Weekend cyclist and private equity company executive Oren Peleg has conquered some of France’s toughest mountain climbs. Strap in and learn how a leader in business gets fit for the ultimate sporting challenge
There’s a formula in cycling meant to prevent you from blowing up:
W = krMs + kaAsv2 + giMs
It’s used to determine the effort and pacing a cyclist needs to climb a mountain.
You have to do calculations when you’re climbing in cycling. In gruelling sports such as the marathon, ironman or triathlon, you can always reduce effort for a while and not suffer debilitating consequences.
But when you’re cycling up a steep mountain you’re facing the merciless force of gravity, which is trying to push you right back into the valley you came from. Plus, you face the grinding pressure of staying with the other riders.
You need to deliver steady power at all times, and for each degree that the climb gradient steepens, the required pedalling effort goes up exponentially.
In fact, the closest thing to planning for cycling up a mountain is planning to put a rocket into orbit. Miscalculate the energy and speed (or pacing) required for the particular climb angle and you can literally “blow up” in the ascent, like those rockets in YouTube videos of the 1950s US space programme.
It’s why a mountain pass like the Col du Tourmalet is used so frequently by the Tour de France; featuring an unbroken 12km stretch of 10% gradient, the pass is a test even for the very best pros.
It’s a test of not just how prepared and fit they are, but of their motivation and mental strength. Should you cycle the Tourmalet you will most likely see cyclists heaving on the side of the road or comatose on their backs as they struggle to reach the top.
The Col du Tourmalet was the kind of challenge for which Oren Peleg signed up when he agreed to join a charity bicycle race three years ago. He didn’t quite realise what he was in for.
Oren is the last person you’d expect to be climbing mountain passes in the Alps. A Managing Director of a global investment management company managing an estimated 90 billion dollars, he runs the operational team of the company’s European Private Equity Group. The team works with the executives of businesses in the investment company’s portfolio (including Fitness First) to design and deliver their business plans.
Oren’s working life is high-pressure and all-consuming; it also involves a lot of travel and he has to fit everything around being the father of three children.
Whether Oren had enough time for cycling was not Niels Bryan-Low’s main concern when he approached Oren in 2012 to join the Trois Etapes (Three Stages), a Pro-Am cycling event set in the French Alps to raise money for charity.
Pro-Ams are common in golf and pair up amateur and professional sportspeople, but with more executives swapping their golf clubs for lycra these days, Niels’ company, Cosaveli, created a challenging Pro-Am that would involve cycling up some of the toughest mountain passes used by the Tour de France race.
Niels knew that Oren was an enthusiastic amateur cyclist, regularly taking part in criterium races around London, and would be a great fundraiser for the Trois Etapes.
Oren recalls, “I think they called me about doing the Trois Etapes maybe eight, nine weeks before the event, because someone was injured. And, of course, they asked if I could raise some money as well.”
Oren agreed to enter, set himself a fundraising target of £15,000 and assumed his club team rides and criteriums would prepare him for the mountains.
HELL IN THE ALPS
When he began the first stage of the Trois Etapes 2012, in the Alps resort town of Orelle in south-eastern France, Oren felt reasonably confident; after all, he recently placed well at a local criterium.
One of eight riders in the Right to Play Yellow Pro-Am team, he doubted that any of the other 32 CEOs, Managing Directors and Investment Managers in the Trois Etapes field would be much fitter than he was. He was also looking forward to the picture postcard alpine views.
The event started pleasantly enough, with the teams cycling through some stunning scenery on their way to the first of two passes on which they would race, the Col de la Croix de Fer, 2,067 metres above sea level on the road from Saint Etienne des Cuines.
But ten minutes into the race section of the 28km climb, Oren flamed out, like a rocket that barely lifted off the launch pad. “I went out like a light,” he recalls. “I was digging so deep into the red that I got detached [from the other riders in the team] within ten minutes. Within 40 minutes I was cramping; I’d blown up and I found myself halfway through a climb with basically my system completely shut down.”
He studied the climb ahead, in which the gradient would exceed a punishing 11% at times, and wondered, “how the hell am I going to finish this?”
But what had made Oren successful in business were his many strategies for dealing with seemingly insurmountable problems. One that he used regularly was visualising the consequences of failure. That would often make him redouble his efforts to find a solution to the problem.
Despite his agony on the bike, the thought of going home a quitter so horrified Oren he convinced himself to keep going.
“It was a case of mind over matter,” he says, recalling how he crawled up the mountain, his thighs burning with lactic acid and his energy stores virtually zero. “Every ten minutes I told myself to just do it for ten more minutes and see if it got any easier. So I kept repeating that every ten minutes, all the way up the mountain.”
