If you enjoy riding a bike and watching the Tour de France, when someone offers you the chance to go to the Alps to take on some of the most iconic climbs featured in the Tour de France it's almost impossible to say no.
So there I was, a cyclist averaging about 70 miles a week signed up to take on the mountains. I've always dreamed of alpine climbs, dancing on the pedals, jersey unzipped, flowing in the wind as I carve around hairpins looking back at the riders beneath me. These fantasies were quickly replaced with anxiety as the route profiles and stages were announced, two route options were available, I chose the "short", 611km and 12,500 meters of climbing. The climbs would be spectacular, finally I'd be riding my bike on those roads I'd seen on TV for years; the Col du Telegraphe, Galbier, Alpe D'Huez, Col du Glandon, Col de la Ramaz were just a few of the famous names I'd be taking on.
I'm pleased to say I lived to tell the tale, and rather than take you through my daily struggles I thought I'd share the lessons learnt of 6 days on the bike that could help anyone else heading out to the Alps for the first time.
Gearing and Bike Set UpProbably the most obvious thing you'll need to make sure you get right is the gearing on your bike, for an average cyclist to ride in the Alps you will need to be running a compact chainset with a minimum of a 12-28 ratio on the back. I would suggest looking at trying to get a 30 sprocket on the rear if possible, these extra gears will really help when the gradient kicks up over 10%, for example, the first 4km of Alpe D'Huez average 10%, put into that some 15% hair pins and you end up with some challenging 12% sections. If you don't have the right gearing here, your legs with suffer over the last 10km.
It's also worth considering how you position yourself on the bike, making sure you are comfortable riding on the "tops" (the flat part of a road bike handlebar) is crucial, some days you'll be climbing for over 2 hours and the ability to adjust your hand position is crucial to staying comfortable. I used the 3T Ergonova Alloy bar on this trip and found the flat top bar section more comfortable for climbing, the larger surface area allowed me to adopt a more natural wrist position causing less fatigue.
Leave the deep section wheels at home! You don't want to be worrying about bike handling when the gradient kicks up and the wind blows, you'll need all your energy to focus on climbing steady and smooth. The descents are technical and can be tricky so a standard set of rims, such as the Mavic Ksyrium will do the job perfectly.
ClothingIf you are taking on a multi day event having the right kit, and enough kit is essential, the conditions in the mountains can change by the minute, so the ability to layer up and adjust your clothing easily is crucial. Make sure you pack items that can be easily stored in rear jersey pockets, particularly if your ride is unsupported. Arm warmers and leg warmers such as the Castelli Nano Flex are fantastic for keeping you warm and the begging of the day and will also offer protection from rain if the heavens open. A jacket or gilet is essential for the descents, travelling at high speed for a long time on a descent isn't something most people are used to, so pack a lightweight windproof or shell jacket and put this on before you head down the mountain, the Sportful Hotpack 4 jacket will offer protection from the wind and rain and store easily away when the temperature heats up. Probably the most important item all week is the bib short, we spent an average of 5 hours a day in the saddle, with the longest ride topping out at 6 hours and 40 minutes. That's a long time by anyone's standards so having comfortable shorts is essential. With cycling shorts there is a clear price/quality relationship so the investment will pay off. I used the Castelli Free Aero Race bibshorts for the week and found them ideal, when the sun came out they didn't over heat the legs, the vertical silicone grippers help keep the shorts in position and reduced any tight spots around the thigh. The bibs were light enough to be hardly noticed even on the long days and the chamois was comfortable and durable for the entire trip.
Food, Nutrition and Hydration.
We were lucky enough to have full nutritional support on the ride from Powerbar, every morning there was a selection of nutrition that a world tour team would be proud. Making sure you eat on the bike and stay hydrated was key to getting through multiple day type events. By the end of the week I'd learnt the key was to vary your intake between gels, bars and carbohydrate drinks. I found the Powerbar natural energy bars a welcome change when gels became to much, and the 41g gels perfect for that kick you need for the final 2km of a tough climb. Make sure you always have something in your jersey pocket for when times get hard. Drinking ahead of the climbs is also crucial, particularly if the sun is shining. Make sure you are taking on enough fluids to replace what you will lose in sweat on the climb, once you're 5km into a climb in 25 degree heat it will be almost impossible to replace what you are losing! The Powerbar Isoactive drink contains a special ratio of glucose and fructose sources to help replace carbohydrates, essential to keeping your energy levels up!
The most important lesson I've learnt is that anyone can ride up mountains, you just need to go at your own pace and keep something in the tank for the last few KM of each climb. It's an experience you'll never forget and you'll come away with a new appreciation for the riders of the Grand Tours.
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