Seasoned cyclist and Veloforte Ambasador, Jim Cotton, is no stranger to tough rides through mountain passes. Here, in a series of blog-posts, we follow him through the year as he trains for the infamous Haute Route Iron challenge; a stage event comprising two weeks of tough competition in the high Pyrenees and French Alps, taking place in late August 2018.
From the grinding wet of early-season UK training to the intensity of high-summer Alpine climbing we learn how it feels to build his competitive form, and eventually the race itself.
Back to Basics, Back to Better Places
After a huge dip in my morale and form in March due to illness and fatigue, I decided that the time had come to pull my socks up, stop feeling sorry for myself and move on. I’d let illness and a loss of mojo get on top of me.
Although I know a fair bit about training zones, periodisation and supercompensation, I swallowed my pride and accepted that I’d done something seriously wrong in the past months. Training had become damaging and counterproductive and I needed to stop the rot, fast.
Luckily, I knew the man to call; Tom Kirk, a well-respected coach, (and organiser of the training camp in Spain that I discussed in Part 1), and above all, a friend. As a coach of elite and national level athletes, I knew that he’d be able to dig me out of a hole and get me moving forward again.
We knocked up a plan, and in order to move forwards, I stepped back for a few weeks. Long, steady aerobic sessions were prescribed, working on my endurance, staying away from any lung-busting intervals initially, before slowly building them back in when the time was right.
The initial reduction in intensity allowed me some time to recover whilst working on that essential base of fitness that can be overlooked, with the small doses of interval work being sufficient to maintain some semblance top end.
Being a bit of a ‘more is more’ rider, it was a real step out of my comfort zone to finish rides not feeling totally spent, weak at the knees and craving sugar. However, Coach Tom knows best; I listened and obeyed. And it makes so much sense in retrospect.
To succeed in my target event, the Haute Route Iron (a fortnight of attritional racing through the French mountains) you need to be strong and efficient across back-to-back five or six hour days. And that base of endurance needs constant maintenance. A neglected engine goes rusty if left neglected.
In this time, I also decided to return to Spain, and found a great deal on a trip out to Denia (Andalucia), somewhere I’d visited before and I knew suited me down to the ground. Like Orgiva, which I visited in Part 1, and my absolute favourite riding location, the Pyrenees, Andalucia is quiet and untouched.
The roads are empty and tourism is notable by its absence. This, for me, is what cycling is about, quiet roads removed of the traffic and tourist-riddled Mallorca or Nice. These are the places I most enjoy my riding, and where I feel at peace on the bike and able to focus on the training at hand.
Some of the rides out of Denia, deep into the rugged Andalucian hills and valleys, were so quiet it was almost unnerving; on more than one occasion, I saw neither cars nor locals on the silky smooth roads or the sleepy villages for hours at a time. The villages epitomised the area as a whole; gloriously lacking in shops, petrol stations or cafes, surrounded by farmland and forest. It felt like a throwback to another age.
It felt good to be back somewhere that I felt just ‘works’ for me, somewhere where the sun is warm and the climbs are long. The legs showed promising signs; a re-gathering of strength and speed that I’d not felt for several months. Sure, I felt like I’m still behind where I was a few months ago, but the signs of progress were enough to return a fire to the belly and lust in the legs.
Under Tom’s watchful eye, the dialling down of intensity and upping of volume, with a sufficient sprinkling of eye-popping intervals, was working its magic. It’s no coincidence that this is the way the pros train; very easy, or very, very hard; nothing in the middle.
The combination of stepping back in the traditional cycle of training to a ‘base’ phase, and the return to Southern Spain, a better place for me both mentally and physically came just in the nick of time. After weeks of seeing both my form and my general psyche dip, it was back on the up.
Under Tom’s careful guidance, I’d started to redress the balance of training intensity that had gone awry over winter; the oft-praised 80% easy, 20% hard blend had been reached. And perhaps more importantly, the guesswork had gone, and the ability to pick and choose sessions according to mood had been removed. I knew what I had to do, and I knew when I had to do it.
No more hiding from grim weather on a turbo trainer when I knew I should be doing a five hour ride outdoors. Having to explain to a coach why you didn’t do what they had prescribed is a withering and embarrassing experience. Being accountable to someone else whom you respect and trust does a lot for the motivation; that desire to be the best I’d ever been in time for a third crack at the Haute Route Iron was reinforced and bolstered.
I returned from Denia with a renewed enthusiasm. Mindful of past mistakes, I left several days to allow the gains of a 25-hour training week bed into the legs and let my mind and body recover.
May would prove an important month for me, with the Tour of Wessex, a fearsomely tough three day sportive in South-West England, falling at the end of it. I’m determined to do this month properly, and start to build towards the high road of the Haute Route in late summer.
Four months to go; time is pressing on.