Etape du Tour 2019

Haute Route

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.

girona group

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.

ardiden descent

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.

 

And finally

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!

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Taiwan KOM Challenge – race day

By John Thomas, 13th November 2018                      

www.alpinecadence.com

logo-taiwan-challengeThe alarm clock was set for 4am but as always before a big event I woke before that. I’d managed more than 5 hours of deep sleep, for me that’s fantastic before something like this. My sleeping in the days leading up to the big day had been quite sporadic and I woke relieved to have banked a few decent hours.
I had never been so prepared for an event, I was at my fittest and lightest that I’d ever been. My rides in previous days had briefly tested the engine and all was good.
Oliver and I indulged in coffee, cereal and a bananas in our spacious room whilst doing my ritual fidgeting and faffing with my stuff. I get so nervous and worked up before events and this one was no exception. I’d prepared and looked forward to this day for months and finally it was here.
We rode the 4kms to the start next to the beach and joined more than 700 other riders all lining up to take on the challenge of riding from sea level up to 3275m. The weather was perfect, 22 degrees and clear. After a series of cloudy days we could now see the mountains that would keep us busy for the next 4 or 5 hours. This event has had some tough conditions in some years and Taiwan is certainly vulnerable to some dramatic weather at times. We were lucky. Dry, low humidity, perfect temperature, brilliant.

start from back

The start line was a free for all. No pens or reserved places, just start from where you think you belong. Elite riders were already huddling at the front and enjoying being able to rub shoulders with the big names like Laurens ten Dam. The bulk of the field seemed content to arrange themselves behind in an obedient ranking of anticipated performances.

start from front

As soon as I arrived at the start area I placed my bike in the second row next to top lady riders Emma Pooley and Hayley Simmonds. Once the bike is there your place is booked. I was where I needed to be and I could relax a little.
I was there to do well, I needed to be near the front when the timing started at the 18km point. I’ve learned from experience that neutralised sections can be messy, riders coming up the sides and trying to get to the front. The best and most stress free place to be is right at the front just behind the commissaire’s car. The first 2 or 3 rows of riders there seem to earn an immunity and respect from the riders in the hustle and bustle behind.

At 6am we were off, after months of anticipation it was so good to be pedalling. As expected the neutralised section was fairly stress free. I chatted away with Jessica Evans who was destined to come 7th in the ladies event. I looked down at my Garmin bike computer and saw no read out from my power meter. This was annoying but not disastrous. I’d been plagued with issues with it in the days leading up to the event and now it had failed completely. Heart rate would now be my measure for the day as to how things were going.

The timing would start just after passing the Taroko Bridge, I knew that things would kick off there and the pace would ramp right up. I needed to be well positioned at the front before this happened. I knew that the road would narrow in places an the field would string out. I couldn’t afford to be chasing at this point, being at the front here would ultimately give me the best chance of hanging with the strong guys for as long as possible and exploiting their strength.

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End of Taroko Bridge, timing just about to start, me peeping out from behind the scooter, Oliver front middle

As we crossed the Taroko Bridge I was precisely where I wanted and planned to be at that point, front right of the peloton, the best position for the upcoming left hand bend and the start of the timing that would follow a few hundred metres later. Oliver had already made up his mind that he wanted to attack early in the race and get a bit of fun and glory at the front of the race. He knew he wasn’t a contender to win the event but he’s certainly a strong enough rider to lead the race for a while and he loves that kind of stuff. Oliver went to the front as soon as we’d turned left after the Taroko Bridge, he passed the Commissaires car and he was off. The race hadn’t started though! He’d misjudged where the timing started by about 500m and shouts from the Commissaire car window made it very clear that he needed to get back behind the car. Tail between his legs, Oliver held back and got ready to repeat the attacking process a minute or so later up the road.

I could hear the familiar whistle being blown by the start man, then his waving flag came into sight. Over the timing mat and game on! All my planning and training for 9 months was about this moment and the next 4 hours. As expected the pace was firm, I felt good, it was almost a relief to be riding hard after tempering my efforts over the previous warm up days. My body and mind were chomping at the bit to get on with this thing.

The road was flat and narrow with an ugly looking drainage ditch on the right. I was on the wheel of Sergio Tu, a young Taiwanese rider on the Sunweb pro team. This was crazy but fantastic. Proper racing with top flight riders….and me! It felt quite surreal, like a schoolboy dream. The pace was high and wheels were close, I lost my nerve for a moment and let Sergio Tu’s wheel go. I was uncomfortable with how close everyone was at what was probably around 50km/h. More confident riders streamed past me sensing my vulnerability. When a rider in front of you starts to drop back you get round them as soon as you can so that you don’t drop back with them. I glanced to my left, another black and white Sunweb jersey, Laurens Ten Dam. He’s a legend in the pro cycling world, he looked relaxed and chilled. What if I touched his wheel and was the one that bought Laurens Ten Dam down I thought. Bad thoughts, concentrate, you can do this and you deserve to be here I told myself.

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A surreal experience to be riding with the likes of Laurens ten Dam and Jan Bakelants…..for a while at least

We hit a hard right turn in a potentially awkward dip. I’m through safely. A few metres behind me I hear that horrible and unique sound of a bike crash. A hip, an elbow, a shoulder, a pedal, a rear mech. A combination of horrible sounds, followed by the usual shouts of pain, blame and frustration from those involved. I cringe and grimace at what might be happening behind me. No chance to look back, just relieved to have been near enough to the front to have avoided it. It would turn out that Hayley Simmonds went down. 2 time British Time Trial champion, not seriously injured but her race was over.

The peloton continued up the Taroko Gorge with its immense vertical limestone cliffs creating an incredible confine for our efforts in the slot in between. Dark tunnels, drips from the ceiling, glassy ‘cat’s eyes’ in the middle of the road all requiring 100% concentration. At this point I was hanging in there, the pace was fast, I was still in touch with the leading group but the fast flattish early kilometres were quicker that I would like. With my failed power meter, heart rate was my alarm mechanism . I was seeing plenty of 170 beats per minute on my little screen. I wasn’t going to sustain that for 4 hours. Relief for me came as the road started to ramp up more. Some of the bigger riders that might have forced the pace a little on the flats all started to calm down. For me at least it was more comfortable to stay with the leading group as the road went up more. I was more at home, slower speeds, more space to ride in, at last a hill where I can start to relax!

I looked behind me, no one. In front, maybe 80 riders. The first major selection of the day had happened. The early pace had been overwhelming for over 600 riders in the field and the game of attrition was already down to 80.

