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How It Feels To Train For The Tour De France

With the race starting this weekend, one former rider describes how to prepare for three weeks of hell

How It Feels To Train For The Tour De France

Guilt sunk in. My stomach was still full from the previous night’s feast. Sunlight pierced the gap between the window and the blind and irritated my eyes as they worked to adapt to the contrast.

On the bedside table, my watch ticked loudly. Anxious, I looked at my legs. Stubbly bits of hair poked through skin. The brown and white tan lines were beginning to fade. The once well-defined muscles under paper-thin skin marked with scars and scabs and lined with rivers of veins were now pasty, bloated and thick from nearly a month off of the bike. No longer did I feel like a racing cyclist.

I had five weeks before my team’s first training camp. Lying back with my eyes closed, I saw scenes of where I would be in just over eight months: a peloton in the mountains, colourful jerseys, the Champs-Elysées. The images were nothing new. They had been a part of the build up, the training, the progression, since I was a boy.

There was always a goal. It affected everything in my life, whether it was how hard I rode my bike, how much I slept, what I ate, or for how long I kicked around the football with my children. The sport required it. Now it was time to climb back on my bike again and rediscover what I had lost during my short four-week break.

The time off had given me a physical and mental reprieve. I felt rejuvenated.

Like a schoolboy, I was eager to ride.

During our month off, almost all the cyclists in the peloton try to load our days doing things we imagine people with a normal life might enjoy. We travel without our bikes, lie on beaches, spend time with family and friends whom we’ve neglected during the loaded calendar of races, eat and drink everything forbidden to the racer, and try to relax and recharge. Most cyclists’ wedding anniversaries are in the short period when they have no races. This is the only time of the year when they know they can’t be called away at a moment’s notice to ride.

This gap between racing seasons passes too quickly as we jam our days full, making the most of every moment before the routine begins again. But even in the period away, the imminence of the coming year always nags. The time off is brief. If we let ourselves go for too long, rebuilding fitness becomes slower and more tedious.

During the break, our mentality shifts: we leave behind the previous campaign and form our vision and goals for the upcoming season.  By the end of the break, our fitness levels will have descended to their lowest point, but our energy levels will be high, and so will our body weight. The break will allow us to finally feel healthy instead of fatigued and on the brink of illness.

Like a Formula One car, our bodies become pointed towards one thing: riding fast. Pushed and tuned by the training and racing, they become fragile and susceptible when off the bike. Resilience to injury and resistance to bacteria is low. A “directeur sportif” once told me, “Un homme en forme est un homme en malade.”  In other words, a cyclist in racing peak condition is a man who is sick. It’s not quite true, but close. A fit cyclist is on the very edge.

At the end of the recovery period, I meet with my coach and director.  We define and clarify our goals. We work backwards from these goals to build a periodised training programme that will build my fitness gradually, with cycles
of work and recovery, starting with a foundational phase.

As always, I store my training programme on my computer.

The work begins on 1 November, and the progression after that day to peak fitness is meticulously mapped out. The training sessions are broken down: structured intervals and specified intensities, hours in the saddle, and the terrain of the route. “On 16 December, I will ride for six hours and go up three 30 min climbs at a fluctuating intensity (3 min at 350 watts/50-60 rpm, 1 min at 320 watts/ 80-90 rpm).”

In the first month, there will be little specified intensity to the training sessions. Instead, we will simply spend hours on the bike, riding. Like building a house, this provides the foundation. It allows our bodies to readapt to the daily routine of training and to increasing hours in the saddle. Before we strive to reach our physical limits, we must first ensure that our bodies are resilient.

Through late autumn and early winter, my body thins, strengthens and adapts. We ride, lift weights and work on our core strength with specific exercises like planks, one legged squats, and leg raises. The racing begins in late January, and this will be our routine until then.

We build up a solid base of strength and endurance. If we do it properly, we will create a resilience sufficient to endure the 10-month racing season.

The initial adaptation occurs quickly. On the first rides, I feel puffy and sluggish. My pedal stroke feels laboured. It lacks the potent fluidity I’d felt in the month before the break. My rides range from two to six hours, 60, 100, 180km, and I’m on the bike five to six days a week. On the longer rides, I consume up to 5,000 calories.

