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.
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).
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!