Eight moments every rider will experience on an alpine climb - Road Cycling UK

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Eight moments every rider will experience on an alpine climb

Whether you're a mountain newbie or a seasoned campaigner, some of these thoughts are sure to go through your head

Road cycling is not like other sports. It doesn’t have grand stadiums or famous pitches where cup finals and legendary matches from the history books took place. Instead it has the mountains of France, Italy and Spain – where the greats like Coppi, Merckx and Hinault battled their rivals.

The brilliant thing for us cyclists is unlike football fans who’ll never get to set foot on the turf of Wembley, tennis fans who will never step onto the hallowed courts of Wimbledon, or cricket fans who will never step onto the square at Lord’s, we can actually get out on the same roads as our heroes past and present – and experience what it’s like to ride those legendary climbs.

– RoadCyclingUK’s essential guide to road cycling in the French Alps –

Are you planning a summer trip to the mountains of Europe? Ever wondered what it’s actually like to ride those climbs in the Tour de France? Alpine climbing is a unique experience in cycling – there’s simply nothing to compare to it on British shores. For many cyclists, riding on the roads of the Grand Tours is an essential bucket list entry.

But what should you expect when you make those first pedal strokes on to an Alpine climb? To give you a little bit of an insight into what it’s like to climb an alpine mountain, here are eight key moments you’ll experience. If you’re a seasoned campaigner, you’re sure to have experienced these – and probably still do. Hell, even plenty of Tour de France riders will experience some of these sensations. After all, as Greg LeMond once said, it doesn’t get any easier, you just go faster.

There’s nothing quite like conquering an alpine climb (Pic: SWPix.com)

The ‘What’s all the fuss about?’ moment

At the start of an alpine climb it’s tough to really get a read on how big a challenge is ahead of you – and this can lure you into a false confidence. The roads in European mountain ranges tend to – but not always – favour long, less severe pitches of gradients around seven or eight per cent, as opposed to the downright brutal, but mercifully shorter, climbs of the UK.

– Five must-ride climbs of the Alps –

This type of incline makes an alpine climb a long, slow war of attrition, rather than a quick, sudden death of oxygen debt and searing legs. It’s painful but possible and that’s where you start to get cocky. What’s going to really kill you is the sheer amount of time you have to keep this level of intensity up – and the horrible realisation of that soon arrives as you look up the mountain…

The ‘These kilometre markers are a good idea’ moment

One thing that Europe does really well is signposting its high mountain roads for the use of cyclists. Most major climbs you tackle in the Alps or Pyrenees will have handy markers every kilometre or so, telling you exactly how far you’ve come and, more importantly, how much further you have to go. They often also state the average gradient for the next kilometre.

These markets can be a fantastic psychological aid as you slowly but surely tick off the kilometres remaining. On the flip side, they can also serve as a brutal reminder of just how much you’ve got to go – and how much you’re suffering already.

Most major climbs have kilometres markers to slowly tick off  (Pic: Media 24)

The ‘I’m riding through history’ moment

As you’re climbing through the twists and turns of an alpine climb there’ll definitely be a moment when thoughts like the following pass through your head:

‘Marco Pantani rode up this mountain. Lucien Van Impe rode up this mountain. Sir Bradley Wiggins rode up this mountain. Now I’m riding up this mountain. Although I’m A LOT slower than all of them.’

– Riding the 2016 Etape du Tour: pain and suffering in the Alps –

If you’re riding an iconic alpine climb like the Galibier, Alpe d’Huez or the Izoard, then it’s hard not to get carried away by the huge, resounding history of the roads which passes beneath you. It’s awe-inspiring. It’s amazing. It may even spur you on to rise out of the saddle and kick with a little bit more energy.

Few sports offer the chance to follow in the foot steps – or tyre tracks – of your heroes (Pic: Sirotti)

The ‘In about 20 minutes I’m going to catch up to that guy ahead’ moment

If you’re climbing for an hour, even more sometimes, then you can set targets that are much further apart. The idea of taking 20 minutes to reel someone in on a typical British climb is pretty laughable, as they’ll most-likely have descended the other side and be at the coffee stop in that time frame – but in the Alps, 20 minutes is no time at all.

Setting small goals is going to help you, whether that’s getting round the next bend, reaching the farmhouse up ahead or bringing back a rider further on up the road in an imaginary breakaway. Just remember, there’s probably someone further down the mountain who has you in their sights…

The ‘How can there be so many hairpins?’ moment

It sounds silly, but alpine roads just aren’t like other roads. They’re built around the mountain, following the contours as they slowly, gradually make their way higher and higher into the heavens, unlike British climbs which tends to pick the most direct – and steepest – route.

– Twenty of the world’s most beautiful roads for cycling –

Still, the alpine result is some tortuous twists and turns and lots and lots of switchbacks. These are fun the first few times because they’re so wonderfully non-British, but pretty soon they start to wear on you  – especially on your thighs – as each one forces you to get out of the saddle and counter the often steeper gradient as the climb really begins to pinch.

‘Just HOW MANY hairpins are there?’ (Pic: Switzerland Tourism)

The ‘Why did I agree to this?’ moment

As the difficulty of the challenge begins to sink in you’re going to get a few little doubts creeping into your mind. ‘Why did you get suckered into this trip? What made me think I could conquer Alpe d’Huez or the Giant of Provence? Will it ever, ever end?’

Unless you’re supremely fit, verging on pro-level, and riding along at a canter, then you’re always going to find alpine climbing a struggle. That’s kind of the point. It’s also what makes it such a fantastic and satisfying achievement once you complete it. Which you will. Eventually.

It doesn’t get any easier, you just go faster (Pic: Sirotti)

The ‘Just keep pedalling’ moment

To get to the top of an alpine climb, you’re going to need to find your groove somehow and get into a rhythm. You have to come to terms with the fact that you’re going to be riding uphill for a very long time, so you’d better get used to it.

– Twelve bucket list climbs to ride before you die –

This groove is different for every rider – some have tricks they depend on to help make the time pass a bit quicker, while others try and take in as much of the scenery as possible to take their mind off the task in hand. We’ve heard everything, from riders who sing to themselves, to those who do complex maths sums in their heads. Whatever you do, just keep pedalling!

The end will come. Eventually. (Pic: Garmin)

The ‘One last push!’ moment

Here it is, time to dig deep and power through to the summit. This is simultaneously the best and worst moment of an alpine climb because oh boy is it gonna hurt, but the elation and excitement you’ll feel on cresting the summit is truly something else. Whether it’s your first time climbing an alpine mountain or the 50th, the rush is always incredible, and no matter how hard it’s been, you can normally always summon the energy to ride out of the saddle and attack those last few metres.


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