Villa Pacini, Lucca, Italy.

“It’s French National Day today, you know, Bastille Day,” comments Alex Sans Vega, the Spanish Sport Direct for NTT Pro Cycling, in an off-hand manner. As we drive carefully along the narrow roads in the idyllic Tuscan scenery, his comment brings us back to the moment; we are here following the NTT Pro Cycling team on–what some would argue for French riders–is the main day you truly want to win a stage of the Tour de France. That would be the normal state of affairs.

But this is 2020, the year of Covid-19, and there’s a new normal on the roads.

With racing restarting right now, NTT Pro Cycling have given us access to their pre-season (or, better said, pre-restart-of-the-season) camp, held in the heart of Tuscan cycling territory. Under the guidance of new Team Manager and cycling legend Bjarne Riis, the team has opted for a different approach to many others by opting for all the team to be in one location for two weeks of hard riding and team building. Usually it would be more segregated, with specific camps for various groups–those tackling the Spring Classics, or altitude camps, where you’d see groups of 10 riders maximum.

There’s a different atmosphere here. A sense of unity that might not always have been felt so strongly.

“After months apart training at home, it’s great to be back with everyone,” American Ben King comments, fairly fresh off the flight from the USA to his European base of Lucca. “We’re all so keen to get back to racing and some sort of normality after months of unknown.”

But it is the unknown and expanse of nothing–the unexplored terrain in terms of racing for the remainder of 2020–that has unlocked a different approach for the team. What lies ahead for this WorldTour Team is going to be a very unique season.

Ben O’Conner in race mode as the team challenge the riders to hill climb competitions during camp.

“We’ve all been working really hard during lockdown. To be honest with you, I don’t think that there is a team that is better prepared than us.” A bold statement from Sans Vega as we assiduously follow the 28-strong team’s 5-hour training ride with a mock race on one of the key climbs in the area. Commitment was at the fore of the team’s mind throughout the height of the pandemic. Sans Vega explains: “Every Saturday we had a two-hour meeting with everyone from the team, from support staff to riders and up to management. Plus, we’ve been really pushing the riders hard. Following their training. All those hours on Zwift together. And now it is showing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen these guys, in this shape, all at the same time. They look better than pre-Tour shape.” He throws an arm out the window. As the pairs of lean, vein-filled legs turn the pedals in front of the team van, we can only concur.

Largely to be expected, conversation keeps drifting toward the topic of racing–and the gulf that it left from the middle of March until now. NTT Pro Cycling had two trump cards to play in this period though: technology (thanks to their main sponsor) and innovation. The latter mainly involved trialling new techniques and utilizing the know-how of their team of young, ambitious sports scientists, who focused the downtime to work on riders’ weaknesses. “You’re usually only focusing on racing and recovery for a large part of the year,” explains Elliot Lipski, one of the sports scientists and coaches. “But if you take the racing out of the equation you can try new things. Like adjustments to diet, simulating altitude, etc. It’s actually been a super busy period and like the rest of the team I’m keen to get back racing to see what we’ve achieved.”

There are frissons of excitement in the air that last the entirety of our visit. Everything has been optimised for this moment: new bikes, new kit, a new energy. The lockdown period gave people a chance to invest in themselves, bringing their part of the teamwork to the next level. After breakfast and bike fittings for their new Teammachine SLRs from BMC, we join the team for another pre-training briefing. When Riis talks, you stop and listen. Everyone does. The riders look eager, excitable, and there’s a nervous anticipation in the air. Are these the nerves that will likely make the upcoming season opening races something special? It’s hard to predict. Edvald Boassen Hagen agrees: “I can’t say what the first few races will be like, but for sure they are going to be tough. Everyone has fresh legs, everyone has a short season to be in amazing shape for, and everyone has only three months to make their year worthwhile. I think if we get through these upcoming months it’s going to be filled with fireworks.”

A prediction that we not only agree with but are looking forward to seeing materialise.

Riders from the NTT Conti Team showed up for the mock uphill race, something we were happy to see.

We sink back comfortably into the usual training camp flow: easy pre-ride mornings where the riders fuel up, followed by long hours in the saddle, essentially the work of the day, and restful afternoons focused on recovery until you’re ready to go again. There’s a comforting sense of normalcy for the pros when they get back into this routine. We see it at every training camp we’ve been to, but this one holds a spark of something different. Whether it is the summer sun, the amazing shape of the riders (check out the numbers the NTT guys have been pushing on the virtual TDF) or just the thrill of knowing that racing is on the horizon, we can’t say. But what we do know is that more than ever this felt like a pre-season camp, where riders and staff are energized at being back with their cycling family once again.

“What are we aiming for this season?” laughs Doug Ryder, team principal. “Well, we’ve already got our eyes on one race to begin with–the longest Monument that we have a history with, Milan-San Remo. It’s one we’ve been working towards, so with some luck on our side you’ll see the blue train in action there.” He speaks with the same infectious passion that we’ve witnessed on countless occasions, and we’re glad that the time apart did nothing to deter his enthusiasm.

And, as for the aim, we’re already thinking about the Poggio and its iconic run into San Remo.