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Training tips for the Etape Caledonia

Written by Fiona

February 26 2019

The UK’s original closed roads cycling sportive, the Etape Caledonia takes place on May 19, 2019. If you have already entered the event, or you are planning to enter, now is the time to get training. Here are my tips for training for the Etape Caledonia.

The beautiful Etape Caledonia. Credit: Mikael Buck

What is the Etape Caledonia?

Etape Caledonia is a mass participation cycling event that has attracted more than 35,000 people since it launched in 2007. This year, the sell-out sportive has 5000 places on offer with cyclists coming from all over the country.

There is a choice of two routes through beautiful Perthshire countryside:

The 85-mile route is on closed roads, starting and finishing in Pitlochry. The course takes in rolling hills and forest-lined roads around Loch Rannoch and Loch Tummel, as well as the challenging climb of an iconic mountain, Schiehallion. It’s a truly beautiful route with lots of scenic rewards for the efforts of the hills.

The 40-mile route is also on closed roads, and also starts and finishes in Pitlochry. The course will take you away from the 85-mile route at Loch Tummel and south towards Coshieville, around to Aberfeldy, before returning to Pitlochry.

Some 5000 cyclists take part in the Etape Caledonia.

See some of the beautiful photos of the Etape Caledonia.

A few tips before you get started

Rather than thinking about distance each time you ride in training, think instead about time on your bike. There is a difference between riding a flat 30 miles and a hilly 30 miles, especially in terms of time so it is better to judge your training and build up by time in the saddle.

Make sure you ride hills as well as the flats. The Etape Caledonia is hilly and if you are doing the longer route you will need to be able to climb Schiehallion, which is five miles long and fairly steep in places. 

You can use a watch with a heart rate monitor and a power metre (expensive options) or choose to utilise “Rate of Perceived Exertion”. If a plan says 5/10 effort that is half the exertion of your flat out cycling, while 9/10 effort is close to full on exertion. Or, you can think in terms of an easy pace, a moderate pace and hard efforts.

Keep it flexible and listen to your body. If you are exhausted, really exhausted and not just feeling lazy, give your session a miss or do an easier ride. Sometimes your body knows better than your training plan.

Training solo is far harder than riding with friends. If you can make training dates with like-minded friends you are far more likely to get out on your bike and you will find fewer excuses not to.

Learn to eat and hydrate as you ride. If you body is saying it is hungry or thirsty, you have left your nutrition and hydration too late. You need to eat and drink at regular – and fairly short – intervals. Find the foods that work for you, too. Water is a good plan or you can add an energy mix that also includes salt.

Test your kit in training and not on the day of the sportive. Only wear and use tried-and-tested items.

There will be hills… so train for a hilly route.

Tips for training for the Etape Caledonia

Having taken part in many cycling sportives, as well as dozens of other sports events, I know how important it is to steadily build up to an event. Read about the things I learned while cycling the Etape Caledonia. You should note, however, that I am not a sports coach. I simply write from experience.

Be realistic: There are 12 weeks to go before you will ride the Etape Caledonia. If you are already a fairly keen cyclist this is plenty of time to focus more on getting yourself in shape for the 85-mile route.

If you are planning to take up cycling and see the Etape Caledonia as your first goal, then the 40-mile route is probably for you.

Build up sensibly: It can be all too tempting to jump on your bike with newbie enthusiasm on a sunny day and head off to ride dozens of miles – and certainly many more miles than you have ridden in recent months. But the chances are you will end up with sore legs, back and shoulders and that might put you off riding again for a couple of weeks.

Instead, start your training plan with a sensible approach and build up in sensible increments of time each week.

The faster riders on the 40-mile course will finish in around two hours but most will be longer in the saddle and up to about five hours.

For those who are already regular riders, the aim is to build the time you spend on your bike until you are comfortable with spending many hours in the saddle. The faster riders on the 85-mile course will take less than 3 hours 45 minute to finish while others will be on the saddle for up to seven hours or more.

Cross-train: While you should spend time on your bike training for the sportive, it’s a good idea to add in other forms of exercise, especially strength and conditioning. Attend a gym class that includes strength building and weights once a week (or do a body weight bearing session at home including press ups and squats etc).

Yoga is also beneficial for staying flexible and stretching tired muscles. You want to injury-proof your training so stretching is very important.

A rest day could include some other form of exercise such as a walk or a swim.

Bad weather days: Training in Scotland through winter, spring and the early part of the summer does require days of riding in the rain and cold. If the weather really is too much to face you can also ride indoors by attending a spin class or using a turbo trainer at home. It is better to be training indoors than not at all.

