San Diego, California -- Last week, Team Novo Nordisk’s men’s professional cycling team headed to San Diego, California for what they thought was a regular early 2016 training camp. Instead, the athletes were woken up at 4AM West Coast US time on Monday to take part in a series of rigorous team-building exercises led by former US Navy Seals and special operators.
“We came up with the idea to do the Navy Seal-style camp because we saw our riders racing as individuals and not as a team. We wanted to show them that if they work together as a team, they can be better,” Team Novo Nordisk CEO and co-founder Phil Southerland said. “We believe that what was holding them back was truly mental, so we wanted to break them down and build them back up as one solid unit.”
APG (Acumen Performance Group) led the Team Novo Nordisk athletes through a 36-hour intensive development program designed to promote leadership and team building. Founded by former US Navy Seals and special operators, the program specializes in enhancing performance in a dynamic, high-stress environment.
“We were very involved throughout the planning process for the 36-hour course. We knew we wanted to create a stage race style format,” Southerland said. “We broke it down into eight stages, including eight different types of exercises. We worked together with APG to formulate a really intense, stressful and unique experience designed to make the riders stronger.”
The two-day course began near Mission Bay in San Diego before heading east into the desert, where temperatures dropped near freezing overnight. The athletes were divided into teams of five and led through a series of physically and mentally demanding exercises, relying heavily upon teamwork in order to finish tasks.
“At first, I didn’t know what to expect. I have a lot of respect for the military, but I didn’t know how hard it was really going to be,” Charles Planet (FRA) said. “The night was the hardest part. I was really cold and we were only able to sleep a short time. My heart is what kept me going. I kept telling myself that I couldn’t stop until I hit my absolute maximum and even then, I’d go past that. All I kept thinking was that I didn’t want to let my teammates down.
“A lot of the exercises relied on constant communication. We have riders from 10 different countries and a lot of languages within the team, so accurate communication is essential,” Chris Williams (AUS) said. “We ride together at races, but often times we aren’t communicating well. If we can communicate better, it will make it a lot easier. We learned how to improve upon this, and I think we all left knowing that even when you think you can’t do something, you have to because you don’t want to let your teammates down.”
Following a night of very little sleep, the group returned to the coast for a final set of in-water exercises before the team finally hiked back to the hotel where it all began 36 hours earlier. Nearly every athlete agreed the underwater challenge was the most difficult and was the point where they nearly gave up. Still, not one rider quit and they emerged as a much stronger unit.
“My teammates motivated me to get through the tough moments and I never thought about quitting,” Team Novo Nordisk neo-pro Brian Kamstra (NED) said. “I think everyone will carry this experience into next season. Just like we didn’t quit on each other this week, you can’t quit during a race because then everyone will have to work twice as hard.”
“We did a lot of team exercises and dug really deep physically. The last day left us all exhausted,” Team Novo Nordisk veteran rider Martijn Verschoor (NED) said. “We were running on very little sleep and were so sore, and it was at that point they made us get into the freezing cold water. After that experience, I think racing in the rain will feel easier. We will remember the cold water and wind and know we are strong enough to make it through.”
Although some of the riders were nervous, resistant or unsure of what to expect in the beginning, they emerged with a rock solid team bond and unshakeable confidence in what they are capable of accomplishing. Riders and staff agree the experience will have a notable effect on the 2016 season.
“We have young riders, but we also have some experienced riders. At this camp, the playing field was leveled and everyone was equal. They all had to work together to achieve the shared goal. There were no superstars and no riders were left behind,” Team Novo Nordisk Vice President of Athletics Vassili Davidenko said. “I really believe we are going to see the results of this camp over next season. This type of camp serves as a great method for a young team like ours. We have a limited pool of riders and want to develop them to the next level, therefore we needed to look at alternate strategies to help push them, and that’s what this camp did.”
Following the program with the Acumen Performance Group, pre-season training camp continued for the world’s first all-diabetes professional cycling team in Rosarito, Mexico, where they were joined by the entire Team Novo Nordisk staff to build houses for two families tragically impacted by diabetes and poverty.
* This report is a part one of a two-part series regarding the Team Novo Nordisk 2016 pre-season training camp.