Pedal mettle: top cycling camp in California tests endurance and guts—and pampers too

Welcome to Floyd Landis's top cycling camp in California, where you can expect to test your endurance and guts. And maybe, just maybe, you'll get pampered a little bit.

Athletes speak reverently about entering “the zone,” that Zen-like place where they become oblivious to pain and exhaustion and move forward on sheer adrenalin. It sounds nice, but I'm nowhere near it this morning. My objective is to remain totally in tune with my suffering. So I'm taking an inventory: my breathing is laboured, my heart pounds at 170 beats a minute, my legs burn from a buildup of lactic acid, my butt aches, and my calf muscles–well, they feel like they're about to snap and coil up into little balls.

All that, and I feel great. Really. First, because I'm riding my bike in January in sunny southern California. And second, because there is something sublime about a long ride up a mountain. I can't explain it. There just is.

I am slowly making my way up the winding South Grade Road that leads to the peak of Palomar Mountain, northeast of San Diego. It's about 20 kilometres to the summit, rising from 925 feet above sea level to 5,240 feet. The climb is a breathtaking test of will for cyclists; it's often compared to Alpe d'Huez, the most famous climb of the Tour de France, because of all the switchbacks and a grade that averages about 6.5%, but gets as steep as 12% in places.

My jersey is unzipped and sweat drips from my helmet, even though at this elevation the air is cool. I am riding along at maybe 12 kilometres per hour. Eventually, I approach a sign–an elevation marker. It says I'm at 3,000 feet.

I'm only halfway up the freaking mountain! I look at my watch and note that I've been riding about 45 minutes. The record to the top is around 52 minutes. I won't break any records this morning.

Today's 120-kilometre ride started amid the lemon and orange groves of the Pauma Valley. It is the étape reine–or Queen Stage–of an early-season training camp hosted by pro cyclist Floyd Landis. I and 19 amateurs from across North America are spending six days riding with Landis through the boulder-strewn hill country surrounding his home town of Temecula, an hour's drive northeast of San Diego.

The camp was billed as an opportunity to live and train like a pro cyclist for a week. That basically means: eat plenty of pasta and other carb-loaded foods (Atkins? Who dat?), consume gallons of water and sports drink (no booze, please, we're athletes), and sleep–a lot. Plus, you get treated like a king. There are personal assistants–soigneurs, in cycling parlance–who take care of your every need, right down to filling water bottles. Support vehicles provide assistance if someone has a “mechanical,” such as a flat. Once the ride is finished, a mechanic tunes up the bikes while campers spend the afternoon getting massages and taking naps.

There was a practical side to the camp. It was organized by Saris Cycling Group of Madison, Wis., to promote its flagship PowerTap, a device that measures power output in watts. The cyclists attending the camp had PowerTaps attached to their bikes; a sports physiologist, Allen Lim of the University of Colorado at Boulder, was on hand to teach us the theory behind power training.

But the real draw of the camp was the opportunity to ride for a week alongside Landis, 29, one of the strong men of the pro peloton. A former teammate of six-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, Landis now rides for a team sponsored by Phonak, a Swiss hearing-aid manufacturer. He put on a show at last year's Tour de France, setting a gruelling pace on the final climb of Stage 17 in the Alps, one that only Armstrong and a handful of rivals could match. When the ride was over, comedian Robin Williams (a cycling nut) gave Landis the nickname “Mofo of the Mountains.” For an encore, Landis rode the Vuelta–the Tour of Spain–and wore the gold leader's jersey for five days.

My big worry going into the camp was whether I'd be able to keep up with Landis and the other campers. Although I had ridden a mountain bike recreationally for years, I had never trained for anything requiring endurance. I wanted to change that this year, and attending an early-season training camp seemed like a great way to get started. But I didn't want to be dropped on every ride and picked up by the support vehicle like a piece of roadkill.

Fear is a strong motivator, so for eight weeks prior to the camp I worked out almost every day. I did jumping lunges, went speed skating, and spent long, boring hours on my bike atop a set of rollers in the basement. I even cut down on my beer and chip intake. It seemed strange to train for a training camp, but pride demanded it.

I also needed a decent set of wheels. That was easy. I had previously ordered a new road bike: a $3,000 Giant TCR made of carbon fibre. It's a sweet machine, weighing in at about 17 pounds, only a smidge heavier than what the pros use. It would make for quite a combination, my weak engine and this racing machine–something akin to putting a four-cylinder in a Porsche 911.

On the first morning of the camp, Landis rolled into the parking lot at the Temecula Creek Inn–our base for the week–at around 7:30. He was wearing his team's green-and-yellow lycra outfit. Landis has a small frame, like most pros who excel at climbing (he's five-foot-ten and weighs 150 pounds). The camp wouldn't be physically taxing for him; it would be an easy warm-up for his own training season, which was about to get underway.

