By Martin Sigrist
In late 2005, after years of trying and failing, I finally managed to get my weight down to what doctor’s would consider not unhealthy. I’d lost over 40 pounds of fat, around a fifth of my bodyweight, mainly by buying a recliner exercise bike and spending a couple of hours a day on it watching boxed sets (including all seasons of “24” which I found provided the perfect amount of relatively mindless excitement to keep me going. Highly recommended.).
I thought I must be pretty fit so I dusted off the old steel bike I had last used in the 80s and went for what I thought back then was long ride, 25 miles. There was one “climb” of about ¾ mile at around 5%. Mid way I had to get off and push. Shortly after, to my shame, another cyclist whizzed by me as if the hill wasn’t even there.
Flash forward 7 months to mid-May 2006 and I was about to set of on the first day of a 5 and bit week solo self supported 3000 mile tour covering the full route of that year’s Tour de France, including all the climbs and riding the transfers (hence the extra 1000 miles.)
The plan was to finish in time to return to the start (Strasbourg) and watch a few stages of the real thing.
I made it on time, indeed sufficiently ahead of schedule to do some detours and take in some of mythic cols the peloton passed by, including making my first ascent of Mont Ventoux.
By the end I was doing 100 mile stages with multiple mountain ascents and enjoying every minute.
The transformation from having to get off and push on a ¾ mile easy hill to getting myself and all my gear up the 20 miles long and 1 ½ miles up of Galibier was due to how I trained.
Paradoxically, while I am now a power geek and love the process of training back then I was utterly clueless. I didn’t follow any sort of training plan or method as such. I used a coach but one for strength and conditioning because that’s what I thought I would need to complete my challenge. I bought a bike computer but mainly for the fun of finding out how far I had ridden and how high I had climbed.
I am profoundly and eternally grateful that I did things this way.
Because I really didn’t care what my training zones were or how many watts I could produce.
My goal was as simple as it could be.
I simply wanted to believe when I started my tour that I would, bad luck aside, have good chance to get to the end.
So my training plan was just to put myself in tough situations and see if I could handle them. Whatever didn’t kill me would make me stronger. If I came out with some aches and pains but wiser and more confident then things would be OK. If not then I’d better give up before starting.
It worked of course. Now looking back its because, without knowing it, I was preparing myself for the imaginary “enemies” I talked about in a previous article.
During my time circumnavigating France I had some run ins with pain, fatigue, monotony, discomfort, malnutrition, fear and bad luck. But I beat them all. Crucially though, even when things were at their most tough, I never felt they were hopeless.
That’s why I feel so passionately that when training it is just as important to concentrate on these enemies as improving the numbers you see on your Garmin.
I have absolutely no doubt that my fitness increased leaps and bounds over the course of my training for and actually riding my Tour. But these gains were temporary, lasting a few months at most.
On the other hand the lessons I learned that helped me beat the “enemies” are still paying back now more than 15 years later.
In a previous piece I discussed the idea of stacking, using workouts for more than just improving physiology. The impetus for that came from this experience. I’ve been stacking for as long as I’ve been training. I am quite sure that if I hadn’t been I would not be anywhere near as fit or had anywhere near as much fun.
If you haven’t tried it, I really would suggest when planning and reviewing your workouts to spend just a few minutes thinking about what went well or not so well in dealing with your “enemies” which, most will find, are in fact the most dangerous foes.
To give an example here are three example workouts that I did in the first few months of 2006, along with the enemies they helped me overcome.
Muddy Hell: Enemies faced down: discomfort, malnutrition, hopelessness.
My first ever mass start event was a MTB ride at the beginning of January 2006. Conditions were terrible, a mixture of cold rain and snow. Much of the course was over grass that turned to thick mud and my bike ended up weighing more than twice as much at the end as it did at the beginning. I had hopes of finishing halfway up the finish list of hundreds. I ended up finishing third. From dead last. Hours after the winner crossed the line.
It was a horrible experience. I was totally ill equipped and prepared. I had never before nor since felt as rough while riding a bike, indeed doing anything. I hadn’t given much thought as to what to eat and when I finished I binged on bananas until I was almost sick.
The key moment, in my entire training life, occurred after 30km. I had signed up for the 50km route. There was a shorter one and I reached a junction. A volunteer asked which track I was taking saying the finish for the “easy” route was just a hundred yards or so away. By that stage all my illusions about my fitness had been shattered and I thought there was no way I was going to be able to get ready for the Tour in time. I was feeling pretty hopeless but still told the guy I was on the long route and headed in the opposite direction. My goal changed from finishing with the bunch to just finishing any way I could even if it would be pushing (as I often had to do).
