How do you prepare for riding the iconic Tour de France mountain Alpe d’Huez seven times in a single day?
Personally, I am a big fan of Gran Fondos. As are many amateur cyclists out there.
I therefor thought it might be useful to share this case of how I worked with an amateur rider to prepare him for a big day of 200 km and over 7000 meter of vertical climbing in the French Alps.
Featured image credit: Marco van Ammers
Racing for a good cause
This winter I was approached by a Dutch cyclist, Menno Groen.
Following the passing of a close relative due to cancer, he told me he was to partake in the sporting event called Alpe d’HuZes.
The event involves riding the infamous Alpe d’Huez as many times as possible in a day.
Alpe d’HuZes is a unique sporting event where as much money as possible is raised for cancer research and for improving the quality of life of people with cancer. On a single day, 5000 participants will bike, hike or run the Alpe d’Huez. Attempting a maximum of six climbs, under the motto ‘giving up is not an option‘.
– Alpe d’HuZes website
Menno was wondering if I’d like to contribute to the cause by helping him prepare for the event.
More specifically, he wanted to climb Alpe d’Huez at least six times. The event takes place during the morning and day, with a cut off time ending the race.
Menno also expressed that he secretly wanted to do an extra 7th round before the cut-off.
How do you go about creating your plan?
Constructing an optimal training plan involves multiple considerations.
Normally, the shape of your plan will be influenced by:
- Your training background
- Your current strength and weaknesses
- The physiological requirements of your race/goal
- How much time you can allocate to training & recovery
- How much time is left before your race
Obtaining an overview of the above will help shape a purposeful and realistic plan for how to best meet the demands of your race.
Let us have a look at how this panned out in Menno’s case.
The challenges to overcome
Background: Menno’s background will be familiar to many amateur cyclists. At an age of 28 years he had been riding for several years on a regional amateur level.
Strengths & weaknesses: Menno described himself as a sprinter/puncheur type with a high anaerobic capacity (strong in <2 min effort, and seldom loses 1-on-1 sprints).
Due to his relatively strong ability to work above anaerobic threshold, he fares well in races of up to 60 minutes duration.
However, he described his endurance level as relatively low compared to other riders.
Requirements of goal: To provide you some background on Alpe d’Huez, have a look at what was facing Menno.
Le Alpe d’Huez
The Alpe d’Huez is a 13.2 km climb including 1071 vertical meters and an average slope of 8.1%.
According to Stickybottle, the late Marko Pantani has recorded the fastest ever ascent with a time of 37:35.
It puts thing into perspective knowing this record was set at the end of a regular TdF stage, still beating Lance Armstrongs time trial record by one second(!)
Since the introduction of Strava, the KOM for the coveted climb is currently held by Romain Bardet at a somewhat more humble 41:23 – which is still a ridiculous 20.2 km/h average speed.
Menno’s goal of climbing the Alpe seven times amounts to a minimum total of 184 km (descents included) and 7497 vertical meters.
Needless to say, climbing skills and the ability to sustain sub-threshold intensities for long durations is of the essence.
Time for training & recovery: Menno is working a full time job and told me he could spend somewhere between 8-12 hours a week on training.
Time until race day: 6 months
Our choses strategy
In this case, our goal is a day-long Gran Fondo ride.
Obviously, such a ride will predominantly involve low to sub-threshold intensities.
Put shortly, we needed to lift Menno’s sustainable low-intensity power output as much as possible. And we needed to do so in 6 months only, with a maximum of 8-12 training hours per week.
My advice for Menno was to organize his training in line with the following priorities:
- Get sufficient training volume
- Ensure consistency in training
- Avoid injuries
- Polarized training (initially)
- Race-specific training (closer to event)
The reasons for prioritizing these areas were as follows.
Volume: If you are hoping for a good experience during a day-long event, there is simply need to have a sufficient basis of ridden kilometers.
Consistency: The main point here was to avoid weeks with unwanted breaks in training. In my opinion, the shorter the preparatory period, the more important ensuring consistency in training becomes;
Any weeks off training would mean reduced base of total training volume.
Furthermore, endurance capacity is a short-lived entity (1-2). Any weeks off training would mean slight set-backs in capacity development in the form of de-training.
The practical consequence of the consistency focus pertains mostly to those weeks where work and other parts of life get in your way – prioritize getting some training done. During these weeks when training volume is low it’s arguably more important getting something done, and less important whether the quality of execution is spot on.
Avoid injuries: This ties in with both volume and consistency – nothing is more detrimental to volume and consistency than being sidelined with injuries (2).
In order to avoid injuries we aimed at:
- avoiding big and sudden spikes in training load (3)
- avoiding weeks with little or no training (essentially creating a following spike when returning to normal training)
Polarized training: By my judgement, Menno was a good candidate to take on a polarized approach.
The idea of this approach was to maximize his aerobic capacity, as this tends to also improve performance at sub-threshold intensities (4).
The polarized approach is also fairly straight forward to execute. You either go hard, or you go slow. In my experience, this method is fairly safe in terms of avoiding overreaching (which would have cut into volume and consistency).
