L’Etape du Tour. La Marmotte. The Maradona dles Dolomites. The Peaks Challenge. L’Etape Australia. All these events have one thing in common: they are all epic days out in the mountains which confer huge bragging rights on anyone who completes them (especially if you finish before your mates).
We all have the best intentions when we sign up for these events (usually fuelled by over-enthusiastic text conversations). If you’re anything like me, you plan to spend months getting up at 4am, ‘enjoying’ hill repeats of your local climbs and hitting every training mark set by your coach.
More often than not, that structured training plan ends up as a hurried ride-cramming session a month out, plus a self-imposed healthy eating regime that has ‘too little, too late’ scrawled all over it. Even so, there are some key tactics you can use to make your big day out in the hills a success, regardless of whether you’ve done the work or not.
1. Eating ain’t cheating
Think you’re hungry when you get home from the morning bunchie? You ain’t seen nothing yet.
Most epic mountain sportives will see you out on the bike for between eight and twelve hours. Fuelling your body and staying well hydrated will help avoid the dreaded ’bonk’ and make the end of your day much more enjoyable.
Make sure you eat and drink well in the days before the event to ensure your glycogen stores are topped up on the start line. Keep eating and drinking while you ride too - a good target to aim for is 60g of carbs and a full bottle of your preferred drink every hour. If in doubt, consult a dietician prior to the event.
2. Dress for success
The nature of mountain sportives invariably means you end up climbing from low altitudes to elevations of 2,000m or higher. In addition, the weather systems around mountain passes can be volatile, with weather changing from clear skies to epic storms in a matter of hours.
Therefore, it’s worth packing enough clothing to be prepared for every eventuality. Layers are a winning choice: I always take arm and knee warmers, a wind vest (ideally with three pockets) and both long and short-finger gloves. It might be a pain to carry all that gear, but you’ll be grateful for it if the weather turns bad.
3. Don’t be a gear hero
You’ll obviously have got your bike serviced before heading out on an epic ride (right?) but have you thought about your gearing? It’s all very well to power along your local loops in the 53/11, but after seven hours in the hills your legs might have different ideas about that 39/23 low gear.
It’s better to take a bit of ribbing from your mates and put on either a 50/34 compact crankset or a wide-range cassette (11-28 or even 11-32) to save the legs. After all, you'll get your revenge when they’re walking up the final climb and you’re spinning happily away.
4. Leave the red zone alone
A long, long day in the saddle with significant amounts of climbing takes a major toll on the body. Therefore, it’s critical to get your pacing right. If you go off too hot and hit the first climb at full gas, all you’re going to do is cook your legs and pay for it at the end of the day.
Ride at a sustainable pace for you and save your efforts for when they’ll make the most difference - like the steepest sections of climbs and the final 10km, when you should be going all out no matter what.
5. Enjoy the hell out of every second
Finally don’t get so caught up in average speeds, gear ratios or your nutritional intake that you forget to enjoy the day. No matter whether you’re in the French Alps, the Dolomites or the Australian high country, you’re riding through some of the most spectacular scenery imaginable.
Take the time to enjoy that feeling of being on top of the world and savour what you’re doing. After all, that’s why you’re there, isn’t it?