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Cycling in the Northern Alps and Rhone Alps Region in Southeastern France

By Diane Stibbard

Diane-cycling-alps-2For this month’s Ask a Pro article, Laurel-Lea asked me to write about my recent cycling trip to France.  Last month I spent one week riding in the Northern Alps, and one week in the Rhone Alps region in southeastern France, based in the beautiful city of Annecy. While in the Alps, I stayed in a rustic resort located half way up the Col du Orno —which the Tour de France riders rode during stage 18 of this year’s tour—about 10 kms outside the small village of Borg d’Oisans.  This village lies at the base of the famed climb Alp du Huez.  Most of you are probably aware that Alp du Huez is frequently included in the Tour de France, but this year the riders had to tackle it twice, also in stage 18.

Training for my trip was challenging, given the variance between the terrain of southern Ontario and the long and steep mountain roads of these two regions of France. In addition to dealing with the differences in terrain, I also planned to cycle long distances for 16 consecutive days. Even though I’m a very strong hill climber, because of my power to weight ratio I needed to think about how best I would prepare to ride strongly, and consistently.

After a very long winter and an extraordinarily wet and cool spring, I began my outdoor riding season. I structured my training in a steady, progressive manner, just like I would when developing training programs for my coaching clients. Below is a basic idea of how I organized my training program.

Month One: April

3 days per week:

1 long-distance day — mileage build from 80 km to 110 km

1 medium distance day — mileage: 70 to 90 km

1 day of either hill repeats or tempo/threshold-training riding – average distance of these rides was 30 to 50 kms. This was to build leg power, as well as to maintain a high wattage (power) and a higher heart rate, which is necessary when climbing long, steep mountains in the French Alps.

Month Two: May

Diane-cycling-alps-14 days per week:

1 long distance day – mileage build from 110 to 130km

1 medium distance day – mileage: 70 to 90km

1 day of hill repeats, or tempo/threshold riding –mileage average: 30 to 50kms

A 4 th day was added during this month, which was done either after my long- or medium-distance day. This day was an easy recovery ride.

By week four of this month, the recovery ride was replaced with an interval training day to work on my top end anaerobic capacity.

Month Three: June

3 to 4 consecutive days of riding. A 5th day was added to the last 2 weeks of this training month. 

Monday: Off

Tuesday: Medium-distance day

Wednesday: Tempo/threshold or interval day

Thursday: Recovery ride

Friday: Run

Saturday: Long-distance day

Sunday: Tempo or interval day, depending on what I did on Wednesday

Diane-cycling-alps-3After three months of intense but gradual preparation I did one full week of tapering, which included short rides with some intensity to stay fresh and sharp for the weeks of riding ahead. In addition to tapering my training, I also arrived in France four days ahead of the start of the first week of cycling. Arriving early allowed me to settle in and recover from jet lag. This was the final preparation of my training program. I was well prepared, rested, and ready to tackle the hard weeks of riding ahead.

The Northern Alps routes were challenging because of the length of the climbs. Most climbs were on average 10 to 15 km long, the longest being 22 km, with an average gradient of 8%. However, when you hear that the average gradient of a particular climb is 8%, you know there are also sections that increase to 10 to 14%. Below are my main keys to climbing well in the mountains:

  1. Choose a rear cassette and front chain ring which is appropriate for these grades and lengths.  I ride a 650 cc wheel base. My bike was set up with a 39T (teeth) front chain ring, and the rear cassette was an 11×27 (11 teeth on the small ring, 27 teeth on the big ring at the back). A compact set-up is what most riders are advised to have. A 39T front chain ring allows most cyclists the necessary gears to get up the climbs. For women cyclists like me, who are shorter than 5’ 5”, a bike frame designed for a 700 cc wheel base results in too long a reach between the seat and the handlebars. That affects the neck, resulting in numbness in hands, back pain etc. But it also adversely affects power and performance, particularly when climbing. If you’re stretched out too far forward, your upper body won’t be relaxed and that wastes energy. Second, it prevents you from fully using the glut muscles, which are important in climbing.
  2. To avoid leg burn-out, keep the cadence as high as you can. My average cadence on most of all the climbs was in and around 60 to 75 rpms.  As soon as you start to see your cadence drop below 65 rpm, shift to an easier gear. If you’re already in your easiest gear, vary your position on the bike by getting out of the saddle. That mixes up the muscles being used to climb and helps keep the blood in the legs moving (flushed).
  3. Change your position constantly during the climbs. This is done by getting out of the saddle and standing to change the muscles being used to climb. This helps to ensure you don’t burn out your legs.


Other essential riding tips necessary for riding in the mountains:

  1. Always carry a lightweight rain jacket that is easily stored in your jersey. Mountain descents can be cold and sometimes misty at higher elevations. Keep arm-warmers and fingered-gloves in your jersey pockets as well, to help keep you warm as you descend.
  2. Install brake pads that are made for heavy braking. Mountain descents can be long and quite steep. You’ll be braking a lot more than usual. The brakes require special brake pads designed to withstand the higher heat that’s generated from frequent braking.
  3. Plan on consuming approximately 100 calories every 30 to 45 minutes of ride time.  Pack that amount of food in the form of bars, and or gels, and carry extra food in case you need it. In addition to my gels I always carried small wrapped packages of Fig Newtons, or buckwheat wraps with almond butter. The solid food should be easy to digest and a little higher in calories.
  4. Hydration – the wonderful thing about riding in the mountains in France is the abundance of small villages that have a water fountain where you can top up your water bottles. Begin your day of riding with water bottles filled with a sport drink mix, then carry extra powder you can add to your bottles when you refill on the way, or a small bag with electrolyte tablets (Nunn, Hammer, and Fizz are a few examples of electrolyte tablets on the market).
  5. And as usual, always carry an extra tube or a spray foam canister if you are riding on tubular tires.

I hope this provides you with some basic steps to prepare for cycling in the mountains of Europe. While I was in France, I had the opportunity of seeing two of the stages of the Tour de France, which was really fun. I cycled many of the same climbs and routes that the riders did, making viewing the race much more personal. It was truly one of the most amazing trips I have ever done, and I strongly recommend these two areas in France to cycle and explore. Being well prepared before arriving is the key to getting the most out of your riding experience. Most cyclists would not ride every day they are there, but the beauty of these types of trips is you can plan your own schedule and do as much or as little riding as you like.

Happy and safe riding!

Training for a two-day cycling eventDiane provides training programs for recreational and competitive cyclists, duathletes and triathletes, including nutritional counseling and personal training. Does your company need a fitness consultant? Get in touch with Diane to discuss fitness seminars for corporations

You want personal training but don’t live near Diane? No problem. Diane does email and telephone consultations. To learn more, contact Diane at [email protected] or at LinkedIn.

Check out Diane’s e-programs: Keeping Fit in the Off-Season and Training For a Two-Day Charity Event For the Time-Starved Cyclist.

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