by Marcus Leach
At the end of a gruelling season of cycling most leading teams and their riders would be happy to head off for a well deserved break and let their minds and bodies recover. Not the boys at Tinkoff-Saxo, for them there was to be no sunshine, beaches and relaxation.
Fresh from a hugely successful season they set off for one more challenge, one more mountain, only without their bikes this time. The challenge? Conquering Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak. To a man they are all used to cycling up some of Europe's toughest mountain climbs, yet on the slopes of Kili they would face new challenges.
For Alberto Contador, the team's captain, the five day trek culminated with him summiting the highest peak of his career, and whilst not on two wheels it still came with plenty of challenges.
"It was a new experience, where the whole team worked together, sharing good times and some really difficult moments as well," he said. "The weather certainly didn’t help us. For the first three days it rained a lot and we didn’t have time to dry our wet clothes and equipment like tents and sleeping bags.
"The hardest thing about the first three days was the constant rain, not the physical exertion or altitude as we didn’t go over 3,800 meters.
"Of course, the real test was the final climb to the summit on the last day. We went from the last camp, located at 4600 meters, to Uhuru Peak, 5895 meters, the highest point of Kilimanjaro. That day we woke up at 11:30pm at night and aimed at reaching the summit at sunrise, but it was difficult to fall asleep.
"That last night before we embarked on the final climb to the top, it was really windy and difficult to climb. But luckily the wind died out little by little and we decided to give it a try."
As is often the case when tackling mountains on their bikes, Contador was the first team member to reach the summit at 4.30am in the morning. As a natural climber on his bike, well used to pushing himself to the limit, Contador wanted to face a mountain higher than ever before in his professional career and life.
"It was a new challenge for me because I didn't know how my body would respond to the altitude. But the sensations I had were pretty good," he said.
"Only after passing the 5,400 meter mark I noticed some discomfort in my stomach but it quickly disappeared, which kept me going at a good pace to the top."
It wasn't just the riders who took on the challenge, but the entire 72-man team, as they looked to forge even greater bonds ahead of what promises to be an exciting 2015 season.
"In my case, I went with Valgren, Kiserlovski and a guide," Contador said. "We had difficult moments. Although I was lucky that the altitude didn’t affect me, there were teammates who were affected and had to turn back, others needed help to get to the summit.
"There were also some that had to return to the camp without remembering what had happened. But that was also one of the goals of the expedition, to face situations that involved fellowship and helping each other in difficult situations. I think we achieved that goal, although it wasn’t easy."
For Contador it was the perfect way to prepare himself for what is going to be a tough, both physically and mentally, season next year.
"It has been a good experience that marks the start of the 2015 season, which is probably the most challenging season of my career with the Giro-Tour double. Now I have to recover from this trip and focus on my own task, which is my bike," added the winner of this year's Vuelta a España.