Race-specific training: Conventional training methodology usually involves increasing the amount of race-specific training as your big goal is approaching.
After first having developed Menno’s maximal aerobic capacity, we wanted to improve his ability to utilize a greater percentage of this capacity while working on race pace intensity (low to moderate intensity).
Additionally, we also wanted to improve his resistance to fatigue at race-pace.
In order to do so, the last 2-3 months included insertions of:
- longer than normal endurance rides
- normal duration endurance rides, but somewhat harder than strictly low intensity
- threshold sessions
All the while maintaining a foundation of regular high intensity intervals and low intensity endurance rides (for maintenance of his maximal aerobic capacity).
Notably, I never created a day-to-day program for Menno. Instead, he planned his own training according to these guidelines.
If you want more details regarding the instructions I provided Menno, you can download the entire 13 page PDF he received below.
How did it all go?
One of the first things I did was talking Menno into investing in a power meter.
I sincerely believe you can become a truly strong rider without a power meter. However, for this scenario I suspected Menno would get some interesting learning out of it.
With the power meter in place he was also able to commence mapping his mean maximal power outputs.
3 months into his training he reported the following values.
Mean maximal power
Mean maximal power (MMP) involves taking on a series of maximal effort rides across various durations.
These typically include 5 to 60 seconds and a range of durations between 2 to 5 min and 10 to 90 minutes.
The results can tell you a lot about your strengths and weaknesses, and can be used to track and evaluate the results of your training.
3 months into his training, Menno tested the following MMP outputs:
- 5 sec: 1376W (19.7 W/kg)
- 10 sec: 1328W (19.0 W/kg)
- 20 sec: 1046W (14.9 W/kg)
- 5 min: 349W (5.0 W/kg) *
- 10 min: 317W (4.5 W/kg)
- FTP20: 276W (3.94 W/kg)
* 5 min power recorded in same effort as 10 min power.
This corresponds well with Allen & Coggans profile of a sprinter, placing his 5 sec power in the Category I (excellent), his 5 min power in Category II-III (very good – good) and his FTP in Category III (good).
Besides from some minor health related issues, Menno was able to carry out his training according to plan.
Shortly before his Gran Fondo in the Alps he tested a new FTP of 299 watt (4.27 W/kg).
On the 11th of June, a few days after his Alpe d’Huez climb I received the following race report.
Menno’s race report
Thought I would give you an update about Alpe d’HuZes last week.
It was a beautiful day with a very cold and misty start, but it god sunny around noon. More importantly, my legs were good, so I could keep pushing all day.
Initial plan was to ride Alpe d’Huez six times, but at the end of the day another go was possible together with some family, so I had a good excuse to do it one more time 🙂
My plan was to ride somewhere between 200 and 220 watts in the ascents, but it came quite easily so I averaged around 225 each climb (except for the last one).
Really satisfied! And, most of all, we raised a lot of money to fight cancer 🙂
Summary of the day:
- Started at 05:00 and finished at 19:30
- Total moving time: 12:26:11
- Total ascent: 7673 vertical meters
- Total distance: 200 km
- Avg power: 164 (long descents)
- NP: 202 W
Thanks for your wise words! It helped me structure my workouts and how to build up in a quite busy work-life situation.
Some final thoughts
Firstly, CONGRATULATIONS to Menno on a great achievement. Both from an athletic, and even more so from a humanitarian point of view.
Secondly, recall that single subject cases like this one will never constitute proof that a certain method is the ultimate solution.
However, I do believe this case demonstrates one possible way to structure the preparations for a Gran Fondo ride, in a way that is based around some very basic, well founded and effective principles of training physiology.
Of note, this particular case was never intended to be a world class record breaking attempt. Rather it was a challenge outside of the rider’s comfort zone, with the aim of hitting the target with a great experience on the day of the ride.
Something he ultimately ended up achieving.
I’m hoping that this might provide you with some inspiration or simply serve as a starting point for a useful discussion.
Finally, thanks a lot to Menno Groen for kindly allowing me to share both his story and his results. This is something most riders would be very apprehensive about, so big credit to you!
If you would like to give Menno a tip of the hat for his effort, I know he would greatly appreciate you donating a Euro or two to his fundraising campaign.
100% of donations go to cancer research, via the organization that is run entirely by volunteers.
- Rønnestad BR et al. HIT maintains performance during the transition period and improves next season performance in well-trained cyclists. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 2014;114:1831-1839
- Raysmith BP and Drew MK. Performance success or failure is influenced by weeks lost to injury and illness in elite Australian track and field athletes: A 5-year prospective study. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sports, 2016: S1440-2440(15)007764-1
[Epub ahead of print]
- Gabbett T. The training-injury prevention paradox: should athletes be training smarter and harder? British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2016;0:1-9
- Stöggl T and Sperlich B. Polarized training has greater impact on key endurance variables that threshold, high intensity, or high volume training. Frontiers in Physiology, 2014;5:33