What I learned from cycling the Tour de France route
Riding the TdeF is a major logistical nightmare but can be executed flawlessly.
I rode the TdF with the Tour de Force now known as the Le Loop, in support of the William Waites Memorial Trust which provides funds to small, niche charities in memory of William Waites who was tragically murdered in Honduras as an 18 year old during his gap year.
There were approximately 40 “lifers” who had signed up to ride the full tour route and others joined for sections increasing the number to a maximum of around 150. The logistics of managing 150 individuals, their luggage, accommodation, transfers, food, etc is staggeringly complex yet the project was executed flawlessly by a phenomenal woman called Sarah and her team – I have never been as much in awe of an individual.
Part of the logistical operation involved signing every turn of the route with green arrows – all we riders had to do was follow the green arrows – I only made two wrong turns in 3 weeks and both were entirely my own fault.
Riding the tour is hard but not that hard unless you’re a pro
Unbelievably a couple of people turned up to ride the 3,500km without training – they failed and abandoned within a week! A good few had done very little training and carried “excess weight” and they made it but they struggled. We would start riding at 8:00am each morning and those with little training would often not finish until approaching midnight – for them it was a hard ride. Anyone who had done a reasonable amount of training could ride the TdF comfortably.
I had trained hard with big weeks comprising 10 to 12 hours of ski mo and 10 to 15 hours on the bike. I could ride all the hills hard and the flats hard when I wanted to but primarily used the flat sections for active recovery. I was probably one of the stronger riders typically posting some of the fastest times for the climbs amongst the TdF Strava Group and finishing first on a number of stages.
The first week was tough due to continuous rain and strong headwinds and 200km plus stages – at the end of each stage I was weary but not exhausted and this was also true at the end of the entire route. The weather made a big difference to how testing each day was. As we adapted to the daily effort we would regard a flat 200km plus stage as a recovery ride and would feel good at the end of it. It is worth mentioning that a “flat” stage would still involve 1,500 to 2,000m of vertical ascent! The well-trained riders began to see some recovery after the first week and many of us felt strength returning as we reached the end of week 2 but by the final stage none of us wanted to ride anymore.
The pros would ride the stages usually in half the time of the fastest riders in our group. If the pros rode a stage in 4 to 5 hours the fastest of us would need 8 to 10 hours and those that had not trained would be out for 12 to 15 hours. I have new found respect for the pros – to ride on the edge of their physical limits and to be mentally alert to execute a race strategy each day requires a level of fitness and mental strength that is hard for me to comprehend.
I might not be able to tie my shoelaces for weeks
Hours and hours of resting on my hands on my handlebars has caused short term (I hope) nerve damage to my hands and fingers. The result is I cannot tie my shoelaces nor hold a knife and fork properly at meal times and have to eat with table manners of a six year old.
Group riding is mentally demanding and breaches of etiquette can really hack people off
200km stages and headwinds mean that riding in a group to share the burden of shielding others from the wind is essential. Many people do not know how to ride safely and effectively in groups. A new person who took the lead and would “surge” ahead to demonstrate how strong they were would really hack people off. Communication is key to agree how long and how hard to ride on the front and ensure efficiency and those on the front would get really cheesed off if another rode “took over” without invitation as this basically said “you are too weak to be on the front”. Not ever taking a turn on the front was also likely to really upset people and it is better to do a turn, even if its short, than shirking responsibility.
Rapha clothing is a cult phenomenon
British riders were pretty much decked out entirely in Rapha kit and the brand had achieved almost cult status. Many owned 30 to 40 individual Rapha items and you can imagine the cost of their entire cycling wardrobe when the socks cost £15 a pair and jersey is north of £130. I had some Rapha tops and their rain jackets and they were brilliant. I continue to be underwhelmed by their shorts and believe Assos shorts are the best for long rides. When the weather is terrible the Castelli Gabba top is essential along with endura neoprene gloves.
If the weather is bad you are going to be cold whatever you wear
If it is wet, windy and cold and you are at 3,000m and about to descend a mountain at speed it does not matter how many clothes you wear – you are going to be cold. At one point I was wearing a merino wool t-shirt, merino wool base layer, Gabba top, a Castelli long sleeved jersey, Rapha deep winter jacket, wind stopper gillet, neck warmer and hat and I was still frozen!
