• Get plenty of rest in the week prior to riding a 201 kilometers Stage of Tour de France which includes two Hors Catégorie and two Category One climbs totalling over 16,000 feet of climbing
     
  • Don’t ride your bike for ten hours one day and expect to do anything good the following two days
     
  • Don’t bring your non-cyclist wife on a nine day bike trip across the Pyrénées when your days are fully dedicated to cycling

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I’m on a flight back from Europe to Montréal. July 20th. Wedding anniversary. I have been away now for two weeks and I have spent most of that time in the Pyrénées riding my bike with fellow CTS athlete and good friend David Burke as well as my old buddy Nicolas Breton from Bromont, Québec. My wife Mary Lou and Dave’s wife Tricia, both non-cyclists, were also part of the trip.

We stayed at hotel Viscos in the little village of Saint-Savin. I think the most we had to ride to get to the bottom of a famous Hors Catégorie climb was thirty-six minutes. A thirty-six minute warm up to get to the bottom of the Col du Tourmalet, think about it. Hautacam was no more than fourteen minutes away. I got there on July 8th, six full days before my main event which was planned for July 14th.

With Viscos Chef and Owner Mr. Saint-Martin

You learn a lot about cycling when you spend so much time in the heart of a region known for its legendary Tour de France climbs. You learn even more when as part of your journey through the Pyrénées you get the opportunity to ride an entire Stage of the Tour de France (an annual ride called the Étape du Tour, organized by the owners of the Tour de France) which this year was 201 kilometers and included the “Circle of Death” climbs of Col d’Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspin and Peyresourde all in the same day. In the 99 years of the Tour only five editions included all four of those climbs in one stage before this year (1938, 1949, 1980,1983 and 1998). A treat I’d say.

Col d’Aubisque: “The first of four”.

The road from the top of the Aubisque to the Col de Soulor is an absolute must for all cyclists.

Col de Soulor: The road built on a cliff.

A long climb? Yes.

Le Col du Tourmalet: “Climbers are not allowed to die until they have climbed both sides”.

You also learn a lot when you ride for 35 hours and 14 minutes over a nine day period, climbing 59,248 feet along the way and use up 20,623 kilojoules to get you through it all. And if that wasn’t enough, you are sure to break new grounds when you do a ten hour ride in one day, climb over 16,000 feet in the process and put out 5,643 kilojoules to do it.

So obviously when you piece it all together, common sense dictates that you shouldn’t ride much in the six days leading up to a 201 kilometers Stage of Tour de France that includes over 16,000 feet of climbing, you sure shouldn’t do a ten hour bike ride one day and expect to do anything good the following two days and you certainly shouldn’t bring your non-cyclist wife on a nine day bike trip across the Pyrénées when your days are fully dedicated to cycling.

I am convinced that a lot of (male) cyclists reading this blog post are thinking: “This dude may be right.” It would be easy to end this post here. How those one argue against common sense anyways? Well, it is a long flight and I think that maybe I should spend a few more minutes analyzing each item.

1 – Get plenty of rest in the week prior to riding a 201 kilometers Stage of Tour de France which includes two Hors Catégorie and two Category One climbs totalling over 16,000 feet of climbing

Before heading to France, the longest I had spent on a bike in a single day was 6:57 hours. My energy expenditure on that ride was 4,212 kilojoules, a personal best. My longest ride was 184 kilometers. So one would expect me to be a little anxious about the prospect of riding the 2012 Étape du Tour or the “Queen Stage” of the Tour de France, Stage 16. The 2012 Étape took place on July 14th and was 201 kilometers long. That ride was going to be longer in distance and duration and require more energy than anything I had ever done before. That’s what I call a real challenge.

The 2012 Étape du Tour started in Pau and finished in Bagnères-de-Luchon. About thirty-four kilometers from the start the riders would reach the bottom of the first climb: the Hors Catégorie Col d’Aubisque. After a fast descent down the Col du Soulor and through the small town of Argèles-Gazost the riders would tackle the second climb of the day, the famed Hors Catégorie climb of the Col du Tourmalet (from the Luz-Saint-Sauveur side). After reaching the bottom of the Tourmalet, the riders would then turn right and immediately start climbing the Category One climb of the Col D’Aspin. The final climb of the day was the Category One climb of the Col de Peyresourdes.

Just based on those facts it is safe to assume that riding hard and long in the days preceding L’Étape would be a big mistake. After all, my biggest training week so far this year had been sixteen hours (excluding the week of the Tour of California, of course). I was estimating doing L’Étape in ten hours. So if my estimation was right it meant that riding an hour per day in the six days prior to the event would match the duration of my biggest 2012 training week. Not a small achievement.