Day 1 of the 2012 Trois Etapes taught Oren the first lesson about riding mountains: “If you don’t pace yourself into a climb and you blow all your fuses in the beginning, you could lose hours. Once your system is in the red you can’t claw that back. I made all the classic mistakes of climbing. I knew it within the first ten minutes of starting. It was a journey of pain, real pain.”
As he struggled up, he also thought about how he’d got himself into this mess. Apart from mistakenly assuming his amateur level of fitness would get him through, he had also underestimated the impact of his weight. At 93kg he was heavy for a mountain climber, and would have to generate more power for the same distance than almost all the other, lighter, riders. On the flats it’s your power against aerodynamic drag, but on a climb it’s your power versus your weight as gravity takes hold.
He realised now that he’d always ridden tactically to mask his weight on hills in competitions back home. “Before climbs, I would go up to the front of the group. Throughout the climb I would fall back but I wouldn’t detach myself from the peloton. Then I would claw my way back into it when the road flattened.”
“You can do that when it’s a two minute climb, a three minute climb, maybe a four minute climb, but you can’t do that when it’s an hour and a half or a two hour climb.”
After the third and last day of the 2012 Trois Etapes (and several punishing climbs later), Oren could have banished the event from his life. Like many who’ve taken on a fitness challenge that turns out to be harder than expected, he could have found any number of excuses to quit. He had a perfect one, too: given his weight, the Trois Etapes would never be easy. But Oren went the other way. He simply had to conquer the mountains.
NO MORE EXCUSES
First thing he did back in London was carve out enough time from his busy life to prepare for the next Trois Etapes properly. The excuse of not having enough time to train is probably the most common that people give when they abandon their fitness goals. But that’s all it is, an excuse.
“For me, the light that went on during that event was that, basically, I’d always had an excuse, that I had this very demanding job and I had a family and three kids, therefore I was doing OK in cycling considering my other constraints,” says Oren.
“What the Trois Etapes showed me is that it was an inadequate excuse. There were people with as big, if not bigger families, with as big, if not bigger jobs and they were actually incredibly strong and incredibly fit. That’s when I realised that this excuse that I’d been using all this time for mediocre overweight cycling was completely unacceptable.”
In addition to making sure he devoted enough time to training, Oren also decided to seek advice from the very best experts.
A sports nutritionist immediately pointed out he was eating too much and too many of the wrong things. “The first thing that you really learn is that you completely underestimate the number of calories you consume,” says Oren. “So I started using MyFitnessPal to measure my calorie intake. The nutritionist helped me construct a diet which would keep me full but was significantly lower in calories.”
The nutritionist also asked Oren to give up coffee (she said it impacted on his sleep) and to cut all processed foods. “She also taught me to eat foods that would actually fill me up and tricks like the fact that it takes 20 minutes for the brain to realise that you’re full, so before a big meal I should drink two glasses of water, or have a couple of carrots.”
With the focus on losing weight for the first six months of his programme, a typical breakfast consisted of porridge and some berries, followed mid-morning by a snack of low fat yoghurt with berries and some agave nectar. Lunch would be some salad and protein, followed by a fruit snack at tea time and more salad and protein for dinner.
“Eating regularly to maintain a higher metabolism was also key. I went from eating three times a day to five.”
Although this didn’t give Oren enough energy for really intense training, it did what it was supposed to do: it got him down to 82.5kg in six months. But it was his next move that transformed his cycling performance. He got himself a coach.
“Once I lost the weight I started working with a coach. Jay McStay of M1 Performance was recommended by a friend so I reached out,” Oren says. Business experience had taught him that if you wanted to make rapid progress in something, you should get expert help. With Jay coaching him, Oren came to realise that “about 70% of what I knew about training and cycling was completely wrong.” The following are some of the things he learnt from the new coach:
Have a training schedule
The coach helped Oren figure out how much training he needed each week. “We worked out that, depending on my travel schedule, I would be able to do between eight to ten hours a week on average. This meant training a couple of mornings and then riding on the Saturday and Sunday.
“It’s amazing what you can fit into eight hours if there’s a structure to it,” Oren says.<!--newcol-->
Set clear objectives
Oren and his coach mapped out a series of objectives for the season, to keep Oren motivated and to set performance benchmarks that would form the basis of an evolving training regimen. “It was about entering different types of events and races, finding out what suited me best and starting to set benchmarks as to what I was capable or not capable of doing, knowing always that at some point we would have to refocus our training specifically on the Trois Etapes.”
As a result, “I am racing so much more than I did when I was younger and I love it, it makes me feel like a kid again,” Oren says.
