At the end of my last blog post, I explained that I had left Girona, having got a good few weeks of initial base miles in the tank, and had returned home to spend Christmas with my family.
After six days at home relaxing and enjoying the festivities, I packed what felt like almost all my worldly belongings into my car (including almost £20 worth of Sainsbury’s crunchy peanut butter jars), and set off at 4:30am on 29th December towards Dover ferry port.
This was the start of an epic 2,300km, two day road trip from my house in Kent to Almería in Andalusia, southern Spain.
16hrs after shutting my front door and numerous BlaBlaCar passengers later, I arrived at my overnight stop in Girona.
Back on the road early the next day, and after a total of 24 hours of driving I arrived at my final destination in Andalusia, where I would spend a couple of weeks before travelling up to Calpe.
The roads around Almería were incredibly quiet, and with the Sierra Nevada mountain range on the doorstep, it was possible to access some pretty epic long climbs.
It was also surreal to welcome in the New Year amongst a small Andalucian village community, taking part in the tradition of eating a grape for every chime of the church bell and celebrating with fireworks, champagne, and hugging/kissing everyone in sight.
To training though, and the focus remained predominantly on building a large aerobic endurance base, but some longer efforts started to be incorporated at this point. The two weeks were very productive, made easier by the stunning surroundings and good weather.
One ride in particular stood out and was an experience that I’ll never forget, and that was climbing up to the observatory atop Calar Alto, which peaks at 2,168 metres (some way above the snow line and certainly high enough to feel the effects of altitude).
The climb itself is HC rated, 29.1km in length and ascends 1,393m giving an average gradient of 5%, which I completed in 1hr 36mins.
I can’t wait to see the Vuelta tackle this mountain in August; it should certainly sort the men from the boys!
Needless to say, the views were stunning, and on a clear day it’s possible to see Africa to the south, and the mountain range lying just in front of Madrid to the north (a distance of some 700km).
You really do feel like you are on top of the world.
The city of Almería itself was also stunning in its own right, and it was great to relax and explore the Alcazaba (fortified Moorish citadel dating back to the 1st century) on a rest day.
And with that, it was time to head up to Calpe to join a group of British riders staying together in a villa for a month or so.
This is an area I know extremely well now and to which I am a little bit attached, having been on training camps there for four years in a row.
It was certainly good to be back on familiar roads and be able to navigate from memory.
Training focus switched predominantly to higher intensity efforts, and was disturbed only by the unprecedented week of weather Calpe received, where storms battered the region and there was significant snowfall in some parts.
We had so much rain that the pool overflowed, and on several occasions we woke up to find that various bits of garden furniture had been blown into the pool.
Luckily for me, this coincided with me having a few days of illness, so I was able to rest up comfortably indoors whilst others braved the elements.
This was also marked the start of regular gym work for me for the first time ever, which I hope I will see the benefits of out on the road.
The first week after illness saw my biggest training week of the winter – a total of 29hrs and over 1200TSS training including gym work.
I also pinned on a number for the first time and lined up at one of the local races (along with, as it transpires, the Brownlee brothers!) that form part of the Volta a la Marina series, held on that occasion in some ridiculously strong winds.
It was good to mix training up a little bit in this way, and after getting in a couple of breakaways I ultimately finished amongst a fairly exploded bunch on the 5km summit finish.
Feeling like I was really starting to find my feet in terms of my condition and fitness, I performed a power test just before I left, which showed that my FTP had risen about 20W compared to my last test conducted two months previously in Girona having just got back on the road.
In good shape mentally and physically, I drove (via the Pyrénées which in itself was an amazing experience) up to the CT Tomacc training camp in France, about 90mins north of Toulouse on the edge of the Midi-Pyrénées mountain range.
This offered a great opportunity to get out on some new roads met het ploeg, get to know my teammates better and most importantly, find out who was strongest!
We did a total of nine days of mostly steady miles, covering 930km in just over 34hrs, but with a few drills included towards the end of the camp.
The area offered a decent mix of rolling roads but with a few short punchy climbs, and we were lucky to have nice sunny weather even if it was quite a bit cooler than what I had grown accustom to.
It was clear that all my hard work up until this point had paid off, and I was riding strongly as a result.
After team camp, I headed home for a few days of much needed rest, before hopping over the channel on the ferry for the team presentation in Belgium.
Held at the VL-trac headquarters (one of the team’s main sponsors) just outside Poperinge, we were all introduced and interviewed in turn (thankfully for me, my questions were in English), before having various photos taken.
The next day, I drove down to Girona for a final five weeks of high intensity training to build on the endurance work completed to date and ensure I arrived in Belgium at the start of April in the best possible condition.
It was during this time that I really felt like I was living the dream, with the perfect weather conditions, roads and surroundings.
I had an very solid final block of training, performing well across the range of training efforts and showing significant improvements on last year’s power outputs.
I also completed the second of my two month-long blocks of gym work, and saw dramatic improvements in my sprinting as a result, increasing my best ever personal best powers five sessions in a row.
During this time, I also did some of my best ever 1 minute and 4 minute powers. In essence, everything was going very well indeed.
I also made the most of my time in such an amazing part of Spain by exploring the area on my rest days.
Highlights include watching a night-time rally on the local climb, playing tourist in central Barcelona (after taking part in a criterium race for training), going on a few hikes and exploring coves along the coastline…
I definitely think it’s important to try and maintain a balance when training is so full on, even if it is difficult when you’re tired and cycling can quickly take over your entire life.
Getting out and doing these things helped me to unwind and switch off from the demands of training for a while.
That concluded four months of winter training under the Spanish sun.
For the data geeks reading, overall I averaged 770TSS, 17hrs 40mins and 446km per week (for 19 weeks), with an intensity factor of 0.62.
Riding full time now has certainly made a massive difference to my winter training, and I’m confident that I’ve given myself the best chance of getting a breakthrough win this season in Belgium, as I’m already hugely stronger than I was last season in terms of the power numbers.
I really must thank my coach, Mark Holt, for always being there to offer advice and adjust my training on a daily basis. Without his mentorship and expert guidance, I wouldn’t be where I am now.
Regardless, living in Spain during the winter has been an incredible experience that I’ll never forget. Thank you to The Lewis Balyckyi Trust Fund for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime.
Now though, it’s time to start racing!