Having already completed one Étape (in 2009) not only did I know what to expect, I also knew how to get ready for such a gruelling event. I remember when I first rode a stage of the Tour. I rode from Montélimar to the top of Mont Ventoux. That stage was 172 kilometers and included one Category Four climb, one Category Two climb, one Category One climb and one Hors Catégorie climb. It took me 8:02 hours to complete the event. I did spend a few hours on my bike in the days leading up to the 2009 Étape, but most rides were fairly easy and short. In the 2009 Étape I did better than I had expected so I guess it paid off to take it easy in the days prior to my event.

As mentioned above, we arrived in Saint-Savin on July 8th. That left six full days prior to the Étape. How do climbers fill their days when residing in the middle of the Pyrénées? Riders with a lot of common sense would ride about an hour a day, right? Maybe, maybe not.

Our group had bigger ambitions than a few short rides. How does riding 20:15 hrs (more hours on the bike than in any of my last two Carmichael Training System camps) sound like? While at it, maybe we should also ride nine of the most famous climbs in the world (five Hors Catégorie, three Category One and one Category Three). Those climbs totalled 34,461 feet of ascent. How much energy would one have left after such a “preparation”? Not being afraid of a good challenge we decided to try it.

On day one I built my bike and we headed out for a short ride up the bottom part of Hautacam.

Testing the bike and the legs up Hautacam.

On day two we did the Hors Catégorie climb of Pic des Tentes.

Climbing the HC Pic des Tentes towards the Spanish border.

Pic des Tentes is not a well-known climb but it offers some of the most spectacular scenery in the area.

Two kilometers to the summit.

Day three included two Hors Catégorie climbs: Luz-Ardiden and Hautacam.

Wet and cold.

Dave and I each established new one hour power records (in training) going up Luz-Ardiden not just because it would keep us warm on a cold and wet day but because we were determined to gauge our fitness early in the week. We also recorded the best fifth and seventh amateur time for the climb according to the chip-based timing system installed on the climb.

“Les Canadiens sont là!!”

Hautacam is a tough climb and a tougher one when it follows an hour all out effort up Luz-Ardiden.

“How steep is it around the corner?”

Day 4 included four Categorized climbs: Col des Bordères, Soulor, Aubisque and Pont D’Espagne.

This picture says it all.

On day 5 we did the Col de la Croix Blanche and Le Tourmalet from the La Mongie side.

Not even half way up the Le Tourmalet yet.

Can you spell “Satisfying”?

No comment.

Although we had big ambitions, we also had some common sense left so on day 6 we went for a short one hour recovery ride and then packed our bikes in the car, ready for our early departure for the Étape start line in the morning.

Ready for our 4:30 am wake up call.

So how did we do at the Étape on Day 7? Pretty good indeed. Our race numbers (mine was 8,238) were in the 8,000s series so we started out at the back of the 9,000 or so riders in the peloton and we finished about 2,000th. We met our race time goal, had a smile on our face all day, we never looked at how many kilometers were left. Our power for each climb was very steady – in fact it got better with each climb. So I guess riding more hours in the week prior to the Étape than in any other training week this year didn’t kill us after all.

The truth of the matter is that cyclists have a lot of misconceptions about the sport and about how well the human body and mind adapt to increased training stress. Some people think we get stronger when we ride a lot as opposed to when we rest, some people think our sport is all about riding more and more miles etc etc. Generally speaking, riders think that cycling is almost all about fitness. Wrong. It is about fitness but it is also about mental toughness.

My Carmichael Training Systems (CTS) coach is Jason Tullous. Jason takes care of my fitness, training plan and input into race strategies. My other “unofficial ” CTS coach is a mental coach. His name is Chris Carmichael.

Some people know Chris as Lance Armstrong`s coach, some people know him as their boss at CTS. Personally, I know him as the guy who is constantly busting my balls. I have been a member of CTS for over six years now. I have attended sixteen CTS camps, events or Race Experiences. Do you think that would get me any respect from the CEO? The answer is no. And for that, I am immensely grateful to Chris.

Chris is the guy who will tell me to ask myself “If I am tough enough” before signing up to a big event. He is the guy who, while riding together in a peloton on our way to a big climb, will tell me: “Try not to get dropped today.” Before I went over to Europe I asked Chris if he had any tips I could focus on to try and become a better descender. His answer? “Grow some balls.” The point of all these one liners is that cycling is not all about the physical it is also about the mental.

Over the years I have had the great pleasure of riding with Gord Fraser, former Canadian Champion and Olympian. He too likes to push me. To him, a great portion of the sport is about HTFU (“Hardening The Fuck Up”). Wanna take a day off the day after a ten hour ride? Hell no! Harden The Fuck Up and go race Luz-Ardiden with your buddies.

Dave and I have the benefit of having had a CTS coach for several years now and in the days prior to Étape we put the knowledge we accumulated over those years to good use. We knew when to test our fitness, when to recover, what we should eat and drink and how to manage the biggest event of our Time Crunched Athletes’ career. I personally also had the benefit of having been mentally pushed beyond what I long thought my limits were by one of the best in the sport. I shared that knowledge with my European teammates and we all did great.

