Recently, Blazin' Saddles heard about Bjarne Riis's Saxo Bank-Tinkoff squad returning to the Canary Islands for their annual off-season training camp — and so in the name of good old quality investigative journalism, your faithful cycling scribe booked himself an easyJet flight to Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, in search of Saxo.
November is an odd time in the cycling calender: with team rosters still undergoing 11th hour changes, pro riders are recalled from their post-Worlds winter break and brought together in a bid to bond and gel ahead of the coming season.
For Astana, for example, it will be the first (and only) time that the whole squad will be summoned to Kazakhstan to meet the big wigs, companies and fans behind the state-sponsored outfit. It's also a chance for the Iglinsky brothers to show off their favourite karaoke bars and for Alexandre Vinokourov to push the (Liege) envelope as official tour guide.
In the olden days, Riis used to assemble his CSC riders in the dark, dank Danish woods for unorthodox, SAS-style, 48-hour survival tests. Even Jens Voigt was known to have shed tears.
But time has softened Riis much like a ripened peach; gone are the military boot camps, replaced by jolly seaside jaunts in sunny Gran Canaria.
Saddles heard from his sources that Saxo Bank were due to arrive on the Spanish island this past Monday — although there was no confirmation from the team's press officer, Anders, who is yet to reply to any emails since last summer's TV interview with Riis at his book launch in London, during which Saddles let slip a 60 per cent inappropriate comment about Basque beef.
With Saxo keeping schtum, Saddles relied on the trusty word of Raymond Leddy — an affable Irishman who runs Cycle Gran Canaria, providing tailor-made cycling training holidays and bike-related activities on the island.
Ray had got wind of Saxo's get-together and it was enough to convince Saddles into booking his own training camp to coincide with Riis's shindig. So, last weekend Saddles flew out to Las Palmas with a friend — let's call him 'Rowan Rider' — who had recently cycled down the west coast of the States, from Seattle to San Diego.
Our aim was to do some riding ourselves over some of the demanding routes where the Saxo stars had ridden during their camp last year. Perpetual sunshine, wonderful scenery and superb road quality make cycling in Gran Canaria pretty irresistible.
We arrived on Saturday afternoon; Ray picked us up from the airport and we drove to our hotel in Maspalomas on the south of the island in time for a swim, a bit of R&R and then the mother of all steaks for our rest-day dinner. (Given that these succulent hunks of fillet were from Uruguay, all three of us would no doubt have returned positive tests for clenbuterol should the UCI vampires have come knocking).
Decked out in our replica jerseys — PDM Chrome Cassettes for Saddles and Mapei for Rowan Rider — we head to Free Motion (an Austrian-run bike shop near Playa des Ingles) and hired a couple of Cannondale CAAD10s — the world's finest aluminium road racing machine (complete with triple crankset: granny gears being pretty much a prerequisite for amateur bikers on the island's mountainous roads). Compared to the vintage Harry Hall Saddles has been using back in the UK, the Cannondale was a marvel.
Our opening day's ride was a simple leg-stretching 50km circuit up into the hills — followed by a fast-paced ascent of Monte Leon (more climbing in one afternoon than Saddles had previously done in a lifetime).
On day two — and this time clad in elegant Cafe du Cycliste vintage clobber — Team Blazin' Saddles took on the twisting climb to the Soria dam; once again Saddles refused to do a Wayne Rooney and go down on the granny.
Day three was the big one: the 100km round trip up to the summit of the Pico de las Nieves: starting at sea level, we rose to 1,949 metres with a total elevation of 2,500m. Brutal, beautiful, invigorating, exhilarating, painful, life-affirming... all these are words that could be used to describe the seemingly interminable ascent.
In short, it was a pure sufferfest made worthwhile by the wondrous scenery and the sense of accomplishment. Suffice to say, the granny ring was on speed dial.
From the top, we could see the lofty peak of neighbouring Tenerife's Mount Teide emerge through the clouds — the vital ingredient behind Bradley Wiggins' Tour win.
But still no sign of Saxo.
It was with much satisfaction and relief, then, that on Wednesday, our final day (and a national day of strike action at that), we were riding along the coastal path towards the resort of Puerto Rico when, coming around a corner, emerged the entire Saxo squad with a whoosh and a canary-like clatter.
God knows what they thought of when being waved at by a gangly rider sporting a PDM jersey, but at least three of them waved back and said 'Hola' in return. Such was their pace, we had no chance in pursuit.
According to Ray, they were heading up the back road to Soria, from where they would probably continue up to the Pico — combining our two rides of the past couple of days into one training session.
This must have been their first two-wheeled outing together as a new team because the first two days of the camp — Saddles has since learnt — were taken up with numerous activities such as beach volleyball, kayaking, scuba diving, jet skiing, banana boating and soccer. Swimming with dolphins may or may not have been involved.
An online video of the camp shows Contador going round and round in tight circles on a jet ski; it also shows footage of a makeshift triathlon featuring swimming, pedal boating and canoeing; rather incongruously, there's one segment during which an unidentified rider seems to be having his bunions scissored off while wincing in pain (proof that some of the Riis boot camp legend still lives on).
Saxo Bank are due to stay out in Gran Canaria until 27th November. This Sunday they will take part in a Grand Fondo public cycling event in Las Palmas; the capital city is preparing itself for ample Contadoration.
Signings Nicolas Roche and Roman Kreuziger are meeting their new team-mates for the first time, while the squad has also been bolstered by the arrival of American former Liquigas rider Timothy Duggan — snapped up because of his all-round abilities, good looks and, in all likelihood, the UCI points necessary to secure ProTour status for another season.
And Saddles hopes Saxo make the cut — if only to ensure a return trip to Gran Canaria next winter. If Saddles hears of any news or gossip from the island over the next fortnight, he'll be sure to keep followers posted on Twitter. You can also follow @saddleblaze to see a selection of images from the Team Blazin' Saddles winter training camp.
Gran Canaria really is a wonderful place to cycle — especially during the European winter. Flights, accommodation, food and drink are all relatively inexpensive — and once you've ridden out of the built-up seaside resorts, you have some truly remarkable roads to ride, with views that are right up there with anything you'll see in the Pyrenees or the Alps.
BMC-loving Ray — a flame-haired Sean Kelly lookalike with a penchant for popping energy gels and a back catalogue of amusing anecdotes and dirty jokes — offers a range of services including guided road biking, mountain bike camps, a Las Palmas cultural city bike tour and the Twin Peak Challenge — the chance to climb both the Pico de las Nieves and Mount Teide in the same week. He also knows where Eufemiano Fuentes' surgery is in Las Palmas.
Check out www.cyclegrancanaria.com and drop Ray an email for more information — you won't regret it.
Saddles is already planning a second trip in order to take on the aptly-named Valley of the Tears: "the hardest ascent in Europe — worse than the Angliru," according to the inimitable Mr Leddy. There'll be a few bleary eyed Saxo riders come Christmas... maybe Riis is planning a boot camp after all.
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