Things I wish I knew when I did my first Etape du Tour
By John Thomas, March 2019
3 months after buying my first ever road bike in 2005 I entered my first Etape du Tour. Looking back, I really knew so little. I dived in there and managed to survive and even enjoyed it! I wish someone had told me all this though. In no particular order here is a selection of key points that will help a rider give themselves the absolute best chance of success in the Etape or similar big events. Much of this information is specific to riders living in the French Alps but there’s plenty of relevant stuff wherever you may live and ride.
Start early in the year
With many of us involved in the ski industry it’s can be tough to get into riding until the winter season is done and dusted. The problem is that starting a bike regime in late April or May is just too late if you want to ride to a decent level in July.
Indoor training on a bike has never been so good with modern smart trainers making it far more entertaining than ever before. Ski touring is great too but nothing beats riding itself. Even in the depths of winter it’s perfectly feasible to ride outside if you pick your days and routes carefully and as we get towards the end of March and the clocks change the riding opportunities are fantastic.
Ride long(er) when you have the chance too
Cycling can be a faff, getting all your stuff ready to go for a ride needs a bit of time. By the time you get out on the road and you’ve escaped everything else in your life for a while, make the most of it and ride for as long as you can. In retrospect so many of my rides in my first few seasons were too short. An extra 15 mins on every ride you ever do will reap dividends both physically and mentally.
Learn the course inside out
Spend time learning the course of the Etape, learn the profile, how long the climbs are and where the feed stations are. For those of you living in the French Alps you can ride the whole course, in perhaps 2 or 3 sections, so that you’ll know exactly what to expect. 99% of the 14000 or so riders in the Etape would dearly love to live where you do, make the most of it! It’s a massive advantage.
Get your bike set up right with the right gearing
You do not need a flash, expensive bike to do very well in an event like the Etape. My first events including the Etape were done on a 500 euro aluminium framed bike that was perfectly adequate for the job. What’s important is that it fits and that the gearing is right. Bike fitting is a potentially complex and very personal thing, I won’t attempt to generalise any advice on it here but please contact me if you have specific questions on it. Gearing is easier to get right. Your ‘chainset’ , the cogs your pedals are fixed to, should be a 50 – 34 teeth (compact) or even a triple (usually 53 – 39 – 30 teeth). On your rear wheel you have your cassette, most likely 10 or 11 sprockets with the smallest sprocket usually having 11 teeth and the biggest one having anything between 25 and 34 teeth. Your crucial gears are your small ones, the ‘twiddly’ ones. A novice rider should be looking to have something close to a 1-1 ratio on their lowest gear, so, for example if you have a 34 ring on the front with an 11-34 cassette gives you that ratio. 1-1 means each rotation of the pedal cranks is one rotation of the rear wheel. Most ‘off the shelf’ bikes right now will come with 50-34 on the front and 11-28 on the back, therefore giving a lowest gear of 34-28. Such a bike would be better for climbing if armed with a bigger sprocket on the back giving closer to that 1-1 ratio.
Miles, plenty of them
I’ll go metric now! In the Etape, I would estimate that the average annual distance covered by riders finishing in the top 100 would be in excess of 15,000km. At the other end of the field those riders struggling to finish within the cut off times are probably averaging closer to 2,000km or even less. It’s a sport that brutally but fairly rewards you for what you put in. If you ranked the 12,000 or so finishers in an Etape by how many kilometres they ride in a year I think you’d find a pretty close correlation with the order in which people cross the finish line. The more you ride the better you get, to a point. This certainly applies to anyone relatively new to road cycling. Your result in an event like the Etape is simply a manifestation of what you’ve done in the lead up to it. Ride more if you want to do well.
Not just hills, mix it up
For those of us living in the mountains if we ride in those mountains all the time we’ll get used to riding and pedalling slowly. It’s really important, and very enjoyable to mix up your riding. Drive somewhere down the valley, ride flatter rides, get legs and bike moving fast and rack up more kilometres. Riding flatter and rolling terrain will also be far better if you are riding with others and getting used to the dynamics of riding in a group.
Nutrition, find what works, don’t over eat
Your riding needs to be fuelled, ultimately by sugar. Whether it’s your porridge and pasta slowly turning into sugar or whether it’s taking the ‘short cut’ of a sugary sports drink or gel, it’s up to you to find what works. Before I got into cycling I really didn’t have any idea about the energy available from different foods and the time it takes for that energy to become useful and available. I do now! With practise and experimenting you’ll get to know what works and how long it takes for the benefit of consuming that thing to kick in. There’s plenty of info out there that will give you the Glycaemic Index of various foods but broadly speaking it’s about understanding that your porridge will take hours to work, but will work for longer. A can of coke will provide almost an instant boost but it’s effects ain’t gonna last! Experiment with your eating and discover what works for you.
