FINAL DAYS, PACKING AND TACTICS
The purpose of this article is to really help you come to terms with the logistics of how you are going to get across to France and to make life easier for you on the run into the Etape, helping with things that possibly some of you haven’t had the opportunity to do before in terms of cycling overseas.
The major thing to take care of in the weeks leading up to the Etape outside of your training is making sure the bike is serviced, cleaned and you are all prepped to go, making sure that you don’t forget anything and that you fully understand how to pack your bike and how you are going to manage your time over in France.
So hopefully now most of you have got booked in for a service, and this is occurring within the final ten days before you leave to France. Make sure it goes to a reputable bike shop, if you can get them to help you as you pack the bike up, possibly even show you how to tighten stems etc then all the better, I will however discuss this further later in the piece.
Hopefully after your last few rides you will have a chance to clean the bike as well, a nice sparkly bike is always mentally a lot better as you look down halfway through a really tough ride.
So; pick up your bike from the shop, have it nice and clean and it is now time to think about packing.
Lay out all your nutritional products, tools, spares, clothes etc on the bed, make sure you have got everything you would normally take to a Sportive and then some. Have some nutritional products that you may need in the days prior to the Etape but make sure in a separate bag you have everything for the ride itself fully stocked and sorted.
Your experience from previous Sportives will help you decide what you are going to take and how much of it you will need but make sure this is in a separate bag, ring fenced away from everything else. Make sure that all the tools that you would normally take to a Sportive are there, make sure you have at least a couple of spares for the ride and again one more in case you puncture in your warm up rides.
Make sure that you are packing good winter clothing, the odds are that in most Etapes the weather is really hot but remember you are running over mountainous country. In 2008 in the days leading up to the Etape the weather was sometimes touching 25-30 degrees. On the day of the Etape coming down the Tourmalet the weather was below freezing, or at least it felt like it, on an hour long descent with a sweaty chest from the ascent, so make sure you are fully equipped with all your full winter gear just in case.
Google bike shops in the areas around the start town, make sure you know where your local bike shop is in case of emergency or if there are any little bits that you are struggling with prior to the Etape. Equally have a talk with Sports Tours International to find out what facilities are on hand, whether they have a bike mechanic or someone who can help you put your bike together. There is excellent Mavic support at the Expo centre when you arrive, they tend to be very very good in helping out with the bikes but sometimes they don’t have the exact spares that you may need and sometimes the queues can be long and hot so being self sufficient or having a bike shop closer to your hotel or closer to your accommodation can be very useful.
In terms of packing your bike, I am sure at this point you have decided whether you are taking a bag or a box, probably what some of you need now is some practical help in terms of putting the bike in said bag, how should you do it and how are you going to make sure the bike gets there in the best possible shape?
Hopefully you have bought your bubble wrap and your masking tape.
Basically put the bike the bigger chain ring so the chain protects the teeth whilst travelling, take out the front wheel, take out the skewer, packing tape that either to the wheel itself or put that in the sacred bag.
Remove the handlebar by unbolting the stem at the top and sides, remove the pedals, the seat and the seat post if your bike is too big to fit in the box with this in. If you remove the seat post, make sure you wrap some insulation tape around the base of the post before you take it out so that you know exactly what your seat height is when you get there.
Sometimes you can unscrew the rear derailleur to avoid damage if you are confident to put it back on. Make sure you let the tyres down slightly, if you leave these pumped up hard on the flight the pressurisation will cause them to puncture. Once you have taken the handlebars off and the front wheel off, wrap the handlebars completely in bubble wrap and thread the handlebars around and underneath of the top tube of the bike and tape it there, try not to tape over the paint itself, wrap the whole thing in bubble wrap before you wrap it in packing tape.
With this done then get someone to help you and wrap the whole bike from the rear of the bike round and round and round, top to bottom with the bubble wrap, be as generous as you like, go all the way to the front and then wind it all the way back so that the whole bike is covered in bubble wrap. At the same time, once you have done this and taped it in place, wrap the front wheel several times in the same bubble wrap so that is completely covered. Simply lift and slide the whole bike down into the box (make sure the fork doesn’t come out as you lift it) and then thread the front wheel down just in front of the crank set so that the hub sits in the space between the crank set and the front forks, this will give your bike some protection from this side. I generally take a floor pump to my overseas races, the reasons being: it gives me convenience when you arrive so you can pump up your tyres, particularly on the day before the race so that they are the appropriate pressure; but equally putting it in the back right hand corner of the box provides protection for the rear derailleur and the back wheel. This is a corner that can get damaged and is crucial that the rear drop out doesn’t get bent in transit.
