Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins has revealed the role a volcano on Tenerife has played in his emergence as one of the favourites for this summer’s Tour de France, as well as his conviction that he can become the first British rider to win cycling’s biggest race.
Situated off the coast of North Africa, the summit in the Teide national park has become a magnet for pro cyclists undertaking altitude training, its location also guaranteeing good weather.
In today's Guardian, cycling writer William Fotheringham describes the beautiful yet harsh conditions, and also hears first hand how the 3,718 metre volcano – the road up it reaches an elevation of 2,100 metres – has come to play such a pivotal role in Wiggins’ Tour de France preparations.
The background lies in the 32-year-old’s disappointing performance in the 2010 edition of the race, his first participation in it with Team Sky, which had recruited the rider from Garmin-Transitions in controversial fashion to lead it in its debut season.
In 2009, the multiple world and Olympic champion on the track had made his big breakthrough on the road, finishing a remarkable fourth behind Alberto Contador, Andy Schleck and Lance Armstrong.
With Team Sky building its season around Wiggins’ Tour challenge, there were high hopes that he would become the first British rider to secure a podium placing in the Tour de France, but those were dashed as he lost time to his rivals in the mountains and eventually arrived in Paris in 24th position. He would later gain one place as a result of Contador’s disqualification.
As a result, Australian sports scientist Tim Kerrison, whose background was in swimming and rowing but not cycling, was brought on board by Team Sky to help Wiggins rethink his entire approach to preparing for the big races and in particular the Tour, which last year featured a greater amount of riding at 2,500 or higher than is seen in a typical edition of the race.
After participating in a two-week training camp on Tenerife, last June Wiggins went on to secure the biggest win of his career on the road up to that point, the Critérium du Dauphiné. His Tour de France campaign was derailed by a crash that resulted in him breaking his collarbone at the end of the first week, but he was back in August to race in the Vuelta, finishing third, with Team Sky colleague Chris Froome second behind Geox-TMC's Juan Jose Cobo.
Those performances were without doubt aided by that experience that Wiggis gained at altitude, although training on Tenerife has other benefits, as Kerrison related, saying: "Unlike some high-altitude venues, it's possible to train at sea level, which is less damaging at high intensity; unlike Alpine locations the weather is relatively stable in April and May."
Wiggins, who by his own admission has in the past gone through periods when training is not uppermost in his mind – after winning Olympic gold in the individual pursuit at Athens in 2004, he famously went on a bender that stretched into days, then weeks, then months – insists he is now fully focused on achieving his ambition of winning the Tour.
"I said I wanted to train for the Tour without any compromise," he revealed. "I'm getting to a point in my career where I want to look back with no regrets." That new approach sees him switch between intensive training camps and targeting wins in specific races, a strategy that this year has already reaped rewards in the shape of overall victories in Paris-Nice and the Tour of Romandie.
It is expected that by getting Wiggins used to defending a lead in high-profile races such as those, he will be better equipped to deal with the mental pressures should he find himself in the maillot jaune this summer.
The latest training camp, where Wiggins was accompanied by Team Sky riders who will support him in the Tour when it gets under way in Liege on June 30, took place this month, with the rider aiming to have accumulated 100,000 metres of climbing in his legs by the time the race begins.
The training has also become more intensive, as Wiggins himself outlined: "Yesterday was 25‑minute efforts in 35C heat, three of them. It's hard to tell a layman what it feels like: it's hard in a very sweet way, all mixed up with the endorphins."
Kerrison maintained that the training programme being followed will enable Wiggins to cope with the tougher ascents featuring in the Tour this year. "When I came in, people believed Brad was only good up to about a 7% gradient; now he can cope with up to 13%," he explained.
"Three of the lads were wasted by the end but you realise that, if you can do that effort now, it's the Tour winner," added Wiggins. "You can hardly breathe but it's the kind of effort that wins the Tour."
The ability to cope with such a demanding schedule also reflects the efforts the Team Sky rider has put in to areas such as core fitness and his upper body strength, which Kerrison and Wiggins believe helped him pull off a surprise win in a sprint stage at the Tour of Romandie.
Another advantage that the team’s base on Tenerife affords is the ability to focus on the task at hand, away from the stresses of the world. "When you are training as hard as we are it's nice to have no distractions,” Wiggins explained.” You don't end up sitting at a computer while you rest, you do basic things like reading a book or watching a DVD. It's very peaceful."
He fully expects to reap a reward from those sacrifices come July. "After 2009 I didn't really believe I could win the Tour,” reflected Wiggins. “I thought, 'That's for someone else, kids from Kilburn don't win the Tour.' But I really believe I can win it now."
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.