I wrote here about the events making up my season, and the first significant ones, a week in the Ariege (Pyrenees) and the three day Tour of Wessex, have now passed. During these two events (and ignoring the week inbetween), I pedalled for around forty two hours – probably forty five hours if you include non-moving time – covered over 1,100km and ascended around 18,500 metres
I thought I’d share four things I’ve taken from these forty five hours, as I think they may be applicable for others in their training and competing.
I can channel my inner Richie
On a couple of the steeper cols in the Pyrenees, notably the Col D’Agnes from the South, and the ascent to the ski station of Guzet, I learnt that I can pretend I’m Richie Porte.
I’ve heard or read somewhere that little Richie can climb out of the saddle for well over 40 minutes at a time. For many, provided their technique is good, riding out of the saddle gives better power, and can save the muscles you recruit when in the saddle for later in the day.
Whilst I certainly cannot climb out of the saddle for as long as Porte, I found on the brutal opening 4km of the Agnes (which are consistently 9-11%), and several prolonged steep stretches on Guzet, that I can stay out of the saddle for a long, long time, maybe around 25 minutes. I need to be relatively fresh, the gradient needs to be steep (probably 8%+) and the road needs to be relatively good. So it’s not in all circumstances that I’m going to be able to do this, but, on some of the climbs approaching in summer, notably the Plateau de Beille at Ariegeoise and the Alpe D’Huez (heard of that one?) at the Marmotte, which, as functional ski station roads, are well tarmacked, and both very steep, I hope to be able to use this.
Climbing out of the saddle definitely works for me. I can easily push 5-10% more power, and it really helps me ease off other tiring muscles. Once I’m in a rhythm and am able to ‘dance’ – allowing the bike to sway beneath me – I really feel in my element. I’m going to practice this in the next few weeks if I can find the right slopes – maybe Toy’s or Titsey hill in Kent. The more and longer I am able to do this, the better I will peform on long climbs in the coming months.
Small hills hurt more than big hills
The Pyrenees, and particularly the Ariege region, is far quieter and more tranquil than the Alps, which is peppered with wide functional roads and tourist towns. There are a number of tiny mountain passes that I explored in my week, such as the Seraille and Catchegeude, that may look like a pimple on an elevation chart, but are a true drain on the energy levels. They typically seem to only ascend around 3-400m in total (as compared to most of the ariege cols, which climb well over 800m from valley level), but these little back roads are narrow, twisty, rough and undulating.
As these climbs are short, you think you can push over them in 20 minutes or so, and thus hit them hard. However, the technically tricky riding, the switching between ascent and descent, and the inability to monitor your progress (you certainly don’t get the roadside km markers here) make them exhausting.
Approach small climbs with caution. A pimple can be filled with nasty stuff. They don’t always look like much, but if you’re on a narrow road, it’s likely to have a poor surface, be hard to navigate, and be impossible to gain rhythm on. They will ruin you if you’re not careful.
I think this is a lesson that can be applicable as much to rolling roads as well; just because something isn’t a huge climb, it won’t make it easy. You need to ALWAYS be pacing your effort and trying to gauge if you’er going out too hard. I’ve discussed my worries about the rolling roads on the Haute Route Pyrenees parcours here, and my experiences on these little Airege passes has reinforced the need for caution at all times.
I can mix it up with the rouleurs
The tour of Wessex was an amazing experience and revelation for me. Riding slightly competitively as I, and many others were, meant that the front of the field turned into something akin to a road race. Flat and rolling roads were tackled in full blown peletons at anywhere between 35-40kph in tight and aggressive formations. As is typical; of sportives, it was usually the case that a lot of riders in the pack were happy to sit in the wheels and do no work, whilst only 30-40% did the hard graft.
I was in these bunches on all three days, and am happy to report that I put in big contributions to all of them. As you’d expect, the big sturdy riders who can happily motor away at 300W were typically pushing on the front for long stretches, and admittedly, we covered ground fastest when these guys were in charge. However, I made sure I worked and pushed. I’m not going to say I carried the pace as well as them, but I certainly didn’t let it noticeably fall.
In some cases, holding wheelis in the bunch of these groups around tight bends, junctions or splits caused by fatigued riders needed massive accelerations to bridge a gap of a few tens of meters. When travelling at a pace, jumping the gap is not easy and requires a big 30 sec or so effort. I was capable of this.
Day two was more or less six hours of this intense on-off-on-off effort, and it was mentally exhausting and at times, totally crippling. The below shows my power profile for the day, i.e., the amount of time in each zone. Whilst this shows that I spent around 2 hours at very low power, coasting in the group or descending, I also spent a total of 80 mintes at 106% + of my threshold (the two top power zones). This time will probably have ben made up of around 30-40 small efforts. It’s hard.
When I want / need to, I can mix it with the rouleurs. I can hold a high power on the front when sufficiently motivated, and I can punch across gaps at zone 6 power when called to. I was never confident of my ability in this type of riding before, so the positive affirmation feels great. And riding like this is like a triple espresso with ten sugars injected into the aorta. Exciting, nervy, and enthralling.
In this respect, Wessex was great training for Marmotte and Haute Route etc; I’ve been thinking all spring that if I can get in bunches at the business end of the field and cling on for dear life, like little Nairo Quintana hanging onto the wheel of bear man Ian Stannard, I should be able to hold my own on the climbs and hopefully perform well in these competitive events.
Don’t be ashamed of your Granny.
Just before the Tour of Wessex, I was able to visit the superb Athlete Service to get my InfoCrank fitted. As I’m not proud, I’ve gone from a 36/52 semi-compact, to a full on granny compact of 34/50, with a 28 on the back.
Having those extra few gear inches offered by the 34-28 proved invaluable on some of the brutal bergs of the South West during the Tour of Wessex. This gear meant that rather than totally grinding my way up the frequent 15% + slopes of the area, I was able to spin my legs and rely on cadence rather than strength.
This is essential on multi-day riding; lots of low cadence – high torque climbing can totally destroy your legs after a number of days, and I think it was this new extra gear that I’d acquired that allowed me to go better than my companions on that punishing final day through Exmoor. Using cadence and a very high gear may not be very pro, but who gives? I ain’t no Cancellara.
The 34-28 Granny gear will be widely used at Haute Route Pyrenees in a few months. I like my granny and not ashamed to visit her.
Some nice pics
The cols and cows of the Ariege
Team Tour of Wessex (but mostly me)