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The general question: What should a reasonably fit cyclist do to prepare for alpine riding, and what adjustments should be made in route planning?

In my case I can do rides of 250 km+ with 3000 m of climbing, but I'll be staying within about 40 km (riding) of Col d'Izoard (~2300 m altitude) in a couple of months and hope to be able to take a bike with me. The major differences I see compared to UK riding are:

  • Incessant climbs (but I won't be in a hurry and will want to look at the views so can stop).
  • Altitude: At a similar altitude to the highest points I'm likely to ride, I recall that hiking was harder than expected for a few days. I'll have a week in the area, staying at ~1000 m so will aclimatise a little, but perhaps this isn't quite high enough to worry about anyway even though I live near sea level.
  • Warmer, drier air.

Compared to sea level and short sharp hills, I don't know if I should be planning shorter rides to take into account the conditions, or whether I should go for something like The 2017 Col d'Izoard Etape du Tour, and if so how I'd train for the latter on local roads near sea level.

  • I thought we'd had a question or two like this in the past, but couldn't find anything, so I've tried to keep it general with an example. – Chris H Apr 12 '18 at 12:43
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    Consider carrying a lightweight wind jacket and full finger gloves for the long descents. You will (I) typically get cold and start shivering on long downhill periods without pedaling, even some light pedaling helps, but the extra layer of gear is worth the extra weight to bring to the top. – Glenn Gervais Apr 12 '18 at 19:36
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    @GlennGervais, good points, thank you. I tend to err on the side of well equipped but might have left the full finger gloves at home, which would be a shame as I've got some that are purely windproof. Being a cautious descender I might well stop on the way down for my brakes and nerves to cool anyway – Chris H Apr 12 '18 at 20:23
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    You might want to check out GCN's content on the Maratona dles Dolomites and especially the Haute Route Alps. – David Richerby Apr 13 '18 at 12:36
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I spent a week cycling in the Alps (ALpe D'Huez, Galibier) just from training in the UK and, to be honest, it was fine. I'd argue that the alpine climbs are easier than the types you find in the UK. Bear with me.

Judging by that activity on Strava, I imagine you will be more than capable of riding these climbs. Alpine climbs are long (I was three and a half hours up the Galibier from the bottom of the Telegraph) but they tend to have an even gradient and rarely go over 10% for longer than a few dozen metres at a time.

British climbs tend to be short and incredibly mean, with ramps of 20%+ in places followed by false flats combined with terrible surfaces. British climbs are like a sprint, where you need to go all in to get over the steep sections, recover, then tackle another steep section - plunging into oxygen debt, recovering and trying to hold it.

Alpine climbs are a different beast. Assuming you have a low enough ratio (I had a 34 cog on the front and a 28 at the back) you should be able to ride in your endurance zone at a reasonable cadence without going into oxygen depth or building up too much lactic acid, apart from at the steepest sections. Obviously, this depends largely on your own fitness and lactic threshold etc.

So, what can you do to prepare?

I recommend finding a local hill of a similar gradient to the climbs you want to tackle (I imagine between 6% and 8%) of reasonable length (2km+) and taking it in your smallest gear. You should be able to ride to the top of it at a pace that doesn't leave you out of breath or sore - remember you'll need to do 10x this distance at that effort level in the alps.

For training, forget climbing, unless you have a 20 minute long climb nearby. Think distance, you need to consider doing some longer intervals of 20-40 min duration at your threshold pace. THis was the mistake I made - I trained for a one hour climb by doing hard 6 minute hill repeats up a steep climb. This was almost completely wasted -> I had a great VO2 max and sprint but neither of these are particularly useful in a long steady state climb! You need to practice for the effort level and length of the climb in question.

Most of all though, just go ride and have fun. The climbs are intimidating but they're only real monsters when you're racing other people up them.

They are only as hard to climb as the speed you decide to charge up them at.

Edit: In terms of altitude, I wouldn't worry too much about it. Don't sprint. Don't go anaerobic. If you're effort level is steady and sustainable for several hours you'll be fine as you get higher. The problem is when you try to go hard and you can't take in enough oxygen for the added effort. You sort of just slow to a crawl and it gets incredibly difficult to recover from without stopping for a real breather. Even still, I didn't notice too much of a difference until 2200m or so (so only the very top of the climb at most) but your milage may vary.

