Etape du Tour survival: Your bike

So it’s about six weeks away now and most people have done a handful of long tough sportives to get in shape. I’ve been battering out the bike time with a mix of riding in the Surrey Hills (usually a door-to-door of around 140km) and racing on Tuesdays.

This is the first in a series of posts on advice gleaned from experience, common sense and advice read/heard elsewhere. I thought I’d start with the bike as it’s the most central piece of the experience, apart from fitness which I can tell you nothing about.

  • Get comfortable with you bike AKA Get yourself fitted

This is probably the single best thing you can do to improve your on-bike experience. The Etape hurts, so minimising the discomfort from the bike is one key area that is constant and fixable.

Some people swear by getting yourself fitted by someone with experience who simply knows how to fit you. But there’s also a range of fit systems out there with a more scientific (or at least pseudo-scientific) approach. I can’t say one is better than the other as I’ve not tried them all, so take your pick from what’s available.

I’ve had my setup from Cyclefit since 2007 and it has greatly improved my riding. Retul is a system used by Team Sky and Radioshack while Specialized have their own BG Fit system which has been used by Saxo Bank and Astana.

  • Use a compact crankset

Sammy Dumoulin of Cofidis runs a 50/36 or 50/34 chainset with an 11/23 cassette. Michael Barry and David Millar both train on a compact. If you run 50/34 and an 11/28 cassette, you’ve got a range covering walking pace to hurtling down a mountain full bore.

Those three will probably finish the Etape stage at least 30 minutes faster that the fastest finisher in the Etape. Now tell me you think you need a 53/39. Unless you are an elite, or near elite level rider, it’s far more likely that a compact is what you need.

  • Run your tyres at slightly lower pressures

This is one I heard Greg Lemond talk about. He suggested dropping five to ten PSI out to account for the heat generated from braking on long descents and from being in among 8000 other cyclists. Both are things you don’t do that often and mean the rims heat up much more, increasing the risk of blowout. Dropping a bit of air out before you set off can help counter this.

  • Use 25mm tyres

They’ve got a bigger contact patch. They can be run at slightly lower pressure, resulting in a much smoother ride, for negligible extra rolling resistance. They soak up the bumps and chatter much better than 23mm.

I would be riding them but Eddy Merckx didn’t see fit to leave too much clearance for them. He doesn’t seem to like anything bigger than a 500ml bottle either. I used to run Michelin Pro Race 25mm but they scraped the inside of the fork. It was hard giving them up because they were a great ride.

  • Make it practical

I use clinchers for the same reason I almost always carry a frame pump: they are practical and effective at their job. There’s no point riding silk tubulars if you then puncture both. Do you really want to be trying to swap a tubular with time against you compared to sticking in a new inner tube that you’ve grabbed off the nearest person?

I’d avoid using anything which you think you might spend time worrying about on the day.

  • Don’t crowd the bike

I’ve seen people heading off on what look like mobile repair shops. You don’t need to weigh it down. So long as you’ve got a saddle bag with a couple of tubes, levers and a multitool, plus a frame pump and a computer that tells you time, distance and speed. You really don’t need more hanging off the bike.

More importantly, carrying anything more just looks rubbish.

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