One of our frequent bloggers, FionaOutdoors, reveals why she can think of nothing better than cycling mountains on a summer holiday: Until a few years ago, I had only watched in awe as the Tour de France riders pushed themselves to the limits over the cols (mountain passes) of the Pyrenees and Alps. I had never imagined that I would have the strength to cycle even one of the madly steep and winding mountain passes, let alone a dozen cols in one week.
Then I heard about cyclists who headed to the French mountains every summer on holiday – and I decided I’d like to go too. Since then I have spent a week each summer for three years relishing both the slog and joy of cycling up and down many of the Tour de France mountain passes.
There are people who roll their eyes, shake their heads and question my sanity when I tell them that I spend my summer holidays on muscle burning mountain climbs. But increasingly, I am finding that there are more people asking about how to do a cycle touring holiday, too.
Cycle tours are wide ranging and there is one out there to suit all types of cyclist. If you like your days to be gentle with easy-going pedalling between tourist attractions and long lazy lunches there are tours to suit you. I suggest the Dunube Cycle Path or the cycle way along the River Garonne.
But if you have more energy and a little hill climbing muscle, you could also tackle some of the infamous Tour de France route. Whether you choose to cycle one col in a day, or four in a day, the route of the Tour is actually within the abilities of all kinds of cyclists.
Many people prefer to join a cycle tour holiday because their luggage is transferred for them between overnight accommodation, although others prefer the freedom of tour cycling with panniers.
On one cycling tour holiday that I joined in the Pyrenees, our group included a woman who had previously cycled no more than 45 miles in one outing, several cycling addicted couples and a group of up-for-any-distance cyclists from a Scottish cycle club.
Thanks to a choice of daily routes, every cycle day could be geared to suit all the above abilities and while one cyclist might choose to do a shorter and less hilly valley route, others could head off for a full-on day of bonkers cols.
It goes without saying that if you spend some time training on hills in your home country, you will find it easier to make it to the top of the Pyrenean and Alpine cols. But there are no hills that are similar in the UK so your training should include some longer rides and some sessions that include lots of hills.
Cycling a Tour de France col does not have to be a race. In fact, to make it to the top without falling off in exhaustion the key is to take it steady. Pacing is everything – and a lots of easy gears will make all the difference.
Mountain climbs can easily extend to 30km of up (although it’s good to remember that there will be a lot of down over the other side!). It is impossible for non-pros to ride at full pelt uphill for 30km. So you need to set off at a pace that you can sustain for hours.
Of course, there are many opportunities to get off your bike for a breather, or to take a photograph of the fantastic scenery, but, in general, there is a lot of uphill cycling to reach the summit of a col.
Listen to your body and keep momentum and pedal push to a manageable level from the start. You can be sure that after one or two hours in the saddle, that you will require some energy and muscle power reserves so it’s better to be a tortoise than a hare.
Drink frequently – water and energy drinks – and keep refuelling with cereal bars or similar. One of the secrets of riding for extended periods is keeping your body fuelled on water and food.
Having a confident and positive mindset is also important. There are some very steep sections of some European cols and it could be that the cyclist who keeps on riding – as compared to the one who gets off to walk – is not fitter and stronger but simply has a stronger mental resolve.
Like so many people, once I’d enjoyed one Pyrenean cycling holiday, the following year I wanted to go on another. Then I wanted to try some of the cols of the Alps. For me, it’s the satisfaction of pushing myself to take on the upward challenge – and then the reward of the amazing downhill rides. The views and weather in the French and Spanish mountains are also fabulous.
Cycling mountains is not for everyone – but increasingly these types of cycle tours are becoming very popular.