These days, when the UCI World Cycling Centre’s mountain bike athletes train together, one is ready to go to bed, while another has only just woken up.
That is just one of the logistical problems the four athletes face as they tune into their coach’s session from home: Akari Kobayashi lives in Japan, Agustin Duran is back home in Argentina, Kätlin Kukk is at school in Estonia, while Tumelo Makae was blocked from travelling back to Lesotho and remains at the UCI WCC in Aigle, Switzerland.
After starting the year as a tight-knit group, the four athletes have been scattered worldwide since the end of March as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The time difference between them is 12 hours.
“I want them to still feel part of a team, not isolated,” says their UCI WCC coach Charlie Evans. “It is a psychological challenge more than anything else. I have piloted some group gym sessions with our physio Izzy Zens which range from recovery sessions to circuit training.
“The decision to send them home was not easy,” he says. “They were keen to see this period through, believed in the training we were doing and were prepared to be away from home for the duration. We had excellent support from our Director (of the UCI WCC, Vincent Jacquet) and lots of ideas to keep them motivated, healthy and engaged. But then looking at the situation, the severity and ambiguity, sending them home was absolutely the right thing to do.”
Agustin Duran was stranded 28 hours at the airport in Madrid on the way back to Argentina, then had to spend 14 days in government quarantine on arrival. He is now happy to be back with his family in the town of Chilecito.
Based at the UCI WCC since 2018 – the year he represented his country at the Buenos Aires Youth Olympic Games and placed 2nd Junior at the American Continental Championships – Duran struggles to overcome the boredom: “There are times when you do not know what to do. I miss going outside to train with the guys and the coach. The long outings were so much fun. I also miss the facilities at the Centre, the gym, the restaurant… everything. But I try to be calm. Everyone is in the same situation. It’s difficult to train without having objectives but I stay positive. Everything will return to normal and you have to be ready.”
Early on in the coronavirus pandemic, Akari Kobayashi chose not to travel back to Japan from Switzerland for her graduation to avoid health risks. Paradoxically, she now finds herself with her family in Nagono prefecture: “I was really shocked when I found out we were all going home. Training is still my top priority and then studying for university and helping with housework. The group sessions with the team are at night for me in Japan, but it’s great because I can see everyone’s faces and we can work out together online.”
Estonian Kätlin Kukk was chosen to train at the UCI WCC after a talent identification camp in Aigle at the end of 2019. A student at the Audentes Sports Gynasium in Otepää, 230km south of her home near Tallinn, she is now focussing on finishing school after a long cyclo-cross season.
“We are still allowed outside, so I ride my bike as much as possible, but I miss training with the team and riding the super awesome trails in the Swiss mountains. Here, I mostly train alone, and we don’t have mountains. It’s basically flat around Tallinn.”
Lesotho’s Tumelo Makae was unable to fly home to his wife and family due to border restrictions preventing him from changing planes in South Africa. He remains in the Mon Séjour accommodation in Aigle, usually full of the UCI WCC’s athletes from all disciplines: “The first few days were a little bit hard. It’s strange at Mon Séjour with no athletes but I’m OK. We have our little gym and I am able to train outside as normal. At home it’s a complete lockdown and I wasn’t going to get a chance to ride outside or even access the gym. It’s not the worst, but everyone wants to be with their families in these hard and strange times.”
Meanwhile, two junior riders, Israeli Naomi Luria and Brazilian Alex Malacarne (currently 4th Junior in the UCI Rankings) were due to arrive at the UCI World Cycling Centre this week but instead have met their fellow athletes by video.
“We are including them in our activities as they should be with us by now,” says coach Evans, who adds that the other trainees had gone home after a solid preparation for the season and some good early performances.
“My advice to them was not to try to hold onto this form. We agreed we would go for something between a base phase and maintenance. It’s like having another winter. The group is still young, so it is key to lay the foundations for strength, endurance and technique.
“This situation does have a silver lining for them. They can add to their foundation without the stress of needing to score points and peak for events.
“The main focus of training now is maintenance, personal weakness and bottling our motivation…”