It’s that time of year again when the Tour de France is entering its final stages, the mountains of France are dominating and we shake (or is that bow?) our heads in amazement at how the pros can make the impossible look so easy. And, secretly, many of us ask ourselves if we could ride up and down those same mountains ourselves.
What goes through the mind of a pro cyclist when they cycle up or down a mountain is anyone’s guess (but we’re pretty confident it isn’t ‘oh my this scenery is amazing’) but having ridden the very same roads as the pros we know it is that exact sentence that goes through your mind time and time again.
For those that don’t come from a mountainous country, the scenery of the French Alps is truly inspiring. The towering crags and snow-lined ridges above you, coupled with the alpine meadows and streams and the sinuous roads all combine to give you the feeling that you are riding in another world.
There are very few sports in the world where you too can enjoy your passion in exactly the same theatre as the professionals do, and that is one of the true beauties of cycling – the road belongs to us all. And it just so happens that some of the best cycling roads in the world are in the French Alps.
We caught up with Intrepid’s Cycle Brand & Product Manager Frank Cheshire to talk about Intrepid’s first foray into the world of road cycling, their 8-day Cycle the French Alps trip and so much more:
So, why road cycling now?
Intrepid’s cycling trips are one of the company’s fastest-growing markets and we are proud to say that our cycling travellers come from a multitude of backgrounds and with a diverse level of cycling experience. What we are finding now is that people are wanting new cycling challenges to aspire to, and to simply experience for themselves what they have only seen on TV. Hence, Intrepid Road Cycling was born.
Why cycle in the French Alps?
I’m lucky enough to live an hour’s drive from the French Alps and can honestly say it is one of the best places in the world to ride a road bike. The Alps contain many of the world’s best-known climbs: the towering Col de la Croix de Fer (The Iron Cross), the Lacets de Montvernier – described as one of the most beautiful roads in professional cycling – the alpine desert scenery of the Col d’Izoard, the sky-high Col du Galibier, and of course the iconic 21 hairpins of the Alpe d’Huez, probably the best-known climb in all of cycling.
What’s more, the whole area is set up for cycling and the locals really love seeing people cycling in their mountains – not a ride goes by without someone shouting ‘Allez’ (Go!) as you make your way up a steep grade. Cars will even happily drive behind you at less than 10kph until it’s safe to pass – it really is cycling heaven!
And if you’re as lame as me, you can even collect little souvenir road markers to remind you of the awesome adventure when you get home – there’s one for every climb.
You’ve ridden it a few times Frank, tells us what it’s really like?
Okay, as well as being an amazing place to ride it definitely is a challenge, but one of the best challenges I’ve enjoyed on a bike. In truth, the idea of it is actually more daunting than the reality.
Like cycling anywhere it is as hard or as easy as you want to make it. We’ll never go as fast as the pros and to be honest I wouldn’t want to even if I could (and believe me I can’t!) as you’d miss what makes this place truly special. Most of the climbs are long rather than really steep so you have enough time to find your own rhythm and cycle at a pace you are comfortable with. I genuinely believe that anyone with a good dose of determination and normal bike riding fitness can enjoy riding in the mountains.
As weird as it sounds for most people – me included – the bigger challenge is riding down the mountains. Speed builds up quickly and you need to be careful to watch the road ahead – not always as easy as it sounds in scenery this inspiring. My best advice is to take it easy, brake before you need to and make frequent photo stops on the way down.
It’s the mountains so it can get cold (those snow-lined peaks mean a cold descent) or it can get really hot (thank God for the cold water fountains in every village along the way!) but that’s also the beauty of doing it all as part of a guided tour. All the logistics are taken care of, the routes are planned well in advance (but can be adjusted at a moment’s notice), your cold weather kit/sunscreen is nearby in the support vehicle and you have a friendly local leader with you to encourage you to achieve your dreams.
I’m keen to give it a try, how do I prepare for a ride like this?
If you live anywhere near a hilly area, the best advice I can give is go ride there as much as you can. It will help build your endurance as well as your descending skills, which should give you confidence for the Alps.
Thankfully you can train for riding in the mountains if you live in a flat area too. Putting in the miles is the key as it’s your endurance that gets tested the most in the mountains. Remember, whatever power (not speed) you can hold on the flat for 1 or 2 hours you can hold on a climb as well. Get out and ride on a windy day and turn a negative into a positive – riding into a headwind is just like riding up a hill. Pushing a harder gear at a lower cadence will help build up your muscle endurance and get you ready for the hills.
And don’t give up the gym, yoga or Pilates classes either – that strength and flexibility will definitely help.
On a technical side, it’s important to get your gear right as well. Leave your ego at home and make sure you ride an easy gear so you can spin your legs and avoid early fatigue. And if you’re someone that uses an indoor trainer try and raise the front wheel a bit to mimic the gradient you’ll be climbing. Believe me it works.
Sounds pretty technical Frank…
Doesn’t it! Look, cycling is full of theories of what makes you stronger, faster, and better but to be honest this is all about accepting a challenge and achieving something other people might think is beyond them (or you!). The simplest advice I can give is ‘go slow and listen to your body’. After all, you are climbing a mountain so why hurry? And remember, what goes up also must come down.
Any final pearls of wisdom for people considering riding in the French Alps?
Don’t look for excuses not to do it but embrace the challenge – you CAN do it!
Think you’re too big to cycle up mountains? Then comfort yourself that the heaviest pro cyclist to race up these same mountains was 94kgs/210lbs – and he was racing against guys the size of jockeys! Hell, I’m 87kgs and I can do it!
Think you might not be able to make it all the way? Use the support vehicle, it’s not cheating (unlike in the early days of the Tour de France when some racers would take trains to the finish line instead of cycling!)
As Sir Edmund Hillary once said, “It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”
Ready for a beautiful, otherworldly challenge? Check out Intrepid’s Cycle the French Alps adventure.
(All images c/o Frank Cheshire.)