Tour de Mont Blanc – “The worlds toughest one day bike race”

Q. So how long did the training for Tour de Mont Blanc Take?

A. My whole cycling life….!

That might sound like an overstatement but in some way, it is the total truth.

The way I look back on it, is that everything I have learnt about cycling, all the knowledge that I have picked up over the years, was all for this. This one ride when everything needed to come together. The experience was absolutely critical.

You can’t wing a ride like this. 40% of the starters on July 20th 2019 did not make it.

This ride has been on my mind for about 5 years when I first saw it and thought “who in their right mind would do that? This is a ride for 65kg climbers not 80kg rouleurs!”. I forgot about it pretty quickly…. or so I thought!

Having ridden La Marmotte twice (175km & 4700m), I could absolutely imagine what it would be like to ride 330km and 9300m in a day. Finish La Marmotte, turn around and ride it again!  That was both a problem and an absolute blessing.

I started out looking at the specific demands of the race. I felt confident that I could train for 200km and 6000m in the same way that I had for other long alpine events – just a bit longer and a bit more climbing. But this was different because I knew that the last 115km of TDMB had 4000m of climbing and was going to take me around 6hrs.

My focus when I built my training plan was “how do I train for a 115km, 4000m race having just completed 215km & 5300m?”

The first thing is blindingly obvious. Lots of hours in the saddle endurance riding. In total, I rode 320hrs in zone 1 & 2 over an 8-month period. This improved further my aerobic endurance, my efficiency and laid the foundation for the harder work to come.

I knew that I would find this aspect of my training challenging mentally, so I planned some events over the season including a 4-day training camp in Tenerife, a 9-day mountain bike race in South Africa and the 300km Dragon Ride in Wales. I also rode local loops every Wednesday setting off at 07:45 and riding until 09:15 when I would meet our regular Wednesday riding group and do another 3hrs with them, before setting off again (after some coffee and food) for another 1-3hrs. That way I was racking up regular 130-200km rides in the winter without ever being that far from home.

Whilst endurance riding was necessary in laying the foundations, it was never going to be sufficient to complete such a long race with 9300m of climbing. Being able to sustain relatively hard efforts over 60-180 minutes was going to be essential to conquer the climbs. If you want early year training for the Alps then head to Tenerife. I went with a friend in the middle of March and rode 330km and climbed 8000m over the first two days. My rationale was to do a virtual Mont Blanc over two days to test where I was, and to get my head around how hard the ride was going to be. The answer…. very hard indeed. We rode for another three days and in total racked up about 15,000m of climbing over 5 days. I came back, took some time to recover and then went and rode a very strong ride at the Ronde van Vlaanderen a week later. Yes that’s me leading the bunch, riding the ‘proper’ way over the pave!  It was my first noticeable bump in fitness of the season.

In regular training, back home my focus was improving my stamina and fatigue resistance. We all think of stamina as being something that people have who can keep going for a long period of time. More specifically for cycling it was about building the ability to push sub threshold power on long rides. I did a lot of work around my threshold power but also I did plenty of long tempo riding. I knew that tempo was going to be key for Mont Blanc as this was the intensity I was going to ride the climbs at. Training should be specific to the demands of the race.

A typical tempo session started at 3×15 minutes at 80 – 85% FTP building duration to 3×45 minutes over time. On race day I rode for 5.5hrs at tempo.

Fatigue resistance is related to, but somewhat different to stamina. Whilst good stamina can be seen as being able to ride quite hard for 1-3hrs, fatigue resistance, in the context of Mont Blanc, was about building my performance to be able to ride the last 115km, 4000m without being on my knees.  On race day 40% of competitors did not finish, many of them around the 225km mark, half way up Colle San Carlo (10km at 11%).

Building fatigue resistance is simply conditioning your body to continue to perform when very tired. In training I began to ride back to back hard days, not focusing on top performance but on being able to keep the pedals turning when my legs or head did not feel up to it. Hard sessions included 6x3min max efforts with full recovery ending with 60 minutes tempo or sweet spot. Shred the legs, then ride for 60 minutes hard home. That builds fatigue resistance and mental determination. It does not sound hard? Go and give it a go…..

In April I went to South Africa for Joberg2C, a 9 day mountain bike race covering 900km. For building fatigue resistance, this was perfect both physically and mentally. Riding that far, on a MTB, is so much more demanding than on a road bike. Throw in 8 nights of camping in a tent, 5am starts and bronchitis, so yes, I was very tired (and stoked!) at the end in Scottburgh. This was such a great experience in its own right and as a stand-alone training objective, a real tough one.

One constant in my training over the last 3 years has been strength training. Simple, multi jointed heavy lifts using free weights, with various peripheral lifts and exercises working on range of movement, flexibility, stability and core strength. This is an area that is overlooked by too many older athletes who have the most to gain.  For my MTB training we also worked a lot on upper body strength and resilience for the specific demands of downhill mountain biking. I am a firm believer in the benefits of strength training. Executed the correct way it will improve your performance and make you more resilient, keeping you injury free.