Take on the hills: The Etape Caledonia route is hilly. It is not the hilliest of Scottish sportive but there are still plenty of undulations and the ascent of Schiehallion to tackle (the climb is about five miles and an elevation gain of 736ft). This means you should train on the hills as well as on the flat.

Once you have built up the time you spend in the saddle each week and over the first few weeks, it’s a good idea to add in some hillier routes or do a hill reps session once a week.

Hill reps are when you choose a hill and ride up and down the same section several times.

Be good to yourself: You are allowed to feel good about your cycle training and you should allow yourself some rewards. A café stop as part of a training ride is pretty much a given! And if you are planning to carry on cycling after taking part in the Etape Caledonia, you can think about treating yourself to some new kit and maybe even a new bike.

Bike service: Ensure you bike is in good working order. If it’s been in a shed or garage for months, take it along to a local bike shop for a service.

There are two routes to suit different cycling abilities in the Etape caldonia.

Beginner’s guide to training

This training guide overview assumes you will be doing the 40-mile route. If you start this weekend you’ll have 12 weeks in which to build up.

If you have been off the bike all winter or you are a fairly new cyclist bit do other forms of exercise, begin with an easy-paced ride of about 30 minutes.

Try to do this three times a week. Perhaps you can cycle to work a couple of days each week or cycle at weekends and evenings. If the weather is poor, attend a spin class indoors as one of your sessions. (Again, take it easy with the effort at the start).

From here, you can build up your rides by about 10 to 15 minutes each week. By about week four you should be capable of riding comfortably for an hour to 90 minutes in one go.

In the next four weeks of training, continue to ride for 45 minutes to an hour once a week; 90 minutes to two hours once a week (make this your weekend ride); and include a harder effort session.

Harder efforts could be repeating a short section of hill (for example five minutes of riding uphill) three to five times, or riding several harder intervals of around five minutes during a cycle route of about 45 minutes.

Over these four weeks you should try to extend the time you spend in the saddle on your longer rides. Remember that on the day you will need to complete 40 miles and this will take most people around three to four hours.

Over the final four weeks of training you might want to add more hill reps or some harder efforts over your longer rides.

The final week before the sportive should be a very easy week of cycling. You want your legs to be rested for the day itself.

Throughout the training period, attending a strength building class and/or a yoga session will give you a better all-over fitness. Rest days or days of much easier exercise should also be incorporated.

Remember, do not go mad with your training too early on and trust that a gentler build up will get you to the start line in good shape.

Indoor turbo training might be a good choice for some days when you can’t get outdoors

Improver cycle training plan

This is for people who are already relatively fit or regular riders and want to build up to cycling the 85-mile Etape Caledonia sportive course.

You should already be comfortable with riding for around 90 minutes.

In the first few weeks aim to ride three times a week. One session can be an hour’s spin class or 45 minutes on a turbo trainer.

Ride outdoors for an hour once a week, too, and cycle for 90 minutes on a Saturday or Sunday.

For the next few weeks you want to build the intensity of your rides. A suggestion is to do a hill reps session once a week. You could swap the indoor session for an outdoors hill rep session. Find a hill with a fairly steady gradient and ride up it for five to 10 minutes, then repeat three to five times.

During your other rides, make sure you include some hills and add in short intervals of harder efforts. Five minutes of riding at a perceived effort of 8/10 will help to build strength on the bike, as well as stamina.

Once you are comfortable with riding around 90 minutes to two hours, you should try to increase the time you spend in the saddle on at least one ride a week. Aim to be out for at least three hours or more on a Saturday or Sunday and ensure the route includes hills.

Remember that you will probably take between four and six hours to ride the 85-mile course and that means your body needs to be familiar with how this feels.

Throughout the training period, a session or two each week of strength building class and/or a yoga will give you a better all over fitness and keep injuries at bay. Rest days or days of much easier exercise should also be included.

A week to 10 days before the sportive, allow yourself to properly rest to ensure you are well recovered and keen to ride on the day. You don’t need to stay off the bike but easier rides that are well within your comfort zone are a good plan.

Wildly beautiful: The closed roads make the Etape Caledonia sportive a real gem. Credit: Mikael Buck

Essential kit for the Etape Caledonia

  • A road bike in good condition.
  • Padded cycle shorts or tights (make sure you buy gender specific shorts)
  • Breathable lightweight baselayer.
  • Cycle jersey (long sleeved or a shot-sleeved version with arm warmers)
  • Waterproof and windproof jacket in case the weather is inclement
  • A bike helmet is essential.
  • Cycle gloves
  • Cycle shoes (clip in are recommended if you familiar with using them) or trainers and flat pedal
  • Water bottles and a place to stash food on your bike
  • Puncture repair kit and the ability to repair a puncture if required.

See Etape Caledonia for more information.

  • I was invited by the organisers to write this post and I was paid to do so.

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