If you want to know how to tackle a cycling challenge such as a long distance day ride or even a multi-day event it’s worth seeking the advice of someone like Chris Boardman - a rider who’s been there and done it at the highest level. While Boardman is famous for his Olympic gold medal on the track and his time trialling prowess on the road - he also rode to good effect in numerous stage races over the course of an illustrious career as a pro. Tracy Norris caught up with him (well, at the start and finish) of the recent Etape Caledonia for Boardman’s big ride advice.
I’m batting along a small road beside a beautiful Scottish loch, with only the sound of fast-spinning bicycle wheels around me and the rushing wind. Not a car in sight – this is a closed road event – so I can concentrate on the wheel in front of me and the occasional glance up to appreciate the stunning views of snow-topped Shiehallion – a munro who’s shoulder we will climb over before the day is done.
I’m in Perthshire, Scotland for the annual Etape Caledonia and so far, so good. The weather is fine (no minor consideration for this event that had near-hypothermic riders last year), I’m riding well and I’m catching every wheel I can to help me survive 81 miles of fast riding.
For me, this is a training ride that can be a race if I feel strong enough. My main event this year will be riding stages 17 to 20 of the Tour de France route, as part of the Tour de Force event that I help to run. If you haven’t studied the 2016 route yet, I can tell you that these will be the Alpine stages, so I’ve got some serious work to do before I’ll be able to look up from the tarmac at those views! It won’t be my first time on tour – I rode 2 stages coming South from the Alps in 2012 and the three Corsican stages in 2013. But multiple stages in the French Alps raises the game and I’m keen to ride it as well as I can.
Riding with me today is Chris Boardman. Actually, that’s not exactly true. We both set off from the same start line at the same time, but I was left in a cloud of proverbial dust within the first few yards and I know enough not to try and stay on his wheel! Luckily I’ve already picked his brains and I plan to follow his advice to the letter:
“The equation you need to master is, number one; how far is it to go? Two; how hard am I trying and three; is it sustainable? Keep asking yourself all the time. In a race, if the answer to number 3 is ‘yes I can sustain it’, then you’re not going hard enough. If the answer’s ‘no’, then it’s already too late. So the answer you’re looking for, all the time, is ‘maybe’ … ‘I think so’”.
At this point, I’ve got an awfully long way to go, I’m trying very hard and I’m not at all convinced it’s sustainable. I’m riding with my training buddy who is already mumbling to me to go on and leave her – which makes me suspect I’m probably pushing too hard, too soon. But today is about learning as much as I can and so I decide to keep going. If I blow up, (which quite frankly, seems likely) then at least I’ll have discovered my limits and will be a step closer to knowing what is sustainable on a long distance ride.
I’m after Chris’s best tips for riding long distance and multi-stage events. First up: how to avoid saddle sores:
“Never turn up and do anything different on the day that you haven’t been doing in training. Whatever you’re going to do for the event there should be no surprises … Find the right saddle, shorts and cream. Do it now – by trial and error. It’s very personal. On the upside, there’s loads of choice. There are companies that do fittings just for saddles – there are more experts involved than ever there were before. It’s trial and error. Me? I’m very robust … I could sit on the edge of a piece of wood and I’d be fine”.
I don’t know about sitting on the edge of a piece of wood, but I do know that I’ve got a great set up with my bike, my saddle is comfortable and my shorts are great. Saddle sores are something I’m determined to avoid so I’ve already taken care to get this sorted.
What else? Chris explains that for a multi-stage event, whatever I do on one stage, I need to be able to repeat day after day. It’s no good going flat out on day one, only to discover there’s nothing left in the tank for the next stages:
“You need to know how to pace yourself … staying on the wheel for the first couple of stages and learning to back off. Most of it is about not over-extending at the start and paying the price later. Most people – that’s where they make a mistake and blow up”.
Painfully aware that he could well be describing me today, I am nevertheless catching every possible wheel that flies past me. A guy pulls past with such lean, tanned legs that he must either be Italian, or have spent most of the winter training in Mallorca. Surrounded by startlingly white legs that haven’t seen the light of day since October in Scotland; his legs stand out. I decide that they look like a strong pair to follow, so I catch his wheel. 1.5 hours into the ride and I’m shoving pieces of energy bar into my mouth, remembering that Chris has told me I need to know how to feed properly. I’ve got a banana and a squished peanut butter sandwich in my back pocket, a couple of gels and a bar bag with my emergency stash of jelly snakes. It’s not gourmet, but it should cover all eventualities.
