The Fireflies Tour is a beast of a charity cycling event, taking its riders up and down momentous Cols and legendary Tour de France climbs during the nine-day journey from the Swiss Alps to Cannes in France. It covers a crazy 1,000km distance and a leg-busting 26,000 metres of vertical climbing. All in all, it’s pretty epic and takes a serious level of badassery, grit and fitness to complete.
Enter Alicia Bamford, owner of said attributes and founder of the brilliant Queen of the Mountains women’s cycling apparel range. An accomplished cyclist and alumni of multiple Fireflies Tours, Alicia shares her experience of this year’s mountainous Fireflies Tour, along with her top tips for packing and fuelling for a mountain cycle tour.
How does it feel to complete the Fireflies Tour? In a few words my answer would be: “Bloody tough, amazing and totally life-altering.”
I first signed up to ride the Fireflies Tour back in 2010, the 10-year anniversary of the first Fireflies ride. Rewind to 2000 and a band of brothers (a bunch of guys from the advertising industry) rode from London to Cannes for the beginning of the Cannes Lion Advertising Festival. One of the gentleman’s mums thought it was such an incredible ride that they should do it for charity — and that’s what they did. Fast-forward to today and the Fireflies ride is an annual event on four continents that’s raised well over £1.5m for Leukaemia research over the past 15 years.
I came across the Fireflies while cycling around Richmond Park in 2009. One week (cycling over on a hybrid bike!), I plucked up the courage to ask what they were doing — what were they training for? They explained that the Fireflies Tour was a mountainous ride from Geneva to Cannes, over the Grand Alps. That it was one of the hardest things a lot of them had done – you never knew what the next day would hold and how hard it would be. The tour is nine days and each day you cycle up the most spectacular mountains in all of France, covering many of the climbs that feature in the Tour de France. In my head, I was thinking this sounds like an incredible challenge for a wonderful cause. I was sold!
I started training in earnest at the beginning of 2010. This involved upping my mileage and tackling hilly back-to-back days in the saddle. In the UK, there aren’t many mountains – definitely none that replicate what you will get in the Alps, anyway. I had to make do with a long weekend to Wales and many, many Box Hill repeats!
I remember asking a friend of mine after our 7th Box Hill repeat whether I was ready. He replied: “You’re as ready as you’ll ever be. You’ve trained hard, you’ve got the hunger for it, and you’re determined.”
This year was my fourth Fireflies Tour in the Alps and my sixth in total. I’ve also completed Fireflies West (San Francisco to Los Angeles) and Fireflies Antipodes, where we rode the length of the South Island of New Zealand. What I didn’t appreciate about Touring, particularly in the Alps, is the emotional ups and downs you can experience in one day. It felt like a rollercoaster on some of the days. This was due to the fatigue and lack of sleep (at altitude your body starts to do strange things and sleeping isn’t easy!).
The week before the Tour is probably the hardest and most exciting – you’re anticipating an incredible ride, beautiful scenery, skies bigger than you can imagine and mountain peaks that seem to go on for days. You’re also wondering and feeling nervous about the uncontrollable conditions, particularly the weather. In the mountains, the weather is incredibly varied: sunny in the valleys, cloudy and muggy on the way up and snow at the top. Storms, rain, hail and snow are all possibilities. You need to be prepared for any condition. I tend to pack both winter and summer kit, and many items to layer up and to have as spares to change into throughout the day. (See my essential pack list at the end.)
During that final week leading up to the Tour, you’re also questioning whether you’ve trained enough, whether you could have done more to prepare for the road that lies ahead. But in reality, all I could do (and anyone can do) is be thankful that they’re at the beginning of the tour, healthy, fit and raring to go! We are so lucky to be able to ride our bikes.
The Grand Depart
Day 1 and we’re off! We departed from Lake Evian, just outside of Geneva. The lake is like glass; calm, smooth and glistening. It had rained heavily overnight but by the morning the weather had cleared for our Grand Depart. I was so glad it wasn’t raining! This year there were 26 riders, five of which were female.
Our first climb was immediately out of the Hotel, without even a warm up. We climbed up through the ‘tropical rainforest’, steaming from the rain the night before. My legs were slowly starting to wake up, slowing finding a rhythm.
