What do pro riders really do at Christmas? We asked the pros to share their festive season secrets

Should you relax and indulge over Christmas or use the time off to train like a pro?

Image shows Tao Geoghegan Hart riding on a snowy day
(Image credit: Getty Images - Tim De Wael)

Christmas is upon us and while readers of Cycling Weekly may be looking forward to getting stuck into the Quality Street and mince pies, spare a thought, if you will, for professional cyclists. Those paid to pedal have to remain disciplined and keep training even while their friends are in the pub or making merry around the tree. We spared a thought by catching up with a dozen current and former pros to find out what they really get up to while the rest of us are stuffing our faces.  

The answers of the pros

Alice Barnes, Canyon-SRAM  -  ‘Don’t try to beat me at charades’

Can I just say, I’m really good at charades and normally win. I don’t even watch much TV or many films, but I’m just good at it and people are always asking me to play. I feel like it’s one of those games people say they don’t want to take part in but then they sit in the background shouting out their answers. If they do that, they should just play! 

Nowadays, I tend to ride on Christmas morning, as it means I can eat more afterwards. I enjoy the ride – far better than sitting around in pyjamas all day. That’s what I used to do because I’m lazy! 

James Shaw, EF Education-Easy Post - ‘Happy pooch-mas!’ 

I’m in a Christmas no-man’s-land where I’m too old to believe in Santa and don’t have kids who believe in him either. I don’t strive to have a child any time soon, but equally I can’t wait for the days when I’m leaving a half-eaten carrot and an empty mince pie case, pretending Santa’s been. I do try and recreate that magic with my two dogs by buying them both a present that they have to unwrap, but that gets a mixed reception. One throws the wrapping up all over the place and is really excited, while the other looks at it as if to say, ‘Well, what do you want me to do with that?’. They’re like chalk and cheese. 

Illi Gardner, Cams-Tifosi - ‘It’s a mug’s game’ 

Image shows cat with cycling mug

(Image credit: Getty Images / Linda Raymond)

The older I get, the more I’m becoming a Grinch. Until the age of 15 I used to love every Christmas, but now I don’t find it very exciting – I’ve never even done a Secret Santa. I can confidently say though that the worst thing you could get a cyclist is a mug with a picture of a bike on. Have you noticed how that’s what everyone buys cyclists?

Ben Turner, Ineos Grenadiers - ‘My first Christmas dinner in years’ 

Image shows Ben Turner racing cyclocross

(Image credit: Getty Images - Luc Claessen / Stringer)

In the last six years, all of my Christmases have been spent in Belgium, as I’ve had a cyclo-cross race on Boxing Day. So it’s felt very much like a normal day, eating chicken and rice or pasta, just like I would before a race any other time of the year. This year I’m not racing. I’ve not had a Christmas dinner in years so we’ll see if I like it! 

Jess Roberts, Team Coop Hitec Products - ‘Tis the season for playdough crocodiles’ 

This is going to make me sound way older than 23, but one year I got a Shark hoover for Christmas and I was so happy with it! I like practical things and this was great. It’s still going strong today and I haven’t had to replace it yet so it was a great present. 

As a family, we play a variety of different board games and our favourite is Rapidough. It’s essentially Pictionary with playdough. You pick up a card and you have to make whatever the image is out of playdough, and the other team has to guess. If you win, you have to take a bit of the other team’s playdough until they have none left. It’s particularly amusing when someone tries to make a crocodile out of the tiniest bit of playdough.

Thomas Gloag, Jumbo-Visma -  ‘Christmas pudding? Don’t get me started’

Image shows Thomas Gloag racing

(Image credit: Getty Images - Dario Belingheri / Stringer)

Do you know what my Christmas disappointment is? Christmas pudding. It’s just terrible. And it’s so annoying because I love all types of pudding and I could eat dessert all of the time, so the fact that the one at Christmas is no good doesn’t sit well with me. It’s the bitter aftertaste that I don’t like, and I’ve just never been able to get away with it. It doesn’t matter if I pour double cream over it, it’s not nice. I’ll never get my head around why it’s our country’s pudding of choice at Christmas. 

Jake Scott, Wiv-Sungod - ‘Merry motoring’ 

Cycling teams don’t have Christmas parties, but I remember AnPost Chain Reaction making one training camp a week before Christmas a bit special. We were still riding and training hard, but one day we went go-karting and did a few activities as a team. It was good fun. 

Jon Mould, ex-pro with JLT Condor -  ‘Fifteen cyclists walk into a bar…’

A few years ago, all of the south Wales pros – including the likes of Luke Rowe and Stevie Williams – had a Christmas night out in Cardiff , all wearing Christmas jumpers. There were about 15 of us and obviously the bars weren’t going to let that amount of lads in, but we remembered that we had walked past one empty bar. So we went in there and took it over. A few hours later, two of the lads were standing outside the bar acting as promoters and trying to get other people in! The owner was really happy with us. Turns out us cyclists have got a bit of alcohol endurance as well. 

