I have just gotten back from a week of solid training in Tucson, AZ with the local Carmichael Training Systems (CTS) crew. It was a great way to end the 2010 training season, hang out with some biking buddies (including Team BMC pro rider John Murphy and CTS athlete Jamie Riehle) and plan the next season. And by the way, I successfully defended my KOM title, although I had to ride hard for about 1:45 hours before finishing the job. Tough competition this year! A big thank you to Canadian Champion Gord Fraser who set the pace up the climb on Mount Lemmon. He kept me at my limit the whole way up and taught me a lot about communicating with a teammate on a climb.

I have attended a lot of CTS training camps over the years. At first, just completing a three day climbing camp in Asheville, NC was seen as an achievement. I would train for months to survive a training camp. What a concept! As I progressed as a cyclist, training camps became, well, training camps.

This lastest CTS Tucson training camp reminded me a lot of the 2009 and 2010 Buellton, CA training camps. What these three camps have in common is that I attended them with a specific goal in mind: training for a particular event – as opposed to just training or learning more about the basics of cycling.

In February 2009 I attended the CTS training camp in Buellton to prepare for the L’Etape du Tour in France while earlier this year I attended the same camp to prepare for the Tour of the Gila in New Mexico.

So what was I preparing for last week? Keep reading.

I have always been fascinated by endurance sports and long endurance events. I remember a hockey coach telling me one day when I was about 15 that I needed to get in better shape. I was then swimming over an hour a day with the odd run on top of that. I intuitively understood that I wasn’t made for short hard efforts but rather for long sustained efforts. I couldn’t explain it to my hockey coach and ended up quitting hockey altogether.

The Tour de France has always seemed to me to be the toughest endurance event ever organized. How does one train the human body for such a long, gruelling race? The Tour is the ultimate endurance event and it possibly is the hardest sporting event in the world considering it lasts three weeks with daily stages of up to seven hours, not to mention the fact that the riders compete over some of the hardest climbs in Europe.

It is no surprise then that I had been wanting to do at least one stage of the Tour de France for a while, just to experience what it is like. At the end of 2007 I asked coach Tim if he felt I could complete the 2008 Etape du Tour. L’Étape du Tour is a mass participation cyclosportive event that allows amateur cyclists to race over the same route as a Tour de France stage. First held in 1993, and now organised by the Amaury Sport Organisation, ASO (in conjunction with Vélo Magazine), it takes place each July, normally on a Tour rest day.

L’Étape du Tour is normally held over mountain roads in either the Pyrenees or French Alps, up climbs such as the Col du Galibier, Col d’Aubisque, Mont Ventoux or the Col du Tourmalet. Around 8,500 riders participate – many travelling from other countries to compete – and the event takes place on roads closed by the police to other traffic, with refreshment stops and medical support provided along the route.

After a review of my power files and a little bit of research on the route of the 2008 Etape coach Tim came back with the verdict: “You could complete the event but you won’t be able to meet the time limits and will end up in the bus.” The project got delayed by one year.

In December 2008 I registered for the 2009 Etape through tour operator Velo Echappe. The 2009 edition of the Etape started in Montélimar (Drôme) and covered 172 km and 4 smaller climbs (Côte de Citelle, Col d’Ey, Ccol de Fontaube, Col de Notre-Dame des Abeilles) before finishing at the summit of the famed Mont Ventoux, France’s toughest climb according to Lance Armstrong.

My 2009 training season got underway in February in Buellton, CA. I got the opportunity to put in five good days of riding, building a good base of fitness for the July Etape in France. At the end of the camp, I told CTS boss and founder Chris Carmichael that although I enjoyed riding with him – and beating him on the climbs – he would end up losing my “camp business” to tour operators such a Velo Echappe. As an amateur looking for bigger challenges there are just so many CTS camps I could attend. I successfully completed the Etape and I was ready for a new challenge. I needed a multi-day event. What about a week of riding like a pro? How do I experience that?

I thought I had the answer when I signed up for a real multi-day stage race called the Tour of the Gila. Lance and Levi were there doing the race. It was the real deal. The race helped me realize that although I seek new ways to push myself, at my age and with the responsibilities I have as a father, husband and business owner, pro-like road racing isn’t my cup of tea. I had to find a way to experience multi-day pro racing in a safer environment.

I spent the rest of the 2010 racing season focusing on hill climbs with the odd amateur local road race. After my last hill climb race in Burke, VT in September I wondered what I would do in 2011. More of the same hill climbs trying to shave a minute or two off my 2010 times? Lose 10 pounds to shave another 30 or 60 seconds? How does one get motivated for something like this? That’s when the phone rang.

– “Alain? Chris here.”

I thought: “What have I done now.” I have been religiously following my training schedule. He can’t be calling me to tell me I am being kicked out of CTS.

– “How about doing the Tour of California in May? We are hand-picking fifteen CTS athletes and you are one of them. Here’s the concept.”

Chris then explained that CTS was putting a “team” together to do the whole 2011 Tour of California – eight days of racing. We get to do the same stages as the pros on the same days, live and eat with the pros. We get to start the stages about three hours before the pros and try and finish the stages before being caught. A whole week of pro-like racing in an environment I can be comfortable in.

– “Chris, I’m in.”

Chris is not only a great coach but a real smart businessman. He had listened to me (and obviously others) and threw something at me he knew I couldn’t turn down. He wasn’t going to lose my camp business to a tour operator afterall.

I immediately confirmed my plans for November training in Tucson and made plans to attend the 2011 February camp in Buellton. CTS called the Tour of California event a camp. Suddenly I am back to the beginning: I will need to train for six months just to survive a CTS camp. Oh well, if I want to experience a whole week of pro racing I better train like a pro and be coached like a pro.

Stay tuned.