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The first selection of around 80 riders, Oliver near the front, me hiding back in the crowd

 

I was aware of a lot of heavy breathing around me. I was feeling comfortable but plenty of riders around me were struggling having been right on their limits to make this initial selection. I was in a dodgy place being surrounded by so many strugglers who were destined to be victims of the next and inevitable selection further up the road. I moved up through the pack to a safer place.
All the subsequent surges of the leading group gradually whittled down the numbers. I looked around and made a rough head count, 40 maybe 50 riders left. I was pleased to be one of them, so far so good. I would see Laurens Ten Dam and Jan Bakelants both drop back for ‘comfort’ breaks before riding back to the front. I couldn’t afford that luxury, a comfort break for me would mean the end of the ride with the all important group. I carried on uncomfortable.
I didn’t have a rigid plan for where I would get drink on board if I needed it. I was self sufficient for food with my 3 energy bars and 3 gels in my back pocket but I knew I’d need to stop for drink at some point. I started the race with two 500ml bottles and I cruised past the first feed station at 46kms without having made much of a dent in them. Prior to the event I’d heard a few stories of high humidity and needing to drink plenty but I was running fine on my usual, fairly low fluid intake. I knew there were 3 more feed stations at 64, 79 and 90kms so I planned to grab a bottle at one of those.

60kms into the race and all is still going well, almost 1500m climbed, I’m in the leading group of around 45 and I’m chugging away at a just about sustainable 165 heart rate. I’ve stayed in touch with the leaders for longer than I’d anticipated and without burning too many matches. I look around me to see who’s there in the group. The big names are all at the sharp end with the exception of Oscar Pujol who seems very chilled and riding near me at the rear of the lead group. I think his new duties working with GCN were a bigger priority today than his race performance. Oliver is there too, after his early exploits at the front he’s now settled in the second half of the group.
I’m looking for old blokes. I’m scanning all the riders ahead of me and looking for any numbers between 661 and 750, the 90 or so riders in my 50 years and over category. I’m hopeful, I’m going well and every number I can see is low, I’m surrounded by ‘Elite’ riders and younger riders it seems. I can’t see any old blokes. If I could win my category in this event it would be a massive thing for me, it looked on the cards.

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The road pitched up a little and I’m starting to get concerned about the pace. I was determined before the event that I must be disciplined and know when to let the elastic break, when to let the strong boys (and girls) go. It was reaching that time. The pace was still firm, maybe another couple of minutes and then I would drop back deliberately. I wasn’t on my limit but I knew I was just eating into reserves a little too much and I would pay later if I didn’t make the right decision. I stayed with it, another few hundred metres, I still feel just about OK. Then, it splits. To my relief the decision is made for me, gaps appear in front and I find myself in a group of 9/10 riders who get dropped from the leaders. That suits me fine. I couldn’t have really ordered it any better. 60 odd kms with the big names and now I’ve still got some company to ride with to the finish. I’ll take that.

My team mate Oliver is there in the group of 10 with me. Seeing him there is another marker for me that I’m in the right place. We are very different types of riders but nethertheless get from A to B at about the same rate, certainly on climbs. Seeing him there was another boost for me.

The gradient eased and I made perhaps my only error of judgement in the whole day. I was riding about 8th wheel and I saw Oliver on the front of our group and apparently riding hard. I was looking for a few ‘cosolidating’ kilometres and wasn’t looking to chase hard. Oliver and 4 other riders rode away without any resistance from me or the three young Taiwanese riders I was left with. I was determined to be disciplined and wanted to do everything I could to make sure I had a strong finish. I let Oliver go, playing my own pacing game.

The three riders I was left with were not strong enough for me. They were smaller than me and as the gradients became more humble they struggled to push a bigger gear and really get things moving. By the time I realised that they were too slow for me on this part of the course Oliver and his small group were out of sight. This was good terrain for Oliver, he’s bigger than me and he would be relishing the chance to get into a big gear and push ahead while he could. In retrospect I maybe should have gone with his group.

I lead my Taiwanese trio for a few kms before it became clear that they would be no use to me. I gently squeezed up the effort and they were gone. I was on my own in a section of the course where I would certainly have benefitted from some company. I was ok though, legs still feeling good. The road meandered through the forest, for a while I was totally on my own, no one else in sight. Quite weird in an event of 750 riders but quite nice too. Plenty of time to think, to reflect and to plan. I was in about 40th place and I’d climbed well over 2000m, I was feeling strong. If offered that scenario at the beginning of the event I’d have taken it all day long. I was getting low on water but I knew that I had a feed station coming up soon at 79kms. I could see on my digital profile that the gradients stayed steady for the next few kms. I knew the road topped out at 84kms followed by a 4km descent whose twists and turns I’d researched well. Straight after that descent the ‘real’ race would begin.

I wandered up through the forest with little but my 165 heart beats per minute to keep me company. I looked back on the straighter sections to see a familiar figure in the distance. It was Edwige Pitel. For the last 4 years she’s won the Etape du Tour by a big margin and usually overtaking me on the last climb in the process! She won the French National road race in 2016 too. I knew she was a very experienced athlete and a very good judger of pace. She was a fair way back from me and not gaining significantly. This was another good indicator that I was in a good place.

The feed station at 79km gave me another first ‘pro experience’. I loosened the top of my drink bottle in readiness to decant water into it. I’m used to being handed bottles of Evian or even having to stop at a table and wait for volunteers to fill bottle for me. This time my grunts of thirstiness were met by a smart, brand new bidon with fresh water. For the first time ever I had that ‘pro moment’ of throwing my old bottle away. I really hope someone in Taiwan is enjoying my smart Alpine Cadence drinks bottle!

The road topped out at 84km and into the only descent of the day. 4kms, a couple of hairpins but then open and fast. No real respite though. Descending on 5% gradients meant still needed to forge ahead and pedal hard so as not to lose time.

Through the dip and into the last 14kms of the race. About 1000 m to climb in that distance. That equates to an average of about 7% but that average could not be more misleading from the reality of what was ahead.  I crossed the intermediate timing point at Guanyuan Gas Station. Nibali had got to the finish from this point in 33 minutes when he won in 2017. I was expecting a pain filled 50.

This was now a very different bike ride. The early part of the climb was all ‘big ring’ territory and even on the steeper ramps there had been plenty of very redundant gears that we’d hauled up to 2500m for later use. Now those previously unused gears were busy. Whatever a rider had as their smallest gear is what they would be in. Most of the field were armed with compact, 50-34 chainsets with plenty of riders employing 32’s and 34’s on the back. I’d contemplated changing my trusty 29 on the back for something bigger. Glad I didn’t though, for me at 34 – 29 combination was the perfect compromise between getting up the very steep ramps that followed but enough resistance to force me to work and not contemplate getting too comfortable! I’m totally convinced that with more teeth on the back I’d have been slower in those last few kms. Gear choice is crucial, not too big or too small…if you want to do well.

The pitifully slow speeds of all the riders on the steep ramps were having a concertina effect on the field. The strung out field on the more gentle gradients was now much more compact in the final, brutal kilometres. One minute behind a rider in the middle forest section was a rider out of sight. A minute’s gap on these horrible ramps and you could easily hear the groans and anguish of the rider in front.

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Leaders Benjamin Dyball and John Ebson on one of the ramps in the closing stages

I still felt good. I had riders in my ‘cross hairs’, strung out on the road taking every conceivable line up the road to try to reduce the gradients. I was the same, taking advantage of different lines, especially keeping to the outside on some very steep hairpins.

