ATC: How Do I Train For a European Cycling Vacation?

Before you travel, you want to increase your cardio as well as condition your legs. Since most climbs in the France cycling package are 1-3 hours, you want to over train time so that you can easily last the climbing without cramping.

A.C. writes, “I heard you talking during last Saturdays’ ride about the cycling trip you took to France. I am planning on going next year. How do I train for this?”

The trip we took was from a tour company called Custom Getaways. They have numerous trip packages including Tour de France (TDF), Giro d’Italia and the World Cycling Championships.

Our trip was very professionally supported and our package included riding on the actual roads that the pros ride in the Tour de France. We climbed:

  • Alpe d’Huez: A beyond category (HC) 13.8km (8.6mile) climb at 8.1% average grade, with 1,135m (3,725ft) of elevation gained – 725m (2,379ft) to 1860m (6,102ft).
  • Col d’Telegraphe and Col d’Galiber: Another HC climb, 34km (21 miles) at 7% average grade, with 1,846m (6,057ft) of elevation gained – 710m (2,329ft) to 2,556m (8,386ft). It’s a little more than that, 150m (500ft) more, since there is a downhill between these two giants.
  • Col d’Izord: Two ways to the top. This years’ tour took the road from Briancon. A favorite place to be dropped off is at the top of Col de Vars, a category 1 climb. You will have an 18km (11mile) descent to Guillestre which is 1,025m (3,363ft) in elevation. From here you will ascend 32km (20miles) ending at a HC climb at the top of Col d’Izoard at an elevation of 2,360m (7,743ft) for 1,335m (4,380ft) elevation gain.
  • Embrun to Salon-de-Provence: This was Stage 19 of the 2017 Tour de France. A 223km (135.5mile) stage. Rolling hills and only 3 category 3 climbs, two which are in the first 50km (31miles). Since this is such a long stage, most tour companies will limit you to 97km-112km (60miles-70miles) depending on the fitness of the group.

Requisite Top 10 List Of Travel Tips For A European Tour

  1. Aim to be one of the fittest riders in the tour group. The reason being is that you will be able to do more riding, and enjoy more of the climbs.
  2. Drop as much weight as you can prior to your tour. Even dropping 10 pounds will make a tremendous difference.
  3. Adjust for bike weight. My regular bike is a Cervelo R5ca while my rental bike was a low-end Wilier GTR (a $2,500 bike). The Cervelo is light, and the Wilier is heavy enough that I could tell there was a big difference. In retrospect, I should have at least weighed down the Cervelo with a cheap pair of heavy clinchers.*
  4. Craft a training plan. Talk with a coach about a training plan. Depending on your current fitness level, you may need 3-6 months to get in shape to do all the climbs.
  5. Have mental game plan for mountains. Most of climbing is mental and looking up at a mountain like Galibier can be daunting. What I found best is to break up the climb into segments, for example each switchback can be a segment. Complete each segment, give yourself a pat on the back and then on to the next segment.
  6. Manage your power. If you have a power meter, that’s perfect. Train with it before and after for several months, you will know what power you are pushing and how long you can maintain it for. The rental bikes won’t have power meters.**
  7. Keep drinking water so you don’t cramp. Tour companies will usually give you a single water bottle as part of the package (along with a jersey). Bring your own as well. It’s better to have two than a single empty one. Most tour companies will usually ride up and down the climbs checking on their riders. If you need help, give them a thumb down and they will stop so you can replenish water and energy bars.
  8. Maximize power for a given duration. For example, the Alpe d’Huez is less than a 50-minute climb for a category 1 racer and a 75-minute climb for a fit club cyclist who regularly trains hills. A typical club cyclist would take 90 minutes. There were cyclists that took 3 hours to climb Alpe d’Huez.
  9. Cadence, cadence, cadence. Spend the next several months spinning more. Try and climb at 90 RPM cadence.
  10. Spin Class will help. Start taking a spin class. The trick is to give each class 110%. You will increase your cardio ability as well as gain some strength.
  11. Yoga and stretching. Get into a stretching program right away, Yoga is a great way to start.
  12. Do rides that simulate these climbs. Even though you will probably not find a Col d’Galibier in your backyard, find the longest 7%-8% grade hill you can and do hill repeats. If you don’t have any hills, do steady-state high-power output for 2-3 hours. This can be done on the flats or an indoor. As you get closer to the date of your tour, make sure you can do a greater than 4-hour ‘high power’ endurance ride.

*Gearing – Setup the gearing on your training bike the same as the tour rental bikes. Gearing on the tour bikes was compact – 50/34 up front and 11-32 in the rear. For me this was more than enough gearing for all the climbs but several of the others in the group complained that it wasn’t enough. They would have preferred an underdrive triple.

**If you have any specific equipment you need, bring it along. Several people brought their GoPro and the tour company was happy to help install the GoPro mounts. Several brought their +17° stem. One person brought their own saddle. It’s OK to bring what you need.

Ultimately, you want to increase your cardio as well as condition your legs. Since most climbs are 1-3 hours, you want to over train time so that you can easily last the 1-3 hours of climbing without cramping. As you get closer to the date of your tour, make sure you can do a greater than 4-hour ‘high power’ endurance ride. Good luck!

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