First Time Cycling in the Mountains – Top Ten Tips
First Time Cycling in the Mountains – Top Ten Tips
If you haven’t cycled in the mountains before it can be a daunting prospect. But the flip side is that making the leap opens up a whole new world of cycling, that we are sure you will love. To help you kickstart the process we have pulled together our top ten tips from guides and guests, to make sure your first time cycling in the mountains is amazing.
This isn’t the place for us to go into exhaustive detail about training plans and sessions, however we have included some useful guiding principals and links to better resources.
Of course, it’s not possible to cover everything, so if you think we have missed something off, please let us know by commenting on the post below!
Tip 1 – Enjoy Yourself
This sort of tip is normally reserved for the end of a list like this, but we wanted to ensure that this mantra is embedded in your thoughts throughout. Much as we would all like to be professional cyclists, the reality is that (most) of us cycle for fun and fitness. So while it is natural to become nervous about a particular tour or challenge pushing your limits, you mustn’t let these nerves override the experience of your first time cycling in the mountains. There will be times where it will be tougher than you expected, but it is important to remember that everyone has those moments and they always pass. Instead focus on the enjoyable sides of the lead up to the tour. Following a training plan, making sure your equipment is sorted, picking out the right kit and accepting that life will throw obstacles in the way.
Once you arrive, get to know your fellow riders, don’t fret about differences in kit, bikes or training, listen to the advice of your guides and of course, soak in the incredible atmosphere of the mountains. A huge sense of relief and achievement will wash over you at the finish, but you should also enjoy the little victories along the way (and contrary to popular belief, a glass of wine or beer with dinner appears to have very little impact on performance the next day).
Guest Comment: “Before the tour I was a bundle of nerves and only started to relax once the finish was in view. Looking back I wish I had spent more time enjoying myself over the course of the week, rather than obsessing about finishing”.
Tip 2 – Start your Preparation Early
In simple terms, the earlier you can begin your preparation, the better. So if you are currently considering signing up to a tour or challenge in the mountains, start thinking about how long you have to train and prepare for it. If you traditionally leave your preparation to the last minute, then we recommend that you avoid that approach for your first time cycling in the mountains. The key factor when it comes to riding well in the mountains is a strong power to weight ratio. The more power you produce and the less you weigh, the faster you go. Losing weight and gaining sustainable power both take time. So the sooner you can begin this process, the better. That isn’t to say that it isn’t possible to join a tour on relatively late notice and ride well, but in general, the more time you have available to prepare, the better. So make the most of every week you have between now and the tour, factoring in that you will get ill and hit road blocks along the way.
Similarly with kit, flight booking, bike boxes and everything else, the sooner you sort them, the sooner you can focus on Tip 1.
Guest Comment: “I signed up to do the Raid Pyrenean nine months before it was scheduled to start, so felt like I had ages to get fit and sort the details. Once spring came I began to realise I didn’t have much time and had totally slacked off, making everything much more stressful than it needed to be. I finished the Raid in the end, but having vowed to come back to complete the Raid Alps, I’ll be planning everything much better this time”.
Tip 3 – Bring Structure to your Riding
You don’t need to follow a pro style training plan to ride in the mountains. However you will benefit from bringing some structure to your riding if you currently lack it. Setting key goals helps you to monitor your training and stay focussed/motivated. So it is important to focus on the key things you need to address in your training and ensure that you have a way of measuring your progress. By far the easiest aspect of any tour to mentally and physically tick off is to ride at least as far as the biggest day. For many riders this takes the form of building up the distance over time, with a target sportive or charity ride as a pre-tour challenge. If you can do this distance more than once, all the better. Similarly, using structured intervals provides the perfect environment for the performance improvements that help improve your climbing performance. With just a little bit of structure you will not only be improving, but you will also be able to recognise that fact.
For more detail on structuring your training, our Raid Pyrenean Training Guide is an excellent resource. The principals in this guide can easily be applied to any multi-day tour, making it a perfect resource for those preparing for their first time cycling in the mountains.
Guest Comment: “My first time cycling in the mountains was a bit of a mess to be honest. I didn’t train with any consistency beforehand so once I got out there I was all over the place. The second time I went out I focussed on getting the longer rides in before and was much more comfortable”.