I looked back briefly, no one in sight, I’d put time into Edwige Pitel on the descent and she was no where to be seen. Lots of riders ahead though. Lots of riders to catch. This was still working out the way I wanted it to. After passing a few more riders I saw Oliver ahead. My conservative riding earlier on when I’d let him go had cost me more that 2 minutes as he’d powered up though the forest. That 2 minutes was shrivelling now though. I caught Oliver with around 7kms to the finish. For a moment I had this nice idea that we might ride to the finish more or less together. I asked him how he was going, a fairy enthusiastic ‘OK’ came back. It wasn’t going to work together though. I was going really well and I think he was paying a little for his antics in the early part of the race. I said something about this having been one of the best paced rides I’ve ever done and that I just needed to convert it over the last few kms. With nothing else said I rode ahead.

As I rode ahead I felt something on my right leg. I knew what it was. I hoped it was something else. I hoped it was the cool wind on my skin, yeah that might be it. We’re getting high now and things are cooler, maybe what I just felt was just the wind. The feeling spread though, both hamstrings, I was starting to cramp. Fuck it! I’ve come all this way around the world and ridden what I thought was an almost perfect race and now cramp could end it all. I’ve got plenty of experience of cramp, what causes it for me and how to deal with it. Forget dehydration, electrolytes etc, I’m on top of that sort of stuff. Cramp for me is simply through over exertion. Although I’d ridden sensibly, 3.5 hours of constant climbing at close to threshold was taking it’s toll. I can usually ride through cramp and get to the ‘other side’. It’s only beaten me once in 12 years of riding in races. On easier terrain one solution would be to ‘spin it out’, ease off for a bit and let it subside. It was too steep though. I stood up to stretch the hamstrings as much as possible. No worries, all ok, I’m on top of this I thought.

I passed the 5 km to the finish marker and all was going well. Someone, not sure if it was a rider or spectator shouted to me on a bend. ‘How old are you?’ They must have seen my number 738 or maybe just my old face! I was mixed up with riders with much lower numbers and younger faces. ’51’ I proudly spluttered. ‘Brilliant ride, keep it going’ the voice came back. That made me feel so good. More often than not in events that finish uphill I’m counting down the kilometres to the finish, I want it to be over, 4.9, 4.8, 4.7……This was different though. I was overtaking people and never getting overtaken. I was revelling in the moment and for a while I had a weird feeling of wanting everything to last for as long as possible. If this kept going on for long enough I would pass everyone and win! At this point the winners had already crossed the finish line but I think you’ll get my sentiment.

With 3kms to go I could afford myself moments of taking in the view and contemplating what I was achieving. All still feeling good albeit with the constant reminder that cramp was just around the corner all the time. The profile for the event indicated that there was a flat section for about 1.5kms followed by a fairly steep 1km up to the finish. With 2.5kms to go I’m going fast down hill, it’s not flat. I can see the final stretch going up to the finish. It looks brutally steep. The descent is fairly straightforward but I’m irritated by the lack of accuracy in the information we were given. I ride hard and low in an effort to carry as much speed into the final climb as I can find. The final 1.4km was uphill at an average gradient of 12%, the hardest kilometre of the race, compounded by the fact that it was at the end too. No ramps, just a painful 12% all the way.

I was still overtaking riders but now it was a desperate struggle for all, including me. The road was wide enough to give lots of line choice. I’ve never used up so much road on a bike ride. My cramp started to affect my quads and calves. Standing properly and sitting were both impossible without some muscle going into it’s contracted spasm.

I haven’t seen any footage of me on that stretch but I must have looked so weird seeking a kind of ‘mid position’ on my bike, neither standing nor sitting in an effort to survive to the finish. My usual power source was gone, the bigger muscles were useless, all that was left was ‘ankling’. Toes up and down, it was the only way I could pedal. I was struggling big time, definitely counting down the metres. Still overtaking people though, they were in a worse state than me.

With about 500m to go I heard an encouraging ‘good ride John’ from another rider. I’m not 100% sure but I think it was Dan Evans who had blown up badly in the final stages after staying with the leaders for much longer than myself. With 300m to go my ankling technique was still working. I knew I was going to finish, I can hear all the noise at the finish and the commentator on the microphone. There are spectators shouting in Chinese and I think they sound like they want me to do well! I’m feeling quite emotional as I realise that the job is nearly done, so many months of riding and planning and I’m seconds away from my goal. One more potential victim in my sights, 200m to go and he’s about 40m ahead of me. It’s really steep but I’m hungry for that extra position in the rankings. I totally empty myself over the last few metres and pip this poor bloke on the line. I’m not sure if he saw me coming until it was too late for him.

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10 metres to the finish and I’m more hungry than Liu Shu Ming for that 31st place!

My legs did not like that late effort I put in at the finish. As I crossed the line, my legs went into uncontrollable spasms and I was crying out in a combination of pain and needing help. I couldn’t get my feet out of the pedals so I was cruising around at the finish with straight legs and unable to stop and get off! Eventually I was rescued by a couple of marshalls who grabbed me, unclipped my feet and hauled me off my bike. My embarrassment and pain was short lived though and soon overwhelmed by the euphoria of what I’d managed to achieve.

Oliver came over the line and I remember Emma Pooley, he and I chatting at the finish but I’ve got no idea what was said! I remember wondering why their jerseys were caked in salt when mine wasn’t. I remember having a quick look at my watch and working out that I must have gone under 4 hours, I hadn’t expected that. I was buzzing. There were very few riders around up there, the one’s that were there were really good! The podium guys were having their drug tests and the Edwige Pitel came over the line as 3rd lady on the day, first time I’d beaten her in 5 attempts so I must have gone ok.

Oliver and I got certificates printed off with our times but no other information on our placing at that point. I’d managed 3 hours 56 minutes. Far better than I believed I was capable of.

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Finished! Both under 4 hours

Oliver and I then headed down the other side of the mountain for a couple of kilometres to where we’d get fed and have the podium ceremonies. The clouds rolled in and we were glad of the change of clothes that we’d had sent up there. I got a sneak look at the results just before the podium ceremonies. I was second in the over 50’s, pipped by just 12 seconds by American Juergen Eckmann. I’d convinced myself that I’d won the oldies’ category so I was initially a bit disappointed that my old bloke radar had not picked up Juergen. He’d stayed with the leaders for longer than myself and had established a lead of a couple of minutes on me, I’d been catching him in the final stages without realising there was someone to catch. A 12 second gap doesn’t sound much but I’d given it my all and even if I knew he was up the road I’m not sure it would have changed anything. I proudly stood on the podium with him. On reflection I’m almost happier to have come second to Juergen with both of us posting really good times than perhaps winning with a lesser performance. Juergen’s 3.55.55 and my 3.56.07 were the fastest times ever for over 50’s in the 7 year history of the event, and by some margin. We’d both finished ahead of any of the over 40 riders too. Very proud, no regrets at all.