From there what I do is any towels or winter clothes that I am packing, I thread down, again the rear right hand side, but particularly the spare bottles that I will be taking, these can provide a very very useful buffer zone against the bike getting damaged.
These fit very nicely around the mechanical part at the rear of the bike.
Don’t take any CO2 in this box, CO2 canisters are banned, largely from the planes, just purchase some from the Expo centre or the bike shop when you get there if you need them.
Make sure that everything you take off the bike is put in the sacred bag, pedals, seat, computers etc, every single item must be meticulously placed in this bag along with all the tools that you used to unpack it because you will need the self same tools to pack it back up together, zip it up and then that job is done.
When you arrive, assemble the bike as previously mentioned ASAP and then go out for a ride to check that all is in working order. If you have any doubts about putting the handlebars and stem back on, please make sure that you take it to the bike shop, the Mavic Service Centre or someone in your group is proficient at putting these back together as obviously the descents are very technical and dangerous!! Any doubt about putting this back together must be rectified or checked by a competent mechanic. Normally there is someone in your group who is quite adept at putting these handlebars and stems back together, it is quite a simple process.
From there, once you have been out for your ride to check that all is well, the next days job is to register!
Before you leave for France hopefully you will have picked up your number off the internet.
This is done on the Etape du Tour site, you will find your name and the corresponding number, this will save you time when you go to the Expo centre to register in person as you will know which queue to join.
Once the bike is unpacked, register at your first available opportunity when you get there, the quicker you do this, generally the shorter the queues but normally things are very well organised and picking up the number and your goody bags etc is quite a simple process except for last thing at night the night before. Normally it is mandatory to take you passport as ID so don’t forget this!! Equally, take some time at this point to go and have a look at some of the displays at the Expo centre, these are fantastic and there is some seriously good bike porn on display as well as insights into the ride and course itself.
RIDING PRE RACE
In terms of riding beforehand, if you are staying close to the start line, please take time to ride the first few kilometres of the course, these are crucial as the next time you ride these you will be riding in a pack of 8000 to10,000 riders and is a very different experience. Knowing where the twists and turns are, looking at where the road narrows, where the sharp corners are will hold you in good stead so you are well prepared to slow down early at these points on the day of the Etape. So get organised as quickly as you can to make sure you ride at least the first 5-10 k of the route, you will be going out for these short rides anyway to spin your legs out use them to understand from a danger point of view where you need to be aware on the day of the Etape. Remember at corners and narrowing in the road a bunch this size will have a very large concertina effect so all of a sudden the brakes can go on very hard and a wee way before said obstacle. An understanding of where these obstacles are aids in a better awareness on the day!
Those of you who haven’t had a chance to recce the routes or see the DVD’s, generally it is a great idea to hire a car and to drive over the course in the days leading up to it the ride, marking out where the feed stops are, normally the route is sign posted two days before and you can just follow the route signs, knowing where the feeding stops and that cheeky little climb that wasn’t on the course profile etc are will help you visualise and plan your ride better. It is much easier when you know where you are going as you are riding to help visualise what you have left, having said that, allow plenty of time particularly on the Issoire stage as even driving these routes takes a long long time.
THE NIGHT BEFORE
On the night before the Etape, lay your cycling shirt our on the bed, pack all your nutritional products into the pockets, along with your spares etc, lay out all your cycling gear and everything you will need. Fix you number to your bike, pump your tyres up to race pressure, whatever that may be for you so that in the morning all you have to do is get up and everything is prepared, you are not going to be at risk of forgetting anything in the morning haze at early o’clock. I generally try and get out of bed quickly and go down to breakfast early.