Dani Christmas, ex-pro with Lotto-Soudal Ladies - ‘Tell me one I haven’t heard already’

Image shows Dani Christmas smiling

(Image credit: Procycling Magazine)

My surname’s origins come from a small town, as opposed to the occasion. People play on my name all of the time and it gets quite tedious after a while. But that’s my name – and people will continue making jokes about it! One thing I’d change about Christmas is people buying gifts for buying’s sake.

You know fine well this person will not want a shower gel set. The pressure to buy is enormous, and I would rather not get a £20 gift but instead spend time with that person. 

Matt Walls, Bora-Hansgrohe -  ‘I wish it could be new bike day every day’ 

My best ever Christmas present was when I got a new Colnago bike, just after I started racing. It was a big jump up from what I’d had and a total surprise. I remember we opened our presents in the morning, then went out for a walk and when we came back this beautiful bike was there waiting for me. I was like, wow! – buzzing with it.

Christmas these days is a bit more of a chilled vibe, but things can get very competitive if Monopoly comes out. It’s usually not long before someone’s kicking off. 

Bob Jungels, AG2R Citroën Team - ‘Fondue wishes from Luxembourg’ 

Image shows Bob Jungels racing

(Image credit: Getty Images - Justin Setterfield)

I love playing poker, but none of my family let me play it with them during Christmas. Maybe they’re scared of losing. Instead, it’s mostly other card games or traditional board games like Monopoly. In Luxembourg, we spend the 24th with our parents and siblings, eating food like cheese fondue, and then on the 25th we’re with the wider family. 

Ilan Van Wilder, Alpha-Vinyl Quick Step - ‘Who remembers Playmobil?’ 

I used to love aeroplanes as a kid and I remember one Christmas my parents bought me a really big Playmobil aeroplane – I was so happy with it! I also had a Playmobil airport, so I put the aeroplane together and spent the entire day playing with them both. I was used to travelling with my parents so I knew how it all worked and it meant I could replay everything perfectly. I would pretend that I wasn’t super-happy if somebody got me a Playmobil set in a Secret Santa now, but my inner child would be delighted.

Pro Team coach’s view: ‘The priority is letting go - ride for fun’

Bora-Hansgrohe are sensitive to individual riders’ differing needs at Christmas and therefore apply a more relaxed and flexible approach to the period between 24 and 26 December, aware that some riders have families with small children who require increased levels of attention. 

“I call them fit-for-fun days,” says the team’s head coach Dan Lorang. “It’s free time for them to move how they want but without instruction from the coach. If they want to ride for three hours easy, great, but if they only want to go out for two hours, that’s their choice.

“Intensity means stress, so they have to decide if they want to stress their body or not during this period. There’s no harm in going over threshold for two hours, as it can make effective training, but it’s all about what they want. The biggest thing is about letting go. 

“Another thing we have to consider is location and weather. For riders in Girona or Monaco, they can do interval training on Christmas Day, but for riders in Germany or Austria, they might be waking up to snow.”

In the eventuality of winter conditions, Bora encourage their riders to practise other sports (cross training), provided they have experience and skills. Lorang continues: “In my opinion, cross-country skiing is the best VO2 training you can do, as it works the whole body and all the muscles. If a rider tells us they are going cross-country skiing or ski-mountaineering for a few days, we allow them, as we know it’s good training and it keeps them mentally fresh.”

Pro Team nutritionist's view: ‘It’s important to relax – eat what you like!’

Many pros treat Christmas Day as their weekly rest day, while those who do head out onto the quiet roads do so with the intention of burning enough calories to warrant filling their boots at the festive feast. 

The job for teams is not necessarily to instruct riders on what they should and shouldn’t eat, but to remind them that while they shouldn’t be completely lax with their discipline over the festivities, one day of splurging won’t do any significant harm. “It’s very common after a big meal or a big day of eating that you will be heavier,” says Ineos Grenadiers’ nutritionist Aitor Viribay Morales. “That’s because the body is retaining more fluid; it’s not solid weight. We have to educate riders, especially younger ones, to better understand that. They should not get too stressed with these weight fluctuations. After a few days, once the liquid retention is less, they will return to their normal baseline. 

“We tell them to enjoy Christmas and whatever family traditions they have. They shouldn’t feel bad about eating a lot. If they continued eating like that for three days, that would be another matter, but for one day it’s fine – they can eat as much as they want.” 

Part of the reason why Ineos and other teams take this approach is that they have the rider’s mental health in mind. “If riders were to restrict themselves on Christmas Day, it wouldn’t be healthy for their head,” Viribay Morales continued. “They need to enjoy Christmas and then return to normality and a cycling training plan. Some riders get really anxious about this period, so we have to talk a lot to them about the importance of letting go.”

This full version of this article was published in the print edition of Cycling WeeklySubscribe online and get the magazine delivered direct to your door every week. 

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