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Performance wise, it’s hard to see how I could have done much better. I maintained a heart rate of around 165 bpm for the first 3.5 hours, building to deep into the 170’s in the final few kms. I completed the final tough section in 43 minutes, well ahead of my anticipated 50. I would love to have had power figures to look at and reflect on but I can guess fairly accurately what they would have been. VAM figures (a measure of climbing speed) told a good story too. In the last 7 minutes of finishing up that 1.4km ramp I was still climbing at nearly 1200m VAM, at the end of an event like this and at well over 3000m altitude that’s a very healthy number for me. I had come into this thing well prepared, well trained and I’d executed the job.

 

Oliver had managed a brilliant 3rd place in his over 20 category too, so Team Alpine Cadence had the wonderful problem of dealing with how to get a couple of weighty trophies back to Europe with our baggage allowances.

As I reflect on the whole experience of the Taiwan KOM I can’t stop smiling. Every aspect of the experience has been incredible. The kindness and helpfulness of the Taiwanese people has been overwhelming. The country is spectacular in so many ways and the event itself is really special. To be able to properly race with top calibre riders in such a dramatic and unique venue was incredible. Without any doubt at all it’s been the highlight of my 12 years of cycling.

The full and official result list wasn’t available on the day but when it came out the next day I was thrilled. To be on the first page of an event like this, with my name among such quality riders makes me immensely proud.

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Thankyou Taiwan KOM, you were fabulous in every way!

 

If you missed any of our other blogs in the lead up to Taiwan KOM here they are:

Taiwan KOM Challenge – Overview

Taiwan KOM Challenge – Training and Preparation

Taiwan KOM Challenge – Final Preparations

Taiwan KOM Challenge – Arriving in Taiwan and countdown to the big day

For more information about what we get up to when we’re not doing the Taiwan KOM:

www.alpinecadence.com

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Taiwan KOM Challenge – arriving in Taiwan, final countdown to the big day

By John Thomas, 25th October 2018

My journey to Taiwan effectively started last November when I decided to commit to this crazy event. My physical journey would start though in Milan, not too far from where I’m based in France. A very pleasant Cathay Pacific flight via Hong Kong ensued. As we approached Taiwan I got my first glimpse of the big mountains that run north-south along the length of the island. In 5 days I would be on top of them….hopefully.

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Everything in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital was easy. From the moment I got off the plane to arriving at my hotel near the middle of the city I was struck by both the efficiency and the friendliness of this place. The train system in to and around the city was so slick. When I had any hesitant moments at ticket machines someone would always seem to rush over and help with big smiles and eagerness to make life easy for me. I wasn’t used to this level of hospitality where I come from!

I settled into my hotel and had a few hours to kill until Oliver would arrive on a later flight. My only tourist like objective was to head to the Taiwan 101, a huge 500m skyscraper that was the highest in the world for a while after it was built in 2004. My 3km walk to the it from my hotel got a bit more tenuous than expected.  I wouldn’t need a map surely to find such a big thing…..wrong….too many other massive buildings in the way for me to see the damn thing until I was basically at the foot of it. Anyway, at least a bit of extra exercise gets the metabolism going after a long flight.

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The view from the top was predictably spectacular and was followed by a swift, metro assisted return to the hotel. After meeting up with Oliver we headed out for a quick bite to eat at a local night market followed by a much needed deep sleep.

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Next morning Oliver and I came down for breakfast, what would breakfast be? It was, as every meal has turned out to be, a pretty extensive selection of just about everything you’d want, plus lots of other things! Certainly a few mystery items and creatures that I was a bit unfamiliar with but enough recognisable stuff to keep me very well fed and happy. We had a few hours to kill before we’d head by train to Hualien. We had a good look round the touristy sights of Taipei and departed feeling that our 24 hours there had been a great start to our adventure.

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Early afternoon we headed south on the train from Taipei to Hualien. A little over 2 hours to the town that would host the KOM event. We were greeted by the shuttle and whisked away to our hotel . I’d paid for the very reasonably priced accommodation package provided by the organisers of the event. My expectations were somewhat exceeded when we arrived at the vast reception of the rather palatial Parkview Hotel. This place was seriously big and certainly spacious enough for a significant indoor ride if needed. We were going to be alright here.

The following day, well nourished by yet more great food, we headed out for our first ride in Taiwan. Hualien is big, an urban sprawl bigger than we expected. Wide roads and apparently sensible driving demeanour made riding through town comfortable and safe feeling from the start. As we headed out of town we encountered pretty lakes, rice fields, jungles and monkeys. It was noisier than expected too, with various small creatures in the jungle contributing to a very different cycling experience for us.

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Ride done, 80kms or so and a decent climb of about 6kms thrown in. Bikes running well and legs feeling really good. I put a big enough effort in on the hill to see my heart rate and power levels rising to numbers that gave me confidence that my legs were there and that I was not over tired. After a long journey and not riding for a few days that felt good. Also, it was our first exposure to riding in high humidity. It’s about 26°C in the day (not much cooler in the night) and humidity levels of around 95%. Even on the climbs it doesn’t feel particularly uncomfortable but maybe I’ll have a different opinion on Friday! We’ll see.

Our second ride was equally good. A good bit of route planning the night before culminated in another very enjoyable circuit of about 90kms with another 6km climb to keep us busy and providing to great sea views.

On our return to the hotel riders are starting to turn up for the event. We’d elected to come to Hualien on Monday, early to settle in, ride and get over jet lag but the majority of riders would arrive on the Wednesday with the event falling on the Friday. We just learned that there will be a record breaking 750 riders in the event and a large proportion of them will be in our hotel. The place is really starting to buzz. So many bike riders for whom this event is a major goal in their year, so much anticipation.

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One day to go! Oliver and I headed out for a gentle spin along the coast. The sun was out and we really got to see Hualien at it’s best. We cruised along to the start area to check it out in readiness for the next day before heading back to the hotel.

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In the afternoon we did all the official registering and bib collection followed by a presentation in which all the ‘spotlight’ riders were introduced to us all.

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We then had a briefing from the event organisers followed by a commissaire’s briefing. Although it was only Oliver and I who were representing Alpine Cadence we’d entered as an official team. It was assumed that we’d have a team car so we graciously accepted the team car stickers and deliberated over how we’d get Martin, our support driver, and our car, over from France in the next 12 hours!

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We retired to our rooms where I was able do my usual pre race faffing and nerves before enjoying a really good night’s sleep.

 

Taiwan KOM Challenge – final preparations, the bike, the course and getting there

By John Thomas, 16th October 2018

Just 10 days to go now until the big day and preparations are all going to plan. Last weekend I returned from our Alpine Cadence Giro Sardegna trip, my last big block of riding before Taiwan and what a fabulous block it was! In a big week covering the northern half of Sardinia we racked up nearly a 1000km and a very significant 16500m of climbing.

