Tour du Mont Blanc: Andrew Thompson Interview

In life, flying blind is something I excel at, but when it comes to things that could destroy me, like the Tour du Mont Blanc, I look for help.

And help has arrived, in the form of Andrew Thompson, who has generously agreed to answer a few questions about the event. Andrew knows of what he speaks: he is an 8-time finisher of the TMB (8 times!), with a highest placing of 16th. He has done other ‘ultra’ cycling events, such as the Alpen-Traum, which crosses the Alps from Germany to Italy in one day. Andrew runs Hammer Sports, a UK-based company that organizes sportives (Hammer, in Devon), sells bikes, takes riders to ‘the Continent’ for events like TMB, offers coaching services AND has a cycling club! I’d love to know where he finds the time to train.

I asked Andrew questions as they popped up, but have tried to put them in some semblance of order here. If you are interested in the Tour du Mont Blanc, or any big cycling event, I think you’ll find his answers helpful.

TRAINING

VC: Being over 50, I guess I should start with the obvious. Is there any training advice you would give ‘older’ athletes regarding training, or even for the event day itself?

AT: As we get older, we need more recovery built into our training schedules. It doesn’t mean we can’t still produce very high speeds, climb well, or compete at a high level, but it’s much more fatiguing and we can’t hit the same intensity day after day. You’ll need to factor in an easy/recovery ride the day after each intense ride. A lot of intense sessions are still extremely beneficial, but you may need to adjust the schedule the following week if latent fatigue is building too much. During the event, make sure you don’t go into threshold as this will come back to bite you later on!   

VC: Could you identify a couple of the most essential elements of training for the TdMB? I assume that endurance (and therefore lots of long rides) is key, but could you elaborate on this one and tell me what else I need to be focussing on? 

AT: In terms of training, you need to be doing regular long rides within a consistently high average training distance. Ideally, you should be doing >320 km per week from mid-November. Make sure this is varied and it should include more intensity than you might expect, with sessions at ‘sweetspot’, as you’re going to need to be able to climb in zone 3 for a very long time, and be able to change your speed and effort as the gradients change. If you’re based in the UK, you need to do as much climbing as possible, include sweetspot sessions (even in flatter areas), intervals and have regular ‘challenge’ rides with the aim of riding a certain (long) distance within a certain time (say 4 hours).

In the ideal world, go to the mountains at least once before your TdMB. Twice is even better! (Say May and June). These trips can include an event and training, but the focus should be on the overall training benefit of that trip, rather than the event result. If we go on a trip with an event on the Sunday, I’ll do a hard day on the Friday, a couple of climbs on the Saturday, then I’ll be tired on the start line of the Sunday’s event, but digging on the way round is very beneficial. With another good day on the Monday, you’ll go home very tired on the Tuesday, and will need rest. This form of ‘crash training’ works very well for me, but needs to be factored into any training schedule to ensure you can handle it, and then recover properly to get all the benefits. Another advantage of trips to the mountains beforehand, is to relax on the descents. UK descents are pretty short and we’re not used to the concentration needed for 40 km technical descents. However, you’ll feel far more relaxed after a block in the mountains the month before the big race.

VC: I am sure that the training programs of Hammer Sports are suited to the individual, but do you impose/suggest minimum mileage/hours on your athletes. I ask this because you told me that you have a 100% success rate. How hard-ass are you!? 

AT: We have very close contact with the people we coach for TdMB. This means we can focus in the right areas for them and make sure they hit their training plans. In the real world, people have jobs and families, which means sessions are missed and people become tired at different times. We can’t change what’s happened, so adapt things moving forward to get everyone in their best condition possible.

One of the key things with having a coach is simply having to work the plan written for you, so that removes the stress of wondering how to train for an event, and what to do each week. Accountability is key and makes a huge difference for a lot of people, as they don’t want to let their coach down. Communication is vital, and we can see every ride each rider does, plus we speak on a very regular basis. This means we can adapt as we go along, and change focus when and where necessary.    

EVENT DAY STRATEGY/LOGISTICS

VC: I imagine there will be moments of doubt during the day. The mental aspect of such a huge effort must be equally big – what sort of advice could you give so that I stay sane till the end?

