How to survive a multi-day bike race like a Grand Tour
Taking on a multi-day bike challenge is the closest an amateur rider can get to the unique thrills and rewards of the Tour de France. We reveal how to conquer a stage race like a pro.
The epic three-week Tour de France is the pinnacle of any professional cyclist’s career, but amateur cyclists can sign up for a life-changing multi-day challenge too. Amateur events like the Haute Route Alps – a seven-day, 800km journey from Nice to Megeve – or the self-supported Transcontinental Race – which covers 4,000km over 7-10 days – offer everyday riders the chance to experience the unique demands and rewards of a multi-day stage race like the Tour de France.
But if you don’t want to sign up for an organised event, simply heading off for a multi-day training camp in a destination like the Pyrenees or Majorca will also deliver many of the physical and mental challenges of a back-to-back stage race.
Here we reveal some of the strategies used by pro cyclists to survive – and thrive – in a multi-day race format like the Tour de France.
Train early like the pros
There is a good reason why Tour de France riders start their training as early as November – seven months before the start of the Tour de France. Preparing your body for the gruelling demands of a multi-day stage race takes time, and you can’t rush it.
If you leave your training too late, you’ll suffer during every day of the race. So follow the example of Tour de France riders by beginning your training with long and slow winter mileage as early as possible, then build up the distance by around 10% each week. A typical stage in the mountains will see you spending five to eight hours a day on the bike, so you need to get used to time in the saddle.
But remember, you also need to get used to the unique challenge of riding on back-to-back days. So try to go for a ride on both a Saturday and a Sunday to get your body used to riding when fatigued. Commuting to work by bike is also a great way to prepare for a multi-day stage race, as your body will get accustomed to riding not once but twice every day of the week. It’s an easy and effective way to prepare for the routine of a stage race – even if the commute distances are short.
When you feel like your stamina is improving, start to crank up the intensity of your rides with interval efforts, hill repeats and threshold efforts in the three months leading up to the event. When Tour de France riders go to pre-race training camps in the months before the Tour, in places like Tenerife and Majorca, this is the kind of work they focus on.
These higher-intensity sessions will help to crank up your speed, turbo-charge your fitness, and prepare your body for the constantly shifting efforts required during a stage race. They will also take your mind to dark places, so when you find yourself suffering during the stage race, you know you can get through it.
Raise your cadence to 90 RPM
Research suggests that the cadence of professional Tour de France riders is usually around 90-100 revolutions per minute, regardless of whether they’re riding on flat or mountainous sections. This cadence is much higher than the 80rpm recreational riders often stick to. In fact, due to this high cadence, each pro cyclist riding the 21 stages of the Tour will perform more than 500,000 crank revolutions in total.
But Tour riders know that adhering to a high cadence is the best way to preserve their energy across three weeks of racing. Maintaining a high cadence is a much more efficient way to ride, as it prevents the burning of glucose in your muscles, so you will find it easier to maintain your energy levels over the course of a multi-day race.
On any long endurance challenge, good tactics like efficient aerodynamics and drafting skills are important. On a multi-day stage race, they are essential. You should take every chance to save your energy, or you will suffer the next day. Make the most of tailwinds whenever possible, avoid unnecessary surges of energy which will eat up your reserves, and try to find shelter when riding into any headwinds.
Manage your mind
During a cycling stage race, you will experience a wide spectrum of emotions, from elation to despair. There will be times when you think you are completing an amazing odyssey, and times when you think you must be insane. You therefore need to develop strategies to manage your emotions during hard days.
Tour de France riders refuse to think about the weeks ahead, instead focusing only on the challenges of the day ahead. By narrowing your focus, you can stay in the moment and stop your thoughts spiralling out of control. As pro cyclist Adam Yates once explained, keeping your perspective is crucial: “I just look at it like any other job: if you are sitting at a desk from 9-5 you can’t just decide not to come in today.”
Fuel your body
Pro riders burn around 6,000 calories per day during the Tour de France – more than double the 2,500 calories an average man needs to maintain his weight, and treble the 2,000 calories required by the average woman. The main lesson from this is that in any stage race you need to refuel your body very effectively, or you will suffer the next day. And any calorie depletion will only mount up as the days go by.
Although pro cyclists have to force down rice and pasta whenever they can, Tour de France nutritionists have found better ways to restore this calorie deficit. Many Tour riders now drizzle olive oil over their food for an extra energy hit. Calorie-dense smoothies containing milk and fruit are also a convenient way to take on more energy. And when they are out on the bike, riders take on a mix of energy drinks, gels, bars, chews and real food like bananas to crank up their calorie intake.
Sleep it off
A bad night’s sleep can be catastrophic for your fitness and immunity during a stage race. Quality sleep is essential to help your body recover for another day of racing, and to reduce your chances of getting ill or injured. That is why Tour de France riders follow a strict pre-bed routine, by using blackout blinds, wearing earplugs, and avoiding caffeine and alcohol before bed. Some even take a pre-bed shake containing tart cherry, theanine, tryptophan, glycine and magnesium to improve their sleep quality – though a warm glass of milk can have a similar sleep-boosting effect.
Data from wearable fitness experts Whoop has revealed that Tour de France riders get about eight hours of sleep per night during the Tour. And around 60-70% of their sleep is in the “restorative stages” of sleep – known as REM and deep sleep. Most people normally spend about 40-45% of their sleep in these stages. But it is during these deep sleep stages that the body works hard to repair itself. With the help of a good night’s sleep, Tour riders can achieve an impressive 92% recovery rate for the next day.
Learn to switch off
In a cycling stage race you will enjoy the beautiful scenery and the physical challenges, but Tour riders will tell you that there are also lots of mundane challenges to endure, like bus transfers and waiting around before stages. Learn from the mind-calming skills of Tour de France riders by having a range of magazines, computer games, books and games to hand. The 34-time Tour stage winner Mark Cavendish likes to do Sudoku puzzles and play video games.
If you can learn to switch off, you will preserve your mental energy, restore some perspective, and give your body time to recover. Tour de France riders often joke that they ride 200km across the mountains, then take the elevator to their hotel room. But knowing how to rest and relax is a key part of every rider’s recovery strategy.
Tour de France riders provide amateur riders with a simple but important lesson: despite all their hard training, after the very first day of the Tour the pro riders will never feel in 100% peak condition again for the rest of the race. As soon as the race starts, your body begins to suffer. So don’t expect to be whizzing around like you do on a Sunday morning at home when you are feeling full of energy after several days of rest. Somewhere along the journey, stubbornness becomes just as important as fitness. So accept that you might feel bad some days and don’t let it get you down.