Etape du Tour survival: Preparing your head

Nothing to do with your choice of mandatory helmet (Giro Prolight is my current choice) but with the art of mentally preparing yourself for the event. It’s as important as your physical fitness to get your positive, winning attitude right and to know how to cope with the challenge.

There are some things you should know now about what your head will go through on the day.

  • Once the euphoria of starting has worn off and the first flat sections are done, you will spend the rest of the ride wondering why you are doing it
  • Your mind will tell you to stop frequently and repeatedly on the climbs and even on the flat bits
  • At some point you will enter a very dark place in your mind where you contemplate falling off to make it end
  • You will want to sit by the road and take a few minutes to ask “where is my mind?”
  • There will be an unexpected swelling of emotion when you cross the line which might make you want to cry

The distance can seem overwhelming but if it’s broken down into what Team Sky have started calling “phases” then it’s much easier to prepare yourself.

Phase One – Before the start

Don’t panic. Be meticulous in your preparation and making sure you have everything before you leave your hotel. If you lay it all out the night before and check it then you’ll worry less when you wake up at 4am.

Give yourself plenty of time to get to the start pens and find people you are riding with. Try to relax and stay alert to groups that look like they might be worth tagging on the back of for shelter and a fast tow through traffic in the opening sections of the ride.

Mostly, relax and enjoy. You’ve spent god knows how long getting ready for this so you might as well make the most of it.

Phase Two – Le Grand Depart

I’ve seen plenty of strategies saying “conserve your energy” and encouraging you to ride conservatively to the first climb. You can do this, but I think mentally trying to ride conservatively is more dangerous than taking things as they come.

The Col de Marie-Blanque is narrow – four bikes wide in places – and there’s several thousand riders trying to get up it. You need to get there as quickly as you can to avoid walking or being caught in a bottleneck.

Mentally prepare yourself to go a bit harder than you’d like in places to stay in big fast moving groups. Think about digging in the suitcase of courage to stay with a good group rather than sitting up at the first harsh breath drawn.

Phase Three – Col de Marie-Blanque

This will be tough, it will come as a shock to the system and you will have a bit of a panic. But remember: this is the toughest obstacle between you and the Tourmalet. The Col du Soulor is going to be hard, but nothing like as bad as the Marie-Blanque. Prepare to go hard and get over in a good time.

Don’t think you have to get over it quickly and go into panic mode. Stay calm, ride hard and try to avoid hitting your limit too early.

I’ve seen so many people fighting to go forward with panic in their eyes. Panic puts the heart rate up and that will affect how hard you can go. So: DON’T PANIC.

Phase Four – Relax and flow on the descent

You’ll be tired by this point so take a moment get your wits about you at the top, put on your jacket or gilet and refocus on getting down.

When you’re tired, you’ll tense up and big mountain descents deserve your full concentration. Try to relax your body so it acts like a shock absorber but keep you mind focused on reading the road ahead and looking for hazards and the best line through corners.

Resist the temptation to brake too much or worry about your speed creeping up beyond what you’re used to. Comfort braking on straights doesn’t help make the sped go away for very long and if you’re going a bit faster than usually you just need to take more care on the approach to corners.

Phase five – Onwards to the Col du Soulor

The big danger now is that after the Marie-Blanque you start thinking about saving something for the Tourmalet. You need to push on through the valley and the relatively easy early slopes of the Col du Soulor.

It would be easy to sit up a bit and start going backwards here so focus on breaking down each kilometre in a manageable time. Try to keep slippage to a minimum.

By now eating and drinking are things you’ll need to remind yourself constantly to do as they slip in the mental task list.

Phase six – Descend and prepare

You need to try and give yourself enough time to descend comfortably to the foot of the Tourmalet. If you’re chasing to make the cut it’s going to be tough and a bit hairy. Not good when you’re tired and hurting after 100km in the legs.

Eat at the top, drink on the descent and just mentally ready yourself to go all in on the Tourmalet. you need to get your tired mind cleared and ready to take on the beast.

Fight the rising panic/excitement and concentrate on getting to the final elimination point. Once you’re past there, take a moment to compose yourself and remind yourself to pace yourself.

It’s good to figure out how much time you’ve got and how hard you think you can go. Then push it from your mind and concentrate on just riding.

Phase seven – To the end

Even though the goal is in sight, you need to keep pushing yourself on mentally. I’ve seen guys give up on climbs with less than 300 metres to go simply because they didn’t think they could go any further.

Break down the Tourmalet into landmarks or time chunks and tick off each one as you achieve it. The time will pass more easily this way.

So that’s my final Etape guide. Good luck one and all. I’ve got to sort out my bike over the weekend. It’s developed a ticking noise near the bottom bracket which I want to get looked at before the Etape.

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