attempt to find the one road that went straight up to the top, we got in a few climbing intervals. But it was well worth it once we found our way. From above, we could see all of Benidorm as well as some of the mountains that had repeatedly taxed our legs and our will the previous days. It was a religious experience of sort different than that of the other tourists visiting the site.

Riding with the team on their easy days was a whole different experience. Usually easy days are for recovery, but these guys – averaging twenty years of age – gave it a whole different definition. I had never seen so many track stands, bunny hops, wheelies, and general goofing around as I have on these rides. I was exhausted just watching it all – although I must admit it was very entertaining. And as for the speed, they started off rather subdued but halfway through the ride it was transformed into play-racing … albeit at lower speeds. Needless to say, it was no recovery ride for me but I was thankful I could keep up enough to play along – well worth the sacrifice of a recovery day! At one point, they even let me pull them around the undulating roads – egging me on to go faster and faster. Once I was coming close to my limit, they’d speed around me. It took everything I had to catch the last guy as they came by me like a well-oiled shiny blue and white locomotive.

BABOCO team © Christine Vardaros

The BABOCO team © Christine Vardaros

Off the bike was yet a completely separate experience. Every day we awoke at 8 a.m. to a knock on our door courtesy of Wilfred De Pau, our soigneur. By 8:30 a.m, we met in the lobby to head to the breakfast hall. It was buffet style so there was food for everyone, including me and Jonas with our strict vegan diets. With the majority of tourists from the UK, many of the options catered to them. Beans and tomato sauce for breakfast?

At 10 a.m., we were suited up and back down in the lobby where Wilfred was waiting with our water bottles – one filled with Etixx’s energy drink and the other with their isotonic mix. He also handed us a bunch of foil-wrapped treats. Ours was little jam sandwiches and banana pieces. With our jersey pockets overflowed and photos already taken, we were off towards the mountains.

While most of the guys rode the whole time together, some did their own thing depending on their training needs. No matter the training, most of us arrived back mainly at the same time. We were greeted by Wilfred’s smiling face and a recovery shake. Once showered and re-suited into our BABOCO casual wear, we headed to lunch – buffet again, but with yet another variety of British foods like fish and chips. Jonas and I had plain pasta or rice on standing order so we always had our vegan carbs.

After lunch, it was basically free time. While some sat around the pool working on their blindingly white torsos, others headed into town or to the beach which was three minutes away. Jonas and I spent a lot of time sitting on the boardwalk watching the waves and sometimes the odd collection of passerbys. A couple of times, the team headed over to the Belgian Café to watch the two bike races that were going on during our stay – Paris-Roubaix and Brabantse-Pijl. Both ended favorably for the café and its Belgian clients as Belgians won both. Every few days we were also treated to a massage courtesy of multitasking master Wilfred. It was an honor to have him work on me, as his hands have touched some famous legs including those of Bjarne Riis during his win at the Tour of France.

The team also had a soccer outing on the beach. I was official photographer since I didn’t want to agitate my knee. While it was interesting enough to watch a bunch of cyclists play soccer, nothing could have prepared me for what was to come. In a moment of lull, Ritchie walked over to a random nearby information stand to drum a beat with his hands. An instant later, the top opens and a man stumbles out, swearing in his finest Spanish. I wish I had my camera aimed at Ritchie to record just how high and far back he leaped when the top popped open. Bizarre.

As for my concerns of being the only girl, there was no problem to be had. I was treated exactly like one of the guys. Even my massages were no different. No place for reserved modesty, the routine (for me too) was to walk in the massage room, drop your drawers – undies included, lay yourself on the bed lying squarely on the towel folded long-ways that doubled as a diaper of sorts that you flip over the front. When it was time to flip over or get your clothes back on, again there was no room for modesty. It was very cool in a way that I was seen as just another guy when getting a massage.

While the girl thing was not a problem, the language barrier proved to be a bit trying at times. I thought I would have been better equipped for speaking Dutch since I now speak solely in Dutch with many people for a while now. This does not mean I have, by any means, mastered the language; the mistakes still flow frequently. For instance, a few weeks ago, while Jonas, our friend Ronny and I were out to lunch I explained to them that I cannot find knee-high boots because my calf is too small. Well, based on the bursts of laughter I quickly realized that I mistakenly substituted a word that sounds very similar to calf but means a completely different, very female body part.

The whole training camp felt like a repeat of that fateful mistake at lunch. The West Flemish dialect proved to be well above my level. There were a few who spoke English but for the rest, communication was a bit of a game of hit and miss. For instance, while riding alongside Floris de Tier, we started talking about cool cycling socks and t-shirts. I worked incredibly hard to pick up enough words to follow the conversation and respond appropriately but sometimes I think I must have gotten it completely wrong. When talking about Superman underwear, it is best not to make a mistake. After a while, he finally said in his West-Flemish dialect, “You don’t understand a word I say.” Luckily I caught that sentence and was able to weakly respond with, “Sometimes I can.”

I think the most amusing of all the misunderstandings occurred with Michael Vanthourenhout. He knocked on my hotel room door in search of Jonas to borrow a tool. Since Jonas was out, he was forced to run his request by me. I understood that he was asking for a three-pronged Allen key. Since we didn’t have one, I handed him a generic foldable Allen key set. He rigidly took it in his hand and looked down at it as if I just handed him a piece of foldable doody. Assuming I had totally misunderstood him, he handed it back and walked away – no words needed to be spoken. It took everything I had not to laugh.

All in all, I am very pleased with how the camp played out. It was an experience I will never forget. And if I do, luckily there is another one planned for August. It is scheduled for somewhere in the Vogezen region in France. I really look forward to getting in more climbing just before the start of cyclocross season. Considering the team has already scored some podiums since the last training camp, this next one should be key for cyclocross season success!