The Hotel at the Beginning of the World

Editor's Note: This is a big week for Stinner's Focus on Racing. On one side of the world, we have the Giro. Here in California, we have the Tour of California where the queen stage finishes on an iconic climb in Santa Barbara known as Gibraltar road. We see the racing and the beauty and the fanfare. But we don't see how these racers got there. Author Max Leonard takes us to an almost mystical training ground for many of the top pros. Meanwhile, later this week, we will focus on the nuts and bolts of racing.

On the Spanish island of Tenerife, in the Atlantic somewhere near Africa, rises the world’s third largest volcano, El Teide. And, at an altitude of 2,150m (7,000ft), stranded in the lava fields on the final slopes up to the 3,718m peak,  there’s a hotel. Lower down, the red-rocked scenery resembles the Arizona of the Grand Canyon. Up top, it tends towards the desolate, the extra-terrestrial. The hotel at the end of the world, you might say; or rather, at its beginning.

Teide’s last eruption was in 1909 (it is currently running behind schedule with its next), and so the land to the south west, which was formed as lava cooled from that eruption, is new rock, some of the newest rock on the planet. In that hotel, some of the world’s top cyclists – four WorldTour teams in all, and several loners – are staying. It has become the world’s premier venue for cyclists on altitude training camps.

They flock here because of the height, yes, but also for proximity to sea level.It is around 45 kilometres (28 miles) down to the sea, which means that it is an easy descent to good training roads: while sleeping high is good, too much time at elevation actually has a detraining effect. There is not enough oxygen to put in the big power efforts, and so muscles start to atrophy.

Why do it then? The main reason altitude training works – or at least, the main thing that cyclists currently use it to achieve – is to increase red cell mass. Sleeping and recovering in thin air stimulates the production of red blood cells, increasing the body’s oxygen-carrying capacity and therefore its ability both to perform and recover. There is also the important process of adaptation: start racing without spending any time at altitude and you lose 7% of your power for every 1,000 metres you climb. The big Tours are decided in the mountains, and the upcoming Giro features 10 passes over 2,000m – so contenders had better be ready. What is it riders actually do at an altitude camp? Nothing, pretty much.

For some teams, calisthenics together in the blue dawn; for others, early weights sessions; but mainly, the answer is nothing. Smash yourself on a ride, and then sit around on the hotel furniture and use the wireless (here, unusually, very good). Rent a movie on iTunes, perhaps, as you wait for your blood cells to multiply. Exactly how effective is altitude training? It’s difficult to say, since it affects every person differently and the most advanced experimenters – pro athletes and teams – rarely release their data.

Much of the beneficial effect can also be attributed to simply having nothing to do than focus on your riding and eating – doing what you’re told, in other words. It’s a mystic science that is oddly suited to this harsh, otherworldly desert. An act of faith that will only be repaid, weeks later, in the crucible of a Grand Tour ascent. 

Postscript: Enrico Gasparotto, the Wanty-Group Gobert rider, was one of the riders on Teide that week. The weekend after he descended he won the Amstel Gold Race for the second time.