© Joe O’Connell-Danes

Given Lou Gibson’s lengthy list of cycling achievements (which include riding the entire Tour de France one day ahead of the pros with the InternationElles, and representing Great Britain at Grand Fondo racing) you’d be forgiven for assuming that she’d been attached to a bike from a very early age. But in actual fact, the events manager got to the age of 31 without having owned one.

Here, Lou tells me how a running injury and the breakdown of her marriage inadvertently kicked off her cycling journey, plus she shares the highs and lows of riding 3460km during last year’s InternationElle’s Tour de France ride for equality.

© Tom Austin

You found cycling relatively late. What was the catalyst for getting on a bike?
My cycling journey started because my running journey ended.  I was a keen, but very average, runner. I enjoyed the long-distance stuff like the marathon. I kept getting injured though. In 2013, I injured myself so badly training for the London Marathon, I needed surgery on my hip and was told to never run again but why not take up cycling. Reluctantly I did. I missed running for quite some time though.

Reluctant cyclist to GB cyclist is pretty impressive. How did you progress from beginner level?
I suppose I just kind of threw myself into cycling. I’m pretty obsessive about stuff and I’m kind of all-or-nothing! At the same time as taking up cycling, my marriage was breaking down and I was going through a period of depression. Cycling was my outlet for my sadness and anger. I suppose I was training harder than I realised because I was often in a bad mood and almost always in a rush to get back for school pick-ups – my youngest was only a pre-school at the time, and I had 2.5 hours to get everything done each day.

I entered a few sportives and eventually got brave enough to join G.S. Henley, a local club that is pretty strong. It kept me focused on training hard and trying my best. I then entered more and more big events, such as L’Etape, and found a love of cycling in the mountains. I got a coach (Will Girling) a couple of years ago and thought I’d give the Tour of Cambridgeshire a whirl, so I trained hard for it. I was over the moon to qualify for the Gran Fondo World Championships. I think my cycling went to the next level at that point. I was going to represent my country, I couldn’t believe it.

© Skoda UK

In 2019, you rode the Tour de France a day ahead with the InternationElles. How did this epic achievement ride about? 
I heard about the French team, Donnons des Elles au Velo, who ride the Tour each year the day ahead of the men in a move for women’s equality, and was in complete awe of them and desperate to get involved. I applied for the team when they opened up applications. Turns out there were a few of us interested and they put all the non-French riders in touch with each other and we formed our own team. I brought in a couple of my cycling friends to make sure we had a full team. I arranged all the sponsorship, [the] kit from head to toe, and ran all of the InternationElles social media accounts. We rode with the French team and completed the full Tour. We also got worldwide media attention which was fantastic for women’s cycling. Why shouldn’t women have the same opportunities as men?

What kind of training did you do to prepare?
I kept working with my coach, Will. We would speak weekly and he advised me on nutrition and plotted my workouts into Training Peaks. On average, I would train 5-6 days a week between 10-15 hours in total. It was roughly about 150 miles a week. To keep it interesting, it was a nice mix of long zone 2 rides, punchy interval work and plenty of chilled recovery riding. I pretty much stuck to my training plan to the letter. I have a power meter on my bike and I wear a heart rate monitor so both Will and I can track what I’m doing and ensure I’m hitting the zones I need to.

© Skoda UK

The Tour de France is a monumental physical effort. Just how physically tired did you feel? 
I think the first week was the hardest. Day 3 was the longest ride I’d ever done, then again the next day, and again the next day. My own Strava stats were blowing my mind each day. It was mostly about 125 miles a day, some huge mountains and around 8-hours a day in the saddle. The most tiring thing was the lack of sleep. We were only getting about 5-6 hours a night with all the things we had to do off the bike, like transfers, cooking, washing, bike maintenance etc. We did it all ourselves and we were self-funded. After about a week I think our bodies just adapted and we just got on with it. By then we were used to being tired and our legs never feeling fresh!

What were the highs and the lows of your experience riding the Tour one day ahead? 
The highs were the company. The girls were amazing. I was also lucky enough to have my boyfriend Rob along too because he was one of our support drivers. The crowning moment of the Tour was when he proposed to me just after we finished on the Champs Elysees. The lows were the self-doubt. I struggled with my inner demons on some of the mountain stages, I just kept worrying my body would give up on me; how was it possible to keep doing what we were doing?

