Friday 1 March 2024

Sports training camps: Why go to Mallorca when there's Manchester

Ready for my taster session at Manchester Velodrome

People tend to go on sports training camps in warm weather destinations abroad - Spain, South of France, Portugal, even Australasia. But I think that it's still possible to do and enjoy a training camp close to home, right in the UK. So I chose to go to the North-West of England. 

It's that time of year when elite athletes and amateur athletes, including some of my contemporaries head overseas to places where the sun shines a lot more than in the UK, there's less chance of rain, it's that bit warmer and folks don't have to hear stories about the latest political scandal in UK politics  [not that this sort of thing doesn't happen elsewhere, mind you!].

A large group of runners have just jetted off to Club La Santa, in Lanzarote. Some people in my cycling club went to Alicante in Spain's Costa Blanca, while a few others are preparing to go on a women's cycle training camp to Mallorca. 

I'm not averse to these sorts of trips - indeed I have done them in the past, and I've even enjoyed them. These days, I shy away from trips purely to go training because I like to get more out of my trip than each day just riding around somewhere, including a little cafe stop on a sun-kissed cafe terrace. You repeat the process every day, probably varying the caf√© and eating a tostada instead of churros, and perhaps adding in some swimming and maybe running. 

Don't get me wrong - I love a sporty holiday. But I also like a cultural element too. When you go on these camps you are just beaming up your cycling club, or usual cycling buddy group from the UK to Spain. So you are effectively creating your own temporary British enclave in the Balearic Islands or somewhere on the coast of Spain. I must admit, that doesn't excite me. If I go to Spain, I want to be in Spain - mixing with Spanish people, soaking in Spanish culture, and vising the places that make Spain famous. 

Doing a SwimRun race while on a trip to South of France

Also, I like to give my training a bit more meaning, so with that in mind I like to take part in some sort of local sports event while there - maybe a mini cyclosportive, a running race, or as I did last Autumn in the South of France, a SwimRun race

Not only was there a specific focus to my trip, but I also got to mix with local-ish athletes and make new contacts.  I don't know if people would necessarily call that a training camp - I don't know what the term is. But those sorts of trips with different dimensions are what I enjoy doing when I travel abroad to do sport.

In terms of training camps in the pure sense, I am quite happy to do that nearer to home. So with that in mind, I Manchester - well, 20 miles South, to the North-West's finest place, Macclesfield. 

It was just a case of throwing the bike and all my other sportswear in the car, heading up the M6 and less than four hours later I was at my apartment in the middle of Macc. There were no worries about dismantling the bike for the airline or paying extra to have it carried, no worries about what to take or not take through security, or keeping my luggage within the weight limit. It was all just straightforward and hassle free. I didn't even get caught up in any traffic jam on the motorway.

It was early evening on Saturday when I arrived in the East Cheshire market town at the end of a sunny day. However, sods law was that on my arrival the sky turned grey and as I set out to do a mini local spin. I felt a few drops of rain and the precipitation became heavier and heavier as I proceeded along the disused railway line, now known as the Middlewood Way. I hadn't planned on going far, and was only looking to stretch my legs after having spent a few hours in the car, so I was happy to cut short the ride.

Middlewood Way in Macclesfield

Sunday morning involved a four-mile early morning run in the sunshine along the Middlewood Way, and across to the Riverside Park through woodland between Macclesfield and its posh neighbour, Prestbury. I enjoy this area and have good memories of doing regular runs along here a decade ago when I lived in Macc. Even though its right in the town, there is a feeling of being out in the countryside, especially since livestock roam around the place in Springtime.

After breakfast I then took out my bicycle and did my training ride. This is a big area for cycling. The British Cycling talent team, based up in Manchester often come down to this area to do their training rides, and lots of local riders gather here. The equivalent of Box Hill, is a climb called the Brickworks. It's a 2.7km steady climb from the village of Pott Shrigley over moorland and past farms to near Kettleshulme, on the edge of the Goyt Valley. As I trundled along various riders past me, and said hello. I also saw a group of women on a ride. It looked like they were from the local Rapha Cycling Club. There's a cafe part way up the climb, though it would probably be better to go there on the way back down to Pott Shrigley. In fact I saw a lot of bike riders travelling down in the opposite direction, as I was winding my way up. Perhaps the cafe was their destination. I had no plans to stop there as I had a few places to visit from my itinerary and I was sure I would find an alternative place to stop if necessary.

Once over the Brickworks climb, I then climbed up the winding scenic road to be level with Blaze Hill, then took the fast descent through Rainow to return to Macclesfield and start the climb up the town's most iconic climb - the Cat and Fiddle. This is climb of  just over 10km (6.6 miles) takes you to the eponymous pub in the Peak District National Park, before dropping  6 km (4 miles) to reach Buxton. 

Despite the climbing practice I had had in South London, and earlier in February in Spain, I still felt unfit when tackling this climb. The road surface was quite rough, which didn't help. I figured that that would make me stronger. Once past the big turn in the road at Walker Barn I was officially in the Peak District, and with that the weather also became wilder, as the area seemed more desolate. There weren't that many vehicles, despite it being a main artery. There were very few cyclists too. Much fewer than I had seen on the other nearby roads.

Blaze Hill, outside Bollington, close to the Goyt Valley
Soon I reached a crossroads - a de facto decision point. I could continue to the summit, some 5km (3 miles) away, turn right towards Wildboarclough, turn back and enjoy a lovely descent into Macclesfield where the monthly Treacle Market was taking place, or turn left towards the Goyt Valley. Not wanting to disappear into some sort of Bermuda triangle along the A537 road, I decided not to continue towards Buxton, and I chose to do the latter option. This involved a very technical descent past Lamaload Reservoir. It honestly felt like riding down a wall while trying to avoid pot-holes and gravel. For the first time in decades I actually had to dismount and walk down the hill! On my way down, a few motocross bike riders came up in the opposite direction and waved at me, probably wondering what the hell a road cyclist was doing on this road! 

