'Looking to mimic riding the Alps? Pretend you’re in a headwind' - how to prepare yourself for long climbs

Whether you’re attending one of Rouleur’s incredible summer Alpine trips or hitting mountains elsewhere, there are proven ways to prep for 30km climbs even if your local hill is five minutes long

Cycling in the mountains is arguably the most exhilarating and inspirational thing you can do on two wheels. Which is why Rouleur’s hosting two upcoming adventures in both the French and Swiss/Italian Alps. The Ultimate French Alps trip takes place between the 23rd and 26th May 2024. Over four days of riding, you’ll rack up 400km and 10km climbing over legendary cols like the Galibier, Croix de Fer and d’Izoard. The Ultimate Swiss and Italian Alps camp takes place between 22nd and 25th August 2024. Ahead lies 365km over four days that again includes around 10km of climbing. The awe-inspiring Stelvio Pass and Passo del Foscgano are just two of the memorable ascents you’ll do battle with.

But will you win these memorable battles? Nothing in life is certain except death, taxes and Tadej Pogačar celebrating a 30%-plus win rate this season, of course, but you’ll certainly crank up your chances by listening to the advice from a man who’s at the cycling epicentre of the French Alps.

Hit the hills

In 2011, cycling coach Kevin Smith (tritrainingharder.com) moved from the UK to France, specifically to Le Bourg-d’Oisans at the base of Alpe d’Huez (a climb he’s endured over 100 times “according to Strava”. His PB is a rather lively sub-47 minutes). Smith runs camps of various length, over various mountains, with various abilities and against various climatic backdrops. But, he says, of the hundreds, nay thousands, of cyclists he’s coached to conquer the Alps, there are two clear groups: “The prepared ones ask as soon as they sign up how they can train for the Alpine mountains on the hills of, say, the UK. Then there are the ones who turn up and ask if they could have trained for the Alpine mountains back in the UK? Ultimately, you can train for days where you rack up thousands of metres of ascending. You just need to be creative.”

That creativity stems from the fact that there are nowhere near the 30km-plus climbs, like the Galibier, in the UK. There are, of course, plenty of taxing ascents, like Porlock Hill in Somerset and Rosedale Chimney in Yorkshire, but their challenge is quality over quantity. “Yes, your local hill might have a steep gradient but it’s rare in the UK to be climbing for much more than 10 minutes,” says Smith. “In the French, Swiss and Italian Alps, you’ll be constantly climbing for over an hour. So, what can you do with a shorter hill? Well, obviously you can do hill repetitions, albeit the downside is that you’re then easing off and descending, it’s more a series of short efforts, rather than a long, grinding climb, which isn’t quite the same. All that said, you must include hills in your training.”

Regular hills will still raise your psychological limits, as well as improve climbing technique. They’ll also raise your functional threshold (FTP). Many of you will have your FTP imprinted on your eyelids as this is the base number that your training zones hang off. It’s roughly the maximum pace you can sustain for an hour, so the more hills you tick off in the build-up to your Alpine adventure, the more your FTP will rise. This is great for the tougher, steeper sections of climbs, like the 30.2km Passo Dello Spluga (day one of the Swiss and Italian Alp camp) and the 28.1km-long Croix de Fer (day one of the French Alps adventure), but you’ll need a mental gear shift when it comes to a series of mountains over not just one day but several days. 

Ace of pace

“You have to change your mindset,” says Smith. “In the UK or other relatively flat countries, because the climbs are relatively short, your approach is full gas. That doesn’t work in the Alps. I’ve seen so many riders come here and, on the first climb of the first day, they set off so fast. I’m thinking, ‘Hmm, they might be stronger than I thought.’ Then 20 minutes later you can see that they’re struggling. They just haven’t paced it. This continues and, come the third day, they’re slumped over breakfast and really starting to think this isn’t fun anymore.”