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    Great advice. Loads of people think you need to climb to prepare for mountains, but not really, you can train perfectly well on the flat, its mainly about getting used to sitting at around your threshold effort for sustained periods. The classic 2x20 workout is perfect. – Andy P Apr 13 '18 at 14:01
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    As someone who lives in southern Finland and climbed Galibier last summer, I can confirm this works. – ojs Apr 13 '18 at 16:16
  • I've got a triple, so I can gear lower than you -- but it's a steel tourer so a weight penalty. It sounds like my non-stop 100km (3:38) a couple of weeks ago a good way to train despite having selected a flattish route – Chris H Apr 14 '18 at 19:25
  • Having done it, I can't agree with your first paragraph -- Col de Vars turns up to 12% after you've just climbed 1300m; that's a vicious kick. But your advice was spot on. – Chris H Jul 6 '18 at 14:12
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I don't have experience riding at moderate altitude (1000-2500m), but do have experience mountaineering in the French Alps (>3000m) and Himalaya (up to about 5000m).

Going to over 2000m altitude is not trivial, even for people in good shape, and can have some adverse effects. It's not something you can totally ignore. Although if you are fit and have experience hiking at similar altitude you will definitely notice the relative lack of oxygen but avoid any serious issues.

The most important thing is to drink tons of water, which helps with some of the immediate physiological effects of working at altitude.

As your accommodation is relatively low you will have a chance to recover each night. The mountaineering mantra for acclimatizing is 'climb high, sleep low'.

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    I haven't done much mountaineering above 3100m, but I've done a lot of riding up to ~2400m in the Alps, Pyrenees, and the Sierras. I've definitely taken a performance hit but avoided severely adverse effects. Riders I've known have gone from sea level to set records at Aguascalientes (~2000m). I've gone from sea level and climbed the Iseran and Galibier -- slowly, but without problems. – R. Chung Apr 12 '18 at 14:53
  • I've ridden at a maximum elevation of 900 metres after living at about 20 metres. Any problems were attributed to the challenge of getting up there in the first place, and not being at that elevation. – Criggie Apr 13 '18 at 2:49
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Depends on your focus. If you want to go somewhere and compete at a higher elevation than where you live and ride, then there are acclimatisation systems that can help train your lungs to work better on lower pressure and lower oxygen levels.

The highest cyclable road in the world is 19,005 feet/5792 metres elevation, and is in Bolivia. The top 10 are in Bolivia, Tibet, India, so in the Andes and the Himalayan mountains, and all are over 17,500 feet/5334 metres.

At those elevations there is less oxygen available, so your lungs have to work harder to keep your blood/oxygen ratio higher.

Altitude (m)  Effective Oxygen %  Altitude Category  Example
0             20.9                Low                Sea Level
500           19.6                Low
1000          18.4                Medium
1500          17.3                Medium           Boulder, CO
2000          16.3                Medium  
2500          15.3                High             Aspen, CO
3000          14.4                High
3500          13.5                High     
4000          12.7                Very High 
4500          11.9                Very High       Pikes Peak
5000          11.2                Very High       Mont Blanc
5500          10.5                Extreme
6000           9.9                Extreme         Kilimanjaro
6500           9.3                Extreme
7000           8.7                Extreme         Aconcagua
7500           8.2                Extreme
8000           7.7                Ultra 
8500           7.2                Ultra 
9000           6.8                Ultra           Mt Everest

So you only have to go up 500 metres to for O2 to drop by 1.3 percent of the available air, which is an effective drop of 5% of the available oxygen.

At 5,500 metres the available oxygen is half what you'd have at sea level.


What to do?

Null case - Nothing If you're just tootling around, you don't have to do anything. Simply be aware you may suffer from shortness of breath, dizziness, headaches, nausea and vomiting, brownouts, blackouts and fainting, so rest periodically and don't push through any warning signs.


http://vertexaltitude.co.nz/

Here's an example of a purpose-built facility for altitude training. The room has spin bikes and the pressure and oxygen ratio is controlled while you ride. Plus you're monitored by a human, and low blood/oxygen levels will be avoided.

There could be something similar closer to you.

http://vertexaltitude.co.nz/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/In-Booth-01-1.png


There are Blood Oxygen booster drugs like Acetazolamide aka Diamox which is used to treat Altitude Sickness. They're treating the symptoms after onset, not preventing the problem in the first place.


Your body will acclimate to the new condition, given enough time. However hanging around at height for a few months is an expensive waste of a holiday. So you can use Altitude training, either by riding a trainer in a room with oxygen level controls, or sleeping in a mask/tent with an artificially low oxygen level.