So I guess the point of the story is that how you prepare for any kind of event depends not only on where you are at as an athlete in terms of fitness, knowledge and experience but also on how tough you are mentally.

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2 – Don’t ride your bike for ten hours one day and expect to do anything good the following two days

Maybe a huge training week before a ten hour bike ride in one day did not kill us but surely there was nothing left in the tank after a ten hour day. Right? Think again.

When we got back to the hotel after the Étape we showered and started celebrating. Champagne, two different entrees of foie gras, risotto with pork cheeks and wild mushrooms and obviously a tasty dessert. We had one last glass of wine after dinner and hit the sack at around midnight.

When we got up the next morning we had breakfast and headed up for some more climbing.

No oatmeal at the Viscos.

We decided to head back to Luz-Ardiden.

The race is on.

Dave quickly went to the front and set the pace for the first few kilometers. With about five kilometers to go Nicolas went to the front and increased the pace. With four kilometers to go I decided to go to the front and to increase the pace even more. I felt pretty good when I got on the bike that morning so I decided to really test my legs and I attacked. I raced the last four kilometers as if my life depended on it. I felt good the whole way up.

Luz-Ardiden: The picture every climber needs to take and say “I did it”.

Top of the climb.

Keep testing those legs!

When I downloaded my power file I realized that I had set a second best normalized power for a twenty minute effort. That was a huge reminder for me: “A cyclist can still do well after the biggest training week of his career and more specifically the day after the longest, hardest bike ride of his life.” It was an excellent example of what Chris Carmichael often tells us before a Tour of California stage: “If the mind is good, the legs are good”. This is exactly how I felt on the climb up Luz-Ardiden. It was a weird mix of “I feel pretty good” and “I can suffer for twenty minutes no problem, twenty minutes is quite short in the grand scheme of things.” Needless to say, both Dave and Nicolas also had an amazing climb. On that day, we were all “tough enough” to endure the pain required to put out a good performance.

And just in case we weren’t convinced that we could ride hard over and over again (and be “tough enough” two days in a row), on the last day we headed out to Hautacam for some more “leg and mind testing”. We hit the bottom of the climb at a pretty good pace. When the results were in we had set top eight best average power for a thirthy minutes effort. And so the common sense that says you can’t ride your bike for ten hours one day and expect to do anything good the following two days was thrown out the window. As Chris Carmichael says:”Performance starts and ends in the head.” And when you feel like quitting early you should know that it is not necessarily because you are not “fit enough” but maybe because you are not “tough enough”.

Top of Hautacam

Hautacam: Very uneven, hence very tough.

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3 – Don’t bring your non-cyclist wife on a ten day bike trip across the Pyrénées when your days are fully dedicated to cycling

This post is pretty long and it is all about cycling. Or so it seems.

At the end of the 2011 Tour of California I wrote this:

“I often hear young people – including my own kids – and also some of my friends say: “I wish so and so would like to do the same things I like doing”, mostly referring to close ones.

I can’t relate to that. I don’t need my wife to understand my passion for climbing steep hill just as I don’t need my business partners to share my passion for big families.

My wife likes Oprah, I like Limbaugh. I like cycling, she likes reading. I like double black ski runs, she likes green and blue runs. What we share are values and common aspirations for our six kids. We are very respectful of each other’s priorities.

And, as long as my business partners and I continue share a passion for making money and ethical business practices we will continue to get along just fine no matter how they feel about cycling.

So then, who do I share my passion for cycling with? Guys who share my passion.”

David, Nicolas and I share some of the same passions. We are passionate about cycling but family and the relationship with our spouses is at the center of our lives. We couldn’t do what we do if we didn’t have the support we have from our wives. And we are all very grateful for it. So next time you are planning a cycling trip, make sure you involve your wife and make sure you give back to her for all the sacrifices she makes for you. I can’t conceive how I could do what I do as a cyclist if it wasn’t for Mary Lou’s support and understanding.

After the cycling portion of the trip Dave and I went to Barcelona with Tricia and Mary Lou and we left our bikes in storage. Nicolas went to Geneva with his family and left his bike in its case. It is not all about the bike!

“Happy wedding anniversary honey!”

The Burkes

The inseparables

Nicolas and his family

Nicolas and his family

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In summary, the three things that experienced cyclists already know are quite clear to me. Firstly, twenty hours of riding over a six days prior to a 201 kilometer Tour de France stage is a hell of a good warm up. A ten hour riding day won’t kill you and to do well in the following days you shouldn’t let your mind listen to the common sense approach that says your legs are too tired to ride. Go out and ride hard. And finally, what a better holiday than two weeks in Europe with your spouse?

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