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It was a very enjoyable week as usual with several returning Alpine Cadence riders contributing to the great riding on the island. Doing a trip like Sardinia is always varied. The terrain and the strength of the riders on our trip meant plenty of quality kilometres with some big efforts mixed into most days. Without really trying to manufacture a ‘training week’ it ends up being so in a very natural and enjoyable way. The only real difference compared to the same trip last year was reducing my intake of Ichnusa beer a little, I bought a crate of the stuff to enjoy at home in November instead!

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On my return from Sardinia I’ve spent the last week doing shorter rides of 2 hours or so. Saturday was my last big ride before Taiwan. I headed up and over the Col du Petit St Bernard, over into Italy and then went hard up the Colle San Carlo, 10kms @ 10% before heading back over the Petit St Bernard and home. A chunky 135km with 3250m of climbing. That ride into Italy was absolutely stunning. The autumn colours are reaching their peak right now and it really is such a pleasure to be out there. I feel so lucky to have found passion in a sport that is so beautiful. It is a fabulous environment to do the  hurt and suffering that is necessary to get better.

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I’ll keep riding in most of the next few days before I travel to Taiwan but the volume of riding will come right down. Still a few intense efforts to remind the body of what the top end feels like but shorter rides to make sure I’m not too fatigued before travelling.

 

The bike

I’m not one for having a selection of bikes. I love the idea of N+1 being the ideal number of bikes to own (being the number of bikes owned already) but in reality I don’t need more bikes. I ride the same bike all summer, in the winter if I get a chance to ride I use an older, scruffier version of the same bike, they are my 2 bikes. When people ask me what bike I ride my answer is usually ‘a black one’. It’s plain and unbranded and I quite like it’s anonymous and mysterious look. I put it together myself, the frameset is from a Chinese manufacturer called Hong Fu, they also trade as Avenger bikes for the Asian market. When I tell people I’m on a Chinese frame there are sometimes some raised eyebrows, I know there are lots of sceptics out there, perhaps rightly so as I suspect there are plenty of poor quality frames and bike equipment made in China. With Hong Fu though I am a very happy customer, 3 frames purchased from them now and can’t fault them. They are light, certainly strong enough for me and my style of riding and their bargain price means I can devote money to a decent groupset and wheels. All in all I’ve created a bike that works for me and doesn’t cost a fortune. I quite like the fact too that it’s unique, all the components I’ve put together make it my black bike.

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So, is it good enough for Taiwan? It’s been my trusty steed for many events and I succeeded in my 12 hour climbing World Record on the same bike a couple of years ago so it’s proved that it’s pretty fit for purpose. For Taiwan though I wanted to make sure I’d done all I could to maximise my chances and my confidence so I had a good look at every aspect of the bike and made a few small changes.

Gearing and weight were my priorities. My present gearing of a compact 50 – 34 crankset combined with a 11 – 29 cassette on the back has served me well in every type of ride I do, should I change? Reading some of the reports of people who had done the Taiwan KOM I started to worry. A section of 300m at 27% was advertised on the course profile as well as plenty of other steep ramps towards the end of the event. I went through a period of convincing myself that I’d need a bigger cassette on the back. This was annoying, I would needed a longer caged derailleur to get a 32 on the back and bigger gaps in my bottom end gearing. As I investigated more I found that most of the blogs and reports that had scared me had been written by riders of a lower level level than myself, maybe I’d be ok with what I’d got. GCN presenters Matt Stephens and Simon Richardson rode the Taiwan KOM (great video report here) and they did it on 11 – 28s as did Emma Pooley who has won the ladies event twice and will be there again this year. I’m not suggesting I’m faster than those characters but I’m in the ball park for climbing speed. Listening to them talk about the course being tough but no regrets on gearing helped me. I decided to man up and stick with my 11 – 29. Maybe I’ll curse that decision in the latter stages of the event but I’ll deal with it. I stuck on a nice new chain and a new Chorus cassette (I cannot justify the expense of Campy Super Record cassettes).

Apart from my Chorus cassette the rest of my groupset is Super Record, can’t improve much on that. I’ve used Campagnolo Bora One 35 clincher wheels for the last couple of years, can’t fault them and at 1400g a pair they’ll do just fine for Taiwan.

I started to look at any ways in which I could make the bike lighter without compromising reliability. My bike had weighed in at just over 7kg but with a few relatively inexpensive modifications I’ve managed to get it under 6.8kg. New skewers, lighter inner tubes and new bottle cages were the main contributors to shaving off about 250g. Not much difference perhaps, the maths says that 1kg of weight costs the rider around 1 minute over an hour’s climbing. My 250g was only going to save a few seconds but the psychological advantage felt in it being lighter makes me feel good, another stone that I’ve not left unturned in my efforts for some useful gains. Incidentally, the Taiwan KOM even is not a UCI sanctioned race so there is no minimum bike weight. The UCI limit of 6.8kg would normally render make my bike marginally illegal and I know that many of the rides in the event will be on bikes much closer to 6kgs. My 250g saving has cost less than 100 euros, the money required for me to get my bike from 6.78kgs to 6kgs would be exponentially astronomical, just not worth the gains, I’m happy with what I’ve got.

New tyres, skewers, tubes, bottle cages, cables, chain and cassette…….my black bike is ready.

 

The course

And on to the event itself, what do I know and what’s the plan? A combination of course profiles, Google Streetview and Nicolas Raybaud’s video of his race in 2016 have given me lots of insight as to what to expect on race day.

The first 18kms of neutralised, flat start along the coast looks quite brisk. I’m used to some painfully slow neutralised starts to some amateur events I do in Europe but this looks like it’ll be a good warm up that only take about 30 minutes. As the race enters the Taroko Gorge the timing starts and the pace will wind up. The next 66km up to the 84km point gains 2400m of altitude, a relatively humble average gradient of less than 4%. At 84kms there a short descent of around 4kms before the real race starts, 15kms to the top with far steeper gradients that seen earlier on the course.

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The last section is tough, that’s for sure, but it’s not the bit that concerns me most. That final section will certainly sort everyone out and separate all the fitness levels in the field, the challenge for me though will be to get to that point in the race without having burnt too many matches earlier on. The earlier parts of the course will be fast and the adrenalin and the atmosphere of the event will make it very easy and tempting to hang in there with the top guys. How often do you get a chance to ride and race with the likes of Laurens Ten Dam, Jan Bakelants and Emma Pooley?

The first half of the event is going to be a discipline test for me, knowing when to let people go, knowing when to let the elastic break and not fighting it. Of course it’s a balancing act, on flatter sections of a huge climb like this there’s a huge benefit in draughting stronger riders. It’s crucial however that getting a pull from the strong guys doesn’t turn into a struggle for which the price will be costly later on.

