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Off Season

UCI Road World Championships 2018

Off Season

How Tirolean pro cyclist Stefan Denifl is preparing for summer.

Text: Eva Schwienbacher, Picture: Johannes Mair / Alpsolut

Professional road cyclists who want to be on top of their game must create the foundations for success in winter. Tirolean Stefan Denifl trains on an ergometer exercise bike, on roads in southern climes and in the snow.

Stefan Denifl opens the door to his gym. The equipment is more modest than you would expect of such a successful professional cyclist. The newly built clay extension is home to only two training devices: a hardly used leg press and an exercise bike - the key component of Denifl’s winter training sessions. 

A flat TV screen hangs on the wall - to stave off boredom during long hours of pedalling - and pictures with motivating slogans. A mat for core exercises lies on the floor and there is an infrared cabin in the corner. The room - as well as Stefan's complete apartment just next door - was built at his parents' house in Fulpmes in Tirol with a great deal of personal commitment and craftsmanship by his father, who is a carpenter and also a cyclist. 

Stefan Denifl, Professional road cyclist


"The winter training sessions save you from having a stressful season." 

Here, at home, Stefan Denifl gets what he needs for the exhausting racing season:  stamina and endurance through hours spent on his exercise bike and touring skis, and mental strength through time spent with his family in Stubaital and his partner and eight-month-old son in the Zillertal Valley.  

Gentle slow-down

Last season was his most successful one to date: Denifl was the overall winner of the Tour of Austria, accomplished a stage victory at the Vuelta a España 2017 and ended the season with the World Championship in Bergen. After a season ends, the time immediately afterwards is usually used to take a step back from the topic of cycling. This time, however, everything was different. “Thanks to my successes, there was quite a lot going on - I had to make appearances, received honours and enquiries. It was a brilliant season and that was part and parcel of it. At the same time, however, it made switching off difficult.” He openly admires the great athletes around whom there is constant hustle and bustle, as is the case with Marcel Hirscher, who still manages to concentrate on training and racing.

Memorabilia of the Vuelta stage victory and overall victory of the Austrian tour in Stefan Denifl's apartment.

Pictures with motivating slogans hang on the wall of the gym.

Aside from these appointments, the 30-year-old used October to gradually reduce his training schedule. “It would place considerable strain, especially on the heart, to go from competition fitness levels right down to zero. In the same way that it is damaging to go straight from doing nothing into full training modus. For this reason, Stefan has become accustomed to swapping his thin road bike wheels for more robust ones in autumn. Autumn is perfect for mountain biking in Tirol. And there are countless possibilities." He also makes the most of the opportunity to race down a few singe trails. "Injuries wouldn't be as bad at this time of the year," he says with a laugh. After all, he started his career as a mountain biker and is reluctant to give up the fun.

Between Spain and the Stubai Valley

Race-free time is a very important one for professionals. Not just to get away from their bikes for a bit, but also to work on core competencies for the upcoming season.   He can certainly endorse the much-quoted saying of, “The summer sportsman is made in winter.” "The winter training sessions save you from having a stressful season."  Which is something I have had to learn over the years," says Denifl.  

Stefan Denifl at training camp in Calpe, Spain © Aqua Blue Sport / Karen M. Edwards

In order to get back into regular training after the short recovery phase, Denifl spent between ten and 15 hours a week - two to three hours a day - from mid-November onwards on his ergometer exercise bike. He and his team then headed off to training camp in Calpe, Spain at the beginning of December. The time between the season ending and the start of training has never passed as quickly as it did this winter.

The first common training camp is always a bit more of a relaxed affair and is a combination of testing equipment, rides, photo shoots and team activities. Socialising together is another important aspect. You can get to know your colleagues better over a beer or glass of wine, says Denifl. Things usually gets more serious at the second training camp, which followed this year in January in Mallorca and centred on covering as many kilometres as possible.

Aqua Blue Sport from Ireland, for whom Stefan rides, is a young team that was formed in 2017. The atmosphere amongst the 16 riders is easy-going. A special concept is used for financing the team: unlike most teams, it has no main sponsor. “Aqua Blue Sport is a digital marketplace, a kind of Amazon, for cycling retailers selling top products, which is why we riders are also willing to advertise on our own behalf and thus secure financing," explains Denifl.  


Flexibility despite precise planning

Before professional cyclists even draw up their winter training plan, they work out which races they will participate in and which of them are most important. As a rule, race planning takes place after consultations with the team - ideally as early as possible. Fixing dates is not an easy task for the 27 Professional Continental Teams, which also includes Aqua Blue Sport, because they need an invitation for certain races, such as the Tour de Suisse, Tour de France, Giro or the Vuelta. "The 18 World Teams have the automatic right and obligation to compete in the continental circuits, while UCI awards a wildcard for four Pro-Conti teams," explains Denifl.  

Aqua Blue Sport has managed to secure a start position in the Tour de Suisse, but the Tour de France will take place without the team featuring in the line-up. "My current highlights are the Tour de Suisse in June, Tour of Austria in July, Vuelta at the end of August - if we get invited - and of course the World Championships in Tirol", says Stefan Denifl. He is hoping for a good preparation programme for the home World Championship. "The Vuelta would be ideal, but in the worst case scenario, I could also use training to prepare for it.”

