Heroics aren’t just for race day. There are a number of riders, past and present, who transcend the notion of bad weather and embrace challenging conditions. Training and riding in extremities not only provides you with the physical conditioning others shy away from, it also develops your mental fortitude, honing your discipline, focus and motivation to battle with the elements. Here are some of our favourite winter heroes showing you that even the worst of weather can’t stop a hitter.
Photo © Timm Koelln
1. Juan Antonio Flecha
Like an Arrow
Juan Antonio Flecha is not your typical Spanish scalatore. He can climb mountains under the beating sun of course, but his real flair for racing is expressed in the colder climes of northern Europe during the spring. His superior bike handling and toughness in the cobbled classics is a combination of many things but ex-teammate Michael Barry explains one of the major factors:
While most cyclists search for warmer climates to escape winter, Flecha spends weekends at his second home in Puigcerdà in the Pyrenees to sustain and improve his climbing. Unafraid of the cold and wet, he rides while his girlfriend skis, his tyres making tracks in the snow. Cars loaded with skiers pass cautiously. Despite the discomfort of frozen extremities and the risk of crashing, he finds peace and reason riding alone in the frozen environment. Like his Flemish rivals, Flecha has learned to persist through inclement weather.
– Michael Barry, Flecha, Rouleur #21
2. Stijn Devolder
Similarly to Flecha, hardnut and former Belgian champion, Stijn Devolder, approaches his training with a no-nonsense attitude. When his Quick Step teammates hot footed it to a training camp in Spain during the freezing winter of 2009, Stijn Devolder decided to stay in Belgium. Training firmly on home soil and only outdoors, the two-time Ronde Van Vlaanderen champion preferred to knock out 160km training rides alone than join his team mates in sunnier climes. “It hardens your character,” he told one journalist bluntly. “I’m happy with my winter training – what others do is their business.”
3. Andy Hampsten
Andy Hampsten is known for his cheerful disposition, which is certainly required when you are faced with racing to an altitude of 2621m in freezing conditions. His now iconic attack on the Gavia pass in 1988, which subsequently robed him in pink and led to the first non-European Giro winner, was an unexpected move in a blizzard of Biblical proportions. But just like other North American racers of his generation, he was riding against the grain of tradition, proving that you can show panache at the most unexpected of times. The conditions facing Hampsten during this decisive stage qualify his famous escape as a prime example of wintertime heroism.
4. Phil Anderson
Australian, Phil Anderson, had the kind of constitution that flourished in foul weather. Shelley Verses, the first female soigneur on the pro circuit, explains an incident whilst working with Anderson for the Dutch team TVM:
It was pandemonium at the start of the Tour of Flanders. The press was swarming around our team cars. The mechanics and soigneurs did all we could to prepare the bikes and the boys and deal with the paparazzi too. It was sub-thirty ºF and sleeting. On days like this we layered the boys legs with three types of liniment; the top coat a silicone-like product derived from the feathers of a duck to repel the water, sleet, and snow.
As one of my riders put his start food and bottles into his pockets and moved aside, a journalist shoved his way into the coveted circle.
‘Phil, it’s strontweer ( Dutch for ‘shitty weather’). Good day for you.’
Phil replied, ‘Why do you say this day is any better for me?’
And the journo said, ‘the worse the weather, the better you go. Two-hundred riders are starting, less than thirty will finish in conditions like this… good day for you!’ Phil almost clocked the guy. ‘I don’t go any better, everybody else just rides worse.’
5. Bernard Hinault
On 20th April 1980, Bernard Hinault took his second win of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but it didn’t come easily. Almost as soon as the peloton lined up at the start, snow blizzards swept in. Half of the 173 riders who started abandoned. As what remained of the peloton struggled back to Liège, Belgium’s Rudy Pevenage and Ludo Peeters attacked. But Hinault, Le Patron, sternly upped the pace as the pack rode through biting winds and thick snow. Pushing hard over the Stockeu, he took two riders with him and, after a 20km pursuit, the Hinault trio caught Pevenage and Peeters on the Haute Levée. But the Badger wasn’t finished and he attacked alone, away from the group he’d formed, and literally ploughed on through the snow and over the climbs of La Redoute and Saint Nicolas. He finished an incredible nine minutes up on second-placed Hennie Kuiper.
As he rolled across the finish line, a depleted and incredulous group of spectators applauded one of the toughest rides of modern cycle racing. It took nearly a month for the feeling to return to his fingers and Le Blaireau claims he still suffers from the effects of that frostbite.
6. Roger De Vlaeminck
Monsieur Paris-Roubaix – four-times winner of the Hell of the North – could have followed a career into professional soccer. However, his older brother, Erik, persuaded him to try racing cyclocross. In his second season as a junior, he won 25 road races. A natural. He then won his first ever professional race, the early season classic Het Volk. But again, like Flecha and compatriot Devolder, it seems what he did in the off-season paid dividends come the start of the racing season. Racing cyclocross, with its intensive demands on legs, lungs and bike handling clearly worked. Not to mention having to cope with the cold, the wet and the muddy conditions of the lowlands.
7. Charly Gaul
Known for his melancholic and introspective personality (like many of the greatest climbers) the Luxembourger was at his best in conditions that left his opponents cast adrift. Stage 20 of the Giro of 1956 placed Gaul 16 minutes behind the overall leader. The peloton rolled out in the rain yet by the time the pack reached the final climb of Monte Bondone, it was snowing heavily. Temperatures plummeted to −10°C but Gaul, the Angel of the Mountains, escaped after 4km of climbing and finished the remaining 10km alone. When he reached the summit he had remarkably moved into first spot on GC, with a lead of eight minutes. As the colour returned to his feet and hands he donned the Maglia Rosa, retaining his incredible advantage over his rivals all the way to the finish in Milan.