Cheyne Voss, Ten’s Physio Director has recently returned from cycling an Alpine stage of the Tour de France, taking in 4 massive mountains (5100m Altitude gain), and covering 176km. He shares his experiences and offers some expert tips for anyone thinking of doing something similar.
As a triathlete (6 over the past couple of years), and a daily cycle commuter for the past couple of years. I was no stranger to cycling and cycling training, but that was nothing to what was going to be required for La Marmotte.
A better bike setup
I’d suffered a knee problem early in 2014 which had put a halt to my cycling for 6 months. As I prepared to get back out there in November 2015, I decided to take a good look at my bike set-up (thinking that had to be part of my original problem). I reviewed my set-up, raised the seat up a bit and moved it back, to take the pressure away from the front of my knee.
Heading back out on my first ride, I was a bit nervous to see how my knee would respond. Like a good Physio geek, I started slowly; steadily building up the miles, and spending hours on the foam roller after rides to make sure my legs stayed as loose as possible.
Changing my bike set up and progressing slowly turned out to be a winning move. The more I rode, the stronger my knee felt, my legs were getting tight, but the foam roller (and the occasional massage) were keeping my knee from hurting.
Getting over the bonk
As my rides got longer, it became apparent that I clearly wasn’t eating enough. Getting into the 6th hour, I started to ‘bonk’, going from feeling fine one moment to barely being able to pedal the next.
I tried many different types of bars and gels during my training, but settled on ‘Science and Sport’ apple and blackcurrant bars and blackcurrant gels, combined with some real fruit (i.e. Bananas) – and lots of them.
Eat when you’re not hungry, drink when you’re not thirsty
The key is to actively manage the amount of fuel you consume – and how often. For me every 30-40 mins was optimal. If you leave it too long, you will pay the price later
Together is better
While a solo ride is a great way to gather your thoughts, I ride better in company.
Having other people to train with helps keep you motivated, ensures you’re less tempted to swap a morning ride for a lie-in, and keeps you pushing through the extra miles, even when your legs are saying they’ve had enough.
Upgrade your gear
Though there’s no substitute for putting in the hours on the bike, a few hours checking out the latest bike tech and upgrades comes a close second.
The best upgrades I made:
The Shimano RS80 (now RS81) wheelset; these are super light (only 1450g for both wheels) and relatively cheap (on special for £350). This has to be the single most important upgrade possible – 1kg off your wheels is worth up to 10kg off your body weight. This is due to the better bearings (reduced friction) and of course, they spin faster, for less effort, than heavier wheels!
As your rides are get longer, comfort becomes really, really important. So I purchased a new seat, a very hard, carbon fiber ‘Fizix Antares R1’.
This may sound counterintuitive but the cycling adage is:
‘you don’t wear your seat in, you wear your bum in’. And ironically, the softer your seat, the more it will chafe. It may have felt like sitting on a razor blade to begin with, but within 2-3 rides, I’d got used to it, and there was no chafing to speak of.
While a helmet is compulsory, each extra gramme on the top of your head is extra pressure your neck has to take. So I changed to the Giro Atmos helmet, which weighs a mere 260 grammes. It’s very comfortable, breathable, and you barely know you’re wearing it. Lastly, I invested in carbon soled shoes – cheaper than the plastic soles I had before but also stiffer, transmitting more power to the pedals.
Wind training = mountain training
My training continued to increase week on week right the way through winter into what ended up being quite a windy spring.
The wind turned out to be a blessing. Training for riding up mountains can easily be simulated on the flat by heading into the wind, turning a much lower gear than you normally would, and aiming to hold a cadence of 70rpm, just as you would in the mountains. (Try your best to find a road that is as straight as possible, with no intersections to slow you down. Alpine climbs don’t offer conveniently placed traffic lights to rest at while you get your breath back!)
I was grateful for a hot June, thinking that it would help me acclimatise for the temperatures in France. But with temperatures on race day hitting 39 degrees celcius, suddenly the world’s hardest amateur cycling race got even harder.
It was so hot that I couldn’t physically drink enough water, and with the water in my bottles becoming hot within 30 minutes, it was doing nothing to help me cool down.
On the second climb of the day, I broke the golden rule, and put a powder into one of my drink bottles that I hadn’t used in training. It tasted amazing, but within 10 minutes, my stomach I was suffering severe cramps, and coupled with heat exhaustion and a steep 6km climb to the next stop, my body was urging me to quit.
Pride saved me. I’d told too many people that I was doing the race, and it was largely stubbornness – and the amount of stick I was likely to take if I stopped – that helped me keep going.
With 4 alpine mountains to climb in one day, the race was always going to be a war of attrition. With the heat, and the cramps, my original goal of getting a gold time (under 8:12) was out of the window. All I wanted to do was finish.
It was such a relief summiting the 3rd mountain. Somehow, it felt as if the worst was over. Ahead of me was the descent, then 10km on the flat, and then just the small problem of climbing the last mountain, Alp du Huez.
It was 21 bends, very steep, and very hot, but the views were spectacular. My time was irrelevant by that point – I knew I was outside the 8:12 I’d hoped for – so I did my best to enjoy the climb as much as possible, even cycling under a couple of alpine waterfalls to try and cool off on the way up.
There were times during the day when I thought I never wanted to get back on a bike for the rest of my life. But having endured and fought though the hardest physical challenge of my life, the feeling of achievement when I crossed the finish line was amazing. I just can’t wait to do it again.
The day after race day
Having taken 1:33 min to get up the Alp, I decided to go back the next day and see what I could do. So despite some pretty tired legs, I headed out again and gave it everything I had – making it up a full 29 minutes faster than the day before.
If (despite reading this) you fancy trying something similar, here are a few tips that may help you along the way.
My Ten top tips
- Get a proper bike set up done.
- Buy a foam roller.
- Use it.
- Modify your training, intervals, shorter faster rides, try to find hills.
- Climbing an 8% hill for an hour is no different to turning a big gear on the flat non stop at 70 cadence, a head wind is even better if you can find a straight road into the wind.
- If you change your set up, do it in small increments (5mm is too much!!!).
- Nutrition and hydration are more important than anything else. Practice eating on all of your rides, little and often, (every 30-40 minutes is about right). My favourite bars and gels are made by Science and Sport.
- Don’t consume anything on race day that you haven’t had time and time again.
- If you have the time, travel to find some hills during your training.
- A big goal like this is much less daunting if you do it in installments. So set mini goals that you want to achieve en route – being able to tick them off one by one will really boost your motivation.