THE MORNING OF THE ETAPE
Sometimes the French breakfasts can be a bit of a bun fight, everyone will be in race mode and selfishly looking to steal that last croissant to help themselves up that last climb. Sometimes if you have a set breakfast that you know works for you in the Cyclo Sportives take your own breakfast over there. Be aware that most of the French breakfasts tend to be cold breakfasts but there is plenty of bread, cheese, ham, cereals etc. If this doesn’t work for you or there is something particular that you like then please make sure you take your own and even talk to the hotel the night before about the possibility of microwaving something if you need it. Most hotels seem to be very accommodating and most hotels will be full of Etape du Tour cyclists.
Again, I tend to get my breakfast early so I can get moving. I like to get to the starting pens early, each pen will be set to a particular number order, so know yours and its location by checking on the web or at the race village sign on., You will be funnelled in to these pens by Gendarmes or at lease very officious stewards. I try to get in there a little bit early so that I am near the front of the pen but be aware that you could be standing around for a couple of hours so make sure you take warm clothing that you are happy to throw away as you get going and enough food and drink for the period of time you will be in the pen. You will be surrounded by thousands of other riders in the same boat but it can be quite nippy in the pens first thing in the morning, I just generally take an old pair of tracksuit pants or an old sweatshirt that I can just hang over the barriers and leave as I push on to the ride. The early part of the ride can be a bit nippy as well as it is first thing in the morning but it soon heats up hopefully over the course of the day.
As the starting time approaches, depending on your start number, you will find, particularly if you are down the back end of the field that it could be up to twenty minutes before you even start moving, just relax, take it easy, keep calm within the pens and wait, keep all of your energy for the rest of the day !
Hopefully, as we said, you have had a chance to ride the first few kilometres of the route, just be steady, don’t get over excited and work your way along with the group.
The last thing you want to do is crash at this point in the ride and believe me many crashes occur in the first 10k. So if there are twists and turns coming out of town or as you get used to riding and feeling comfortable in the bunch, remember to have your wits about you. It will be many other people’s first time riding in this sort of proximity and this size bunch, equally many people are a little over enthusiastic at this point too, often even the more experienced ones too looking to move through the bunch. Keep a steady head and eye on those around you and just get through the first 10km unscathed.
Slower riders will try to keep to the right and generally the slowest side of the road will be the right side, the good etiquette is that we leave the left side for the fast riders who are trying to progress through the bunch. It tends to be that you try and find a middle ground that suits you where you can dip into the slow area where you feel you want to keep it steady but leaving room to move left to pass other riders as you go. It will be very very tight for the first few kilometres and there will be some very fast riders coming through hard up against that left side of the road. So stick right, stay out of the way and stay out of trouble, particularly on the Alpe d’Huez stage where the first part of the ride will be largely down hill and extremely fast.
As we said, everyone will be excited and nervous at this point, that is often a recipe for disaster so stay out of trouble, keep looking several bike lengths ahead of you to make sure that all your options are covered and that within your space around you leave enough room for a ‘get out of jail’ clause as you go. Be quite verbal, either in French or in English, it is often easy to understand, tell other riders where you are, if you are passing a rider, tell them that you are passing them on the left so that they don’t move out into your path themselves.
At this point it is very very important that you stick to your race plan, make sure that you don’t go too fast as you get going because this can definitely burn you in the last few kilometres of the ride.
So as you get riding, lets look at the two different stages.
The Alpe d’Huez stage, you have got 109 kilometres to pace yourself. This ride is fairly easy to compartmentalise, and as a parcourse it is not a particularly hard ride to manage mentally.
For those of you doing the Alp du’Huez Etape: The first 14k’s are pretty much a gentle down hill all the way to the bottom of the Telegraphe. This is just going to be a nervous time that requires a lot of care and attention. You have got a lot of cyclists riding in the biggest pack you have ever seen in your life, hurtling down the hill towards the bottom of the biggest climb in cycling. So there is going to be a lot of nervousness and a lot of tension in the bunch, just be very very careful how you manage this part of the ride, take your time and expect the odd breaks to slam on and incidents to be occurring around you so just keep focused and keep concentrated, don’t let the ride be ruined here!
As you turn up to the Telegraphe this is where obviously it gets tough. The Telegraphe is over 12 kilometres long, an average of 7.3% with a 10% maximum gradient so this is a massive mountain in its own right. The fact that it is attached to the Galibier just makes it harder. Don’t be fooled by the percentages, this is very very tough climb.
