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We spent two days with the An Post Sean Kelly team during their Spanish training camp

Ryan Bailey was in Calpe last week to get an insight into the life of a professional cyclist.

Sean Kelly and our man Ryan Bailey on the Costa Blanca coast.
Sean Kelly and our man Ryan Bailey on the Costa Blanca coast.
Image: Paul Mohan/SPORTSFILE

LAST SATURDAY, SIX riders from the German Giant-Alpecin team were hospitalised when a motorist crashed head on into the them during a training camp in Calpe, southern Spain.

The severity of the incident only came to light in the days afterwards as the details began to filter through. Two of the riders were air-lifted to hospital and underwent emergency surgery after sustaining serious injuries in the collision.

Spanish Police later charged the driver, an elderly British woman, with reckless driving as the cyclists were mowed down by the car reportedly driving on the wrong side of the road.

In one split instance, the perils of the sport laid bare.

One of the riders, Fredrik Ludvigsson, admitted he and his team-mates are ‘lucky to be alive’ and it will be some time before they recover, both physically and mentally, from the ordeal. 

Less than twenty-four hours earlier, the Giant Alpecin team spent their evening in the opulent Diamante Hotel, where a host of professional cycling teams had set-up camp for their respective winter training camps.

Among them was the An Post CRC Sean Kelly team. The 16-rider squad spent the previous fortnight on the Costa Blancan coast in preparation for their new season under the guidance of Kelly and manager and director sportive Kurt Bogaerts.

The team, which was formed by Irish cycling legend Kelly 10 years ago as a platform for young riders to gain experience, enjoyed one of its most successful ever seasons on the UCI European Tour last year.

Ireland’s only professional cycling team is slowing establishing itself on the continent and its reputation is spiralling with each passing season.

In the last few years, Ryan Mullen, Sam Bennett and Conor Dunne have earned contracts with higher-ranked teams off the back of impressive performances in the green, ultimately ensuring the team is serving its purpose.

An Post Chain Reaction Sean Kelly Team Launch 2016 The team during their training camp. Source: Paul Mohan/SPORTSFILE

Kelly is determined to give young Irish talent the chance to showcase themselves and have a passage through to the next level.

But the team must work within boundaries. An Post are lending their considerable support to Irish cycling in 2016 again but Kelly doesn’t have the financial muscle of the other teams sitting opposite in the hotel’s restaurant.

In one room, sitting are several of the sport’s most acclaimed riders. This part of the world is a hotspot for cyclists and the hotel is taken over by teams for the month of January. It’s a remarkable environment.

We fly into Alicante airport shortly before lunchtime on Thursday afternoon. Instantly it’s obvious why this part of southern Spain plays an integral part in team’s preparations for the strenuous months on tour to follow.

The proximity of two international airports allows riders to jet in from all corners of the world while the quiet roads, stunning scenery, varied terrain and weather makes it an ideal location.

Members of the An Post CRC staff collect The42 and other members of the travelling party from the airport and transport us 80 kilometres to Calpe.

The itinerary is tight so there’s no time to be wasted. The journey, via the infamous holiday resort of Benidorm, brings us right along the coast and provides a brief glimpse of what’s on offer.

It’s late January yet the temperatures are already peaking at 20 degrees and it’s noticeable from the terrain that there has been little or no rainfall over the preceding weeks and months. It’s a welcome break from the biting conditions back home.

An Post Chain Reaction Sean Kelly Team Launch 2016 The team spent two weeks in Spain, fine-tuning their preparations for the season. Source: Paul Mohan/SPORTSFILE

The stretch between Benidorm and Calpe, and the road into the small town of just 30,000 inhabitants, is narrow and winds around the surrounding hills. We passed throngs of cyclists, both professional teams and amateur groups, on the way in.

It was remincisest of a scene from GoldenEye when Bond was involved in a high-speed car chase in the hills overlooking Monte Carlo. Calpe is a similar setting, although motorists are a little more congenial and courteous here.

Tourism contributes hugely to the local economy and cycling is a significant part of that. There are a chain of hotels along La Caleta hosting teams and the surrounding cafes, restaurants and businesses thrive off the added footfall.