AT: Study the climbs so you know the length and gradient of each, plus where they’re relatively gentle or steep. For example, it’s worth knowing the early part of the Petit St Bernard is relatively shallow and fast until La Thuile, then it becomes steeper, more exposed and more bleak. That doesn’t mean it’s daunting though. Give yourself things to look forward to seeing on the climbs, such as riding past a cafe, snow, or a chalet (you can follow the road on Google Earth and find reference points to ride towards, and you’ll easily recognise them on the day).

In France, the climbs are marked with KM markers showing you the remaining distance to the top, your altitude and the average gradient for the next KM. These are a brilliant focus and really help. They’re far more rare in Switzerland and Italy, so I do the same process with my bike computer. Once I’m in a rhythm, I also like to look around to take in the splendor of everything, especially the ski pistes, which always look much steeper without snow! Just focus on the climb you’re riding and don’t think about the rest of the route. Try and ride to a feeling, or heart rate, or power output and stay within your zones.   

VC: How does stopping work logistically (asking for a friend…)? Is there a broom wagon that sweeps everyone up who doesn’t have support? 

AT: There are very well stocked feed stations around the route, and many people use these as mini stages, simply focusing on riding from one to the next. If it all gets too much, you simply have to wait at a feed station and regular mini buses collect anyone who’s packed and take them back to the start (the bikes are brought back separately in vans). There are also a few time cut-offs to ensure anyone riding too slowly to complete the route within the time limit is pulled out of the event.

EQUIPMENT

VC: How about kit? Any specific piece that you would not leave at home? Being in the saddle for so many hours, would you consider bibs built for endurance (e.g. Audax), for example? 

AT: Personally, I wear the same kit as usual and never like to change anything, as that’s what I’m used to using. With a properly set up & fitted bike, you shouldn’t get saddle sore or need extra padding. Make sure you use chamois though! We are lucky though, in that we always have cars on the course, so we can take gillets and gloves etc at the top of a climb, and then offload again at the bottom. Make sure you have clothing for all conditions, even full winter kit!

VC: Any recommendations for equipment? 

AT: In terms of equipment, I ride everything as I would do normally. Make sure you have a good front light for the start (which can either be offloaded into a support car, or left in one of your bag drops at one of the feed stations. Disc brakes make a huge difference and are much less tiring on long technical descents.

THE ROUTE

VC: I just went through this article on your site on the 2019 event. You have the total elevation of the TdMB as 9578 m, or 1000 meters more than what’s advertised on the site for next year. Please tell me that this was only a one-year change!

AT: TdMB was originally billed as +8,000 m. This was simply because the software available in the early days was limited and the organisers had recorded 8,000 m by the time they were on the last climb, so they simply said it’s >8,000m! The average altitude recorded by riders (using their gps stats) for the original route was 8,731m. The original route was used most years until the 2019 edition. Due to Covid-19, this was the last time the event was run, and that year it was initially announced it would include the Col di Verrogne in Italy, which removed the busy roads through Aosta and the soul destroying Aosta Valley.

This not only added an extra 1st Category Giro d’Italia climb, but added 500 m of climbing, taking it to an expected real world total of c9,200m. It then turned out that the Col du Champex would be closed, so, as a ‘bonus’, the organisers then chose to include the brutal Super Category Colle San Carlo (10.5 km @ >10%). This took the total climbing to 9,578 m!! Whilst this gave the midsection far more of an Italian feel with loads of support from the locals, it turned the event into a survival test for a large number of the field. A test which many failed! Of the 738 starters, just 450 finished, with the last rider scraping over the line in 19:59:58, just 2 seconds ahead of the 20 hour time cut off!

The 2021 edition has removed the San Carlo, but the Col du Champex has returned, in addition to the Verrogne in Italy. Expect total climbing of >9,200m! (The organisers plot the route using OpenRunner, which is notorious for under calculating the amount of climbing in the mountains. It’s usually wrong by c10%. Despite numerous complaints to the organisers from hundreds of people, they still use this system, hence the altitude is shown incorrectly).

VC: Andrew has a detailed Facebook post with all the climbs and stats from the last TMB, held in 2019.

Thanks again Andrew (and Andy G. for introducing us) for your time. If you’d like to contact him, his email is andrew.thompson@hammersport.co.uk. He’ll be happy to talk as well, at +44 (0) 7801930443.

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