The alarm clock bleating at 5am on a cold and frosty morning in early January is not often greeted pleasantly, but when it means a trip to Dublin airport to board one of Micky Ryans’ Aerobuses to the Spanish sunshine, it’s not so bad having an early start.
Bike racks abound in the red car park of Dublin airport. There’s even an ORICA Greenedge team car with Northern plates parked up in the dark and frosty car park. If you know why it was there leave a comment below.
A breakfast gathering becons in past security. The two Vinnies are already on form. Máirtín Óg and Delores are there all the way from Kinvara. Mike and Paul have just taken their seats when in walks El Presidente himself. Looking fit and lean alongside his equally fit brother the question arises as to how many nations have a Cycling National Governing body leader who still races.
The sun is shining when we land in Alicante and spirits are high as we board the bus to Calpe. The Dunboyne gang with their two Ras winners are all set and ready for action. Less than an hour away is our base for the next week where we will be immersed in the world of pre season professional cycling.
The black and green of An Post Chain Reaction has taken over part of the car park outside the hotel where the trucks and team cars are parked. Katusha, Dimension data, CCC Polstat, Quick Step and Giant Sunweb are all there too. Kurt and Sean greet our arrival with smiles and handshakes all-round. They have been there for a week already as they prepare their young guns for the season ahead. Bikes brought are assembled and those hired are collected. Patrick Deneut form Topbikes rental provides a few of us with really nice Merida Sculturas.
10am next morning we are out on the winding rolling road road to Denia and beyond. The clear blue sea smells fresh and clean as a familiar sounding voice starts chatting alongside. Rob Hatch, Seans’ Eurosport co-commentator is fit enough to race himself so it’s easy to see why the two get on so well.
A coffee stop breaks up the 100k sunshine spin as all consider just how good life can be. Back at the hotel we all make the 3pm cut off for lunch and recovery is under way to set us up again for the next few days ahead. Then it’s off down to the hotels leisure centre where Nicky has taken up residence in the icy plunge pool. The jaccuzzi relaxes slightly tired muscles and as I have a relaxed chat with Sean someone throws water over at us. We look and Sean says ‘ahh go away now Eric or I will have to dump you in the pool’ or something similar in Flemish as the battles fought over thirty years ago still bubble under the surface.
At dinner the An Post team look lean and hungry in their matching under armour tracksuits, trainers and Amphibia bags. Edvald Boassen Hagen passes me the scoop for some pasta at the buffet and I load up. The banter around the dinner table is flowing as team sponsors, staff and supporters all enjoy the atmosphere and craic. The team riders pass on their knowledge and experience to a group of Irish under 23’s who may well be the next batch heading for the higher pastures of professional contracts.
As I load up a plate of water melon Mark Cavendish is beside me asking me to tell Claire Moore that he was asking for her. Actually he was the one with the plate of water melon and I was trying to disguise a number of cream cakes with a few slices of melon and a kiwi. Claire lived in the Isle of Man when Cav was a junior and just as she did in Ireland looked after many teams and riders, one of whom was to become one of the greatest sprinters of all time.
The sun was still shining the following morning as we headed off towards the iconic Col De Rates. Along the way we took a slight detour to watch the An Post CRC team riders doing some sprint training. The acceleration of some was very impressive and could well rival the likes of Cav in years to come, just as former An Post rider Sam Bennett is doing now.
Back at the hotel that evening and Vanderaerden and Kelly are at it again as Nicky Butler steps in to referee.
Eric’s son Massimo is one of the bright young new signings and there is a mutual respect as Kelly tells Massimo that he hopes he is as good as the ould fella now that he does not have to race against him any longer.
The big team launch takes place the following evening and all the journalists arrive in to interview the riders and Sean and Kurt. The stage is very impressive and Rob Hatch does a great job of building up a great atmosphere as he introduces each rider to the stage. The rock concert vibe is electric and each rider will carry a great wave of support and encouragement as they get their seasons under way. Riders on much bigger teams with much much bigger budgets are impressed with just how professional everything is done at An Post CRC and share their encouragement with some of the teams riders.
Next morning snow greets us and Tony Martin casts a strange look as we walk past in our cycling gear on the way to get our bikes. I had been out in the snow a week earlier back home but did not think that it would turn out to have been the perfect training for a sunshine training camp in Spain.
Rolf Aldag remarks to Sean that the pros nowadays don’t want to train in bad weather, when their generation would just go out and get it done.
At the summit of one of the days climbs a snowball fight breaks out led by the King himself. He is a good shot and would probably have made a good darts player.
On the way back Dimitri Konychev passes and rolls down the window for a few words with Sean. As he speeds off again I remark that ‘he has your medal’ to which the reply comes ‘I gave it to him’.
In the next town, there is Koneychev standing at the side of the road handing up a warm bottle to Sean. Sean takes off the lid and checks the contents before taking a sip. A lesson learned from a lifetime as a practical joker who has been known to pass on warm bottles himself on winter mountain bike spins in Carrick, full of a different type of warm liquid. Koneychev must still be repaying that Worlds medal from Chambrey as the bottle was full of warm tea with honey and lemon and was absolutely delicious in the icy conditions.
Back in the hotel Cav sees our return and when he sees one of the lads in just shorts he has one word to say ‘nutters’. He was on a plane home the following morning. We might have cracked him.
Having Sean as part of the team must be a great inspiration for the An Post CRC riders. When he walks through the hotel the likes of Alexander Kristof, Sylvain Chavenel and Tommy Vockler all look over and have then same look in their eyes as the Irish supporters have when they see those same riders. Kurt is constantly either on the phone or meeting sponsors, checking on the riders and staff and generally working 16 hours a day. Being a DS is as much a vocation as it is a job and you can see that Kurt has the passion that makes him perfect for the role. Niko Eeckhout aka Rambo is coaching the riders and the thought of throwing the head and facing Niko afterwards must be enough to get riders to push that extra bit every time. Neil Martin who is Dan Martins dad is another assistant DS with a vast wealth of experience to pass on. Hans Sente and Gary Wilson are now two of the best swannys in the business whilst Freddy and Kurts’ dad Michel look after each of the teams bikes as if they were their very own pride and joy.
2017 will be an exciting year for the An Post CRC team so be sure to follow their progress and cheer them on.
What a difference a day makes