This is, without doubt, a haven for cyclists.

The hotel carpark is fully occupied by a line of team trucks and cars, almost like a scene from one of the stages of the Tour, with mechanics outside busily going about their business repairing bikes following the morning session.

It’s a rest day for the An Post CRC team so there’s less activity in their quarter. The riders are dotted around the hotel. Some are spending time in the pool, others in the spa to deservedly cushion the strain from the hills.

There is a constant stream of riders filing through the lobby. Some are even still on their bike as they come through en route to the lift which will take them to one of the nine floors.

The hotel is transformed into a cycling hub. The second floor restaurant is separated into different sections for each of the teams, although riders mingle as they fill their plates in what must be the healthiest buffet imaginable.

Wholesome, nutritious food is available around the clock and there is a constant flow of riders coming in and out refueling after or before a long ride.

Chicken, fish, veal, pasta, rice, salad, omelettes, eggs, yoghurt and fruit are all on offer and we were fortunate to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner alongside the team for the duration of our stay.

IMG-20160122-WA0018 The journalists kitted out ahead of the cycle.

Teams sit side-by-side and pass each other on the stairs. They keep to themselves but there is certainly no hostility between the different camps. “It’s not football,” Sean McKenna, one of the An Post riders, jokes.

The mood within the team is good, although there are a couple of tired minds and bodies as the last 10 days begin to take their toll – and there’s not a lot here to help take your mind off the job.

It’s a tough existence. The riders are living out of a hotel room for a fortnight and when they’re not on the bike, are largely restricted to the confines of their hotel for much of that time.

“By the time Sunday arrives, I’ll be looking forward to getting home,” Australian Calvin Watson admits.

After a couple of hours of media obligations, the team are left to their own devices before dinner at 8pm. There is no hanging around, either. Once they’re finished, it’s back to the rooms for an early night ahead of a tough training ride in the morning.

In an environment of this kind, it’s difficult not to be fascinated by the day-to-day procedures. It’s all very formulaic and the riders, as professionals, each have their own methods.

There is a curious mix on the An Post team. Some are just starting out in their careers and are experiencing a professional set-up for the first time. Others are seasoned riders who have been here and seen it all before.

The backroom team and mechanics, six of whom travel with the An Post team, are afforded the freedom to relax in the hotel bar – but even still the topic of conversation is cycling and there can be still work to be done.

They’re up bright and early and out in the car park preparing everything before the riders make their way out from breakfast. We’re meeting outside at 9am and we’ll head off with the team for the first leg of their ride before turning back to the hotel.

Snapchat-7735975575525269160

We’re each given the team’s kit and fitted for one of the racing bikes. As it happened, I was given Sam Bennett’s one from a couple of years ago and after a nervous wait for everyone to assemble, we’re all set to go.

Turn left out of the hotel and you’re met with a hill. Turn right and there’s an even bigger hill. There’s no gentle introduction as the riders set off, forcing us stragglers to keep up.

I would consider myself fit so there were no concerns over lasting the duration of the ride or being able to manage physically. The war stories from last year’s media trip, when one unnamed reporter came off his bike at a sharp bend did little to settle the initial nerves, however.

When you’re riding on a bike worth €6,000 alongside a team of professional cyclists, you don’t want to embarrass yourself. You almost feel like you’re learning to cycle again, taking one step at a time and slowly becoming more comfortable and confident.

The team cars, one at the front and the other at the back, accompanied the group and we had been stocked up with energy bars and fluids to keep us going. It was a surreal experience – until we reached a point when the pros decided they’d had enough.

Source: David Pintens

We were about half an hour in before they decided to take off and that was the last we saw of them. Two of the more experienced cyclists among the media attempted to keep pace but quickly, and inevitably, fell away.

I adopted a more conservative approach, saving my energy for the ascent to the peak, at which point we were to turn around and head back towards the hotel.

Needless to say, it was somewhat easier coming back down the hills at high speed but the horrific accident which occurred on these very roads less than 24 hours later was a reminder of the dangers.

Thankfully there were no incidents and we all returned back to Dublin in one piece, if not a little sore from the morning’s exertions. For now, the cycling career is on hold.

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Ryan Bailey

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