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.
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