When I look back to my first cycling years I certainly ate too much in the lead up to big events. I kept hearing ‘carbo load!’ and felt like I needed to eat a lot in readiness for an event. Your body and it’s muscles can only store so much though, again, experimenting you’ll realise you don’t need quite as much as you thought.
Don’t try new things just before the event
For the day of the event you want everything to feel as normal as possible. Don’t be tempted to try some amazing new energy drink that someone’s told you about the day before. Avoid any changes to your bike or your clothing. It can be tempting to treat yourself to new stuff just before an event like the Etape but any changes or modifications to your clothing, equipment and nutrition need to be done well before the event.
Taper! Be fresh on the day
The main principal in the one/two week lead up to an event like the Etape is to reduce volume and maintain intensity. In other words, reduce the time on the bike drastically but when you do ride it’s still ok to ride hard. Your biggest training rides need to be completed with at least 10 days to the big day. In the 10 days or so before the event you are not going to get fitter but you can make yourself fatigued if you ride too much. In the few days before the event there is very little to be gained by riding but a awful lot to lose if you do too much.
Get used to riding with others (Time Megève is an opportunity)
On the day of the Etape you’ll be surrounded by about 14,000 riders. You’ll be set off in waves of a 1,000. For those that are not used to riding in groups it can be a daunting and scary experience. Being comfortable in a group on the other had means you can take advantage of those around you and the slip streaming effect. Those of us living in the Alps are generally pretty poor at group riding as a result of lack of practice. Even riding in small groups of 3 or 4 will help, trusting other riders and getting comfortable being close to them is a very useful skill. The best solution of all? …..enter an event like the Time Megève on June 8th. It’s like a mini Etape with around 1000 people at the start. There’s a choice of 3 courses and the ‘middle’ one that usually incorporates about 3000m of climbing in 110kms is perfect for Etape preparation.
Measure your progress…..but not too often
Record your rides, the best way to do so is by using Strava. As you ride more its very motivating to see your performance improving. There might be a particular climb that you ride often or a circuit. Good to register a reference time on it and then occasionally revisit to test your progress. Avoid too many ‘test’ rides, let the test rides be a culmination of all the work you’ve done in between. Make sure any testing is done in identical conditions, no wind in particular.
Feed stations, don’t waste time!
It’s astonishing how long some riders spend at feed stations in the Etape, more often than not it’s the slower riders too that can least afford that time in their efforts to beat the cut off. In your training rides get used to riding as long as you can without stopping. A habit of stopping will manifest itself on race day with lots of wasted time. Plan your stops, you do not need to stop at every feed station! How often you do stop should be dictated by water needs, you shouldn’t need to stop for food, there’s plenty of space in your pockets for enough food for the event. Practise eating and drinking on the move, partially opening energy bars can make life easier.
Bike handling, learn the descents!!
If you live in the Alps you are lucky, you can practise the descents as often as you like. Your technique will improve with practise as will your confidence when you know the road ahead. For this year’s Etape there are 2 major descents. Off Cormet de Roselend you have a fantastic 19kms down to Bourg. Very open and fast at the top, 10 tight hairpins in the middle, ride them and learn them. The second descent of about 9kms off the Col de Tra is tight and technical. Essential to ride and learn this one to give yourself a massive advantage over those riding it for the first time in the Etape. At the point of writing this in late March that descent is pretty rough but I’d expect a lot of it to be resurfaced prior to July.
Pacing, you have to be disciplined!
Learning to pace yourself is crucial, it’s all about doing everything you can to give yourself a decent chance of being strong on the final climb. It’s very easy to be influenced by all the excitement of the event and it’s atmosphere in the first part of the event. It’s so easy to end up putting too much effort it early on without realising that you’ve done so until it’s too late. The price paid for too much effort in the early stages can be huge, especially when the final climb is as long as it is this year. The first climb in particular needs a disciplined and patient approach. Take it easy and reap the benefits later in the day when you’ll need them.
Enjoy the training/journey, the event is the icing on a fantastic cake!
Training and preparing for an event like the Etape is a fantastic experience in it’s own right. It’s hard to find another sport that gives such a beautiful environment to practice and improve. For those of us living in the Alps we are so lucky where we live. Explore new roads and really get to know and enjoy the region that you live in. There is so much variety and choice to ride especially if you head down the valley and start rides nearer to Albertville and beyond. It’s a lot easier to get good at something if you are enjoying the process. Avoid getting bogged down in a prescriptive training plan, just get out there and ride where and how you want. The changes in terrain will put different demands on you anyway. The Etape du Tour just ends up being another ride on the journey, albeit one of the bigger ones!
The mental side of things, psychological barriers.
Cycling, like most sports put physical and psychological demands on us. The mind is a powerful thing that can work both for and against you. The classic example is the rider who talks of how far they can ride…..’oh I can ride 70kms ok but I’m not sure about doing a 100’. So many riders put their own limits on their progress when their bodies are often capable of more. Riding a very long way on a bike is not particularly difficult if you employ good pacing, keep eating and drinking and most importantly, believe you can do it! If that belief isn’t there you’ve failed before even starting. If you are that ‘70km’ rider then go and ride a few kms more to convince your mind that you actually don’t suddenly hit a wall and collapse. The confidence gained from riding longer is huge. If the 134kms of this year’s Etape sounds daunting then address that head on by doing a longer ride than that between now and the event.
