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By: Zdenko Kahlina
Canadian winters are tough; it’s no wonder why every year ‘sun bird’ cyclists fly south to Arizona to escape the cold.
We might not live in igloos, but the stereotype of the long Canadian winter is pretty accurate for most cyclists north of the 49th parallel. During the winter months in Arizona it’s warm, it’s dry and it has some great road cycling routes. In fact, cycling is one of Arizona’s main draws, so there are many routes throughout the state that are marked specifically for this abundance of road riders.
Improve your fitness and skills with an off-season training camp
As the leaves turn yellow and we head into fall, the thought of setting up the indoor trainer can be depressing. If the prospect of dwelling in the pain cave for the next six months has you down, planning a trip to a warm weather destination with your bike in tow can be a great way to stay positive.
For those looking to take their training to the sun, a training camp in Arizona can be a structured alternative to simply heading south and renting a bike or signing up for a cycling holiday. With a training camp comes the potential to hone your fitness as well as some razor-sharp tan lines that’ll make your friends jealous.
Setting up a training camp months in advance can be a great external motivator to stay the course as the regular riding season comes to a close. Even only a week of training in Arizona each January can be one of a winter camp’s greatest draws. The physiological benefits of one week of bigger volume riding are good, but it’s more that it scares you into riding your trainer in the winter. You certainly come out a lot fitter down the other end.
Usually, cyclists see their mileage take a dip just as the temperatures start falling. While many wait until the new year to head to training camp, rounding out your season with a hit of fall riding is worth considering. Carmichael Training Systems offers its Fall Mileage camp in Santa Ynez, Calif., with a focus on long endurance rides in October, a time where getting such volume outside in Canada becomes more difficult. Jim Rutberg, a pro coach with CTS, says this kind of camp is a great opportunity to cap off your season and to extend it a little further. “It’s a big end-of-season chance to take advantage of the fitness that you have gained all season, to go out with a bang and to get some really good high-mileage rides,” he says.
Picking a location
When the temperatures fall at home, there remain many options abroad for cyclists who want to train outside. However, there are also many factors to consider when you plan a training trip. The most important things include not only when you’ll go – the deciding factor in which destinations will be warm enough to consider – but also how much money you’d like to spend and the kind of experience you’re after.
So where should you go? For many Canadians, visiting our neighbours to the south is the most affordable, realistic option when choosing a training-camp location. When you start looking at U.S. options, expect a lot of choices in Arizona, California, and North and South Carolina to pop up. There are also a number of triathlon-geared camps in Florida that cyclists can consider. The Carolinas and some of the camps in California are limited by the weather in the winter months (and how many layers you’re willing to pack). You’ll find companies that specialize in training camps as well as training weeks offered by local clubs and coaches. Even groups from afar organize treks and take care of logistics for riders who wish to join them. With all these options, you need to do some thorough research into what you’re signing up for.
If you’re willing to travel a little farther and spend a little more on airfare, your list of options expands. Hawaii, with an extra allure for triathletes with Ironman dreams, is a toasty destination where commercial camps abound even in January and February, a time that can be a bit of a dry spell elsewhere. Alternatively, camps in Europe are an option. Spanish islands, such as Majorca, Tenerife or Italian Tuscany with their mild temperatures, are popular destinations for cyclists year-round. With their popularity among travelling cyclists, camps run by English-speaking coaches.
Tuscany gets a lot of press and attention as a cycling paradise, and rightly so. It has a special something that makes people go back year after year. But it’s hardly off the beaten track. There’s another cycling haven that you should know about – one that the masses haven’t found yet. It’s the Croatian province of Istria.
Croatian Istria region is true cycling paradise. Northwest Istria has recently been getting a lot of praise in the context of cycling activities, recreational cycling, organized competitions, marathons and similar. The peninsula is shaped like a heart and was once a part of Italy. However, it went to Yugoslavia following World War Two, and to Croatia more recently. It’s located just south of the far-eastern Italian city of Trieste and the sliver of coast Slovenia possesses. While now firmly a part of Croatia, Italian is still the first or second language depending on where you are in Istria. You can read more about cycling in Istria here and here.