You actually rode higher and further than the pros as you continued to Tignes when they didn’t. Did you experience the same horrific riding conditions? 
Yes, we rode about 100km more than the pros because not only did we continue to Tignes (through Biblical and quite frankly unsafe riding conditions) but we also rode the Cormet de Roselend climb the next day that they cut out too. I’m so glad we did both, we absolutely smashed it and are the only people who can say we completed the full Tour de France in 2019.

© InternationElles

Which was your lowest TdF moment? 
I think my lowest moment was crying at the side of the road, 10 hours into riding mountains all day, with [Col du] Galibier still to come. I was so tired, my legs were so sore, I didn’t think I had another mountain in me. Thankfully my team rallied around me, I pulled myself together and I smashed Galibier. I rode with Carmen [Acampo, fellow rider], we did a lot of the mountain stages together, it was wonderful. I ended up having one of the best days on the Tour. I just knew if I gave up and got in the van I would regret it for the rest of my life. I’m so glad I didn’t stop.

How did you feel physically and mentally after finishing?
I felt super-human. I just couldn’t believe we’d done it. I think I was all cried out after the mountain stages, so I don’t remember crying too much in Paris. I was relieved it was all over and devastated at the same time! I didn’t want it to all be over. It was the best 3 weeks of my life.

Will you be doing it all again this July?
Yes, of course. We have to. We built so much momentum we cannot step away now. The ASO (owners of the Tour de France) announced they would be putting a committee in place to put together a women’s Tour de France and they have done absolutely nothing about it. In fact, La Course 2020 (the women’s offering) is worse than ever, it’s just laps of Paris. Our incredible pro women cyclists deserve more than a crit race. The men’s route will be challenging, it looks extremely mountainous again. I’m sad Ventoux and Alpe d’Huez don’t feature; I’ll have to smash those in training for the Tour because they are still on my bucket list.

You’ve ridden the Tour, won 24-hour events, cycled crits and represented GB in Grand Fondo World Champs. Is there a style/genre/type of cycling you enjoy the most? 
I love the mountains but I’m still daunted by them too. It’s the unknown that gets me. I must work on my confidence and self-belief. I love fast, flat riding too. I suppose I love it all! I love events and races despite always being petrified, and I love nothing more than pulling on GB kit, it’s the biggest honour.

© InternationElles

You’re coached by Will Girling. What does a typical week of training look like for you this winter? 
I haven’t really changed my training because I’ve been continuing with racing the whole time since the Tour. I was really keen to use my fitness from all the miles and climbing I’ve done this year to qualify early for the Gran Fondo World Champs next year. To that end, I flew to Dubai a couple of weeks ago and raced in the World Series there. I was delighted to come 3rd in the Elite Female race and secure my spot with GB next year. I’ve enjoyed some off-season time and now my training for this year’s Tour has started; lots of zone 2 with intervals to push my FTP up, and plenty of recovery to enable me to keep going week in, week out.

Do you spend a lot of time on the turbo over winter or manage to get outside? 
Yes, I do spend a lot of time on my turbo and on Zwift. I hate getting cold and wet so avoid that if it’s really bad and I also have two little boys so can’t always get out on the bike. I also sometimes have some really specific numbers I need to hit in my sessions and find those ones really hard to do outside.

What are your cycling plans for 2020? 
I’m planning some exciting training rides/camps with friends and with the other InternationElles to get me ready for the full Tour de France again. Then in September, I’m delighted to say I’ll be going to Canada to represent my country at the Worlds!

What are your favourite items of kit for racing and training?
Attacus everything. Such a comfy and great looking kit. I can’t imagine many bib shorts holding up to over 2000 miles in 3 weeks and having no saddle sores! Also my beloved bicycle. I have a custom pink Bianchi Specialissima, it is super-light and has ALL the gears I need for those pesky mountains!

© Joe O’Connell-Danes

Who are you sponsored by right now?
I am really lucky to be supported by quite a few brands/companies and am a proud Ambassador for:

  • Attacus – cycling clothing
  • Bianchi USA – bicycles
  • Handlebar Moustache – socks
  • DBA Sports – sports bras
  • Science in Sport – nutrition
  • SunGod – sunglasses
  • HexR – helmet
  • Skoda UK
  • Bicycle, Richmond – quite simply the best bike shop there is, I don’t know what I’d do without them!

Despite all the products I am lucky enough to receive, I don’t get any payment from any of the companies and I’m completely self-funded as an athlete and have to work hard to support my hobby and my two children as a single Mum! I appreciate all of the support and messages of encouragement that I get through my Instagram account.

Inspiring others and working hard to promote equality within women’s cycling spurs me on!

© Skoda UK

You can follow Lou’s training and racing via her social media: www.instagram.com/loukew.