What goes down must come up, so I then crested a series of hills on the edge of the Goyt valley that took me back to Blaze Hill. By this time my legs were quite tired and looking at my Garmin watch I could see that progress through my itinerary had been very slow. You can't fake your fitness in the Peak District. It finds you out very quickly! And I found out that I still had some way to go to reach optimal fitness.

So with that, it was a very easy decision to return to Macclesfield via the gentler roads in the Cheshire Plain. After a long downhill along Blaze Hill, my ride then took me to Bollington, then through to, Tytherington, Adlington and onwards to Prestbury where life was very leisurely and folks were displaying their Sunday best al fresco at the local cafes. Getting out of Prestbury was more challenging than I had anticipated as there were a few hills to get over before reaching Macclesfield.

Finally, I reached my lodgings at Waters Green feeling satisfied that I had had a proper work-out. Indeed I had, as Garmin showed that I had done - more than 1,000m of climbing over 51 km. That was certainly the hilliest ride I had done all year.

With the limited amount of energy left, I then enjoyed a walk around Central Macclesfield to see the popular Treacle Market.

Monday was planned as a slightly less onerous day than on the Sunday. My bike ride consisted of a loop from Alderley Edge, a popular National Trust area of outstanding natural beauty, and heading through the nearby village of the same name, and home to many a footballer's wife (and in theory their husband) or Coronation Street actor. My loop also included Mottram St Andrew, once again Prestbury, before doing a loop up a local climb in that area, Artist's Lane. Nearby is a Flandrian type hill called Swiss Hill, but I decided to leave that one until another trip. 

Time was short, and I wanted to also do a little trail run through the woodland at Alderley Edge. One way I did this was by running along a Permanent Orienteering Course and identifying checkpoints. It's often a great way to make a run more interesting, and also to discover a new area. My run ended up being just a couple of miles as my orienteering skills were good enough to find the checkpoints quickly (That's what I like to think, anyway!) 

Straight afterwards it was a case of hotfooting it to the National Cycling Centre in Manchester, where I signed up to take part in a taster session at the Velodrome. It was billed as a taster session, but in fact I just took one of the reserved hire bikes and rode around for as long as I could in the time allowed - for me it was 40 minutes as I turned up a little late. I am not sure if I could have survived the full hour going up and down the steep bankings! 

Taster session at Manchester Velodrome

Had I been a complete novice at track cycling the coach would have spent time showing me what to do, but because I had been to the Velodrome in the past (though was not yet accredited), and had become a regular rider at my local velodrome in Herne Hill, I was allowed to get in an individual training ride, under the watchful eye of the coaches, in order to increase my fitness. 

There were a handful of other riders doing a paceline, but I wasn't strong enough to join the line, so I did my own thing. The coach said that I looked fine, but I would just need to do a couple more taster sessions so that I can then gain clearance to join the Regular Riders sessions which is the stepping stone along the way to gaining Accreditation.

By the end of the day, I was feeling a little pooped and was ready to check into my new lodgings, a private room in Central Manchester YHA. There, I had a well-earned meal and an early night to prepare for an early start at the Manchester Aquatics Centre.

Early the following morning I put on my running gear, gathered my swimming kit, and did the two-mile run from Castlefields to the university district where I joined the other swimmers doing training laps in the 50m pool at the Aquatics Centre. This popular venue is a legacy facility from the Commonwealth Games, and still gets a lot of use. It was a clean modern pool, and quite swish following its refurbishment in 2021, compared with the spartan facilities at Crystal Palace. I felt quite motivated, so did one kilometre. That was as much as I could do in the time allowed, as I still had to have breakfast, check out and then make my way back down to London.

The end of my training camp in the North-West had come, and I feel that it had been fun-packed, productive, and I like to think I have increased my fitness. Who knows, I may even be feeling fitter than if I had just doing a few kilometres here and there with my cycling buddies and sitting in a sun-drenched cafe. 

It has to be said that some people do these so-called training camps just so that they can spend time away from the UK, and some coaches that advertise the trips talk more about the well-being benefits of enjoying a cafe stop on the coast while sipping some local patisserie and coffee that is better than back home. Indeed, I see more Instagram photos of what's on people's plates than where they actually rode their bikes! 

Potato Wharf, close to where I stayed in Manchester

Granted, there's no contest when it comes to comparing the weather in Manchester versus Mallorca. But then again, wind, rain and snow are not entirely alien to the Balearic Islands. I have certainly been caught out without a pack-a-mac while cycling up to Puig Major. Even this year there have been weather reports of strong winds on Spanish soil. So weather is not entirely guaranteed even in traditionally warmer, sunnier countries. 

At least in Manchester, it's a case of better the devil you know. In any case, UK weather is so changeable that it is still possible to find a reasonable window in which to get out and ride a bike. Then of course swimming and track cycling aren't even weather dependent. 

So overall, I am happy to ride my bike abroad as long as I get the full cultural and social experience of being in that particular location. However, if the aim is purely about getting in a training camp and keeping fit I would rather keep the logistics simple and stay closer to home. 

But no doubt, I will at some point in the year end up getting a fix of riding my bike along sunny roads in a French, Italian, or Spanish hotspot, and I certainly won't complain about it!

Related posts

Barcelona cycle ride: Montjuic and Port Vell

Bella Italia by bike - Bergamo to Como

Cycle route: Bollington and Blaze Hill loop

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