If you are heading south to Arizona here are some options which I would suggest:
Marsh Station, Tucson
The Marsh Station route is one of Tucson’s best-kept secrets. This old, but well-maintained road, takes riders 90 km out of Tucson into the desert. Cyclists can keep riding down the road as long as they want, but it is a desert route so proper supplies are essential. There are a few potholes along the way at times; however, very few cars travel this old road so cyclists can hog the road as much as they want. While the trail takes cyclists out into the vast desert landscape with some decent rolling hills, there are a few stops along the way including markets for those that need a break. Those lucky enough will be treated to the colorful trains that pass over the Cienega Bridge.
Bartlett Lake, Scottsdale
The Bartlett Lake cycling routes takes cyclists out of Scottsdale at Dynamite Road and stretches for 74 km all the way around Bartlett Lake. Since the lake itself is nestled in some small mountains, cyclists are treated to scenic desert and mountain views, as well as great climbs (and descents on the way back). Since the halfway point on the route is a lake popular for swimming, cyclists can fill their water bottles up at the marina or hop off their bike for a refreshing dip in the water. The roads along the way are beautifully paved, but there is frequent traffic, especially in the summer months when many from Scottsdale head up to the lake.
Usery Pass, Mesa
This 33-km loop may seem short, but what it lacks in length it makes up for in scenery. The scenic road leads out of Mesa and takes cyclists parallel with the Salt River, past lush and green riverside vegetation. There are some decent climbs as riders enter the Pass, but much of it is a nice smooth ride before ending back in Mesa. This route has been used for USCF cycling races over the years as well as for the cycling portion of the triathlons held at Saguaro Lake, so riders may see more than a few cyclists riding beside them. However, riders need to watch for bigger trucks hauling their boats along the Bush Highway portion of the ride.
Cody Loop, Oracle/Tucson
Cody Loop is a favorite bike route for cyclists all over Arizona. This 103-km route starts in the small town of Tucson and runs through Oracle. The route traces around Mount Lemmon along Highway 77, which has accommodated cyclists by adding in a large shoulder for them on this busy highway, though they should watch out for debris on the side of the road. Though the route does trace a mountain, it is beloved by local cyclists for its flats. Once riders get to Oracle they officially ride along the route’s namesake — the “Cody Loop” — that takes cyclists past the small town’s famous biosphere. Oracle is considered the halfway point of this route, so be sure to stop by one of the few shops or restaurants for a quick break.
Sedona to Mingus Mountain, Sedona
For those that like epic climbs during their ride, then the Sedona to Mingus bike route is perfect. This 80-km cycling route takes rides from Sedona all the way to the very top of Mount Mingus; don’t worry though, it’s all paved. During this ride, cyclists rise to a maximum elevation of 2,300 meters before being treated to panoramic views of the city and surrounding scenery. It is truly breathtaking and worth all the work. However, the biggest reward is the ride back down the mountain. Be careful with the speed — the road has a few twists so a slip could be deadly, if not at very least unpleasant.
Sunset Crater & Wupatki Route, Flagstaff
This 80-km loop out of Flagstaff is perfect for riders who like a good mix of climbs and descents. However, the hills here are not gentle slopes; cyclists will frequently drop from 2,200 meters down to 1,300 meters; that trend continues throughout the ride. However, those willing to put forth the effort will be treated to a loop around the Sinagua Ruins as well as the 900-year-old Sunset Crater Volcano. There are also great views of the San Francisco Peaks throughout the ride. The route then continues back to Flagstaff.
Long-distance costs and logistics
The cost of training camps can vary quite a bit. Camps with less support and coaching cost less, as do options with group lodging. Helwig’s weeklong camps, for instance, run from $375 to $650 for the week depending on whether you choose a bunk bed in a shared space or prefer a double bed in a room of your own. Fully supported weeklong camps with accommodations and food included cost much more – from $1,500 to $2,500. Then, you’ll have to factor travel costs into the equation.
