For the first time in 10 years, Saxo Bank won’t be holding their much-despised but highly effective boot camp, which taught the selfish how to be selfless, writes Anthony Tan.
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7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:36 PM


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As the stifling Saharan
wind is tempered by the ocean breeze, the remnants of the Saxo Bank team
(plus whatever boss Bjarne Riis could muster in the transfer season)
gather in the Spanish Canary Island of Fuerteventura.

And for the
first time since Riis took ownership of the team a decade ago, there
will be no training camp led by B.S. Christiansen, the former soldier
from the Danish Ranger Corps who spent 28 years as a top-notch commando.

"It's
all about teaching people that they can achieve their goals by
cooperating. They have to perform their very best under the worst
possible circumstances, where every action has a consequence,"
Christiansen said at their winter 2004 camp, where Australian Scott
Sunderland began his career as a sport director.

Denmark's
version of Bear Grylls, B.S. Christiansen's oddball training camps soon
became stuff of legend, where Riis' men donned army fatigues and went
into the wild – sometimes desert, other times jungle, always
inhospitable – often without food or water and sometimes for two or
three days, all in the name of team building. When they finished the
camps looking like malnourished cats, they must've wondered exactly
whose interests Riis had at heart. The only individual who seemed to
revel in these fight-or-flight conditions was Jens Voigt, the
irrepressible hard-man who probably throws a few nails in with his
Weet-Bix at breakfast time.

"We didn't have any clue of time nor place," said Sunderland after his first boot camp in 2004.

"We
didn't know where they took us and we had to hand over our mobile and
watch. They split us up in groups of 13 people and we were on the go for
48 hours. We got the whole military kit, huge backpack and all. Over
the last two days, we didn't get to sleep much more than a couple of
hours. [We were] under the open sky and on an island, and that wind cuts
through you; it was horrible, really. Our feet are all blistered and we
were absolutely knackered after the two day ordeal."

But when the cammo's came off and the lycra came on, come race time, the team was formidable. Terrifying, even.

When
they gathered their troops up front in an early season race like
Paris-Nice, it sent shivers of fear down the peloton's spine, because
their rivals knew there would soon be carnage and by the day's end, just
a handful would be left standing. "If they are this strong, this
organised, and this deadly now, what would happen in the Classics or
Tour de France?" many riders must've been thinking.

Many times, they won well before they crossed the line.

"When
a rider is under a lot of pressure," said Christiansen, "he reacts very
selfishly, and that's where I have to work with them." Former Riis
rider turned sport director (who is now at Team Sky), Bobby Julich, said
that, "those days in the bush bonded us much closer and gave us the
strategies to work as a team in any racing situation".

Fuerteventura,
which has the epithet "island of the eternal spring" for its
near-perfect year-round climate, sounds a far cry from Man vs. Wild.

"Will
you miss the survival camp?" I asked Richie Porte, who endured his
first and last in the European winter of 2009 before Christiansen took a
job at FC Midtjylland, one of the top soccer teams in Denmark's Super
League.

"No, not at all. It wasn't nice... No, it was bloody
horrible, spending a night out in the desert," he told me. "I guess
Bjarne's always going to do something to put us out of our comfort zone,
but me personally, I'm not going to miss that. But it really did bring
the team together; it was an incredible idea."

But then Richie
owns up to the real reason why it was so bad: "It was harder on most of
the young guys because they had to have a couple of days' off Facebook,
to be honest. You can quote me saying that!"

As funny as it was –
and I did laugh out loud – I can't help thinking whether these
Facebook-addicted teens and 20-somethings might be missing out on vital
social skills that Christiansen was so determined to instill, which, if
one thinks about it, are the essence for survival in the real world.

A recent article in the New York Times,
'Generation wired to distraction', said the lure of new technologies is
particularly potent on younger people and "the constant stream of
stimuli they offer pose a profound new challenge to focusing and
learning". The risk, researchers say, is that the brains of our wired
youth become so used to switching tasks, over time, they may render
themselves unable to see a task to its completion.

"Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but jumping to the next thing," Michael Rich told the NYT,
an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and the executive
director of the Centre on Media and Child Health in Boston. "The worry
is we're raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains
are going to be wired differently."

In this year's Giro d'Italia,
Porte showed he not only has the physical ability to ride consistently
over three weeks, but the mental capability to handle the stress of such
an event (though he did admit to me to being extremely highly strung
throughout). However in 2011 as possibly the sole Grand Tour leader on
the squad, he'll also need to demonstrate he has the social skills to
gather and motivate the troops at Saxo Bank, if he's to lead them to
victory.

And as B.S. Christiansen would have said, that's something you can't do on Facebook.