Riding your racing bicycle in the mountains is one of the best experiences you can have on two wheels. Working hard all day surrounded by nature, with breathtaking views as a reward. And don’t forget the rip-roaring descents. In short: big fun. At least, if you know what you are doing. Because there’s quite a lot of factors involved in making your trip a success, and many riders suffer unnecessarily. We have put together some handy tips, to help you best prepare for a mountain adventure.
Train (a lot)
While it all sounds very idyllic, cycling in the mountains is a real challenge. Not that we want to discourage you, because it can be wonderful—some members of The Prologue team choose cycling in the mountains above a week on the beach (that comes afterwards). But don’t underestimate what you are about to do. Good preparation (yup, training) is therefore crucial. Unless you are a natural born rider, that is.
So, set up a training programme several months ahead of time. If you are a member of a cycling club, then it would do no harm to talk to the trainer. Alternatively, there are various training schemes to be found online. If you have enough money for the equipment and a subscription, then it can certainly do no harm to check out what Zwift has to offer. Strava also has a number of climbing training options, but you do have to be a (paid-up) member of Strava Summit to be able to take advantage of them.
Do your homework
When it comes to climbs that you have never attempted before, knowing what you’re up against is really helpful. Do some armchair research on how long the climb is, and where the steepest sections are, as this is a good way to avoid unpleasant surprises. For example: the ascent of the Mortirolo (starting from Mazzo) hits a gradient of 13% after 2km. At that point, all you feel like doing is clicking to a lower gear. But if you have done your homework, you will know that 1.5km up the road, the gradient increases to 15.4%. This means that you should keep at least one low gear clean until you get to that section.
It really isn’t difficult to challenge yourself in a region like the Alps. Reaching the summit of a climb is an achievement in itself, but if you ride with a heart-rate metre, it’s worthwhile monitoring what your heart does under these circumstances. You will notice that if you keep going above a certain heart-rate, that your legs will fill with lactic acid. Mountain climbing on the bike is a good reason to learn about your lactate threshold (often defined as 85% of you maximum heart-rate). This is useful information that you can put to good use in the mountains.
Epic Alpine ascents belong on Strava, of course. And you want to be at peak performance when you hit the segments. We all want to be as high as possible in the rankings in the key segments classifications, or at least beat all our friends. Once you know what your lactate threshold is, you can use your heart-rate as an extra indicator. Try to ride as long as possible just below your lactate threshold for the best results!
Keep eating and drinking
Cycling in the mountains costs a lot of energy. While that’s also true while riding on the flat, there’s a bigger chance that you will run your tank dry in the mountains. And there’s also no way back once you’re climbing. Teach yourself to eat regularly and sufficiently after the first hour (easily doable if you have eaten a solid breakfast). The idea is to replace as much of the energy you burn up as possible. While you can get a long way in the Low Countries riding with a banana in your back pocket, that’s simply not enough in the mountains.
You will also notice that you easily get out of breath when eating on the bike, so take small mouthfuls and chew well. We often ride with liquid energy in our jersey pockets, such as the gels by Science in Sport (SIS). These are small and handy, and packed with fast-absorbed sugars. You don’t really need anything else, if you can stomach it.
It’s also worth experimenting with these types of nutrition in the final weeks of training, before you leave. Your body will start to get used to it, and if it doesn’t agree with you, then you know beforehand.
When you are in the mountains for a week or two, you obviously want to make the best use of your limited time. Almost every valley has interesting climbs, and if you cycle a little further, you will find more! But if you really want to ride your bike up all these challenges, you have to make sure you pay attention to your recovery. So take this part of your sports holiday as seriously as the cycling itself. Keep a good eye on your nutrition, and when you refuel. It’s important to replenish the various energy stocks as soon after the exercise as possible.
But don’t forget that muscles need to recover. It may be worth while eating some extra supplements after a long and exhausting day on the bike. (We are talking protein, magnesium and vitamins, by the way…) Listen to your body, and know what works for you. Even though you will inevitably wake up with stiff legs, you will only find out whether you have fully recovered once you’re out on the bike again. It’s certainly worth experimenting.
You’ve now got several weeks ahead of your spring or summer break in the mountains. That’s enough time to prepare yourself, and to discover what works for you in terms of training, recovery and nutrition. The start will likely be hard-going, but the more preparation you do now, the more likely you are to be able to thrash your friends on the climbs and get close to beating those Strava KOMs. And above all, have fun in them hills!