Work on your weaknesses!
We can’t all be fantastic at every aspect of cycling but we can certainly try! Whether you are a nervous descender, not comfortable riding in a group, slow climber or struggle on the flat then don’t avoid those things! Address your weak areas and expose yourself to those types of cycling. An Etape du Tour involves different types of riding with the majority of your time spend climbing. Don’t neglect the flats and descents though and ride with people who can help you improve in those environments.
Don’t complain about the heat!
Pretty much every year a huge portion of the Etape field will complain of the heat they experience in the event and struggling riders will certainly use it as one of their excuses. July is usually pretty warm and the bulk of riders in the Etape this year will be climbing the long road up to Val Thorens in the warmest part of the day. So many British riders in particular are shocked by the heat and wonder whether it was an ‘extreme’ day with ‘record’ temperatures. Those ‘extreme’ conditions are pretty normal! Get used to it. If you live in the Alps then get out on hot days when you can. Expose yourself to it. Hot days do not significantly affect the performance of stronger riders, the only real change is more fluid intake. Drink enough and hot temperature should not affect your chance of success in the Etape. If you know it’s a problem for you though, deal with it and ride in the heat of the day when you can.
Don’t panic about the weight of your bike, lose it off you!
It can be tempting to spend money on light components and even a new, lighter bike. Before you go down that potentially expensive route though just check whether you could be lighter! Losing a kilo off a bike is a potentially very expensive task. A kilo off your body weight is perhaps a better option. The riders who will benefit most from making their bike super light are higher level riders who are perhaps already at their optimum riding weight and losing a few grams off the bike would help produce the marginal gains that help make a difference at a high level of racing. The vast majority of riders are far better off getting their own bodies into the best condition possible before worrying about bike weight too much.
Do a training camp
Related to the light bike issue above, if you’ve got money to spare on your bike spend it on a training camp instead. A block of training with like minded people is a fantastic way of boosting your fitness and learning so much on the way. Anyone doing the Etape du Tour in July should be looking for opportunities to do a big block of riding on a training camp or Tour during May or June. Of course I’m biased on this running my own camps and tours but it’s totally what I believe. Spend money on riding more rather than on you bike, you’ll be a better rider for it.
Understand some numbers
Cycling is full of numbers and data. You might not like it or realise it but you all have VAM, and FTP and W/kg. So what’s all that then? VAM (Velocita Ascensionale Médias) is your rate of climbing, the number of vertical metres climbed in one hour. It’s a figure that is calculated and shown on your Strava rides. The leaders of the Etape are capable of climbing for long periods at around 1400m/hour. Those struggling with making the cut off times at the rear of the field will most likely have a VAM of something near 500-600m/hour.
Very closely related to VAM is Watts per kilo. Watts are a measure of your energy output, the pressure you put on the pedals multiplied by the rate you pedal at. Your maximum output over a period of one hour is referred to as your FTP (Functional Threshold Power). That figure divided by your bodyweight gives you your W/kg figure. The leading riders of the Etape will have W/kg figures in excess of 5.0. Riders at the tail of the field will have a figure of closer to 2.0.
Like it or not you produce these numbers, it’s easy to find out how you rank as a rider….if you want to. For anyone thriving on numbers, statistics and measuring their progress this stuff can be very good to know, understand and use.
Work hard……….rest hard!
Supercompensation! That’s when our bodies become stronger as a result of training and then resting. After stressing the body with training the body adjusts and repairs while you rest, it anticipates it’s next effort by supercompensating, becoming stronger after a training session than before. Weightlifters lifting until failure is a good example of this in another sport. Their muscles recover and mend stronger than before.
You’ll only get better though if you’ve got both crucial components…..enough stress from a workout and enough rest to allow the body to mend strong. That stress might come from the length of a ride or the intensity of a ride but one way or another you’ve got to make it hard, at least some of the time.
The rest is vital and the balance between riding and resting needs to be carefully monitored, especially for those new to the sport. Knowing when to rest and delaying that next ride if feeling tired is an important part of enjoying getting better but remaining healthy.
Cycling is the both the easiest sport and hardest sport all at the same time. You can take things very easy on a bike if you want to, it call be brutally tough as well….if you want it to be. Cycling can be pottering down the Loire Valley with cheese and wine every 10 kilometres. Cycling can also be the Etape du Tour. Different ends of a very broad spectrum. You need to work to get better. And one last thing, as you get fitter and stronger it will still be just as tough, you’ll just go faster. The top riders suffer just as much as you, more I would say, but they learn to manage, predict and even enjoy the hurt. Hopefully you will too!