Cycling the Alps: isn’t this only for the experts?
Definitely not, but it is not for the absolute beginner either. The Alps are not the place to try out a road bike with clip-in pedals and drop handlebars for the very first time. Depending on your age and athletic ability in other sports, you may be ready to tackle a week’s cycling in the Alps after just a few hundred miles of training or you may need substantially more. If you have any doubts, give us a call and let’s talk about it.
How tough is it?
The Alpine climbs wouldn’t be mythical if they were easy. It is the challenge that makes them interesting. Every year thousands of people sign up to do the Etape du Tour (a cyclosportive race for amateurs run over the exact same route as one of the stages of the Tour de France). The Etape is invariably one of the mountain stages and often in the Alps. In 2013, for example, it was the stage from Annecy to Annecy, taking in the cols of Leschaux, Prés, Mont Revard and finally the brutal climb up to the summit of the Semnoz.
The winner, Nicolas Roux, took just 4 hours and 13 minutes to cover the 126 km. The last person to finish did so over 7 hours later, taking a total of 11 hours and 21 minutes. The majority of the last two to three thousand to finish were exhausted, many of them reduced to walking. Out of the 11,475 starters, 850 were unable to finish. In most cases this was because they did not take the preparation seriously enough.
On the other hand, those that were well prepared were able to finish without any serious difficulties and had a thoroughly enjoyable day.
Although some of them might come pretty close, no single day with us is as tough as the Etape (unless the group specifically requests it). However the accumulation over five days is significant and a solid block of training in the months before coming is very important to get the most out of your week.
How much training should I do before coming?
The answer to this depends on your experience as a cyclist, your reasons for wanting to come cycling in the Alps and your race objectives for the season, if any. Obviously, the fitter you are, the more you will enjoy a week of climbing. We suggest that you train at least twice per week in the three to four months leading up to the week with us, and that you do as much climbing as possible. You should aim to have cycled at least 1500 km since the start of the year.
If weather conditions or time pressures make it impossible to do many long rides, you should aim to do at least three sessions per week on a home trainer. Make sure that you do a variety of specific 60 to 90 minutes sessions targeted at developing velocity, force and power.
Contact us if you’d like more detailed guidelines or a sample training plan.
What do I do if there are no hills near where I live?
Not everybody lives in a hilly area, let alone a mountainous one. There are three alternatives: use a small hill to do repeat intervals; use a home trainer; or use the wind. The wind can provide a surprisingly effective alternative to a real hill. Ride steadily into a medium strength wind, with your hands on the hoods, in a fairly high gear. Your cadence should be between 70 and 80 rpm and it should feel like a solid effort, sustainable for no more than 30 to 45 minutes. Whenever the weather conditions are favourable, do this once or twice a week, slowly building up the time facing the wind until you are comfortable riding hard into it for 60 to 90 minutes. Don’t draft behind other riders and don’t put your hands in the drops: that will defeat the object!
If you have a heart rate monitor, or better still a power meter, the training zone to target is the upper end of Level 3 (Tempo) and touching on Level 4 (Lactate Threshold).
What happens if I have a bad day in the mountains?
We all have bad days. The pros wake up every morning worrying about it: will today be a day “with” or a day “without”? Will I have the legs? The main physiological reason for a bad day on the bike is that you have not sufficiently replenished the glycogen in your muscles after the previous day’s efforts. This is why it is extremely important to “refuel” both while on the bike and immediately afterwards.
A secondary reason may be the lingering presence of toxins that have not yet been flushed out, which is why we recommend easy cycling at the end of each day, followed by a massage, a visit to the spa or Jacuzzi and some easy walking, coupled with wearing compression socks.
In spite of all this, bad days can happen while cycling in the Alps, or in any other mountains. We understand this and make adjustments accordingly. We will shorten the ride, take it more slowly, or invite you to ride back in the support car if things get really bad. There’s no shame: even the pros call a halt from time to time!
How will the week help me prepare for an Alpine cyclosportive?
There are many different aspects to this:
- Reconnaissance. It is much easier to perform well on a mountainous cyclosportive when you already know the route. During a week of cycling in the Alps with us you will do parts or all of several well-known cyclosportives, such as the Time Megève Mont-Blanc, the Morzine Haut Chablais, the Grand Bô and the Cimes du Lac d’Annecy. Other routes can be arranged on request: just ask.
- Endurance. A week of climbing provides a very solid block of training for the race. There is no better way to build climbing-specific endurance than to go climb. To get the most benefit, the week should be integrated into a season-long training plan designed to bring you to a peak at your targeted event. Most cycling coaches suggest training plans based on monthly blocks consisting of three weeks during which the intensity steadily increases, followed by an easy week to let the body assimilate and recover. Your week with us should ideally be planned in this context, i.e. as the most intense week of a block placed either one to two weeks or five to six weeks before your event.
