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Common mistakes when preparing for the Haute Route

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Common mistakes when preparing for the Haute Route

 

By Olivier Dulaurent, with Silas Cullen and Marvin Faure

 

Updated and revised on November 5th 2020

 

 

As the official coaching and training partner to the Haute Route during the 4 year period 2014-2017, we have met and ridden with a lot of cyclists who are training for the event. Conscious of the challenge, and often strapped for time, many of these people hire a coach. Nothing wrong with that, we would be the first to say!

 

However, as in any profession, cycling coaches vary widely both in competence, experience and methods. So how do you know if your coach will prepare you properly for the Haute Route? This won’t be a concern if you come to us, but of course you may prefer to maintain your curent relationship (or simply to self-coach. Read here for more on the perils of self-coaching). To make sure you get the best results, check for the following seven common mistakes. We have seen plenty of riders come unstuck at the Haute Route for these exact reasons.

 

Mistake #1: No direct observation by an experienced coach

This is the first and most important, because all other mistakes can be corrected once they’ve been identified.

 

If you were learning to play a musical instrument, would you accept to be coached by someone who never actually watched you play? To whom you simply sent a recording each week? That would be ridiculous, no?

 

However, this is what the majority of the people that come to our training camps tell us. In most cases, they never even meet their coach. So what are their training plans based on? Power. The logic seems to be: the more power you can generate, the better you will do at the Haute Route.

 

Unfortunately, this shows a misunderstanding of cycling in general and of the Haute Route in particular. It is not necessarily your coach’s fault – if you choose to hire a coach in another city or country, it is obvious the relationship will be remote.

 

Our policy at Alpine Cols is that we will not coach you for the Haute Route unless we can ride with you in the mountains and see for ourselves your strengths and weaknesses. Power is only one of many factors that are important to cycling performance. Mistakes or weaknesses in pacing, pedalling, gear selection, descending, nutrition or recovery (to name the most obvious) can cost you literally hours during the Haute Route.

 

A dedicated training camp is clearly the best way to do this.

 

Has an experienced coach observed you cycling over similar terrain to the Haute Route?

 

Mistake #2: Failure to learn good descending skills

The Haute Route includes some 20,000m of climbing, but also 20,000m of descending, much of it on steep, narrow roads where inexperienced descenders either lose considerable time or risk life and limb. Practically all the accidents on the Haute Route take place on the descents.

 

We are constantly amazed by the basic errors committed by apparently strong, experienced cyclists when descending during our training camps. With appropriate coaching – and especially feedback based on observation and video – riders usually ‘get it’ and improve rapidly.

 

Read here for more on improving your descending technique. Watch our videos on a descending clinic and on advanced descending techniques.

 

How comfortable are you racing down steep, narrow mountain roads?

 

Mistake #3: Insufficient work at low cadence/high power.

Most if not all coaches include low cadence exercises to build leg strength, one of the key components of power. Unfortunately they consider low cadence to be 70rpm. Many of the climbs on the Haute Route involve long stretches at gradients in excess of 10%, and you will be faced with such climbs each day for seven days. As a result, it is almost inevitable as fatigue sets in that you will find yourself climbing at 50rpm or less.

 

If you haven’t trained at high power/very low cadence you won’t be prepared for the effort required, and you will find yourself struggling to turn the pedals even though your heart rate remains relatively low.

 

Has your coach had you work at high power and very low cadence (~50 rpm)?

 

Mistake #4: Failure to develop out-of-the-saddle skills

Even a non-cyclist watching the Tour de France in the mountains will remark on the time the riders spend climbing out of the saddle. Almost without exception, however, the riders that come to Alpine Cols training camps very rarely stand up on the first climb.

 

When challenged, they have all sorts of erroneous beliefs about climbing out of the saddle: “it increases my heart rate, it’s too hard, it’s only to attack…”

 

With proper coaching and proper technique, they soon learn that none of these are true. If you learn to climb for 20-25% of the time out of the saddle, you will increase your overall performance while decreasing your fatigue.

 

Watch our video on how to climb standing on the pedals.

 

How comfortable are you at climbing out of the saddle for long stretches?

 

Mistake #5: Not learning how to pace during a stage race

Time and again we see people ride the first stage as if it were a one-day event. The advice to take it easy for the first 2-3 days is so well known it’s hard to understand why anyone would make this mistake.

 

Until it is your turn… The adrenaline kicks in, and off you go. It doesn’t feel too hard and you are riding with a good group, so why back off? If you have a power meter, you glance at it and see you are getting some of the best numbers ever. Fantastic, you are going to do great!

 

Then comes Stage 2 (or Stage 3). Now your legs feel terrible and you are unable to generate more than 60% of your FTP on the climbs. You finish the stage 50 or 100 places down on the previous day…

 

Pacing is a discipline which needs to be learned. Unless you are in the top five, the Haute Route is much more like seven time trials than six road-races and one time trial. This is because so much of the route is climbing or descending, where the effort is essentially solitary (even if there may be other riders around you).