That is one thing that I find particular to cycling in the mountains, finding your rhythm. The mountains are long, long climbs, typically over 15kms in length and can average anywhere between 5% to 15% at their steepest. Because of the length, it’s important to find a rhythm and pace you can sustain for a long period of time — typically for one to two hours. I’ve learnt my lesson from the first few Fireflies Tours not to go out too hard on the first two days. I’ve learnt to pace myself and to take it easy earlier in the Tour. On previous Tours, this is where I’ve done the most damage, going out too hard and not eating enough. I put myself on the back foot for the rest of the tour trying to catch up the calories and energy, which is never a good feeling.
Climbs of Legend
This year my favourite mountains were Col de la Colombiere, Col du Glandon and Alpe d’Huez, all for differing reasons, which I’ll let you in on.
Colombiere was the final climb of Day 1 and I can recall it so vividly. This year, before we even approached it, we had climbed over 2,500m. My legs were feeling stiff and heavy. The gradient hits 8%, then 10%, and my legs were burning at this point. The mountain at its base isn’t particularly pretty, but once I found myself on the last 2kms to the finish line the view opened up and it was stunning. I could see all they way to the summit and at that point it didn’t feel like it was getting any closer. But it felt amazing to climb along the craggy, rocky ledge all the way to the summit.
Col du Glandon is an absolute beauty because of the stunning lush green scenery. It literally takes my breath away every time I climb it. I think this is one of the most underrated climbs. It begins steadily through lush farming fields in the heart of France, dotted with grazing, chatty cows, wild flowers and flowing streams. You slowly wind your way through the fields, up and up. Then, in the final kilometre the gradient snaps! I’m not sure what it gets to, probably around 14%. It feels fantastic once you’ve ‘powered’ your way to the top! At the summit there’s a little wooden hut selling sweets, sodas and coffee. I couldn’t resist a Coke – it was so hot in the valley, my tyres felt like they were sticking to the tarmac. A cold can of Coke had never tasted so good.
Alpe d’Huez is another beauty and one where you can count down the switchbacks! On our rest day, we rode out and time-trialled our way up the Alp, with a gentle spin home. I hadn’t been up Alpe d’Huez for a number of years and I was keen to test my form, hoping to improve on my time from a few years back.
The weather continued to be oppressively hot, around 35 degrees in the valley. One of the Ride Directors wanted to ride the mountain with me. Jan is a former pro who is a delight to watch on the bike. She has a long-aero position, strong legs and she can bring the thunder when she puts her foot down. She paced me to the top. We counted the switchbacks and held a consistent heart rate, pushing it a bit more with a few kilometres from the summit. I managed to match my time from a few years back – I was pleased, considering I had four days of mountains in my legs.
The final four days of the Tour passed in a blur. Each day was blisteringly hot – mostly over 30 degrees in the valleys and always above 10 degrees on the top, which is typically unheard of in June. We were lucky, as on previous Tours I’ve ridden, we’ve had torrential rain, storms and snow blizzards. Keeping hydrated and trying not to get burnt were key to making it to the end.
This year I managed to eat a lot better – I made a very conscious effort to fuel myself early on each day, taking on at least 300 carb calories in the first hour of each ride and then nibbling continuously every 30 minutes of riding throughout the day. That really set me up right: riding into Cannes after 8 days on the trot, I didn’t feel too fatigued. My legs and lower back felt stiff from all the climbing, but overall, emotionally and physically, I felt great.
So if you’re thinking of heading to the Alps to do back-to-back days on the bike, I could not recommend the Fireflies Tour enough. I have made some of my closest and dearest friends from the Tour – friends for life. It is a journey I have gotten so much from, so much more than I had ever expected.
How to Fuel Mountain Cycling Tours
When riding consecutive days (i.e. touring), you need to ensure you’re consuming the required calories early on in the day. The body can absorb and process 300 carbohydrate calories an hour during exercise, so aim to eat or drink this amount every hour. If you get into a deficit, it’s very hard to catch back up and you can then begin to yo-yo and, at worst, bonk (have an energy crash, with the shakes!)
Try these useful pointers for staying fuelled and hydrated that I practice on my mountain tours:
- Try out and use your food (bars/gels etc.) in like-for-like conditions. Avoid eating new things, particularly heavily processed food that you haven’t eaten before, as this can upset your digestion
- Eat as naturally as possible. Avoid heavily processed foods when possible. I stick to bananas, dates, nuts, homemade flapjacks, etc., as my go-to ‘on-the-road’ snacks. I also use muesli or granola bars from the local supermarkets. And I love to stop for a croissant and coffee in the morning on the road! I try to avoid eating a heavy lunch as it’s difficult to digest on the bike, and usually opt for a sandwich with protein and salad. I pack a peanut butter sandwich in my day bag, in case I can’t get a sandwich on the road.