From https://www.higherpeak.com/store/p5/High_Altitude_Sleep_System.html Here's a tent to sleep in for 2 months before your event/trip. Downside, not cheap! And probably really annoying.


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    You don't need Diamox at 2000m. You especially don't need it if you are going up then coming down to sleep at lower altitudes. I took it prophylactically in the Himalaya, but I was camping above 4000m. – Argenti Apparatus Apr 13 '18 at 2:56
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    That's a good answer to the general question. I'm closer to tootling around than to competing as my goals are distance and to some extent climb, rather than speed. The difficulty of course is that there's quite an overlap between the symptoms of moderate altitude sickness and simple over exertion especially combined with poor hydration. I understand that as meaning that resting is important - if you don't recover your breath etc. in reasonable time it sounds like you should stop going up and start going down. – Chris H Apr 13 '18 at 5:49
  • @ArgentiApparatus My impression is its for treatment of symptoms, not something you take as a preventative. IANA doctor, popping pills is not a great first option, YMMV, etc. Just mentioning for completeness. – Criggie Apr 13 '18 at 7:47
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If you are able to do 250+ km day stages with 3000 m elevation gain, you are in excellent physical condition and don't need to worry much about climbing to the level of the highest cols in the Alps, which don't surpass 2700 meters. Just take it easy in the first two or three days by going up and descending on the same side of the col, so that if you feel uncomfortable you can turn back from any point. Feeling short of breath is normal and nothing to worry about. Just if you feel slightly dizzy or disoriented you should go back. The next day will probably feel a lot better.

Yes, you should drink a lot, but don't exaggerate. It's no use to go up with a bloated gut. Drink as much as you feel comfortable and watch your pee. If it is darkly coloured, you should drink more. Usually there are water tabs and bars along the road, so you can stick to 1-2 bottles. One of them you better fill with an isotonic sports drink or fruit juice to compensate for losses of electrolytes. My favorite is V8 vegetable juice, but it's not everybody's cup of tea. It's one of the amazing abilities of the human body to store fluids in body tissure as you go up. You can probably feel this in the first days when you make a fist of your hand. The disappearance of this puffy finger feeling is also a sign that your body is acclimating.

If you travel to the Alps by car, you may help your acclimatization by finishing the day's ride in the early afternoon in a town near to a low mountain range and cycle a 1-2h circuit in the local hills.

If you fancy 250+ km rides, you might wet your appetite for a tough one-day challenge: a circuit from Briançon over the Col d'Izoard and the Col Agnel into Italy to Sampeyre, over Saluzzo and Pinerolo to the Col de Sestriere, Cesane Torinese and the Col de Montgenevre back into France. Of course, you can start this circuit at any convenient point. It is about 240 km and 5300 meter elevation gain. This more than matches the famous Marmotte cyclosportive, which is on a particular day in July and usually heavily overbooked by now. This circuit you can start on the day of your choice.

  • I'm geared lower than you (a triple) but it's a steel tourer so there's a weight penalty. I do fancy riding into Italy but from where I'm staying (S of Briançon) that would add too much. Col Agnel might be just what I need to inspire another ride. – Chris H Apr 14 '18 at 19:41
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After doing the ride I've got a little to add, as well as some points to reinforce other answers. The ride on which I based it was written by road cycling UK in adavance if being used for last year's Etape du Tour.

Heat

On a clear day it gets hot and very dry at altitude, and there's not much shade (especially after you're above the treeline). I needed multiple shade stops as I got near the top of both major climbs, and foudn a patch of snow to lie in for a few minutes once the shade ran out.

Hydration

I drank 6 litres of mainly water while riding and another 2 immediately after getting back, with a total of 2 toilet stops in 12 hours. If you've ever even considered electrolyte tablets in your water, now's the time. And buy the big bottle of water to top up, even if it means carrying an extra litre up hill.

It's easy to start too hard

Many of the big climbs get steeper towards the top, and while you may be able to ride slowly up 6% all day, you need something left for when it goes over 10%. It wasn't so much going anaerobic I was worried about, as overheating when going too slowly for a cooling headwind.

Cold

Wasn't an issue last week, but descents are long and fast (30+ minutes at an average of over 30km/h with taking the hairpins very cautiously). Even 60km/h was pleasantly cooling, but on a dull day would have been seriously chilly. Carry a windproof layer; most riders descending the previous day were wearing them.

Food

If you get depleted, you can't really top back up, so start fuelling early, using whatever works for you.

Take it steady

Unless of course you're actually racing.

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