“You should know how to pace yourself because you should have tried out different pacing strategies until you know what works for you”.
It occurs to me that I don’t yet know much about pacing strategies, so I make a mental note to spend my last two months of preparation learning about and playing with pacing. Chris has assured me that I have plenty of time, as long as I’m focused with my training:
“Aim for three to four, 2-hour hard rides in a week. With a month to go, there needs to be at least one long ride of 5 hours or more each week, preferably two in order to get the muscle volume. If it’s going to be hot, over-clothe for your rides so you get a good sweat response and get used to it”.
Right now I’m luxuriating in the fact that for the first time this year I’m riding in shorts and am actually regretting packing a rain jacket in my back pockets (an unthinkable risk most days in Scotland). Over-clothing to get any sort of sweat response is more likely up here, but after the crippling 40° temperatures we had last year in France on tour, I know that Chris is speaking sense. I add to my growing list of mental notes.
I’ve been riding in a good group for 15 miles along the south side of the Lochs and I’m now heading towards the big Shiehallion climb at around the 45 mile marker. Now, I’m no climber and while this isn’t remotely on the scale of the Alps, it’s still ‘the big climb’ of the route: 3.1km long at an average 7% and 169 metres of ascent.
“The trick is don’t over-cook it at the start, be it a day like the Etape Caledonia, or multiple days, or even a single climb. If you’ve got bags of energy left and you want to go faster at the end – fine. But if you run out before you finish, it’s a horrible, miserable grind to the finish”.
Stage 18 of the Tour de France this year is a 17km time trial … uphill! So this is a good place to practice. Even though I’m not expecting to race the time trial in July, I’m intrigued to know how the pros will tackle an uphill time trial during the tour:
“The big difference with a climb is that once you blow, you blow. You can’t freewheel on a climb – you’ll come to a grinding halt quickly. In a time trial you can usually have micro-rests where you can back off for half a second or a second. You can’t afford to do that on a climb – the price is too high”.
A “horrible, miserable grind to the finish” doesn’t sound like fun today, and while I briefly consider what a micro-rest means to me, I’m not daft enough to try it on this climb. I take it steady, letting ‘Mr Italian-legs’ and the others pull ahead … except, not all of them do! And even those that pull away are soon back in my sights when I see the summit flags. To my amazement I’ve still got something left in the tank, so I click back up a couple of gears and catch them up. Before I know it, I’m accelerating past riders towards the longest downhill of the ride – an exhilarating 2 stage descent over 6kms which becomes even more exciting when I try to peel and eat the banana in my back pocket, in an attempt to stave off cramp later.
I ask myself again: How far is it to go, how hard am I trying and is it sustainable? The stretch from 60 to 70 miles is rolling but still quite fast in a group. I’m trying pretty hard, but I’m not beasting myself out of fear of burning out too soon. But with just 11 miles to the finish I realise I’m in with a chance of a PB. Mental arithmetic isn’t my strong point, but it can distract me for hours on the bike when my blood sugars are dipping.
Five miles later I still can’t figure out the maths of whether I can ride fast enough to get a PB, but now I’m so close to the finish I do at least know that I want to finish with nothing left in the tank. So I start to pump the pedals for all I’m worth and realise immediately that there’s still plenty left to give. The others drop behind me as I accelerate away, cursing at the realisation that if I’m feeling this strong still, I’ve probably left this sprint too late. My sustainable threshold is still something of an enigma, but I’m determined to finish this ride by giving it my all.
By the time I ride into Pitlochry, I’m breathing so hard that I’m pretty sure I sound like an asthmatic steam train but I don’t care as I cross the finish line, setting myself a new PB. I’ve learnt a bit more about what I’m capable of today and I’m a step closer to my goal of riding 4 stages of the Tour de France this year.
As I stagger into the time chip area, shakily climb off my bike and bend double, heaving oxygen into my lungs, I look up and see Chris Boardman, freshly changed out of sweaty cycling kit (assuming he actually broke into a sweat!) calmly signing autographs and chatting to riders. Clearly the pros (even ex-pros) are in a completely different league, but that doesn’t mean I can’t ride the same routes as them and get a taste for what a multi-stage ride is all about this summer. I cannae wait!
Tracy Norris helps to organise the annual Tour de Force charity cycling event, following the route of the Tour de France, one week ahead of the pros.
The Etape Caledonia takes place in Pitlochry in May each year.