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The Alps Challenge

By Sofia Marin | In Athlete Interview, Power Analysis | on July 28, 2020

How do you cross the Alps by bicycle in less than 24 hours? With lots and lots of preparation. 

Nico Faure set out to be the first person to cross the Alps from Nice to Geneva in under 24 hours. This was no organized ride, but rather a self-initiated challenge to see just how deep he could go to achieve a goal. Having grown up in the French Alps, the route gave Nico a personal connection to his goal as well. 

The challenge, which he affectionately dubbed #ShutUpAndClimb, is a brutal test of fitness, preparation and perseverance. Beyond every climate and condition you can imagine (wind, rain, blistering heat, technical descents, thunderstorms, altitude, night riding, etc.), there is also the simple equation of distance and elevation gain.

 

The Challenge crosses several alpine mountain passes, many of which have been featured in the Tour de France. 

This includes 4 hors categorie climbs:

  • Col du Galibier 
  • Col d’Izoard
  • Col de la Madeleine
  • Col de la Bonette

One Categorie 1 Climb:

  • Col de Vars 

Two Categorie 2 Climbs:

  • Col du Lautaret 
  • Col des Aravis

 

Developing a Training Plan

For eight months, Nico and Coach Sofi Marin worked together to develop a plan to prepare Nico for the extraordinary challenge. 

Coach Sofi on Nico’s Training Plan:
“Having a full eight months to prepare for the Alps Challenge was really advantageous for both coach and athlete. Because the Challenge is so long, about 24 hours, and the climbing so demanding, my plan was to spend as much time as possible developing Nico’s aerobic engine. He already had a great baseline of fitness, but we wanted to make a really big push to see how high we could lift his aerobic ceiling.

“The goal was to make Nico as metabolically efficient as possible so that when it came to the Challenge, he could ride primarily in his aerobic training zone and utilize mostly fat to fuel his efforts, thereby sparing glycogen and limiting the accumulation of lactate for as long as possible.”  

“I created a training regimen that suppressed his glycolitic (or anaerobic) capacity in favor of increasing his threshold power and VO2max (aerobic engine).”

When it came time for the Challenge, Nico had raised his VO2max (aerobic capacity) to a whopping 75 ml/min/kg which is fantastic for a 57kg rider. His anaerobic threshold also increased to 5.1 watts/kilo. Utilizing INSCYD metabolic testing, we were able to track his progress along the way.

But it’s not just the countless hours of training that enables a rider to succeed at such a challenge. Preparation is key.

 

Preparation is Everything

“My recipe is to have a 360-degree view at all times. When I do something, I try to look at every angle and control everything around that can have an impact on my performance,” says Nico.

Nico is incredibly diligent when it comes to preparation. In addition to executing his training plan, he made a point to study every aspect of the course. For example, he used the Tacx app to pre-ride every major climb on the route to truly get a feel for the ride. When life was disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic and a mid-season move to the U.K. (where you’d be hard-pressed to find a climb longer than 10 minutes), Nico and Coach Sofi found creative ways to keep momentum going. 

One brutal test of attrition came when Nico completed a 12-hour trainer ride hitting the hardest climbs of the Alps Challenge using Tacx. One primary purpose of this workout was to work out his nutritional needs and identify a sustainable average heart rate and power he could target on event-day. Another goal was to test his psychological stamina and focus.

 

Nutrition is your Secret Weapon

“I believe nutrition is as important as my intervals. I believe sleep is as important as my intervals. I believe massage is as important as my intervals,” says Nico.

Coach Sofi, a sports nutritionist, and Nico were able to make fairly accurate estimates of Nico’s caloric requirements, differentiating what percentage of calories would come from fat and what percentage would come from glycogen, of which would need to be consumed en route.

“It takes a lot of effort. When you log your training time in TrainingPeaks, you might put in 12 hours for the week, but it often takes three times that amount of time when you add in meal preparation, a menu for the week, ride food, stretching, etc,” said Nico.

