Tips for Riding in the French Alps

So you would like to experience riding in the mountains – maybe you have just watched the Tour de France and been amazed by the alpine scenery, or perhaps you have just always wanted to test yourself up Alpe D’Huez. The following tips will ensure that you can plan ahead to get the most out of your cycling holiday in the French Alps:

Destination

If you choose to base yourself in one location for the duration of your holiday, then you should try and achieve the following:

• A location in the valley, not up in the mountains – you don’t want to have to climb the same mountain at the end of every ride. Not only will you get fed up of it, it will limit the distance you can ride each day and therefore reduce the variety of routes you can choose.

• Somewhere with a range of different rides – preferably at the junction of a number of valleys (again, this will offer much more variety than being in one valley or up the end of a road in a ski resort).
Of course you could always opt for a point to point tour (which will offer variety and doesn’t matter if you stay at the top of a mountain assuming you are moving on the next day), however you get the drawbacks of a higher cost and the inconvenience of moving and living out of a suitcase every day. You are also tied to a fixed itinerary – no options for a day off to do another activity or recovery ride.

Distance

You are used to riding on relatively flat or rolling terrain, and know how many kilometres (or miles) you can handle in a day. But what about when you are riding in the mountains? A general rule of thumb for mountainous terrain is to assume that your average speed will drop by 50% (and therefore the distance you will be able to cycle in a given time will drop by 50% too). So if you normally average 30km/h, then expect something like 20km/h. So your 3 hour ride will only cover 60km, instead of 90km. So you should either plan on shorter distances or expect to spend more time in the saddle.

Weather / Clothing

You need to be prepared for a range of weather conditions in the mountains – just because it is sunny with no clouds when you set off, doesn’t mean it will stay like that! The weather can change from valley to valley as the mountains form natural barriers to clouds – you can have rain on one side of a mountain pass and be fine and sunny on the other. If you are taking a shorter trip within the same valley then it should be more predictable.
Another aspect to consider is altitude – there could be 15 deg.C difference between the valleys and the tops of the high mountain passes. You won’t notice it so much on the way up (as you are working hard and speeds are low) but on the way down it will be very obvious when you add on the wind chill factor. On all but the very hottest summer days you will need a windproof layer to be able to put on at the top of the climbs before you descend.

Tunnels

As the roads in the mountains often cut through long tunnels, you need to be prepared for this. Most are lit (although not all!), however don’t be surprised if you find sometimes substantial stretches where the lighting is out. The use of a rear light in tunnels is required by law in France, but you will also want one purely for your own safety. If you feel uncomfortable riding in conditions without much visibility, you may want to consider a front light too, but most people do not bother. When you do find yourself in an unlit section of tunnel it can be quite dis-orientating for the first time, especially if there is traffic as the echoes of the road noise are quite loud and make it difficult to judge distance. The best course of action is to concentrate on maintaining the same position on the road, looking at a spot 3 – 4 metres ahead of you and focussing on any white lines present. Do not look at the exit of the tunnel as this will be very bright – the same as looking at oncoming traffic headlights at night. Lastly, and most importantly – don’t forget to take your sunglasses off!

Bike – gearing

Unless you already live in some very hilly or mountainous terrain you will probably benefit in changing your gearing assuming you are taking your own bike. As you’ll be spending a significant amount of time going at speeds much slower than usual, you will need to have lower gears. Adding a large sprocket on the rear cassette with a few more teeth than you currently have will probably not be enough. If you currently run a standard set up (52/39 chainring) then think about moving to a compact. If you currently run a compact chainset, think about a triple. This will probably be best with a larger rear cassette too. If you dont really want the expense of making this change to your own bike then perhaps hiring is the best way to go.

Bike maintenance

As with any intense period of cycling, you want to make sure that your bike is in tip top condition before you start. Replace any worn tyres, and make sure everything is lubed up and rattle free. In addition to the usual things, you will also want to take a look at your brake blocks – replace any that are nearing the end of their life (or take spares) – you will likely be using them a lot more than usual when descending. If you have changed your gearing, ensure that you have been out for a few test rides before going away to familiarise yourself with the new ratios and to check that everything is working as it should.

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