We set out under a cloudless sky, leaving Temecula for the rolling hills to the east. Our objective the first day was to maintain an easy pace of 25 to 30 km/h. Landis rode at the front, or pace line, blocking wind for the rest of us. (A cyclist expends 30% less energy drafting behind another rider.) Each of us had an opportunity to ride alongside him and chat. Midway through the ride, I started to think that I shouldn't have been so worried about sticking with the pack; it was a piece of cake, even though many of the other riders were veteran triathletes and weekend racers.

My confidence evaporated when we hit a steep climb halfway through the 80-kilometre ride. I quickly discovered what it feels like to get spit out the back of a pack of riders. I and a few others quickly lost sight of Landis and the stronger cyclists in the group. Still, it wasn't a long climb (a few kilometres) and I wasn't the last to the top. You don't always have to be first in life, but it's never good to be last.

The thrill of the day came after we regrouped at the summit and swooped down a winding road into a lush valley, passing avocado groves at speeds in excess of 75 km/h. The ride ended with a spin past grapefruit orchards and a vineyard just outside Temecula. Back at the hotel, a buffet lunch awaited–soup, pasta salad, bread and sandwich meats. It wasn't gourmet, but nobody seemed to mind after spending three hours on a bike and burning a few thousand kilocals.

And so it went for six days. Over the course of the week, there was plenty of climbing and an equal number of fast descents, including one section where the downhill grade was as steep as 26%. (We had to brake most of the way down, and the heat generated by the friction caused several riders to flat.) Midway through the camp, there was an easy ride along the Pacific Coast Highway, passing through the seaside towns of Encinitas, Carlsbad and La Jolla. That evening we were treated to a dinner at Fifth & Hawthorn, a restaurant in San Diego owned by Floyd's in-laws.

The sun is out on the morning of the final and most difficult ride of the camp: the climb up Palomar. By the time I reach the 3,000-foot marker, most of the other riders have passed me. But I've found a good rhythm. Occasionally, I nudge my gear shifter, looking for a lower gear to give my legs a break. But I'm already in the lowest gear.

Hey, suffering builds character, right? After 96 minutes I reach the summit. I'm not that far behind most of the riders, and a few are still making their way up. The fastest camper, a 47-year-old pilot, reached the top in 75 minutes. Landis did it in 55.

One of the coolest things about riding up a mountain is the trip back down. On this climb, we go quickly from agony to ecstasy, with a descent down the east side of Palomar. My fingers are numb from the cold as I fly down the mountain. The pack reunites and refuels before the rest of the day's ride, which includes a brutal five kilometre climb up grades in the 10% to 12% range. But it's only tough for the amateurs. The Mofo of the Mountains sails up ahead of everyone, his legs spinning away as though the road was flat.

Over the course of the week, we rode in excess of 380 kilometres. The most impressive rider at the camp, apart from Landis, was old enough to be my father. Bill, a 66-year-old retired professor from Berkeley, Calif., kicked my butt on many of the climbs. I found out later he rides 8,000 miles a year. I don't think I've ridden that far in a lifetime.

The training camp was not cheap–US$2,575 for double occupancy, including food and lodging. For US$800 more, riders could take home the PowerTap and the lightweight Zipp wheel it's built into–a combo that retails for US$1,700. Participants who opted for single occupancy and the PowerTap/Zipp shelled out US$3,875. It might seem a lot to spend for a week of suffering, but it makes perfect sense to me–when the alternative is shovelling snow.

For road scholars

The 2005 Floyd Landis Power Camp was one of several early-season training camps for road cyclists. Typically held in exotic locales, the camps are an excellent way to get into shape before spring, or escape the boredom of riding an indoor trainer. Interested in attending one next winter? Check the following sites later this year to see what they have planned: After the success of this year's Floyd Landis Power Camp, plans are in the works to hold another one next winter. Participants ride with Landis, hear inside stories from the pro circuit, and attend lectures on training with a power meter and nutrition. A camp hosted by former American pro cyclist Frankie Andreu. Participants ride on the roads of the Tour de Georgia, an annual pro race, and attend workshops on bike positioning, nutrition, stretching and skill development. A bike tour company owned by Alex Stieda, the first North American to wear the yellow jersey at the Tour de France. Stieda lives in Edmonton and hosts annual bike camps. This year, camps were held in Palm Springs, Calif., and Kona, Hawaii. Participants were taught cornering and descending techniques, race tactics and training methods. Former Canadian pro cyclist Steve Bauer has hosted a winter training camp in Cuba for the past two years. The weeklong event combines exercise with leisure: participants cycle in the morning and relax on the beach in the afternoon. Accommodations were at two all-inclusive resorts.