I want to ride strong at the end, I want to be one of the riders who is working my way through the field at the painful end not one of the riders ‘going backwards’ and haemorrhaging time due to excessive efforts earlier on. Ultimately it will all come down to decisions on the day but I’m determined to be realistic and respectful to the better riders and let them have their race. Better I let them go sooner rather than later so that I can dictate my pace. We’ll see! I always have a good plan but it doesn’t always happen! My power meter will hopefully help me to behave myself with my efforts. There’s no question of riding the whole thing ‘to power’ or a fixed number, it’s too irregular a climb for that. The power figures will help though in warning me when I’m going into an unsustainable ‘red zone’ for too long and helping convince me to back off.

So if I let all these top riders head up the road away from me what am I trying to achieve? Well, simply to deliver the best ride I possibly can and be strong at the end. The race has around 80 elite riders and then the rest of the 600 strong field will be categorised by age with me being in the oldest category 50+. I don’t mind admitting I’d love to win that category. It’s a realistic goal looking at previous results and times but it depends so much on who else turns up! Doing well in my category needs to be a by-product of a well paced ride and not a goal in itself. Saying that, if I see a few grey hairs on a rival rider as the event progresses I’ll certainly be watching them more than the young ones!

 

Getting there

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At the end of this week I’ll fly to Taipei, the big city at the northern end of the island of Taiwan. I’m heading there from Milan with a brief touch down in Hong Kong. I’ll arrive on the Sunday with 24 hours in the city to be a tourist, I can’t wait! I plan to head up the Taipei 101 tower at sunset and just take in the atmosphere of being somewhere so new and different. Oliver is going to meet me there and then we’ll train it down to Hualien on the east coast on Monday.

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Hualien is the start town for the event and we’ve decided to get down there early to relax, soak up the atmosphere and hopefully get rid of any jet lag effects before the event on Friday morning. Most of the riders, ourselves included, will be staying in a big, international type hotel that will be the administrative headquarters for the event. It should be quite a buzz with riders arriving each day from all over the world.

I expect we’ll do a few short rides in the 3 full days that we have there leading up to the big day. Just enough to keep the engine revving but nothing big enough to tire us out.

Once I’ve arrived in Taiwan I’ll keep writing about the lead up days to the event, in the meantime here are the links to my previous Taiwan blogs if you’ve missed them:

Taiwan KOM – Overview

Taiwan KOM – Training and preparation

And for more information on all the cycling experiences that we offer at Alpine Cadence please have a look here: www.alpinecadence.com

 

 

 

 

Taiwan KOM Challenge – training and preparation

By John Thomas, 8th October 2018
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To have a goal for 2018 of riding competitively up a mountain for about 4 hours at the end of October has certainly created some changes to my normal yearly routine. Those folks who know me well are used to the non cycling version of me, ‘October John’, who emerges from ‘Cycling John’ every autumn as I basically hang the bike up at the end of the summer, let my hair down, have a few drinks, eat what I like and turn back into the person I was before I discovered road cycling in 2005. I always look forward to being October John, a healthy interlude (for the mind at least) before winter sets in, followed by around Christmas, the pangs of needing to ride the bike again in readiness for spring.

It’s a cycle I go through each year, a good one, one that gives me some down time from my cycling passion and helps me stay hungry for more when I resume.

This year there is no October John, there will most certainly be a November John, his stint will begin on the evening of October 26th after I complete the Taiwan KOM!

Through September I typically ride in the Dolomites and Sardinia on our Alpine Cadence tours and I’m usually already gently transitioning into October John. No more races to worry about, a few Moretti and Ichnusa beers help me get a little bit bigger and happier as I round off the season. This September is different, for the first time ever since I took up cycling I’m actually thinking about what I eat and drink in an effort to stay in good condition for Taiwan. I love the racing aspect of cycling and I love to do well. All the events I’ve done in previous years have been in the spring and summer. The riding I do as an Alpine Cadence guide means I’m in pretty good condition from May through to September simply by the riding I do. I naturally come down to a ‘race weight’ of around 66kg in late May and it seems to stay that way through the summer as I ride and race enough to not have to worry too much about what I eat and drink. Typically in September my extra beers and less volume of riding takes me up a couple of kilos.

I need and want to go to Taiwan strong and light. The strong bit is probably the easy bit, staying light until the end of October needs a definite effort. I’ve certainly not got obsessed with the eating thing but since the middle of the summer I’ve drunk less alcohol than I normally would and taken more notice of what I eat. I am a binge eater and drinker normally, I have a sweet tooth and my usual eating and drinking habits would probably cause outrage to many of the people who I race with who I suspect generally look after themselves a bit more carefully than I do! This summer I’ve been heading to the fridge as per normal but stopping for a moment and more often than not grabbing for the San Pellegrino in place of the chocolate. I read somewhere that fizzy water is the pros choice to fill themselves up a bit and keep the weight off. Not sure if it’s true but it’s working for me!

I’ve also cut down on carbs. I typically consume lots of them, perhaps more than I need. in recent months I’ve tended to go for a bit more protein and moderating the carb intake. Certainly not to any Atkins diet extremes but just changing the balance of what I eat a little. I’ve realised also this summer that I tend to eat a lot of sugar in my diet. Again, I’ve moderated that, lots of Cokes have been replaced with San Pellegrinos.

So, to sum up what’s been going in, no extreme changes, just keeping an eye on what I eat, not stuffing my face whenever I feel hungry and keep the alcohol down to a sensible level.

 


 

My training to do well in Taiwan would need to be focused and oriented to the needs of the event. Disregarding the first neutralised 18kms of the event I needed to be prepared for a more or less constant effort for the next 85kms which was going to take me a little over 4 hours. I would have to be prepared for a final 10kms or so that would be very steep at times and between 2500m – 3275m in altitude, certainly high enough for an altitude related performance drop. Another major factor would be the timing of the event, late October, by far the latest event I’ve tried to do well in, deep into my usual ‘October John’ phase.
So, where to begin. Any rider preparing for a big event needs volume, miles on the bike. I’m lucky, my self created job with Alpine Cadence provides me with lots of miles, and importantly, miles of every type. I seldom ‘train’ as such, the vast majority of my riding is done with Alpine Cadence guests, leading them around the beautiful roads of Europe.

When I ride in big events in the summer I often do well off the back of the major trips that I’ve guided during May and June which is our biggest concentration of Alpine Cadence trips. I’ve already had my ‘summer peak’ this year with plenty of good performances in races, now I would need to either prolong the peak or peak again to be able to race well in late October, a new experience for me.
Late summer, as mentioned earlier, is usually a wind down for me, I ride the few trips that remain in September but there’s less motivation to ride any more than that. The last few weeks have followed a different pattern to previous years. On the trips themselves such as the Giro Dolomiti, I’ve been riding extra miles at the end of big days with the guests. After making sure that guests are safely checked into their hotel I’ve been heading off to hurt myself. Looking for climbs and riding hard. Trying to simulate Taiwan and having to ride hard after having done plenty already.

I recently did a loop from my house known locally as the Savoie Chicken due to the route shape on Strava. 250kms in total but the main climb, Col de l’Iseran, hit after having already ridden 180km. Again, riding hard up that after 6 hours of work already made me think it was good practice for Taiwan.

