On two wheels Zweiradberge

Transalp for beginners: How much should you train?

It's not that hard to cross the Alps by bike. John Doe can do it. And us. How did we?

We’re half-way to Venice. Today, we’ve crossed the Großglockner. One of two major challenges is now past us. It’s still about 100km cycling every day. 700km in a week. Not flat: 12,000m of elevation. Mapped, not measured: it’s always a tiny bit less in reality.

I want to stress that this type of vacation is feasible for many more people than what you might think. You don’t need to be a semi-professional cyclist. None of us is. You don’t even need to cycle very frequently. Not all of us do. At the end, it’s a matter of speed and comfort and route. So this is just how we have prepared for our Transalp.

Let me start with a tiny bit of context of us riders and the route.

We are six people. All of us are employed, but some have more flexibility with working hours. Some have girlfriends. Some carry a bit more weight. (We have about 30kg of spread between the lightest and the heaviest rider.) Some are triathletes and some (read: me) don’t run ever. Some have a pre-existing condition (read: a previously ripped cruciate).

The route is on the easier side of the spectrum of what Transalp can be. There’s two days with more than 2,000m of elevation gain. Not a single day asks for 3,000m of climbing. On average, we cycle 100km every day. The longest day is 120km; the shortest stage is only 70km stuffed with lots of climbing. There are also a few flat to flattish days. We’d usually leave around 9:30 and finish between 16:30 and 18:00. We’d take a few breaks on the day. (There’s debate among us about what “a few” should mean.) We often end with an average speed between 19-23km/h, depending on the stage profile. That sounds slow (and it is), but consider the climbing, villages, etc. – on a flat road, our cruising speed would be somewhere between 27 and 30km/h.

You can do this thing much harder. If it’s your first Transalp and you’re unsure about how you can cope with mountains, maybe you shouldn’t.

Now, for the rest of this post, I’ll quickly discuss the preparation of all six of us. You might soon guess who’s me. My intention is to highlight the diversity of approaches. There is not one right way to prepare. You can do rather little. You can do too much also. A Transalp among friends is (hopefully) not a competition. Yes, of course, there’s some competition for bragging rights. Eventually, it’s about fun from challenging us and each other a bit and from enjoying a marvelous country-side. The latter point is why you should consider crossing the Alps as well. And what you need to prepare is just enough shape to be able to complete the trip – with some enjoyment that is at least as high as what you had hoped for.

The triathlete

We have two of them. They went to a 70.3 Ironman triathlon in Sweden at the beginning of July and since have been mostly resting. This is data from the stronger of the two. According to his own assessment, career progress ate into his training time.

Distance: ~1,700km cycling

distancereik

Elevation: ~19,500m

elevationreik

His approach is interesting, for there is a clear outlier in his build-up. In early May, he went for a training camp to Croatia. That’s essentially a third of his preparation. There was some indoor training (Zwift and Trainerroad) in winter, a sizable amount of running, and time-trial focused bike training. Not all of his training sessions are public. In truth, he might actually have trained some more.

As compared to last year, that’s somewhat less, but very focused. He has the power to get over any of the mountains. When mountains appear late in a stage, his lower endurance base might show. He might have a tiny bit less top speed on the flat (and still beat me easily).

The one with the knee injury

I’m only showing his distance, for his elevation graph is messed up by some alpine skiing in March. On the scale of these Strava-based graphs, you wouldn’t be able to see anything.

Distance: ~1,250km | Elevation: ~7,250m

mathiasdistance

His preparation was interrupted at the beginning of July when he suffered from a knee injury from mountainbiking. At least his knee pain has disappeared just in time. We will have to see if he will reach Venice this time. The injury will certainly have influenced his shape. With two easy days to start the holidays, we think that he will get in the rhythm during the vacation.

He did no winter training except for a bit of Alpine skiing. He’s a motor biker, too. Cycling gets less time with him. On a normal week, he manages around 80-120km. In May, he participated to some events that increased his mileage. His training is enough to maintain his shape, but he will not get faster in advance of the Transalp; endurance might be a bit of an issue for him as well.

The power horse

He’s the twin brother of the one with the knee injury. He’s the second-most experienced rider in the bunch. We’ve been on cycling holidays together every year since 2001 (except for 2016, when we went separately). It will be his fourth Transalp after 2012, 2015, and 2017.

Distance: ~4,100km

distancemartin

Elevation: ~13,000m

elevationmartin

He’s also one of our most consistent riders. His two off-weeks in June and July are tied to a visit to me in Italy (we went hiking instead) and to some rock festival he went to together with our triathlete. He’s an avid member of Berlin’s road-bike community and almost never cycles on his own. Occasionally, he includes some very long marathon rides between 180km and 237km (that was his longest ever).

Since he mostly rides in Berlin, he’s no climber. He’s one of our heavier riders: a lot of his weight goes into sheer muscle strength. On the flat, where weight is no big penalty, he can put out big numbers (relative to the rest of us) for long times. He’s our natural lead rider. On mountains, he has the endurance to go a steady pace for hours; he just might go slower than some others.