- Treat yourself to a Magnum – the ice-cream, not the champagne magnum! These are fantastic to cool you down on a hot summer day in the mountains. They have protein from the milk, carbohydrates to fuel you, and they taste delicious. Such a treat to have in the afternoon (sans guilt!)
- Electrolytes / salt pills are key – you lose a lot of salt through sweat. I will typically have one bottle of electrolytes & carbohydrates and one bottle of plain water. If you find you start to cramp, then you probably need more electrolytes and salt in your diet.
The Fireflies Tour: What to Pack
The key to staying dry and warm is layering (and having a waterproof jacket!) As I covered, I always pack summer and winter kit for the mountains.
My Summer Kit Essentials:
- Lightweight jersey with full zip – easy to get on/off for bathroom breaks if wearing bib shorts, and for jumping in rivers/streams/horse troughs! I’d recommend our Queen of the Mountains Race Jersey: super lightweight (190g) and UV protective material. It dries in 15 minutes and it will protect you like a second skin
- Padded shorts or bib shorts – I totally recommend wearing your shorts for at least two weeks beforehand. Actually, that goes for all of your clothing! Make sure you’ve tried and tested before taking it away with you
- Mesh base layer – this helps keep you cool on those hot days, believe it or not! It will wick the sweat away from your skin so you don’t feel sticky against your jersey.
- Summer socks – choose a lightweight sock with a nice feel. Your feet will sweat a lot during the heat of the summer in the mountains, and are likely to expand and swell a little in your shoe. You don’t want your socks to suffocate your feet! Our Queen of the Mountains socks are made of a Polyamide and cotton blend which makes them super soft to touch, very lightweight, stretchy and quick to dry
- Arm screens – sometimes sunscreen isn’t enough, particularly if you have fair skin like me. I wear lightweight UV-protective arm screens that feel cool on the skin
- Summer gilet – protects from wind and is essential for descents. This should be compact. Carry your gilet with you at all times in case the weather deteriorates
- Summer short-fingered gloves – these give you added grip when your hands get sweaty in the heat and protect against the harsh UV rays. As you climb, the air gets thinner and the exposure to UV goes up, so you can burn much more quickly.
My Winter Kit Essentials:
During the summer months in the mountains, it can suddenly turn bitterly cold at the top of a climb. Sometimes you’ll have advance warning that the storms are coming in, and other times they come from nowhere. If you have a support crew, I always keep the following in the van just in case!
- A spare change of kit: jersey, padded shorts, socks and mesh base layer (in case it’s been raining in the morning and you want to change half-way through the day)
- Other winter essentials I pack include (in order of importance): Winter gloves; Queen of the Mountains Thermal Jacket (wind/waterproof); leg/knee warmers; winter arm-warmers; rain cape; winter jersey (preferably merino wool blend); Winter Gilet (wind-proof and water-repellant); warm thick socks (merino wool); Merino base layer, and winter shoe covers which are great for putting on at the summit if it’s raining or snowing.
- Knee / leg warmers – great to slip on at the summit for a chilly descent
- Wind jacket – again, great for descents
- Neck buff – if it’s raining or snowing this will be a godsend for the descent. Pull it up to your eyeballs to protect your chin and cheeks from the cold. Your skin will thank you.
- Cycling cap – this will keep the sun off your face and will keep your head warm on cooler days
- Rain shoe covers or toe covers – great for protecting your feet from the rain and road spray. When it rains, it pours in the mountains!
Other packing essentials:
- Hand-wash clothes detergent
- Sunscreen (UV Factor 50+, always) including lip sunscreen
- Baby wipes (for the bike and body!)
- An old rag (for the bike)
- Spare inner tubes (x5), gas (x5), good hand pump, bike tool, pedal spanner, bidons (x2) and a paper map of where you’re cycling (laminated or in a plastic sleeve)
Tips for Would-be Fireflies Riders and Aspiring Mountain Goats
Train, believe, dream and train some more. Imagine and visualize yourself on the climb, imagining feeling it’s hard, hot and your legs are aching, but that you believe you can make it to the top. Get a buddy who has done the ride before so you can quiz them and get all of their tips, advice etc.
And of course, feel free to email me!
You can follow Alicia via both her personal and Queen of the Mountains social media accounts – www.instagram.com/queenofthemtns, www.twitter.com/queenofthemtns, www.facebook.com/queenofthemountains, www.instagram.com/aliciabamford and by visiting the Queen of the Mountains website at www.queenofthemountains.co.uk.