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I also used the Iseran a couple of weeks ago to satisfy my altitude concerns. I headed to the top from my home, 57km and 2000m of sustained climb, not dissimilar to the demands of the first half of Taiwan. Once at the top I headed down the other side and rode up the final 2.5km @ 10% five times to put myself into plenty of discomfort between 2500m and 2770m, the highest riding around where I live.

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I’ll most likely head up there again and do something similar in the next week or so. It’s as much training the mind as it is the body. Convincing myself that I can work hard at altitude and that I can work hard after already having worked for a few hours. I’m also very aware of the fact that I’m very lucky where I live and with the lifestyle I’ve created. Through taking advantage of all that I would be better prepared than most in Taiwan.

The goal of doing as well as I can in Taiwan has certainly kept me very motivated. Having a goal in endurance sport is vital for motivation, things can get very boring and tedious very quickly without a goal. Fabulous, enjoyable bike rides can rapidly turn into boring chores when the motivation fades and the rider wonders what they are out there for. This summer I’m loving every minute on my bike, I generally always do, but this summer perhaps even more. Being strong and lean feels good. Regardless of what happens in Taiwan I’ve really enjoyed the process so far. Staying strong and light further into the Autumn has not been as hard as I thought it might be. Body and mind are feeling very good! I think riders who have come on regular Alpine Cadence trips have noticed my increased enthusiasm and staying on top of my game through September has perhaps improved their experience with our trips too, I hope so.

I’ve never been someone to follow rigid training plans, I’m quite a disorganised person in many respects and it doesn’t work for me to stick to rigid plans. I ride when it suits me and I listen to my body and mind and I ride accordingly. When I ride outside of the organised trips that I guide on I’ll often go for a 20 minute warm up and then I decide what ride to do. I do what I feel is necessary. Perhaps I need a long ride, perhaps I’m overdue for an intense 30 minute effort, perhaps I’m feeling tired and need to chill and recover, perhaps I need to ride the flats and get away from the hills close to home, perhaps I just need to go to explore a new road. Whatever I end up doing it’s like I’m filling in the gaps. Doing what I think I’ve not done enough of as well as, most importantly, doing what I want to do. I love every ride I do, it’s never a chore. I love going easy and I love battering myself to oblivion and everything in between. This year has not really been any different. Just riding hard for a bit longer in the season and enjoying it for even longer than normal!

Quite a number of the riders that I ride with have set and rigid training plans. I appreciate that their busy lives sometimes require that so as to make effective use of their available time. I can’t help but think though that it effects their enjoyment of the sport, are they really loving every ride like I do? Not sure. I’m lucky with the time I have available, I know that. I’m also convinced though that you need passion to really get good at something. Understanding training principals is important of course but enjoying the process has got to be there to truly realise your potential. If I do well in Taiwan it’s down to my sustained love for the sport of road cycling rather than a conjured up training regime.

Cycling has lots of numbers, so much data to be able to quantify one’s efforts. I’m not ruled by the numbers at all (plenty of people are) but I enjoy the maths and find the numbers aspect another fascinating side of the sport. So what numbers would I need to be good in Taiwan?
Firstly power. The magic number that so many cyclists want to increase is their Functional Threshold Power, the maximum amount of power output that a rider can sustain for one hour. For climbers and time trial riders it’s an indication as to their ‘threshold’, beyond which an effort becomes unsustainable, the rider having ‘gone into the red’.

My FTP in recent years has reached a peak each summer of around 300/305 watts. This summer has been a strong one for me reaching an FTP of around 310 watts. As soon as a rider goes uphill that FTP figure means very little outside the context of the rider’s weight. This summer, as in previous years my weight came down and stabilised at about 65.5 kgs. Watts per kilo is basically the equation which determines how fast you’ll be up a hill. For me this summer my 310 watts/65.5 kgs gives me a figure of just over 4.7 W/kg, about as good as I’ve ever been since starting road cycling in 2005. To put that figure into some context, a Tour de France winner needs a figure of between 5.5 – 6.0 W/kg. Most male pro cyclists in their different guises (sprinters, rouleurs, climbers etc) would all comfortably be above 5 W/kg. Another reference  perhaps more applicable to the amateur cyclist reading this is that a rider needs a sustained figure of 3.8W/kg to achieve a sub hour time on the famous Alpe d’Huez climb (Tour de France finish, 13.9km, 1160m of ascension).

The graph below is brutally accurate. My best time up Alpe d’Huez is just under 51 minutes, a couple of years ago when my W/kg figure was around 4.55 for an hour. If I went there now I’d expect to convert my  current 4.7 W/kg into a sub 50 minute time. I pretty much know if I went there well rested with no wind on the day that’s what would happen. The maths of cycling up hills is very predictable.

 

Alpe D'Huez Ascent times

Another way in which the numbers reflect the rider’s level is through VAM, (velocità ascencionale media). This is a figure that expresses the rate at which someone goes upwards,  the number of vertical metres climbed every hour. This figure is not definitive as it varies on different gradients but it gives a good indication as to where a rider is. Those top Tour de France contenders with W/kg figures approaching 6.0 can get expect VAM figures in excess of 1600m/hour on 8% climbs. My 4.7 W/kg equates to about 1250m/hour. My VAM figures in races and big efforts within rides have been higher than ever this summer. For 20 minute efforts I am now capable of climbing at around 1350m/hour and 10 minute efforts see that figure rise to over 1400m. In the latter and toughest part of Taiwan KOM I will not be achieving figures anything like that but knowing that my capacity and threshold efforts are better than they’ve ever been before makes me feel confident and that I’ve prepared well.

In the next part of this blog I’ll talk about my bike and what I’ve done to maximise it doing the job for me and the tactics and planning of riding the event itself.

If you missed the first part of this blog click for my overview of the Taiwan KOM Challenge

Taiwan KOM Challenge – overview

By John Thomas, 18th September 2018logo-taiwan-challenge

In just over 5 weeks time I’ll be competing in perhaps my most exciting cycling event ever, the Taiwan KOM Challenge. In the weeks to come I’ll write about every aspect of the event including my own preparation, equipment choices, the course, the logistics and the race day itself. 

So what is the Taiwan KOM and why am I doing it? I first heard about the event about 3 years ago. I heard talk of a massive climb from sea level to 3275m, an uphill race that was gathering international stature and attracted some top riders in a quest for some late season prize money that was on offer for the winners. My curiosity drove me to find out more. Of course I’d heard of Taiwan but I didn’t know exactly where it was or what it had to offer. As I found out more I became keener for a piece of the action. In October 2017 I watched highlights of Vincenzo Nibali winning the 2017 event with Cadel Evans coming out of retirement to come 10th. The idea of being able to line up with riders like that in a new and exciting place was just too tempting, I was in!

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The first Taiwan KOM took place in 2012. A 105km course from the coastal city of Hualien on Taiwan’s eastern shores to the top of Wuling, at 3275m, nestled high on the central spine of the island. The race takes place each autumn and attracts 500-600 riders to the start line. The event is open to anyone who thinks they can manage it although a 6.5 hour cut off time scares many off I’m sure. There are more lenient ‘sportive’ type events up the same climb earlier in the year for those looking to ‘enjoy’ the climb more!

