Sunday, February 24, 2013

There are no mountains in England - warm weather training for the Etape du Tour

None of these in England (Photo Andy @aj6474 Just-Pedal chef)
Three thousand five hundred and one metres. That's how much climbing there is on the 2013 Etape du Tour.

There are at least two categorised climbs on stage 20 of this year's Tour de France. The stage I've signed up to ride in July.

But there are no real mountains in England and nothing as high as Mont Revard or Annecy Semnoz anywhere in the UK. No way to experience miles and miles of ascent without end. Or to practice a half hour descent.

But France has them, Italy has them, Spain has them and several islands within an easyJet flight of London have them. Also, February in England is cold.

So Pez, Paul and I went to Mallorca.

A week's riding in the favoured winter training resort of Team Sky was on offer by the Just-Pedal team. With great accommodation, meals by an in house chef, support vehicle, in-ride nutrition and guided rides. Fourteen of us were part of the group, along with five ride leaders.

On Sunday I met my first mountain. It didn't go well.

Coll de sa Batalla is 8.3 kilometres long rising 433 metres from the foot of the climb at 5.1% (Strava tells me). It took me 41 minutes and seven seconds. Six minutes more than Pez, who'd never beaten me on a climb before. I was dead last of a group that included several reluctant partners of keener riders (one of whom beat me by more than 12 minutes).

On a climb gentler than Box Hill, I'd averaged more than three kph under my best time there. It. Just. Didn't. Stop.

As an introduction to mountain riding it's fair to say it wasn't the best.

Excuses in early
I'd not ridden for some time, thanks to a bug picked up a week or two before the trip, so I popped off to play football on the Monday before we flew out to try and get some last minute cardio in.

With 20 minutes of the game left I fell - badly. A crunch, roll and muted scream later I sat on the astro-turf desperately checking to see if my ankle was broken or 'just' badly sprained. Thankfully, it didn't seem broken.

The next six days were a frantic race to get it in some condition to ride on - ice packs, compression bandages, ankle supports and elevation whenever possible meant that by Wednesday I could just about walk and by Friday my limp was greatly reduced. My ankle looked awful, but I flew out regardless - scared but hopeful.

Of course, that's no excuse for my performance up the hill on day one.

What goes up...

Once the coll had been, if not vanquished, at least mildly chided, we had to come down again. A real descent.

I've always thought I could descend, but it's never been more than a thought. I can. If not well, then better than anyone else in my group that day.

Spending 25 minutes going down, instead of 2, was another new experience - one I loved as much as I'd hated going up.

Tucking in, letting the bike run, swooping towards a corner, braking softly then harder and harder until I could see the exit, getting instantly on the power. Using as much of the road as I could.


Lessons from the colls

I'd clock 360 kilometres and 4,589 metres of climbing over six rides that week. I learnt a lot, which I'll talk about later to stop this becoming an epic novel rather than a blog post.

The first lesson was fuelling. I hit the bottom of sa Batalla on the back of 60 kilometres of riding having eaten far too little. I didn't make that mistake again.

How long a climb lasts was also something I'd never considered before. There's nothing long enough near me for that to matter.

But knowing exactly how much is left is incredibly important, it means you can pace yourself, set a tempo and really feel you're making progress - one k done, half way there, just two to go, entering the final stretch... Each mental marker makes the mountain less frightening. The progress more palpable.

The next key was pacing. My newly acquired heart rate monitor wasn't plugged in that first climb, it was when I tackled it on Thursday (sadly by a different route so no direct comparison is possible).

Holding a heart rate of between 160 and 170 bpm meant I knew I could handle the pace. If I dropped too low I pushed harder, if I went to hard I eased off. But I knew from turbo sessions at that rate I could definitely keep going for at least an hour.

That certainty, coupled with an absolute knowledge of how far was left, gave me confidence to ride harder.

Completing the Etape is still a long way off, but I understand the route to the finish far better now. And there will be some fabulous descents to look forward to along the way.


  1. Great that you got some climbing in. There's not substitute for the real thing, that's for sure.

    If you'd like some real climbing training, come on down to Le Sud and I'll take you up Ventoux once or twice ;-)

    1. Don't tempt us - you could end up with four Brits to look after rather quickly...