 

For more on pacing, read Pacing Strategy for the Haute Route, Haute Route Oman, and Sometimes you have to break the rules.


Is your coach working with you to identify and practice your optimum pacing strategy?

 

Mistake #6: Failure to practice nutrition in training

The typical Haute Route stage has an energy cost in the region of 5000 kcal, comparable to that in a professional stage race. Fuelling to meet this energy requirement seven days in a row requires both knowledge and practice.

 

Most people struggle to consume as much as 60g (240kcal) of carbohydrates per hour while cycling, and thus finish the stage with a large energy deficit. It is not possible to replace all the energy used while riding, but you can learn to consume up to 120g (480kcal) per hour. This takes considerable practice, learning which foods are right for you and “training the gut” not just to tolerate the load but to absorb it effectively while cycling hard.

 

What discussions have you had with your coach about the nutritional challenges of a stage race?

 

Mistake #7: Inattention to recovery

Recovery during a seven-day stage race is very different to recovery from a hard training session or a one-day event. You will finish the stage at some time between 1pm and 4pm, and need to be ready to ride again at 7am the next morning. What are you going to do in the intervening period?

 

A training camp with experienced Haute Route coaches is the best opportunity to learn and practice the most effective recovery routines. The most basic is simply to replace the fluids, eat adequately and rest, lying down with your feet up. There are however many other techniques that can help, ranging from massage through wearing compression socks, using electro-stimulation, ice-baths, cryotherapy and others.

 

What advice can your coach give you on recovery techniques during a stage race?

 

Correcting these mistakes (and others…)

The Haute Route is a massive challenge and you are investing a lot of time and effort to ride in it. Don’t take the risk of underperforming (or worse) by failing to take into account the full range of skills you need.

 

At Alpine Cols we specialise in preparing people of all abilities for the Haute Route. We know the event and its demands inside out. Please contact us for any specific information or advice regarding any part of your training and preparations. We will be able to tell you if your training is on track and advise you on the best training strategies based on your riding experience and goals.

 

We often partner with other coaches to complement and complete the work they are doing with their riders. This is particularly valuable when coach and rider can never meet!

 

 

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james ginn
james ginn
5 years ago

What percentage of riders fail on the Haute Route ? It would seem that one needs an FTP above 200w and a BMI of under 22 to be sucessful on this ride.

Marvin Faure
Marvin Faure
5 years ago
Reply to  james ginn

James, in 2015 the DNF (Did Not Finish) percentages varied from 12% on the Pyrenees to 17% on the Alps. The causes are multiple of course and include illness and injury as well as inability to stay the pace. I don’t have the data for the reasons not to finish. My guess is somewhere around 10% are due to lack of sufficient preparation. There are probably another 20-30% that managed to finish but would have enjoyed the experience a lot more had they been better prepared.

Graham Walters
Graham Walters
5 years ago

Hi Marvin, i’m from Australia and have booked in to complete the HR Alps (Bucket list stuff) and would be interested to get as much advice as I can. Not able to attend a camp but would welcome suggestions based on what information I could give you. I Understand the rational behind the hands on coaching so I can understand if this is not possible. I started a discussion a week ago (9/4/2015… Doing the Haute Route Alps in 2016……) in regards to tips for training and have received some very good advice that has reinforced what I beleived was… Read more »

Marvin Faure
Marvin Faure
5 years ago
Reply to  Graham Walters

Hi Graham,
Thanks for getting in touch. Let’s plan a call to look at the options. I’ll send you an email to agree a time.
best regards, Marvin

Chris Hope
Chris Hope
6 years ago

Great advice, I discovered climbing out of the saddle with you last year on the training camp, it made a huge difference over the 7 days on the Haute Route. Keep up the good work and see you in August.

Marvin Faure
Marvin Faure
6 years ago
Reply to  Chris Hope

Thanks Chris, looking forward to it!

John Steward. Alps 2012, Pyrenees 2013
John Steward. Alps 2012, Pyrenees 2013
6 years ago

From my experience at Haute Route, I think these observations are spot on. I would add 3 more-fueling during the ride, pacing through the week and recovery tactics each night. Also need to be smart about shipping your bike. Every year I saw people on poor fitting replacement bikes due to not traveling with a spare $15 derailleur hanger. It can be very hard to find the right one in the 24 hours before the race if yours gets damaged in shipment. Best of luck to all

Marvin Faure
Marvin Faure
6 years ago

Thanks John – you are absolutely right to add these three (or rather four) points, we couldn’t agree more.

Kazim
Kazim
6 years ago

looking forward to ironing out these issues with you guys in a few days!

Marvin Faure
Marvin Faure
6 years ago
Reply to  Kazim

We too – see you very soon!