The crazy geek

One of us had the advantage of living close to the mountains. The next climb for him was always just a train ride away. Or a trip with a rental car. On top of that, he spent this spring without family responsibilities. Well, and among the group, he’s just the most passionate about climbing by bike. Obviously, he is me. This whole Transalp story is born on my initiative.

Distance: ~5,750km

distancethomas

Elevation: ~57,000m

elevationthomas

I’m a regular Zwifter in winter. Though, this season less than last: Much of winter 2018 I spent on cross-country ski in Südtirol. There’s a bit of content on that here and there on my blog. I started climbing in the mountains already in February. In April I did a long-distance marathon. Like our power horse, I finished a 237km solo ride. In my case, I went from Torino to San Remo. Then every week I did some ride in the mountains. I had to take it easier in late April/early May: I suffered from knee pain and I was careful after I fainted at the advent of the first heatwave. Later, I had a few weeks with lots of visitors coming in.

For me, this is the second unusual year in a row. For my first three Transalp projects, I had amassed about 2,500km and almost no elevation. (I was living in Holland at the time.) I’m ready for the mountains, though I’m not sure I’m ready for the steepest inclines. I tend to avoid them usually. I’m still not the fastest. My many kilometers stem from my love for the mountains. I don’t do intervals to get faster. I just keep riding through landscapes that excite me. So, for the amount of time I spend on the bike, I’m weak. I do bring a lot of endurance, though.

The hiker

One among us is a frequent hiker. His altitude gained hiking is not included below. Hiking keeps him active. It doesn’t add much extra fitness, but helps to feel fresh and maintain a good level. He’s also the most disciplined among us in terms of structured training. His Zwift sessions extended into May and then he did some interval training out on the road. A few years ago, he already did a mountain bike Transalp.

Distance: ~2,500km

distancetom

Elevation: ~19,000m

elevationtom

It’s nice to see how he was ramping up his training towars the end of 2017. Since then, his structured training usually meant two or three more intense weeks followed by a week of rest. In July, he had the ironman competition in Sweden. Since, he’s been in recovery mode. His cycling shape will have gone down a bit since, but he will certainly be fresh.

His issue could be his lack of climbing experience. He gained these 19,000m mostly on hilly trips around Munich and on Zwift. It’s not the same in the Alps. True, when I was living among Dutchies, I didn’t have mountains around me either. But I knew them from previous holidays. That said, he has a very solid endurance base. And he knows the mountains from mountainbiking. Road biking is easy, compared.

The novice

He really only picked up road cycling this year. He bought it at some point in 2017, but didn’t get around to much riding yet. Actually, he only started to get around some riding since April this year. He’s been running before and he spends some time at the gym. He has never been on bike holidays.

Distance: ~1,300km

distancetobi

Elevation: 10,000m

elevationtobi

The elevation spikes between January and April are from skiing. Since, he also had gained some elevation on hikes. Purely cycling, his data suggests 10,000m of climbing. That’s maybe still exaggerated, as his tracking device (a TomTom Spark) tends to overestimate total elevation of a ride.

He would usually ride about 50-70km a week. Since mid July, he prepared much more actively. We went for a ride in the mountains together and he went for a second one himself. He has been on the bike two to three times a week. He will have the strength to go through any individual stage. We don’t know about his mental and physical endurance to go through seven of them in a row. But: purely based on numbers, he has no less than what some of us always had. And the first days bring him out as one of our stronger riders. He seems to improve from day to day.

What I eventually recommend

The spread in quantity and quality of our training is huge. I do include some careful remarks for those that have trained less than 1,500km. So, what should you make out of that?

I recommend to start your training in March and then cycle 100km every week. This would equal 50km one day during the week and 50km during the weekend. Anyone should be able to do that – maybe not every week, but on average. You want to feel comfortable riding an average speed of 25km/h. You want to feel fine with pushing higher speeds for shorter times. 100km a week from March to beginning of July equal ~15 weeks, so it’s about 1,500km.

From my perspective, that’s a good minimum to start a Transalp. It’s less than what others will recommend. It has been enough for any single one I’ve been crossing the Alps with. The more you do, the more challenging you can design your route. If you do less, you risk not to have the endurance. In our case, all of us do some sports for a number of years. There is a good endurance level even if there’s a few weeks of less training.

You can compensate some bike training with running and other things. After all, it’s a lot about fitness. Doing lots of other sports will compromise your speed; it will still assist your arrival.

To me, a key element of preparation is experience. If you can, spend at least one day that’s similar to what you’ll do on a Transalp. So: around 100km and some hills or a mountain. Or, if you’re living in Holland, some more than 100km. It’s about the time spent in the saddle. If you can, take your backpack on that day trip. That helps you to understand if it sits well. You get a bit used to it. And maybe you even figure which things you could leave at home.

Think about your training as preparing your enjoyment more than as preparing your performance. That is, unless you train for some other events, including competitions. My premise is: the minimum preparation for a Transalp gets John Doe from Munich to Venice. Or Verona. Or Lake Garda. Or Lake Como. Or any destination in Italy where you get a good pizza and gelato as a reward.

We… have four days left.

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