It’s almost impossible to avoid getting ill
When the weather is bad you sweat and overheat on the way up a hill and freeze to death on the way down. The continuous daily repetition meant that by the end of the ride we were all suffering from varying levels of what felt like pneumonia. We were all riding on paracetamol and ibuprofen by the end of the tour. For the last 3 days I was feeling pretty unwell.
Saddles sores are a pain in the butt
Everyone had issues with saddle sores – some having to miss stages they were so bad. I had big issues the first week due to riding in rain-soaked shorts for 9 to 10 hours each day and with a chamois cream that was fine for an hour on the turbo but not 10 hours in the rain. By day three I had open wounds on my butt and sitting on the bike was agony. I was saved by the team doctor advising me to put compede on the open wounds and taking paracetamol to null the pain. The strategy worked and the wounds healed. My mistake initially was to remove the compede patches each night which effectively involved waxing my arse! I learnt just to leave it on. I switched to Assoss Chamois cream which in my opinion is infinitely superior to any other product. Once healed I then managed the sores and occasional infected spots with a combination of sudacreme and betadine and would ensure I changed out of wet kit as soon as possible, regularly applied additional chamois cream and ensured I always wore clean kit.
Most mechanical issues were wheel related and carbon rimmed wheels are a nightmare
Most of the riders had very expensive bikes and carbon wheels. Many of those with carbon wheels, such as Zipps, had issues such as the wheels delaminating. Carbon rims also make a lot of noise when you brake and can be less effective in the rain. I had standard Mavic wheels and loved them – for a day race I would use my carbon wheels but for multi-stage events I will stick with my Mavics (which are just as light as Zipp 202s!). There were many mechanical issues but most seemed to be related to carbon wheels.
It is easy to eat too much and put on weight
The first week I had a stomach bug which meant that food was passing through me at an alarming rate. I lost weight during the first week until I started on the Immodium and after three pills things returned to normal. Each day there were four food stops with real food – pasta, sandwiches, etc. Despite burning between 3,000 and 4,000 calories per day I put on weight as 1) it was hard to measure how much I was consuming and 2) I was either comfort eating because it was cold or terrified of bonking. I also ate far too many bakery products – often as there was no other option – and I do not want to see another croissant for a very long time.
Without a Power Meter it is difficult to gauge how hard you are working
I started the tour with P1 Power Meter Pedals but 8 days of continuous rain resulted in them failing. The company were brilliant and shipped me replacement pedals from the US to one of the hotels but for half the ride I was without power data. Without power data it is really hard to know how hard you are riding.
After the first four or five days I could not raise my heart rate above 150 bpm when my normal maximum would be in the early 170s. So normal heart rate zones became meaningless. It was also impossible to rely on Perceived Effort because on some mornings it required all my effort just to get out of bed! When I did not have power data I used heart rate targets but re-calibrated downwards by about 10 to 15 bpm. Towards the end of the tour my heart rate began to return to normal.
Riding well is all about pacing and finishing strongly
In mountain stages if I rode too hard on the first few climbs because I was being overly competitive with the younger riders I would lose all power for the final climb and crawl home. When it comes to racing mountain stages my goal was always to be able to ride the final climb hard. This meant riding conservatively on early climbs and also building my effort during each climb so that I finished each climb strongly. During the 21 stages I found myself in survival mode only on one, possibly two occasions – both of which were self-inflicted.
Short efforts on hairpins can put a lot of space between you and other riders
My coach’s training plan required me to put short efforts into each hairpin on training rides. It was only when I did this on the mountain stages under race conditions did I realise how effective a few seconds of effort can be in opening up a gap on competitors. I wished I had practiced this more.
France is a great country but roundabouts are a nightmare
I had no idea how diverse and beautiful France is and what an amazing cycling destination. The two Alpine stages and the final few stages in Provence provided some of the best cycle rides of my life and my wife is delighted I now want to holiday in France.
We only rode one lap of the Champs Elysee but once was enough. Drivers coming onto roundabouts have right of way which seems crazy and our single lap provided almost continuous life and death moments.
It is difficult to identify another challenge which would be a worthy successor to the TdF
I am now wondering what to do on a bike after the TdF which would provide the same challenge and emotional appeal. It is difficult to think of something that physically and emotionally would have a greater appeal – any suggestions would be much appreciated!
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