Ahead of the Etape Cymru – a 100-mile closed-road sportive in north Wales on Sunday October 9 – former national hill climb champion Matt Clinton is on hand with his top tips for dragging body and bike over more than 6,000ft of climbing.
Know your terrain
First off, the best thing you can do is know your terrain; you’ll be able to pace yourself much better if you know where the climbs are on the route. Study any maps or elevation profiles and see where the climbs are in succession to each other. Also, pay attention to the weather on the day, as pacing will be crucial if you have a headwind on the Horseshoe Pass.
Prepare your bike
Having your bike in top condition is also crucial to an enjoyable ride. Make sure it’s clean, adjusted correctly and well lubricated. Use gears appropriate to your riding style and the event. Some riders will need a triple, the majority a compact and fitter riders a standard double. You’ll know what suits you, just make sure you’ve got the correct gearing for the terrain. A good clean drivetrain will work much better, inflate your tyres correctly (check them for cuts!) and although this is a climbing guide, make sure your brakes work – with plenty of pad-life and clean rims.
As with all climbs, the lightest kit usually works best. Try and run the lightest wheelset you can, with, as I outlined above, good tyres and appropriate gearing. On the day, get there in plenty of time for a final check of your bike – don’t forget spare tubes/pump etc.
Wear appropriate clothing
Make sure you carry appropriate clothing with you. I would never ride this event without a rain jacket, especially in October. As a mid-summer ride, I’d probably still take a light shell for the descents. A gilet is an essential bit of kit, I’d urge everyone to have one, and I rarely ride without wearing one. Don’t forget, you get a free gilet with your entry. Arm warmers, knee warmers, helmet and gloves are all essential too, just remember conditions can change quickly in the hills and after every climb comes a descent.
Get out and ride
Miles, miles and more miles! There’s nothing to substitute getting out there on the road. Try and make it sociable; head to a café with your mates, take in some hills on the way. Try and build up your distance over the weeks [see RCUK’s sportive training guide], with a combination of slightly harder short midweek rides and a long one at the weekend. The key is to enjoy it, that’s why you ride after all!
I would not advocate doing intervals for a long ride like the Etape Cymru. The base miles from your rides, as long as you push it on the climbs, should be enough for your next challenge.
Know how to climb
Climbing varies from person to person, hill to hill. Some riders may be able to push a big gear in the saddle, while others dance on the pedals. Don’t forget climbs hurt everyone. It’s just how riders deal with the pain that separates the fast guys from everyone else – along with talent and training, but that’s another matter.
Keep it steady
The key point in an event such as the Etape Cymru is not to go mad on the first few climbs. Start off nice and steady, try and stay seated in a comfortable gear, concentrating on keeping a smooth rhythm. Keep an eye on your cadence, it’s likely it’ll be lower than when you are on the flat – but you also don’t want to be pedalling at 50rpm. Personally, I climb at around 80-90rpm in the saddle. There are occasions where you’ll need to get out of the saddle – again don’t forget you’ve got several climbs in the event, so don’t waste your legs on the first climb. Keep the gear low and don’t fight the bike.
Staying relaxed on any climb is the key. This is a combination of your position on your bike and fatigue (I’ll get on to food later). Ideally you want to be sitting comfortably back in the saddle for these high cadence climbs, vary your hand position where needed, from the shifter hoods to the tops. It’s unnecessary until after you’ve crested the climb to be on the drops, this will just put more strain on your body.
How to tackle the big one
The Horseshoe Pass is the main challenge in the Etape Cymru. At 15 minutes for the fastest riders, it’s a long ascent. If there’s a headwind, try and keep in a group as there’s nothing worse than having the wind in your face with miles to go. Don’t get in a group that’s pushing you out of your depth right at the start though, you’ll only overcook it, get dropped and spend the rest of the climb grovelling! Once again, a steady rhythm is essential. The target is the top of the climb, not a point 50m ahead of you. Use each crest or bend as an intermediate focus, but never forget the end goal.
If at all possible, try and avoid getting off and walking on any climb, you’ll lose all rhythm and it’s not going to be any more fun pushing.
Make sure you eat
A good solid breakfast will help you through the day; cereal, porridge, toast are best. If you must have a fry-up, don’t set off too quickly – give it sometime to digest!
Check out the course profile before hand, as this gives you the ideal opportunity to fuel up before each climb. Try getting some food down you on any flat section and remember to stay hydrated before you hit the climbs. Eating is crucial, as you’ll be putting out much more power climbing. I’d suggest on a 100-mile event, like the Etape Cymru, to go with 80 per cent solid foods and 20 per cent as a back-up of gels.
Although gels are easier to consume on the go, they do leave you feeling rather hollow and your stomach will always function better with some good solid foods in there. Use the gels as an emergency for when you’re near the end of the ride and you feel that ‘bonk’ coming on. Depending on where it’s sensible to eat, when racing I always try to eat every 30 minutes, give or take. A hard training ride, I might go an hour, but always eat before you think you need to and refuel once you reach each summit. I’d suggest using an energy drink too, taking a gulp every 15 minutes or so.
Hopefully all these tips will help you succeed in the Etape Cymru and at the end of the day, remember why you’re doing it – for fun and as a challenge.
Best of luck!
If you’ve been inspired by Matt’s guide, why not tackle the Horseshoe Pass Challenge as part of your training? It offers an invaluable opportunity for recon and preparation, all while taking in some beautiful Welsh countryside.
You can add your time to the Horseshoe Pass Challenge leaderboard to see how you stack up against Geraint Thomas and Great Britain academy rider Sam Harrison.