The key thing with climbing the Galibier is to take it easy on the Telegraphe, just keep a nice steady pace, do everything that you have practiced, there may be a bit of stopping and starting at the base of your climb but just relax and try to get into your rhythm early, don’t try and make up time, just a slow steady pace utilising all those little building blocks you practised in training.
These sorts of climbs are so different to the climbs that you have done in England, you will have got up here perhaps never having done a mountain before, you will be 10 minutes up the climb and realise that you are in a world of pain. It will dawn on you that you have probably got another hour or so to the top of only the Telegraphe.
Don’t panic here, it is at this point that you have to try and work out how you are going to manage this climb mentally, how you are going to deal with the pain that is going to be incessant for the next hour or so and that just comes with concentration and focus. So just concentrate on your cadence, concentrate on your heart rate, do everything that you have learnt to do over the last six months.
This climb is followed by 4.5 k decent which as you crest into it or as it bottoms out is a good chance to get a bit of food and drink inside you, followed in quick succession by the Galibier, again this is a monster climb in its own right.
You are talking about 17-18km long, an average of 8% for the majority of the climb. The very bottom of the climb just after the Valloire gets up to about 10% striking fear into your heart but just relax, concentrate on this area, you get an easier false flat section just afterwards, again another chance to eat and drink but the last 3 kilometres of this climb are by far the hardest so pace yourself towards those.
As you hit the Switchbacks it is going to ramp up to 8%, 9% 10%, this is a very very tough climb but you will find the altitude and possibly the heat, are going to make it even tougher again, so again pacing on the Telegraphe is key, pacing yourself at the bottom of the Galibier itself and not panicking as it starts to hurt. As we said right at the beginning or our training articles way back in January, you are going to hit the top of the climb after 3.5 hours, that will strike fear into your heart in the sense that you will be grafting away, probably some of the hardest 3.5 hours of your life and you will be only 48k’s into the ride. Its ok, the next bit is pretty much 50k long downhill. This is one of the greatest downhills you will ever have the pleasure of doing.
The top part is quite twisty and narrow so be very very careful here, particularly as the altitude and the fatigue of the climb will have dulled your concentration, you might be trying to fiddle with your jacket or make sure that your clothing is all in order for the wind chill on the descent, you might be trying to eat or drink, be very very careful on this phase. Don’t try to eat or drink too much on the beginning part of the decent, it opens up quite nicely and you get a few little up hills and false flats in the mix where you will have plenty of time to take some nutrition on.
After the first 5 or 6k’s it starts to open out into a nice smooth long final descent, enjoy this, enjoy riding in the pack, again be careful but hopefully things will have thinned out at this point, and before you know it you will be 95 kilometres into a 109 kilometre stage, this is where you hit the Alp.
The potential is this will be very very hot, the bottom four kilometres of the Alp ramp up immediately to 10%, this is where a lot of people will be in the dark hole having a mental crisis, concentrate through this stage, know that you will come out of the hole, keep concentrated, it does get easier, it drops down to 7 and 8% after the first few k’s and again after 10% , 8% feels a lot easier. From this point just tick off the hairpins.
All the hairpins are numbered, enjoy this experience, each number has a famous cyclist who has won the Tour de France stage at the top of the Alpe d’Huez which will be added to again this year. Enjoy the 21 hair pins of one of the very best climbs in cycling, tick them off, pace yourself steadily, stay mentally tough, soon you will have achieved your goal.
As far as the Issoire stage goes, this is slightly more difficult to manage.
This is one long stage and unlike the Alpe d’Huez stage is more incessant with the climbing, is liable to be a little bit hotter because of the generally lower altitude and is a bit devoid of natural segments that you can break the ride down into mentally.
It is starting off with a wide open gentle rolling road out of Issoire, this is where you find your pace again early, find a good group, find a pace within that group. Whatever you do during this stage try not to put your nose into the wind, the key to getting through this stage nice and tidy is to find as many wheels to sit behind and draft off as you can. If you need to take a turn do so but try not to do too much riding on your own, this stage is ripe for trying to find a good solid group of people with similar ability pacing yourself through the ride.
The other main ingredient to surviving a stage of this length is again eating and drinking. Make sure that during the beginning part of the stage when you are rolling on the bunch through these wide roads that you don’t lose sight of what got you here and what you have practised with your Sportives, making sure your nutrition and hydration has started early. Again your nutrition is so important because of the length of your ride, hopefully you are well practiced in that regard.