 

Nutrition plan for the 12-hour training ride:

Other preparation methods included:

-Recovery & Sleep Tracking

-Nutrition Plan: mapping out a meal plan for 7 days leading up to the event

-On-the-bike Nutrition: Calculating caloric and hydration needs for the event itself. Eating only whole foods and no package foods for the duration of the event.

-Heat Acclimation Training: 2 weeks leading up to the event 

-Wim Hof breathing method

 

Data Analysis: First Climb of the Day vs. Last Climb of the Day

Let’s take a look at the first climb of the day and the last climb of the day. Both are similar in length with nearly 5,000 feet of elevation gain. However the first climb, Col de la Bonette, begins early in the ride while Nico is still fresh, while the final climb occurs after 16 hours of riding.

“The first ascent, over 25km, was the highlight of the trip. It was just me and my mountains, I felt almost emotional at some point when the first lights started unveiling the surroundings. We started the ride at altitude 0 to reach 2800m after only 100km. I didn’t believe altitude would be a concern and that was the case, my heart rate stayed stable.”

 

Col de la Bonette
– 1st Climb of the Day

Col de la Bonette is known as the highest paved road in Europe, topping out at 9,380 feet. This means the majority of the climb is ridden at altitude.

The Breakdown:

  • Duration: 1hr54min
  • Distance: 18 miles (24.46km)
  • Elevation Gain:+5,180 feet (+1,579m)
  • Avg. Grade: 5.8%
  • Avg. Power: 184 W (65% of threshold)
  • Avg. Heart Rate: 145bpm (copes well with altitude)
  • Decoupling Rate Pw:HR: 6.9% (to be expected with increasing altitude)
  • Temp: 54 degrees Fahrenheit

 

Final Climb of the Day
– Col de la Madeleine

This relentless climb is featured in the Tour de France, averaging an 8% gradient and arriving 16 hours into the challenge. To top it off, temperatures peaked at 102 degrees Fahrenheit. 

The Breakdown:

  • Duration: 1hr41min
  • Distance: 11.78 miles  (18.96km)
  • Elevation Gain: +4,974 feet  (+1,516m)
  • Avg. Gradient: 8%
  • Avg. Power: 184 W (65% of threshold)
  • Avg. Heart Rate: 140bpm
  • Decoupling Rate Pw:HR: 0.06%
  • Temp: 102 degrees Fahrenheit

A few things you’ll notice about this side by side comparison is the fact that average power is exactly the same for both climbs. This level of control was key to a successful ride. To accomplish consistency throughout the challenge, it was important for Nico to control his power output and maintain an effort of about 65% of his threshold power.

You might also notice the heart rate is nearly the same for both efforts: 145bpm and 140bpm, respectively. In fact, Nico showed incredible consistency and aerobic efficiency throughout the ride, suffering almost zero drop in power compared to heart rate from hour 1 to hour 17. This is where the time spent building his aerobic engine and metabolic efficiency, along with his control and nutrition/hydration plan, really paid off. 

 

“It’s having that 360-degree view that makes you successful and the best you could be. I believe that’s what makes the difference between a good rider and an excellent rider,” said Nico.

 

The Final Tally

Nice to Albertville 

  • Time: 17h21min
  • Distance: 237 miles (382 km)
  • Elevation Gain: +27,051 feet (+8,632m)

Even with the best preparation, the unexpected can still occur. While the original plan was to ride from Nice to Geneva non-stop in less than 24 hours, an unexpected road closure on the final climb and threatening thunderstorms prevented Nico from reaching his final destination.

“I was kind of hoping to face the wall. I was ready to empty the tank but the road closures prevented that from happening. No suffering, only hurting,” said Nico. 

“I learned a lot about myself through the process. I know my body better, I know what it’s capable of and I will be more relaxed in the future.”

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