But it can be via long rides and proficient pacing back in Blighty. “Firstly, the majority of the riders who head here enjoy a long Sunday ride on their own, with mates or with club members,” says Smith. “This is great for endurance, especially if it stretches to four, five, even six hours. This will help in the Alps as, for the most part, you want to see these Alpine rides as a nice super-steady ride like back home. However, when it comes to the long, grinding climbs, you should mimic this by riding as if you were facing a headwind. It’s a bit of a beast so you put in more effort but not to the extent of a steep hill. That’s a good level to pitch it at when facing long climbs because it needs to be a bit harder than on the flat but not much harder.”

A power meter’s a useful training tool here where, says Smith, these harder efforts would equate to around zone three and occasionally tip into zone four. This is primarily aerobic but begins to recruit those fast-twitching type 2a muscle fibres. Tempo stimulates many of the same adaptations as lower-intensity riding – fat burning, mitochondrial growth – with the harder efforts boosting muscular endurance. 

Read more: Training by power - everything you need to know

A heart rate monitor’s a useful alternative with tempo efforts equating to around 84 to 94% of your lactate threshold heart rate (LTHR). Your LTHR is around 80 to 90% of your maximum heart rate depending on fitness. “And you can still mimic these Alpine efforts with the old-fashioned technique of perceived effort as it won’t be a million miles out,” says Smith. Studies show a high correlation between rate of perceived exertion multiplied by 10 and corresponding heart rate, so if you perceive an effort as 12 – on the Borg scale that runs form six (easy) to 20 (ruddy hard) – your heart rate should be around 120bpm.

Boost your power-to-weight

Consistency of training counts, especially when it comes to back-to-back riding days. This consistency of training should naturally lead to a lighter, more powerful you, which is what you need when facing mountains like Col de Vars (day three of the French Alps camp) and the Obenfass (day two of the Swiss Italian Alps camp). 

“When it comes to riding up mountains, your power-to-weight ratio plays a crucial role,” says coach Phil Mosley (myprocoach.net). “A surefire way to ascend faster is to either increase your power output or reduce the weight of you and your bike. If you can do both, you’ll fly up those climbs even faster.”

There is no shortcut to improving your power output. Mosley says wattage will rise in a drip-drip fashion, like coffee filtering into a jug. “That said, you’ll improve quicker if you follow a training programme that’s well suited to your level and availability, with a balance of high- and low-intensity workouts and an appropriate level of progression.”

“If that sounds like too much work – which it won’t as we know you’re committed – you could focus on the ‘weight’ side of your power-to-weight ratio instead,” Mosley adds. “For that, you’ll either need to lose some excess body fat, or shell out on a lighter bike, or wheels. Another, easier, way to shed weight is to carry fewer items on your bike, such as bottles, food and tools, although that can be a risky strategy if you’re riding solo.”

The ideal is to grow stronger first, raising power output and then lose weight. Which begs the question: how much faster will the svelte, wattage-warrior you ride up the mountains? Well, there’s a general rule of thumb that for every hundred metres of elevation gain and for each kilogramme you shed, you save three seconds. 

However, that’s incredibly general. A little more accurate is by tapping into a platform like bikecalculator.com that predicts performance based on parameters like weight, gradient, distance, headwind, elevation gain and many more. Using the Col du Galibier as an example, if you’re riding from Briancon it’s 34.9km long at an average gradient of 5.9%. It’s a grind. Now, let’s say you hold 200 watts up the Galibier. If you weigh 82kg upon your 7kg bike in temperatures of 25°C, you’d average 11.51kph and it’d take you two hours, 56 minutes and 58 seconds. Now, say you’ve jettisoned 5kg and still push out 200 watts, it’d take you nearly two hours and 48 minutes and 26 seconds thanks to an average speed of 12.49kph. If you safely drop to 72kg, you’d reach the Galibier peak in two hours, 39 minutes and 13 seconds thanks to an average 13.19kph. Hit that weight and hold 220 watts up the Galibier and you’d average 14.39kph for a time of two hours, 25 minutes and 52 seconds.

