I love this part of my day. Our team clips in and rolls out, turning left onto the one road that passes by the old convent where we are staying for our preseason camp. Within a few turns of the pedal, we fall into formation—an easy line of pairs—relaxed, talking happily in the sunshine. The road winds over small green hills checkered with olive trees, and twists through curves made just for a bike. In two lines, close and easy, we flow through each curve. By now we know the buche (potholes), and flow easily around them.
Already I’m too warm. Sitting up, I’ve only half unzipped my wind vest before the team car appears at my side, ready to take my vest and gloves. I hand them off and settle back on the handlebars, without having broken cadence or formation. The casual flow and chatter in our group veils our precision of movement; a small gesture from the front of the group sends a smooth wave of lateral movement through our lines, as we swing wide to avoid a branch, then back again.
At the designated right turn, we hear a honk from the team car, and without words, one line drops back as the other moves forward, in doppia fila (paceline). The easy talk goes quiet, as now we move past one another too quickly for conversation, but still a few joking shouts can be heard over the wind. We ease the pace at a roundabout, our long line briefly swelling wide as we wait for a car to pass, then snapping instantly back in tight formation as we exit the roundabout. Our precise organization and instinct form the angle of our doppia fila: as good an indicator of wind direction as a flag in the air. Our support crew follows closely behind, and the whole day and many kilometers of road lie ahead. Our work is now underway.
Team Diadora’s 2012 preseason camp has been underway for over a week now. We’re based in a beautiful old convent overlooking state forest and the Mediterranean Sea. It’s isolated here, quiet and beautiful, like the roads. But this has been no holiday; my very sore, very tired body can attest to that. Not even the Tuscan landscape can make your pedalstroke look pretty after a session of hill repeats and sprints, done proper hard.
Preseason kilometers are the ugliest and most beautiful of the year.
The preseason is when training can and should be ugly, as you build a fatigue load so massive that it’s all you can do to pedal back home after a session of sweaty hill repeats. It’s when you really, really, really don’t want to go out in the rain, but end up with several hours in the legs and even more layers of wet and grime on your face (and teeth), anyway. It’s pure training, full of exhaustion and gladness.
And as was the case in January and early February when I trained in Perth, it’s also when the lines among teams dissolve, and we are just cyclists sharing the anticipation of the season and playfulness of being on our bikes. Our competitors become co-conspirators in training efforts, and there’s no need to look good: just get the work done.
In Perth, I took advantage of the summer weather by stacking volume with double sessions, and paid dearly in smashed legs and general zombie-like fatigue. Off the bike, I was useless. I could hardly stay awake, let alone keep up with normal life responsibilities. It was all I could do to get myself fed before I fell into a coma on the couch after my rides. And I would do it all over again the next day: up at 4am, sweating it out in the first training session before sunrise (it was that hot). But my misery had good company.
A handful of professional women were in Perth for training at the same time. You could pick us out of the group in an instant. The tanned, perma-fit group-ride warriors sported pristine, coordinated kit, clean handlebar tape and sharp legs. Then there were us gals: wearing a pre-team-camp combination of old kit, white socks grayed from racing in rain and being washed in the team truck for a whole season, and a chamois thinned to uselessness (ironically by overuse) in bibs that may or may not have had a transparent panel or two. Our training bikes sported scars from cobbled Dutch roads and unpaved sections of Italian climbs, the tires already worn from kilometers November and December kilometers. And we were tired.
We would start an afternoon group ride having already hammered out three hours of intervals, and fight doggedly for wheels, pedaling squares on our last ounce of energy. We often looked bad: tongues dragging on the pavement, heads and shoulders ticked to one side with the depth of effort, throwing the bike all over to close gaps; but rest assured, that scraping-the-bottom-of-the-energy-barrel kind of tired is just precisely what we are after, even if it is downright ugly.
At camp, we are refreshed with new clothes and equipment, but our mentality doesn’t change. The preseason goal remains: smash the legs and keep smashing them. We have to push ourselves into those foggy depths of fatigue before we rest, fine-tune and sharpen up for the first races.
On the second day of team camp here in Italy, we got caught in a rainstorm during a brutal interval session. As we battled a cross-headwind, spraying rooster tails of red mud from our wheels, our legs and kit became heavy with wet and cold. Still, we pushed on through the blur of splattered glasses and cold spray, fighting the sour ache of loaded legs over rough road, chasing each other through mud, effort after effort. Boy it was ugly! And by the final set of efforts my legs felt even uglier. After, we filed into the entryway, dripping with grime, quiet and empty, gratefully accepting the hot tea prepared by our souigneur.
It ain’t pretty, but it is. This is the time when an exhausted, ugly pedal stroke isn’t just ugly: it’s perfect. It’s when success means failing over and over again, because pushing to failure is the whole point.
And that is why these are also the most beautiful kilometers of the year.
Thanks for reading,
Amber Pierce - An American expat living in Austria, Amber has made the leap across the Atlantic in pursuit of her dreams on the road. After making a name for herself as one of the top road cyclists in the US, she now faces new challenges in her life on the road in Europe.
Amber's path to full-time racing in Europe has been anything but linear. From high school valedictorian holding national swimming records, to scholarship athlete at Stanford University and researcher on the open ocean, she has found herself in countless adventures all over the globe. With 53 career victories under her belt, however, Amber appears to have found her calling on the bicycle.
Photos: Amber Pierce