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The course starts with a ‘neutralised’, untimed 18km running along the coast north from Hualien. Organisational cars and motorbikes keep the pace regulated at about 35km/h so it will effectively be a 30 minute warm up. At the 18km point the course turns inland and starts to climb. Constantly uphill for the next 87kms with the exception of a short descent about 20kms from the finish. As you can see from the profile the gradients vary hugely and the last 10kms to the finish has some very nasty ramps that will certainly hurt when there are 3 or 4 hours of climbing in the legs already.

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A soon as the neutralised 18kms is done riders then enter the Taroko Gorge. If you try Googling Taroko Gorge you’ll get some dramatic claims: deepest gorge in the world, most dangerous road in the world, most beautiful place in Taiwan, 400 workers’ lives lost in constructing the road…….suffice to say it’s a pretty full on place and I can’t wait to ride it!

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The top of the course at Wuling is at 3275m and is just one of a whopping 286 mountains in Taiwan that reach over 3000m. Not sure how they calculate but the island claims to have the largest number and density of high mountains in the world. I just hope that I can get to the finish at Wuling on October 26th and be ‘compos mentis’ enough to appreciate the amazing place we will have ridden to.

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Racing in the event and enjoying a new place and culture was not an experience that I wanted to go through alone. Sharing the whole thing with someone else would make it  even more enjoyable. Oliver Reeves, our second guide for Alpine Cadence was the obvious choice, he didn’t take much arm twisting, he was on board.

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In the next part of this blog I’ll explain how I’ve prepared so far for this event and what I’ll be doing in the next few weeks to maximise my chances of doing well.

 

Haute Route Pyrenees stage 7

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We made it! The whole team has completed stage 7 safely here’s the tale of how it went.

 

Our final stage would see us ride 125kms and a humble 1400m of climbing in relation to previous days. Our only major climb for the day would be the Col d’Aspin, 12km at an average gradient of 6.5%. Today was always going to be fast, a mad dash up the Aspin and then the prospect of some fast group riding to the finish, the day did not disappoint.

We started in Peyragudes in cloudy conditions but none of the rain that had been forecast. We were lead for a neutralised 14km down into the valley. As the flag went down the pace was fierce. We had about 5kms of flattish terrain before the Aspin and it was clear that some people wanted to get there first. We were strung out at high speed and gaps were forming already. I rode smoothly and got myself into a good position in the first 20 riders by the time we hit the lower slopes of the Aspin.

My legs felt good, I was riding better each day, back to the form that I showed in this event last year. I felt strong and ready for what was going to be a potentially frantic couple of hours of racing. Everybody went hard. The last climb in the event, why wouldn’t you? The faster you went the better group you could be in on the other side and all the way to the finish. I found myself moving up the field. There were 10 or so riders up the road but I was feeling good in the group behind. The ‘Cafe Pod’ van came past with ACDC blaring out from it’s speakers. It was inspiring, some were probably annoyed by it but I was in the mood for strong sounds and strong riding. I looked behind me and there was Felix from our team. He’s been riding stronger and stronger each day and he was clearly happy to be on my wheel. I kept on leapfrogging a few more riders as we progressed to the summit and as we crested I was just behind Alastair.

Unlike yesterday this was going 100% to plan. At this point there were 7 riders who had crested before us. I was at the sharp end of the next group which consisted of about 15 riders. The descent went well. A few tight bends in the first 5kms needed plenty of concentration. Hannah, the ladies’ leader, had crested with us but she got detached at this point. For a moment I wondered if I could or should help her get back on. That moment passed, ‘look after number one’ said the more powerful voice in my head. The descent got straighter and easier, super fast, an absolute buzz to share it with 15 other good riders. So much concentration required though, touching wheels or misjudging a line at these speeds could have horrific consequences. Road racing is dangerous, there’s no two ways about it, but it’s so addictive and exhilarating too. Concentration is the key, keeping your eye on the ball all the time.

As the road flatted further our group started to work together. Alastair, myself and a few others started to rotate and take turns on the front. We were fairly dominant in trying to organise and encourage the others to work. There were doubtless some tired legs in that group of 15. Some just wanted a free lift to the finish. We needed as many as possible to participate and help. Alastair, myself and Felix all had good legs. We didn’t want a ride, we wanted to work and push things on. Alastair was lying 8th overall in the rankings and Hervé lying 9th had got himself into the front 7. For Alastair’s sake we needed to work to make sure his 8th place was secured. For all the rest of us too it was in our interests to ‘gap’ those behind as much as possible to give each individual in our group a chance to either guarantee his place or to move up the rankings.

We continued to forge on. Not everyone was working but the majority were getting involved at least some of the time. There were about 7 of us who were working all the time. To have 3 of our team in that group was fabulous. We were all decked out in smart AC white jerseys and we rode well. I felt so proud.

There were 3 nasty climbs, each lasting a couple of kms in the last half of the course. Alastair pushed hard over the penultimate one and for a few moments I felt vulnerable, possibly close to losing the group. My fears were short lived, we crested and my legs soon recovered.

Alastair was good for pulling us up the climbs, other riders including myself came to the front for the descents and technical sections through villages. All good.

One final lump before the finish was followed by a descent of about 2kms and then a slightly uphill kilometre to finish. The pace was massively wound up, we all emptied ourselves with a big sprint at the finish, all coming over the line in a similar time. The positions didn’t matter, the time gaps ahead and behind us would.

Such relief, we’d made it. 7 massive days of bike racing in an incredible environment. Hervé had got back 6 minutes on Alastair but not enough to take his 8th position. I’m so proud of what Alastair achieved this week. He’ll cherish 8th place in the Haute Route Pyrenees for a long time just as I do with my top 10 finish from last year.

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Shortly after the finish we gathered at a café, had a beer or two and waited for the rest of the team to finish. Then, we cruised into Pau as a team of 10, chatting away and gloating in what we’d all achieved. Martin, who has supported us all the way drove our support vehicle with us, we were back together after a week of spreading ourselves over the Pyrenees.

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Each and every member of our team should feel very proud. We’ve been on an amazing journey of endurance sport combined with so much more. The feast on the eyes that the scenery has provided, the immersion in the culture of the area and the community of personalities that we’ve all become part of in our own sections of the peloton is immense. It’s been a huge week physically and emotionally for all. Enjoys your beers tonight and savour your memories. I don’t think this will be our last Haute Route!

I feel unbelievably proud.

Final General Classification results are as follows:

 

Melanie Batchelor 16th lady

Men’s:

Alastair Roberts 8th

John Thomas 15th   (3rd 50-59)

Felix Hoddinott 39th

Mark Fairgrieve 52nd

James Richens 62nd

Riccardo Clerici 94th

Duncan Carrier 106th

Brian Moher 107th

Ian Arthur 197th