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How To Ride L’Etape Du Tour February

Posted on November 7th, 2011

February tends to be the dull time in the Etape training plan, you have got over the January excitement at the turn of the year and now comes the realisation that yes, you really are committed to the Etape this year!

So, yes February is a bit of a downer and you’re probably less motivated than you were – but don’t worry, when March arrives you’ll see the event lurking over the horizon and then the adrenaline will kick in again…

Scare Tactics

This month I’m going to start with a story about my experiences on the Etape to give you an idea about what happens during the event, then I’ll come on to what you should be doing this February. For those of you who’ve done the Etape before, you will know exactly what I am talking about:

I’ve been quite fortunate in the Etapes that I’ve done to be up near the front end of the field so I hadn’t really seen what went on at the back.

Until… The last couple of years I’ve helped friends get through the event, one was a first time Etape-ist – in fact they were really a first time cyclist and started at the back of the field – and ended there as well! For the other, I cycled back down Ventoux to give them a bit of support and I’ve never seen such carnage at a sporting event in my life!

 You hear the horror stories that in the last 3 Etapes around 2500 of the 10,000 cyclists don’t finish, but to actually see it is something else.

Try to imagine 2500 cyclists, that’s like an entire UK Sportive not making the finish line – it can be for various reasons – they get swept up by the Sag wagon because they are not fast enough or they physically just cant make it but as I came up Ventoux in 2009 and the Tourmalet last year, the roadside was littered with bodies of people walking; lying in gutters asleep; people seeking shade; people who had just fallen off their bikes with exhaustion.

It may not be what you want to hear, but so many people are ill-prepared for the difficulty of the Etape or their simply not fast enough to avoid the Sag wagon – the Sag is a series of coaches filled with Gendarmes and they hold no mercy for those deemed too slow. If that’s you, you get dumped off your bike, it get chucked in the back of the truck and you have quite possibly the most depressing coach ride of your life…

So let’s not be amongst them because the Etape should be one of the greatest experiences of your life. It is truly a memorable and prolific event that I would urge everyone to experience but with ill preparation it can be one of the longest, hardest most horrible days you could have as well.

I tell you all this not so much to scare you but to help the motivation. Many people come to me, late February, early March, thinking about the Etape, “yeah I really need to get started, I can’t really see it yet, it’s hard to get the motivation”. These are the guys who’ll end up on that coach!

Check List

  • Have we got the bike set up?
  • Is the bike set up and positioning suitable to avoid injury and to last the amount of hours that are going to be expected both in preparation for and during the Etape?
  • Is it serviced? If we are doing one ride a week, we can’t afford to have a mechanical ruin that ride and thus inhabit our progression.
  • Have we thought about the gears? Have we done internet searches, have we assessed our own ability on hills and made sure we are starting to work towards having the appropriate gears on the bike to get us through the preparation sportives, camps and event itself?
  • Have we looked at the injury prevention aspects of cycling – particularly the knees? Have a look at this article, if it is relevant to you, get the stretching programmes and everything sorted to make sure you can continue to train consistently over the next five months. (external site: Sports Tours International).
  • Have you got your planning sorted out?
  • Have you mapped back from the Etape and had a look at how you are going to get there?
  • Have you found your one ride a week and a suitable course that is going to help prepare you for the whole thing?
  • Have you looked at your training camps and your Sportives calendar to work out suitable progressions that are going to prepare you early for the Etape so you know exactly what you are in for and have a clear ‘road map’ to Etape?
  • Finally have you found a way to get a mid week ride in, squeezing it into your week, where will this be, will it be with a serviced pair of lights after dark on the road or will it be on the back of clearing some space in the garage for the turbo trainer etc?

So that is all the scare tactics done, tick those boxes early in February and make sure that whole thing is finished… will then be prepared!

50 Miles

The big number in February is 50 miles. You need to really be doing a near enough non stop 50 mile ride at least once during February to make sure you are progressing towards the distance.
It can be an easy ride, at this time of the year we are not looking for anything specific, just go out and peddle for 50 miles non stop. Your can have one café stop or something along those lines but try to get used to what it is like spending some time on your bike for 50 miles.

