Hints and tips for riding the Alps

Col du Galibier by Robbie Shade© Robbie Shade

In 2014, I managed to finish the L’Étape du Tour from Pau to Hautacam, which included the 17.2km brute of a climb, the Col du Tourmalet. I finished in 7216th position from a total of 13,000 people; not a brilliant position but I was one of the lucky (?) ones that managed to finish within the time limit, wasn’t unceremoniously dispatched to the broom-wagon without a finishers medal and I can say that I survived one of the most atrocious weather conditions of any Étape.

Following the ride I wrote a Kindle e-book on my experiences that gives tips and hints on how to successfully complete one of the hardest cycling sportives on the calendar.

So, now that registrations have opened for the 2015 event, what advice would I give those that are planning on taking such a challenge on?

The route next year from Saint-Jean de Maurienne to La Toussuire shouldn’t have the unpredictable weather that the Pyrenees had last year (I would still check the weather and dress accordingly; remember you do not have the ‘Pro’ luxury of having a car following you with a change of clothes). But what’s interesting about this particular Étape is that the race isn’t about the distance, it’s about the climbing. Notice that I called it a race – the first finishers will record similar times to the professionals who will ride the route a few days later.

You will need to be fit enough to complete the distance but simply cycling long miles will not get you in shape for the Étape; even being able to cycle double the Étape distance in a day won’t get you ready.

I’ll say it again. The Étape is about climbing. That means that you have to get your body used to climbing. This doesn’t mean a few hills interspersed across a long ride; it means getting used to climbing continuously, without stopping, at a gradient of between 5-10% for long periods. The climbs are relentless in the Alps and you’ll be covering over 55km uphill.

Of the 9 hours 12 minutes I was riding, I was going uphill for over four hours. Does that mean you should undertake the same climbs and distance prior to the event? Not necessarily because you do need to leave something for ‘Race Day’.

Over the months leading up to the Étape you will need to train your body to going uphill over long periods. One of the last ‘hard’ sessions I did in June was to ride multiple hill repeats on two climbs nearby, which were of similar gradient to the Tourmalet; there are no climbs the length of the Pyrenean climbs near me but repeating them gets you used to sitting and climbing for long periods.

You can see my Strava stats for this session here.

What I was trying to replicate here were the conditions I would face on the Étape itself; flattish cycle out to a climb, then hill repeats followed by a flattish cycle to the final climb, finished off with more hill repeats. Even including the downhill sections (which don’t last long) this and will get your body conditioned for going uphill for long periods of time. Applying the theory to this years Étape I would:

• Start a training ride with hill repeats (simulating the Col du Chaussy)
• Then find a flat section for around 30km
• Finish on a larger set of hill repeats for the Col de la Croix de Fer and La Toussuire;

I know there’s a descent in between but effectively these two climbs come one after another

Remember though that you should gradually build up your training with the goal of doing rides like this in June (I tapered off as the Étape became closer in July).

From now you’ll first need to get some good base miles in to build up your general fitness. If you can’t get out on the road then hook your bike up to an indoor turbo-trainer; I used the ‘Road to Hautacam’ video by Cyclefilm in preparation, which I’m sure they’ll be updating this year in preparation for next year.

As well as the Étape being about climbing it’s also about climbing on already tired legs and it is this also that you need to get your body used to. Again, lots of hill repeats will help here.

But as well as getting your body used to climbing, you also need to condition your mind; the biggest hurdle to overcome on the day will not your body letting you down but your mind telling you that you ‘can’t do this’. I suspect that the majority of riders who were eliminated by the broom wagon this year were those who walked most of the climbs.

You may be thinking to yourself on the day that it’s as quick to walk up them as to cycle. It isn’t. Don’t stop cycling, no matter how slowly you think you’re going, stopping also means that it’s practically impossible to get started again without a push.

You’ve got plenty of time between now and July so get some miles in and enjoy it.

If you’re interested in reading further on Mark’s Étape experience that includes more hints/tips, observations and what to wear you can download his e-book here or visit his website here.

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    1. David Rae

      Couldn’t agree more…

      I was thinking on the ride in this morning that it would be cool to launch a series of ‘Everyman Training Plans’ for those of us with next to no time…

      So to kick things off, I’m going to write up my approach to getting fit for the L’Etape – 80% of it will be on the commute…

  1. Denis

    Interesting post, I am riding l’étape 2015 and rode a fairly similar route on l’étape 2012. The major point is well to get used to climb in the heat , I remenber in 2012 the last climb was literally littered with riders stopped in the shade (the same apply as well for the marmotte (climbing l’Alpe under the sun after Glandon and Galibier ). Don’t forgetwhen June comes to ride during the hotest moments of the day and you will get used yo the heat ,forget about the early morning club ride . It might rain on the day but you will be ready.
    The second point is to save your legs for the steep parts . I spend most of my time in the alps but many riders arrive all excited and start like maniacs and those ones will get stuck in the steep parts like the last K of the Glandon or the start of la Toussuire climb outside of St Jean de Maurienne. My last advice try to head to the mountains as much as you can and do back to back both sides climbs on Ventoux Izoard or Bonette . Have fun enjoy the ride and the mountains , looking at the scenery on col du Chaussy and Glandon will help you to save your legs for the final climb.

    1. David Rae

      On the other hand, I know Tim was a little frustrated last year because he felt he could have gone a little harder…

      Guess it’s a difficult balance. Saying that, I’d rather finish and be frustrated than bonk and get swept up…

      1. Denis

        Obviously it is all about knowing your ability and you find it in the months of training before . But what I have seen often in those climbs is riders coming from flat countries tend to give it all on the first climb . And yes if you bonk La Toussuire is not that dificult as such but still some part can be a bummer like the start from St Jean and some places 3k from arrival where Froome dropped Wigo

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