- Know-how. Our expert coaches will share their knowledge and experience with you, whether it be pedalling technique, choice of material, nutrition and refuelling strategies, tapering at the end of a heavy training block or any other of the myriad things that contribute to riding an event at your best.
What gears do you recommend?
The pros typically climb the Alpine passes with a 39/53 standard chainset at the front and an 11-25 cassette at the back (or an 11-28 for the sprinters in the “grupetto”). Very strong, competitive amateurs can use the same gearing, but most will be much more comfortable with a 50/34 compact chainset and a bigger cassette (for example 11-32).
If your current bike is fitted with a standard chainset you might want to consider borrowing or purchasing a compact. There is a big difference between powering up a relatively short hill in the south of England and climbing a long Alpine col. The first might take you no more than ten or fifteen minutes, whereas the second might take you anywhere from an hour and fifteen minutes to two hours. In England you can get away with a standard chainset, but in the Alps you may seriously suffer for it.
Can I hire a bike?
There are many reasons why it is better to bring your own bike, but we realise this is not always possible. We can provide good quality, recent bikes to fit most sizes through our local partner. You will need to let us know your requirements at the time of booking and provide us your bike-fit details as early as possible and we will then do our best to satisfy you.
What happens if I have a mechanical problem?
We do ask you to have your bike thoroughly checked over by your local bike-shop before coming. That said, mechanical issues can and do arrive and our fully-qualified mechanic will do everything possible to get you back riding in the shortest possible time. We keep a stock of basic items such as tyres, inner tubes and chains so we can handle the majority of issues on the spot. We carry spare wheels in the support car every day and so we can often simply swap out the wheel if you have a puncture while on the road.
There are unfortunately no specialist road bike shops in La Clusaz, but there are several within a 45 minute drive.
Is there anything else to do?
We chose La Clusaz as our base because it is a genuine Alpine village where people live all year round. There is always something going on and such a wide variety of things to do that we defy anyone, male, female or child to be bored. Please see the page on Family Activities for more details.
What about the family?
We have a full programme of activities planned for the non-cyclists and can arrange everything from short visits to the local sights, long afternoons being pampered in the spa, shopping expeditions to Annecy and week-long horse-riding, mountain-biking or other activities. Please see the page on Family Activities for more details.
What should I bring with me?
The most important thing to bring for a week of cycling in the Alps is your good humour and a sense of fun! For a checklist of more material items, please see below. You can also download this list. Please tell us if we have forgotten something!
- Spare tyres (2)
- Spare inner tubes (2)
- Cycle computer
- Heart rate chest strap
- Cycling helmet
- Thermal shirts long sleeve
- Thermal shirts short sleeve (2)
- Cycling Jersey short sleeve (2 – 3)
- Cycling Jersey long sleeve (2)
- Cycling shorts (2)
- Cycling tights ¾ or long
- Cycling Gloves (summer)
- Cycling Gloves (long, waterproof, mid-season)
- Cycling socks (5 pairs)
- Arm warmers
- Leg warmers
- GoreTex or similar waterproof jacket
- Windproof jacket
- Lightweight rain jacket
- Cycling sun glasses
- Cycling shoes
- Cycling waterproof overshoes
- Cap or balaclava
- Chamois cream
- Sun cream
When is the best time to come?
It depends on your objectives! If we have to give general guidelines, we would say the best time to do a really hard block of training is in June, the best time for a family holiday is in July or August, and the best time to discover the mythical cols with no stress and few crowds is in September. For a personal recommendation, drop us a line or give us a call.
From the point of view of the weather, it is important to remember that La Clusaz is at medium altitude in the Alps and although the sun shines far more often than not between June and September it cannot be guaranteed. The climate statistics published by Meteo France show that on average the weather varies surprisingly little between June and September, and when there is strong wind or rain it doesn’t last long. Don’t worry about the weather: just take it as it comes!
Do I need travel/health insurance?
Yes, in order to come cycling in the Alps it is absolutely essential that you be covered by a medical and personal accident insurance policy that includes cover for sports activities. We will ask you to provide us with your insurance policy numbers and emergency contact details prior to your arrival. No insurance, no cycling! If you are based in the United Kingdom, we suggest that you get in touch with Cyclosure, who are experienced providers of insurance for cyclists travelling abroad.
You should also obtain and bring your European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). This card replaced the old E111 form in 2006. Your EHIC lets you get state healthcare at a reduced cost or sometimes for free. It will cover you for treatment that is needed to allow you to continue your stay until your planned return. In the United Kingdom, the EHIC is available free of charge an can be applied for online. EHIC is not a substitute for travel insurance as it will not cover mountain rescue, repatriation costs, or losses due to crime or natural disasters.
Non-Europeans must make their own arrangements to ensure adequate insurance and health-care cover that specifically includes cycling in the Alps. Please contact us if you need assistance.