Many people are making the mistake of thinking that because the profile is not as ominous as the Alpe d’Huez stage that it is going to be somewhat easier, exactly the opposite in fact and what is going to be hardest about this as we said is mentally breaking it down into segments.
So the first segment is the wide open gentle rolling roads out of Issoire. This tends to morph into canyon type road through the Gorges de l’Anganon before sloping upwards over a couple of plateaus and starting the first proper climb of the day, the Col de Pas de Peyrol which you will start at about 98 kilometres.
This climb is a 7.7 kilometre climb averaging around 6.2%, it is a category 2 climb in the Tour de France but with good pitches of around 8%. This is a beautiful climb though and make sure you take in the views here as they will be spectacular.
You have a fantastic descent down from here straight to the bottom of the Col de Perthus which while only 4.4 kilometres averaging 7.9% has some really nasty pitches of 14-15% on it which will be very very tough coming almost 120 kilometres into the ride.
This is the climb that will separate the men from the boys. There are persistent 10% gradients, as I say stretched out to 15%, this will demand the most from your legs and your lungs and it will really make or break you ride.
This is followed along by a rolling route incorporating three more medium sized climbs and then at 154 kilometres comes the Col de la Prat Le Bouc, an 8 kilometre long climb to an average of 6%, again this will be very very tough with 100 miles in the legs, which will ease you into the final phase of the ride.
At this point your nutrition and drinking strategy will be tested to the maximum.
The final 50 kilometres snake through narrow country lanes with the final dip down to the Barrage de Granval Lake. Don’t underestimate the effort it takes to climb back out of the valley and over the final major climb over the Plateu de la Chaumette. With over 180 kilometres worth of riding all in your legs and 3000 metres of climbing, even this small incline will be very very painful to the point of breaking many of the riders.
The terrain from here stays extremely demanding with a combination of false flats, head wind and tight turns on narrow bumpy rides. This has been said numerous times, what this route lacks in monster climbs it makes up for in frequency and most certainly will test your mental capacity to the limit. Even when the route spikes on the profile cards subside in the final 50 kilometres, it is worth remembering that the roads around this area are notoriously heavy and undulating.
Your biggest challenge on this ride, besides relentless climbing, is going to be at some point in the ride you will find yourself in a deep dark hole mentally, probably somewhere from the Col de Perthus through the Col de la Prat de Bouc, possibly even further towards the finish.
This deep dark hole will feel like there is nothing left in your legs, you will doubt your ability to finish. Understand that with all the work you have done you will cope with this. This hole happens to the very best of us and what find yourself in it….which you will, sit up, find a nice wheel, eat and drink, get yourself recharged, you will come out of this hole, you always do. It doesn’t feel like it at the time, but you will. Believe and know that it won’t be like this all the way to the finish, just understand and tell yourself that at some point you will lever your way out of this.
This usually happens as you mentally reach a distance or milestone or relevant point in the ride that you had mentally focussed on, sometimes it is just a good wheel to sit on that comes past….. something will freshen you up and you will push on to the end.
As I say from the beginning your aren’t able to compartmentalise this ride to the same degree into sections that you can in the Alpe d’Huez stage so at some point you will find a mental challenge that the relentless climbing and heavy roads starts to grind on you. It is this that makes this stage so tough.
Soon, however, you get out of this, you will find yourself on the final 1 kilometre ascent to the cliff perched upper village of Saint-Flour, this is the final kilometre and you will have made it.
Finally all the training through the winter, through the snow, everything has been worth it and you will have had one of the greatest experiences of your life.
As I say if you have followed all of this training you will be in great shape preparing for this final phase of the Etape and riding the race itself. Just be organised, make sure you prepare for every eventuality beforehand, that your bike is packed nicely, that mechanically it is sound before you start the ride, start early and just don’t deviate from what you have practiced time and time again on your long rides and your Sportives. Eat, drink, be safe in the bunch, back your training, understand that the training you have done will get you to the finish, don’t get excited and just enjoy the experience of riding once of the stages of the Tour de France.
Good look, I hope everything goes well, be safe.
Till next year,