I touched rock bottom that ride. But in some ways it was the ride of my life. I discovered things about myself that I didn’t know. I learned to fuel properly but also learned being totally exhausted and famished didn’t mean having to give up all hope. The payback on my actual Tour was immense. The first few days were spent heading into the face of nonstop wind and rain. I was riding in the direction of home and I could have called it then. But I’d already made a tougher choice and knew I could and should push on. They were difficult days but I knew I could get through them and did. As it happened I got lucky, those were the last really wet and windy days I had. But I don’t think I’d have ridden in the sun in June if I hadn’t slogged through the mud the previous January.
Killer Hill: Enemies prepared for: fear, pain, discomfort
My biggest fear about the Tour was the mountains. The route included the Galibier which is 10 times the height of the highest hill anywhere within cycling distance of where I live. I knew that in order to get round in time I would have to face days when I climbed not one mountain but several. I was genuinely worried that I would not be up the to task. If I had to get off and push as I did the first time I went uphill then that would be the end of my attempt.
So a month or so before I started I cycled to the steepest, nastiest hill nearby. The worst aspect of it is that the higher you got the steeper it gets, starting at 5% finishing at near 15%. The other killer is that it curves round a hill so you never got to see the end until you actually reach it.
My plan was simple, ride up and down as many times as I could manage.
The first couple of times were OK then it got harder and harder. The last effort was a close run thing between me making to the top and falling over but I made it.
The comfort I took from the experience was that while the climbs I would encounter in France would be hard I would never reach the levels of pain that I did on that final try.
And I didn’t. I realise now of course why. Climbing a short hill can be done at an intensity that is impossible for a mountain. You can go into the red at the bottom and still make to the top even if only just. Try that on a mountain and it’s fail time.
But that didn’t matter. I just felt confident I could handle what I was due to face.
This was in part to something else that I deliberately did. Though the climb was short it was very steep at the top, probably more so than the mountains I would have to get over. So another objective of my day of pain was to be sure that I could still turn the pedals even when completely exhausted.
This was a time before compacts were a thing so I had fitted a triple chain ring. That along with the biggest possible sprocket on the back meant I could move forward even if extremely slowly which was preferable to the other options. This proved to be the second best decision I made in terms of equipment choice, tackling discomfort by avoiding it rather than suffering it. (The first was not using a “touring” bike but instead one of Specialized’s early Roubaix models which allowed me to travel much more quickly, both on the flat and especially uphill while at the same time causing no aches or pains.)
The Longest Day: enemies bad luck(ish), fatigue, monotony and hopelessness.
This is a case of what should have been good planning going wrong but still turning out for the best.
My final big major preparation for the Tour was to spend a long weekend doing 3 consecutive days of long rides with plenty of climbing, with my bike set up for touring including carrying my gear. I did this in Wales which is the nearest place with anything approaching a sustained ascent.
The plan was to ride 85 miles on Friday, 100 on Saturday and 55 on Sunday.
Friday went fine and Saturday I was pleased not to feel too many after effects. That was good news as I got my route planning all wrong and ended up riding an extra 20 miles which made it, by a comfortable margin, the longest ride of my life to that point.
Those extra 20 miles took a long time as they required riding on a road that was being prepared for resurfacing so progress was slow and, since it was a main road and it was getting dark, boring.
However that proved surprisingly lucky. I found that though I was tired I could slip into a steady state where I just turned the pedals and the miles passed by. It was quite different to my MTB ride earlier in the year, I was never in any doubt that I would get to my destination and felt fine once I got there and just needed a beer (or two) to recover. I didn’t at any point feel a sense of hopelessness or give into the temptation to bail and call out a taxi. I had come a long way, in many different senses, since my nightmare in January.
It was not bad luck that caused this unexpected change of plan but bad planning. But when bad luck did strike on my actual tour I was, luckily, prepared.
When I was half way round France my wife phoned with the unexpected bad news that an aunt who I was close to had died suddenly. I wanted to go to her funeral so this required some urgent changes of plan so as to be able to take a couple of days out to fly there and back to attend it.
One knock on was that I would have to ride 150 miles in a single day, further than I had ever done. But I was not worried by this, I just knew I had to get into the same rhythm as I had during my extra 20 miles in Wales and I would make it.
Reminding myself of those, now relatively distant, times just reinforces how important they were and still are. I still love riding hard and pushing to the limit. Every time I do so it is in no small part to what I learned back then. The lessons may have been hard but they have paid back many times over.
Now among the world’s fittest sexagenarians Martin Sigrist started riding on doctor’s orders in 2005 and had to push his bike up his first hill. Next year he soloed the Tour de France. He has since experienced every form of road cycling from criterium to ultra endurance. His ongoing mission is to use the latest in science and technology to fight a, so far successful, battle against Father Time.