Back in the UK I took a nice easy week after Joberg to let my body recover and adapt, and to get rid of the lingering chesty cough. In 4 weeks’ time, I had the Dragon ride in Wales covering 310km and 3000m of climbing. I wanted to do a 300km ride before Mont Blanc which was both psychological and physiological, but the thought of doing it just as a ride from home filled me with dread. At an event you are more motivated and focused, and you have support and others to ride with, or so I thought!

I don’t know what it is with UK sportives but riders generally have no interest in working together in groups to make the ride faster and more efficient. I tried to get a group going a couple of times but there was no interest. Maybe it was the way I looked! In the end, I rode the best part of 310km on my own in some typically Welsh early summer conditions. I rode the route hard in 11hrs 20mins at an average of 27kph. This was much harder than I would ride Mont Blanc, but I wanted to empty the tank after a hard training block. These long rides, at the end of a hard training block, were a regular feature of my training to prepare for the last 115km, 4000m of Mont Blanc in 6hrs. It proved to be a highly effective strategy.

The Dragon was the last long ride of my preparation, 5 weeks from Mont Blanc. I continued to ride regular rides of around 100km but these now were at a harder intensity, incorporating plenty of tempo work. At this point the complexion of my training changed. After 7 months, my body needed a fresh stimulus otherwise my fitness was going to plateau or actually go backwards. I focused on some specific hill work doing both long and short repeats on Exmoor as well as introduce some very high intensity work to really drive my aerobic system higher in the final few weeks.

Typical sessions were 4×20 minutes hill repeats from Lynmouth to Shamble Way racking up 1500m of climbing in an 60km ride.

For the high intensity work I was incorporating some supra max efforts of 20-30seconds with full recoveries. The full recovery is important as it allows you to go max power for each effort, meaning you accumulate more quality work at very high power numbers. This really drives aerobic fitness higher with gains of 5% seen in 4 weeks.

With two weeks to go I started my taper which consisted of daily rides which were either very high intensity, or at recovery pace. A taper is highly individual and I have one that works well for me, born from a lot of trial and error over the years. The temptation is always to do too much, but that always results in not enough fatigue being dissipated, and a sub-par performance at the race or event.

Numbers wise my total training consisted of:

  • 8 months
  • 498 hrs
  • 11,205 km
  • 146,581 m
  • 290,871 kcal
  • Intensity factor 0.75
  • Fitness peak 146 CTL

Could I have finished with less training? The short answer is probably yes. But for me this was a massive deal and I wanted to feel that I had done the very best that I could. I had raised £12,000 for the Hospice from a huge number of supporters, and I was not going to let them down by running the risk of being one of the 4/10 who did not make it.

Did I feel that the focus on the last 115km, 4000m, 6hrs of the race was time well spent? Absolutely. Building the fatigue resistance in training gave me both the physical capability but also the mental toughness to finish the race in good time.

The mental side is as important as the physical. I know when I was a teenager I did not have the mental toughness for endurance sports. My cross-country report said something like “Rob has capability but one always gets the feeling that his work rate could be a lot higher”.

I think you get better at suffering as you get older. The last 6hrs of Mont Blanc was the hardest I have ever worked physically in my life. By this stage I had turned my Wahoo screen to map only, so had no idea what power I was pushing, or what the time was! I was working to how I felt, and this ebbed and flowed with a couple of teary moments. My mood and physical performance appreciated when I saw my family or the familiar, and very welcome face of Sue! The efforts felt harder when I was isolated, riding on my own. Through all of it I never lost confidence that I would make it, never doubted why I was riding it, and enjoyed all but the 2hrs I spent on the busy Grand St Bernard pass.

For me Tour de Mont Blanc was a ride where everything came together at the right time. My training worked, my pacing was disciplined, my nutrition and hydration was dialled in (thanks to Sue) and the experience I have gained over the years in the high mountains was crucial in understanding the scale of the challenge. Riding at high altitude in 35c heat is not the same as long rides on the Moor.

I wanted to finish before dark, that was my only objective. In the end, I came in just after 21:00. Completing 332km and 9300m in 16hrs 7 minutes, finishing in the top 15% of starters, was beyond my dreams 12 months ago when I signed up for this. I am not a natural born climber. At 80kg I have some weight to carry up those climbs, but the focus of my training was spot on. I just had the ability to keep the pedals turning at a decent rate. I only lost 10% of my power from first climb to the last climb. Too many people obsess about weight and don’t get their training right. I would rather get my training right and be able to eat properly!

Nearly a month has passed since I crossed the finish line. The ride will sit fondly in my memory for the rest of my life. Will I do it again? No. This was a once in a lifetime achievement, raising an awe-inspiring £12,000 from you all, for our Hospice, and honouring one of the truest, most humble and genuine men I have ever met. Rest in peace David. You were my inspiration for this ride and so your legacy lives on, furthering the positive impact you had, and now have again, on the local community here in North Devon.