Naturally, if you go far from home and need to fly to get to camp, you’ll spend more on airfare and transportation once you arrive at your destination. You’ll also need to ship, fly with or choose to rent a bike – another cost to take into consideration. Some camps rent bikes themselves – professional camps will at least know where and how you can rent one easily – but most cyclists prefer to ride their own bikes, which means you’ll need a way to transport your bike safely. “Investing in or renting a solid bike case is a good idea, especially now that bikes are getting more expensive,” Jim Rutberg says. “If you travel with a bike frequently, it’s definitely worth the expense. If you’re not a frequent bike traveler, whether you go into a bike shop or find somewhere else to rent a case from, it’s worth the effort.”
If you are a less-than-handy cyclist, you might need to plan ahead to find a bike shop abroad if assembling your bike makes you nervous. However, if you choose a destination that you can drive to, you’ll not only save money on airfare but could end up with a lot less to worry about when it comes to getting your bike to camp.
Choosing the right experience
Perhaps the most important question to ask when choosing a camp is what kind of experience you’d like to have. There are options galore: commercial camps, such as those run by CTS, coach-run camps, such as Helwig’s, and your own makeshift camp somewhere warm and on your own time.
Deciding what you’re looking for from a camp – whether it’s learning skills or getting comfortable with them, a dose of heavy volume, or just the opportunity to ride your bike while your buddies slave away on their trainers at home – is a big first step. Camps focus on a variety of things, such as hill training, skills, racing, endurance or mileage. Choosing one based on the type of cyclist you’d like to become is essential to having a good experience.
“We want to make sure that people leave our camps better than when they got there, that they’re seeing improvements, and that they’re going home with tools that they can use to continue those improvements once they leave,” Rutberg says.
Another important consideration is getting real about the cyclist you already are and choosing a camp appropriate to your level. According to Helwig, this assessment can make or break your experience. “There’s nothing worse than going to the wrong camp,” he says. “You don’t want to feel like you’re holding anyone back or going to get injured. On the flip side, if you’re a really strong rider, you don’t want to go to a camp with a bunch of newbies.”
The right camp will not only match your skill level and location and cost requirements, but should also deliver the kind of experience in terms of lodging, dining and scheduling that you’re after. Helwig’s camps and accommodations are set up to be family friendly so people can travel with loved ones and children and share a vacation experience while Rutberg describes CTS camps as prime opportunities to focus solely on riding. Asking questions about where you’ll stay, what meals are included and what they’ll look like, and what the itinerary will look like are smart steps before you commit to a camp.
Doing It Yourself (DIY)
If you struggle to find a timely camp that meets your needs, organizing your own training camp is an option. That’s what I do almost every year. Travelling with a group of friends can be fun, although there are a lot of logistical items to consider when setting up even a weekend of training away from home. From the actual training to travel, lodging, food and route selection, a lot of planning is required and can be tricky for newbies.
Another option that might work for you if you’d like flexibility but aren’t ready to plan your own camp is to look at a boarding program like the one that CTS offers. The company’s Triathlon School in Tucson, Ariz. sets up furnished housing with professional chefs and gives people the option of coming for three to 10 days filled with structured, coached workouts that they can attend. Helwig is also flexible about lodging. Riders can book accommodations outside of his offerings and he’ll charge a lower fee for those just participating in his rides and getting his coaching advice.
Ready those legs
Whichever camp you choose, be prepared for what you’ve signed up for. “Do your research and check in with the people who run the camp,” Helwig says. “Make sure it’s something that fits in with what you want to do.” While most camps won’t require any specific fitness level, heading south in decent shape will make for a more enjoyable and safer experience. To take the most from your trip, Rutberg says, cyclists should be all in. “The time at a cycling camp is a time to just be a cyclist,” he says. “Just focus on being an athlete for the time you’re at camp and you’ll get more out of it that way.”
Also, you should leave behind any fears of not being good enough for a camp or feelings that you’re being too indulgent. “People need to realize that they are investing a lot of time and effort into their sport year-round and this is something relatively small that they can do for themselves that’s going to really improve the quality of their training and their riding in the months afterwards,” Rutberg says. “Cycling is something that we love to do and it’s OK to give that part of our lives some attention for a short period of time. If you’re passionate about cycling and it’s what you love to do, a camp is a good use of your resources to make yourself a better athlete.”
Have a good and healthy season.
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