Think about cadence as you ride, this is the key technique factor in the early stages of your training plan. Try and find a bike computer that measures your cycling cadence. Cadence being the number of times your pedals rotate in a minute, this will dictate what sort of gears you should be riding in.

Try to get used to riding at around 90rpms for the duration of the ride on the flat. This is the correct cycling cadence for most people when they are out training. Rather than pick a gear, let the cadence dictate what gear you are in, try to maintain the 90 rpms, this is the only technique factor that you really need to get in at the moment. You will find this extremely difficult at first as it will feel as if you are peddling really fast with increased effort but going no-where. Persevere, this feeling will last 3 or 4 rides and then everything will fall into place!!

Acte 2

If you are doing Acte 2, it’s time to build your leg strength. This Etape is all hills, you will need the strength to get up them, so start building leg strength by doing the hills; maybe the odd gym session if your knees are a bit dickey or you are finding it tough to get on the bike, particularly in the middle of the week.

Some gym work such as specific work like leg presses to help build up your quads, will do you the world of good at this stage.

Equally start thinking about your diet, whatever extra weight you are carrying, you are going to have to haul up some of the biggest hills in cycling so start thinking about eating healthy and/or how much you are drinking during the week. Helping to supplement what the cycling will do in terms of losing weight to make life a lot, lot easier come July.

First and foremost though, get out and start thinking about doing some hill work as part of your long rides to get your body used to the shock of climbing.

Acte 1

If you are doing Acte 1, some easy rolling terrains, some hills, gradually building the mileage. At this stage, this is the one where you want to be thinking about the distances. You have got 130 miles to build up to, so 50 miles now is the minimum, no more than 60 though but starting to build your mileage over a rolling terrain, this Etape is all about time on the bike, don’t worry about the speed relevant to the Sag wagon yet, just get some easy base miles in, the speed will come at the back end of this training programme.

At this point you should have at least got your once-a-week ride in, either on the hills for Acte 2 or on some rolling distance type terrain for Acte 1.

Start thinking about how you are going to fit that second ride in, some people find an hour on a Sunday is all they can snatch but it is still really good. I find that riding once a week at this time of year more than adequate but every long ride is always hard, it is the first time you have been on the bike the following week. The moment I start to whack an easy hour in the middle of the week, the Saturday rides get easier and easier and you get a real progression. So at this time of year if you can fit an easy half hour or an hour in to maintain familiarity with the bike, during the week, on a turbo or outside with some lights then that is the perfect thing to be doing.

There is no need to go for two additional rides at this point, if you can do them then the more the better but trying to fit in an additional week day ride in will really enhance your ability to improve on those long weekend rides at this time of year.

The only other closing point is that the flu seems rife in the UK at the moment, people are always asking me whether they should be riding through colds and flu’s etc, whether they should maintain their training or whether they should be just back off.

The general rule is if your symptoms are above the neck then you can get out and sometimes getting out with a mild cold can actually flush out the sinuses and make you feel a whole lot better. If your symptoms are below the neck i.e. a chesty cough or fever etc then there is some danger to going out and you are better to rest up at this time of the year, recover fully and then recommence your training with an easier ride building up again from there.


So to sum up, February is housekeeping month, take care of all the points, start to get the fear to aid the motivation and make sure that you are thinking about the Etape at this point.

Check all the boxes, make sure that all January’s pre preparation stuff is done, you’ve got a focus and a clear path towards your goal through February and just start trying to build the consistency of the rides.

March is going to involve some pretty hefty miles and we want to get up to around 60 miles at that point or 100 km, so build through February to hit your March goals easier. March itself will be an easier month motivationally because at the back end of that month we can look forward to our first Sportives where we can start riding as a group getting used to group riding and testing our winter fitness!

February, take care of business, build consistency and stay healthy.

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