The training is planned in blocks, which allows me to push my body for several days, recover for a day or two and then push again. With each block, we reach further, ride greater distances, climb another hill, and increase our tempo. After two weeks of consistent training, there is a notable shift. As if it happens overnight, I evolve from a cyclotourist to a racer. On the bike I feel agile, fluid and strong. I could ride all day. When my mind says “enough”, my body allows me to push on. I realise that, even though I was fit, I was far from my peak racing condition.

The view from the peak of the climb extends beyond the grey rocky slopes to the Mediterranean sea. My teammates and I are at the summit of a mountain in Mallorca. Bright morning sun has melted the frost that settled overnight. My teammates are crimson red from the effort. I’m sure I am as well. Like cattle huddled on an icy field, we stand with steam rising from our bodies.

To reach the summit, we’ve ridden hard and fast, at a specified intensity (for me that’s 420 watts) that will push up our lactate thresholds, preparing us for the required intensity of a race. Like famished animals, we reach into the back of the team car for energy bars and water bottles. Riders guzzle and chew to refuel for the next effort and the hours of training ahead.

The cyclist is constantly gauging the workload and how much, or how little, fuel he will need to sustain it. Every day, we teach our bodies to recover, to prepare them for the relentless exertion of racing. We eat specific amounts of protein, carbohydrates, and vegetables.

Dessert is light and airy, or, simply, fruit and yogurt. In a sport where every gram of weight affects performance, riders are constantly measuring, calculating, adding and subtracting; doing the mental arithmetic necessary to reach their peak performance.

To ride the Tour de France or the multitude of other stage races throughout the season, the cyclist needs to be physically and mentally prepared for consecutive weeks of constant and abnormal effort. The courses, the demands of the races, are often inhuman. Sick or injured, we keep on going. Once our numbers are pinned and the starter’s pistol has fired, there’s no time to rest in a race. There are no time-outs or substitute riders. So, we learn to persist even when we know we should stop.  

From the top of the climb, the team descends on a long, serpentine road. In a single line, a streak of colour and whirling, ticking wheels, we fly in 10 minutes down a mountain that has taken 30 minutes to ride up. We’re now moving like racers and riding like a team.

This is what the training camp is for. The team begins to move together, and this will continue for the rest of the season. We’ll share rooms, we’ll travel together, we’ll eat together, we’ll race together, we’ll win together, and we’ll lose together. For nearly two hundred days of the year, for 24 hours a day, we’ll share our lives with one another. At the camp, we enter the bubble of professional life. When we leave the hotel on the last day of camp, we are tuned to race.

We have completed our initial block of training. For the next 10 months, the pressure is on to improve and perform.

Chiselled by the intensity of the race, my teammates’ dust-covered faces look thinner than they did in the morning.

We have just crossed the finish line of a mid-June, 10-day stage race: the Tour de Suisse. Their eyes are bloodshot. Their legs are sticks of muscle, sinew, pulsing blood and veins bulging to form what looks like a road map. Their wrists, which have kept their handlebars stable as they’ve thrashed over cobbles and pumped up mountains, are as thin as a boy’s. 

On their bikes they were flying. We all were. We have worked for months to reach this level of fitness. We have led monastic lives, and these are the results. We’re in peak condition. The line between keeping it and losing it is gossamer thin. Too much training, too little rest, a poor diet or a crash will diminish our fitness, and we will have to start again to recover.

In peak form, we soar. We’ll climb faster than we have all year, ascending with power. In control of the effort, we’ll be able to tap out a rhythm that only a month ago would have been impossible to sustain. We can quickly adapt to changes in tempo, as our muscles and lungs have become accustomed to the shifts in speed from the specified training sessions and the 25, or more, days of racing we’ve completed since the start of the year. On the flat open road, we’ll be able to relentlessly push at a high power output, our anaerobic threshold, for an hour or more, cruising along, at 45, 50 and 60 km/h.

I stared at the ceiling, stretched out in my bed, knowing I was fit and ready, but wrestling with the variables of the race. Those variables are the unknowns that are not always in our control: a bad crash, illness or a mechanical failure. They haunt the cyclist. In a moment they can undo what has taken half a year to build. For the fans they incite the dramatic and build the intrigue. For the riders they make the sport ruthless and heartbreaking. But, when every piece falls where it should, the months of work are eclipsed by the sensation of being in flight and the moment of glory. 

Shadows on the Road: Life at the Heart of the Peloton, From US Postal to Team Sky by Michael Barry (Faber) is out now

This article first appeared in Esquire Weekly, our iPad-only edition. Containing 100 per cent new and original content, it’s published every Thursday on the Apple Newsstand.

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