Tip 4 – Get your Bike Serviced and Clean it
The condition of some of the bikes we see on tours is a constant source of amazement. Considering how much time, money and effort goes into joining a tour, it seems crazy to risk your ability to complete it due to a mechanical issue with your bike, or spend your time tracking down an annoying squeak/rattle/clicking chain. Of course our guides and mechanics will always do their utmost to assist in these situations (and we have solved pretty much every problem you can have with a bike), but it seems obvious to at least start with a bike in full working order. That means ensuring your chain has plenty of life, the gears are properly adjusted, the Di2 batteries are charged (and you have packed the charger), you have fresh brake blocks, your tyres are recently replaced and everything is oiled and running smoothly.
As with everything in this guide, don’t leave this until the last minute as we guarantee your preferred shop will be booked up, or wiggle will be out of stock of the thing you need.
Guest Comment: “To be honest I didn’t realise you need to replace a chain as often as you do, so when mine snapped on the third climb of day two I was shocked. Luckily the guides had a spare and got me going again, but I check it regularly now.”
Tip 5 – Get a Spare Rear Derailleur Hanger
And make sure it exactly matches the one on your frame. Even when packed into a hard case box with the rear derailleur removed (which we always recommend) it is possible for your rear mech hanger to be bent in transit. Given that there are many hundreds of designs available, it is next to impossible to source one if you break yours during a tour. So ensure you have a spare with you. If you are unsure which one you need, take your bike into your local bike shop or use an online resource to identify your hanger and order it directly from them.
Wheels Manufacturing have an extensive database with details on which hanger fits which frame:
Guest Comment: “My bike was packed into a soft case and I hadn’t removed the rear derailleur. When we got it out to unpack it the mech hanger was bent and cracked, but luckily someone else had the same bike as me and gave me their spare. I now always travel with a spare”.
Tip 6 – Pack for the Worst and Hope for the Best
If this is your first time cycling in the mountains it can be easy to assume that because it is summer the weather will be great. The reality however can be far different. Even on days when the valley roads are scorching hot, at the top of the climb (which can be anything from 1000-2800m in altitude) it could be snowing. Equally, it can rain for several days on end, meaning wet kit management becomes a daily challenge. Finally, even if the weather is great, sweat can quickly render kit unusable unless washed. All these scenarios lead to some simple advice – pack several days worth of the basics and a full range of wet and cold gear. A basic starting point for a six to seven night tour is:
3 x Bibs
3 x Jerseys
2 x Base layers (warm and cold weather)
7 x Socks
1 x Leg and arm warmers
1 x Full length tights
1 x Warm upper body layer
1 x Waterproof overshoes (if you are careful Velotoze are superb at keeping your feet dry)
1 x Cold weather overshoes
1 x Windproof gilet
1 x Rain jacket
1 x Winter jacket (if you prefer a thicker outer layer)
1 x Hat/beanie/cap to wear under helmet (ideally that covers ears)
1 x Winter gloves (ideally water and windproof)
1 x Buff
Guest Comment: “Little things like having fresh bibs to put on each day, good windproof gloves for the descents and a hat that covered my ears made each day that little bit more comfortable. Things like that make a real difference.”
Tip 7 – Don’t Leave Packing to the Last Minute
We know how busy everyone is, but this is a constant source of last minute stress. Bike and kit packing is actually a remarkably easy thing to do most of the time, yet it can throw up problems which derail the best laid plans. A lack of space, a seized pedal (you really don’t need to go mad tightening your pedals), pushing the weight limit etc etc. All these things are easily dealt with several days out from the tour. But encountered at 11pm the night before you fly, they have the potential to really scupper your plans. Finally, we have all forgotten something when rushing around in a last minute panic, so don’t let that happen here.