Whatever the maths, shed weight and raise power, and you’ll not only ascend faster but it’ll be more enjoyable. Chapeau you.… Not yet, as all your good work will unravel if your gear set-up is such that you’d need Forstemann-like thighs to rotate your crankset when the terrain tips up.

Lower the better

“Simply put, the lower the gear the better in the Alps,” says Smith. “Even if you’re a strong cyclist, you’ll be surprised on some of the Alpine climbs, especially a couple of days in. And if you are a strong climber and your mates aren’t, if you’re in too high a gear, you’ll be losing them all day. That’s no fun. If you’ve got the gears, you can choose to leave them behind if you want to! On the other side, I’ve seen many times riders shift into their lowest gear on the first climb of the day that, relatively speaking, isn’t that hard. By the third climb they’re really struggling. By day three it’s worse and their knees aren’t happy.”

Mosley suggests swapping either your rear cassette or your crankset, so that you have the option of using easier gears. “Swapping your rear cassette is usually the cheaper option of the two,” he says. “For example, if your rear cassette has 12 sprockets, you could swap your old ‘11-30’ cassette for an ‘11-34’ version. The low number (11) refers to the tooth count on the smallest sprocket, whereas the high number (34) refers to the teeth on the biggest sprocket. The higher the second number, the easier it will feel to pedal in your lightest gear.”

 Gearing naturally brings us to cadence, which might need some work in preparation for the climbs. “Most people feel more comfortable at a lower cadence,” says Smith. “Even if a recreational rider’s spinning quite fast on the flat, it’s rare that they’ll be knocking out 90rpm [repetitions per minute].” Unlike many of the professionals whose ascending cadence is generally higher through years of riding 27,000km annually. Broadly speaking, a higher cadence is more efficient as it takes some of the stress off the muscles and directs it to the cardiovascular system, which can suck up fatigue more than the muscles. 

“So, it’s worth ticking off some sessions where you work on your cadence,” says Smith. “This will pay off on the steeper climbs. That said, cadence is very much an individual thing so don’t stress too much.” 

Read more: Sitting or standing? The appliance of climbing science

And, Smith adds, don’t stress too much about riding at altitude, either, as unless you have an altitude tent or undergo regular sessions at a designated facility like London’s Altitude Centre, you won’t be exposed to rarefied air long enough to enjoy the physiological adaptations like higher haemoglobin levels and better buffering. However, studies show that simply improving fitness will improve your response to altitude. It’s the same tale when it comes to riding in the heat – in general, the fitter you are, the better you’ll cope with hotter temperatures, which is important in both the French and Swiss Italian Alps where it’s regularly over 30°C.

“Fitness is important because unless you’re a professional it’s hard to ‘properly’ acclimate to the heat if you’re regularly riding in cooler temperatures,” says Smith. “However, you could do what some of the triathletes do when they’re training for Ironman Hawaii and sit yourself in a 40°C bath after a hard training session. Or if you have a sauna at your gym, you could spend time in that.”

“Then again, the good thing about the Alps is it’s often cooler overnight,” Smith continues. “If you’re out riding first thing, it could be 15°C and lower. Start early enough and you can at least hit the first climb before the heat strikes. That raises the opposite point of ensuring you bring enough clothing. I’ve ridden La Marmotte a few times and there’ll be riders lining up at the early start who are shivering away in thin, short-sleeved shirts and bib shorts. So, I’d always recommend bringing extra layers, at least to your camp. Most tops are pretty stretchy so their rear pockets can accommodate things like scrunched-up jackets.”

Adventures like these two stunning Rouleur camps will live with you forever, especially if you arrive in solid shape and are ready to ride. Consistent training with stints riding into – or pretending to ride into! – a headwind plus regularly ticking off your local climbs will not only forge a leaner, stronger you, in the words of Smith, “It’ll make your Alpine adventure even more pleasurable. At the end of the day, it’s all about having fun.”

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