In addition to planning, good training also requires flexibility. Denifl suffered from extreme tension-related headaches in mid-January, which made scheduled training impossible.  "They crept up on me slowly, and left at a similar pace," says the man from Stubaital. They may well have been due to stress. “That is when I learned another lesson.” Stefan therefore decided against joining a trip down south at the end of January. Instead, he took advantage of the opportunities here in Tirol to hone his fitness levels, the mountains on his doorstep in particular. 

Denifl plans his sessions according to whether he has an easy or hard training week on the programme. "An easy day of training means that I train for between two and three hours, either just on the ergometer, or on touring skis." On long training days, he combines both. It's important to train for as many hours as possible: get up at seven o'clock, drink coffee, pedal with an empty stomach on the ergometer for 45 to 60 minutes, shower, quick breakfast - bread with jam or porridge oats with an apple, change clothes, a two to three-hour ski tour, home, change again and back on the ergometer.  

The last session is the hardest. “Skiing is usually very strenuous for a cyclist, as it uses different muscles - it is much more arduous for us than cycling uphill,” explains Denifl. Add being tired and hungry to the equation. “These training sessions are very demanding, but they harden you up.” The reason for training on an empty stomach is that it maximises muscle performance and aids weight loss.  At the same time, it puts the body under enormous strain. Similar to altitude training, it belongs to the five percent of training that can improve a rider's performance, but is equally damaging if the foundations are not right.  "There are many riders who invest way too much energy into such little things, when it is the foundations that have to be right,” says Denifl.

Well monitored

Stefan Denifl trains 25 to 30 hours per week in winter, split into intervals of three days training, one-day break and three days training. Time off is used to recuperate, recuperate, recuperate, sort out everyday tasks and spend time, of course, with his son. The recovery phase - also on training days - includes stretching exercises, sauna and infrared heat sessions, foam roller exercises, physiotherapy, massages and muscle stimulation using special equipment. What is important here is variety.  Denifl also includes core-strengthening exercises in his training plan.  This ensures more stability on the bike, which is extremely important for performance, especially during tours.  

Athletes moving in professional circles usually train on their own, which is why online training programmes have become “de rigueur” in recent years. After training, they load the data, such as pulse or watt measurements, onto a special website so that trainers can get an idea of the riders’ performance levels at any time. “Especially when performance levels drop, more rigorous checks are made,” says Denifl. A wealth of high-tech training tools have since found their way into elite sports. Although Stefan is interested in these developments, he prefers to rely on proven methods, such as listening to what his body is telling him.

Full, fit and thin

Life as a professional athlete also involves a controlled, balanced diet. As far as food is concerned, says Denifl, and like many professional athletes, he has experimented a lot.  "Every athlete is looking for a diet that makes them full, fit and thin at the same time.  "Right now, I'm on a relatively simple diet and am not going without any certain foods like low-carb or low-fat."  Simple means: three meals a day without snacks - except for energy bars during hard training. There are carbohydrates for breakfast, a mix of proteins and carbohydrates at noon and something low in carbohydrates in the evening. This type of diet is easy to stick to and: “It means I can still eat with my grandma every so often.”

Stefan's competition weight is around five kilogrammes below his normal weight.  "If I want to get thinner, I have to weigh up my portion of pasta. A decisive factor for me is what and when I eat in the evenings.” Just one extra kilo on the ribs can be felt during the mountain stages. He mustn’t lose too much weight, however, as that would affect his muscle mass. Food isn’t a problem during the big tours. “You can eat as much and as late as you like, you always lose weight.” Hardly surprising, when athletes have a daily energy consumption rate of 5,000 to 6,000 calories, in addition to the basic metabolic rate.

"Hardly any other athlete competes in as many races. A marathon runner runs around five marathons. As a professional cyclist you are on the road about 200 days a year, which is very draining.” Stefan Denifl

The racing season now tends to start earlier, due to the fact that races in Australia, Asia and the Middle East have been added to the itinerary over the years. On an annual average, a professional cyclist has 80 racing days and cycles an average of 260 kilometres per competition, which does not include training camps on arrival and departure. "Hardly any other athlete competes in so many races. A marathon runner runs around five marathons. As a professional cyclist you are on the road for around 200 days a year, which is very draining.” "He used to be keen on competing in every race possible - no matter where it was. Nowadays, the young father appreciates not having to get on a plane.  

The season began this year for Denifl at the end of February, with a race in France.  Compared to other professional cyclists, Stefan Denifl started his season with relatively few training kilometres behind him - which was also due to pain. For this reason, the Tirolean athlete incorporated ski touring into his training programme. Be that as it may, he will still spend many hours in the saddle by the end and highlight of the season, the home World Cup in autumn – as well as in front of his TV screen within his own four walls of clay.   

Stefan Denifl (30) from Fulpmes came top in the overall rankings of the Tour of Austria in 2017, as well as a stage of the Vuelta a España in 2017 - and by doing so, recorded the greatest successes of his career thus far. Double Austrian road champion, Max Bulla, was the last Austrian to win a stage of the Vuelta back in 1935. Since 2017, Stefan Denifl has been a member of the newly founded Irish team Aqua Blue Sport, which holds a license as UCI Professional Continental Team. He comes from a cycling family - his father Ernst Denifl competed as a mountain biker in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. When Stefan Denifl is not on the road, he lives in Fulpmes.


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