If you own your own bag/box we’d recommend getting everything packed at least 24hrs in advance. That way you can take the time to ensure you haven’t forgotten anything and tweak things until your heart is content. If you don’t own the bike box and are renting, you can still lay everything out in advance and do the bike disassembly to ensure nothing is stuck in place. Once the box arrives you can then quickly and easily pop everything in and be finished in no time. GCN have plenty of bike box/bag packing videos, with this being a good starting point:
For kit packing, we love the bags within bags approach as this helps keep things organised. Separate your kit out into as many categories as you like (off the bike wear, bibs, jerseys, wet weather gear, cold weather gear, laundry etc etc) and place each of these bundles in their own bag (big zip lock bags work great for this as you can see what is in them). You can then place these bags in your big bag, or in any vacant spaces in your bike box. Once out in the mountains these bags will allow you to stay much more organised than just throwing all your kit in one big bag.
Guest Comment: “Start making a list of stuff you’ll need like energy products, bottles, kit etc etc well in advance then tick things off as you go.”
Guest Comment: “My pedal was 100% stuck on, so in the end I had to remove the crank arm to get it in the box”.
Guest Comment: “Put something on your bike box that identifies it as you’ll be amazed how many black Bike Box Alans can be on one flight”.
Tip 8 – Get Good Bike Specific Travel Insurance
Whether it is your first time cycling in the mountains or not, good bike specific travel insurance is essential. Not only will this protect you if you are unable to travel, it will also provide a safety net if you have a crash. Of course we all hope that this won’t be something that needs to be used, but if anything does happen, the costs can quickly mount up. Medical bills, repatriation, damage to your property and bike etc etc. If you have existing cover then you should very carefully ensure that the type of riding you are doing is covered and that the limits are sensible. For example, some standard travel policies may deem a sportive as a race and therefore exclude coverage.
If you don’t currently have insurance in place then we recommend the policies offered by Yellow Jersey Cycle Insurance, who offer a discount to our customers when they use the Discount Code “Domestiques”.
Guest Comment: “Riding in the mountains without proper travel insurance would be crazy!”
Tip 9 – Don’t Go Mad on Day One
Probably the most common piece of advice echoed by our guests. This one is particularly relevant for your first time cycling in the mountains as there just isn’t anything else quite like it. You’ve been looking forward to ride for months, are a little nervous but finally out on the road. You stick with the faster group and dig deep, perhaps a little too deep on the first climb… You are stunned by how long it is and get to the top exhausted. The next day your legs are like blocks of wood, you go flying out of the back early and struggle all day.
It’s understandable that you want to push yourself, but doing the above can be a quick way to wreck your first time cycling in the mountains. Instead ease your way in. Pacing is absolutely crucial in the mountains where you can be climbing for between one and sometimes three hours. This is particularly true early in your tour where saving your legs for the days to come is so vital. That’s not to say you can’t enjoy yourself of course. Look up, take in the views, find someone riding at a similar speed and make the most of the experience. Once day one is the in the bag you can relax, eat and sleep, ready for the days to come.
Guest Comment: “I got totally carried away on the first day and suffered accordingly as a result. I should have known better!”
Tip 10 – Relax on the Descents
Our final tip relates to the art of descending. This is probably the area that splits riders the most – some love descents, some hate descents. But regardless of which side of the fence you sit, the best advice remains the same. Relax on the bike.
The rationale here is quite simple. The more relaxed and supple you are, the smoother the bike is. Remaining tight and fighting the bike is a sure fire way to make the bike handle badly. So while every synapse in your body might be screaming at you to grip the bars as tight as possible, you need to ease your grip, relax your shoulders and resist the urge to tense up. This isn’t to say that you should ride faster than you are comfortable with. Far from it in fact. Keep your speed well within your comfort zone, but focus on relaxing your upper body and letting the bike flow. Ease onto the brakes, look well ahead, smoothly enter turns and gradually build your confidence. This is the safest way to descend regardless of speed and also the easiest way of building confidence.
Guest Comment: “I was terrified about descending the Col du Tourmalet, but I fought the urge to panic. After the first few kilometres I began to enjoy myself and while I wasn’t the fastest I got to the bottom with a grin on my face”.
What Have We Missed?
So there we have our top ten tips for your first time cycling in the mountains. Hopefully you find these tips helpful during your preparation.
If this isn’t your first time cycling in the mountains and we haven’t mentioned something that you have learned from past visits, we’d love to hear from you. You can comment on this post below, drop as an email or comment on our Facebook page.