Quality is better than quantity
Oren’s coach was a believer in quality of training rather than volume. “This really suited my lifestyle as I was time constrained,” Oren says, acknowledging there were plenty of “dead miles” in his previous training. “I was just riding my bike. I was turning the pedals but I wasn’t progressing or really stressing my system.”
The coach introduced Oren to power meters and a software called TrainingPeaks, which is used by pro teams but is also available to ordinary cyclists. It let Oren measure his power output, which allows for fine-tuned targets and accurate tracking of progress. “Cyclists have an advantage over most other sportspeople because we can measure power (in watts) as well as speed and heart rate. I love the resulting analysis and I love the science of numbers. To be able to measure each marginal improvement is very motivating.”
Target your weaknesses
Oren’s training programme was also designed to address specific weaknesses that would be exposed by certain events in his calendar, and to raise his lactate threshold (the point at which lactate starts to accumulate in the blood and causes the burning sensation).
“When somebody’s forcing you to strengthen your weaknesses, you are getting better because you’re working on things that you’re not good at,” Oren says. “In the past I tended to gravitate to what I was strongest at because it made me feel better.”
You must be accountable
Simply having a coach also made Oren more accountable. “There are mornings when you wake up and say, ‘I can’t be bothered, I just don’t want to do this’. But do you really want to report back [to your coach] and say, ‘couldn’t be bothered’?”
The other kind of accountability was hitting the numbers. “You always feel like you want to hit the numbers, you want to meet the coach’s target. It just pushes you that much more. Especially when he’s telling you he’ll never give you numbers you can’t hit.”
Embrace hard training
Not pushing hard enough is one of the most common reasons people experience plateaus in training. Oren’s workouts, on the other hand, regularly tested his limits.
“I started to realise what hard training was all about,” Oren says. “I was completely dead after some sessions. At least once a week, sometimes twice a week, I needed 10-15 minutes to recover my senses after the most brutal workout.”
But the combination of all those brutal challenges started to make a huge difference. ”Some workouts were so hard I felt more satisfaction delivering them than placing in some of the minor races I entered. These are milestone workouts which, if you complete, you know you have moved to a new level. Pain in training makes for much easier racing.”
Recovery is important
“One of the big things I learnt working with a coach is that you don’t get strong when you’re actually doing the workout. You get strong when you recover,” says Oren. “I became disciplined about recovery and tried to deploy every technique under the sun to assist my recovery, which at my age (47) is particularly important.
“I realised there is no such thing as overtraining, but there is a real risk of under-recovery. Whether it was sleep, ice baths, recovery drinks, compression trousers, foam rollers or getting a massage, I really tried to adopt every single piece of know-how that was out there. I did a lot of my own research and experimentation as well.”
At his second Trois Etapes in 2013, Oren was nervous. Had all the training been worthwhile or would he blow up again, maybe after 20 minutes instead of ten?
But as stage 1 got underway, with a climb up to the Col du Glandon pass from St Etienne de Cuines, Oren began to feel the exhilaration of knowing he was keeping up.
More than that, he had turned himself into a legitimate contributor to the Right to Play team’s effort. “I didn’t get dropped all the time. Even though I was probably the fifth strongest in the team, the difference was I was part of the team. I wasn’t just shelled off the back. I had a role to play and I had a contribution to make.”
THE REAL TEST
Pleased with his performance in the 2013 Trois Etapes, Oren got back into training, unaware his greatest test would come in the 2014 event, in the French Pyrenees in August.
Leading into this year’s tour, Oren’s training had made him even stronger. His lactate threshold was going up and so was his maximum power output. Just before he left for France, he told Fitness First magazine of his improvements.
“When I first started training with Jay, coming off my weight loss period, my 20 minute max — which is the maximum output that I could generate for 20 minutes — was about 285 watts. I’m now closer to 360W. So I’m still seeing improvements. It’s getting harder and harder to get them, you’re not seeing five, six, seven percent improvements. But you’re seeing one percent, two percent, three percent.”
For his third Trois Etapes, Oren also helped create a new team, FoodCycle, to support a UK charity that distributes surplus food to the poor. The team wore striking red jerseys sponsored by Fitness First, and had pro Greg Mansell as the professional cyclist.
Oren was confident. He had no reason to believe he wouldn’t improve on his superb 2013 performance.
It’s early morning in the French town of Lourdes. Stage 1 of the 2014 Trois Etapes is about to start and most competitors are milling around outside the Tour HQ, the Mediterranee Hotel, pumping tyres, adjusting brakes and tuning team radios.
A video taken at the time shows the members of FoodCycle discussing tactics, but there’s no sign of Oren. That’s because he’s in the men’s room in the hotel, on one of his seven visits that morning. To his horror, Oren has a stomach virus that’s also infected a few other riders.
In another video taken before the start, you can see a FoodCycle team member who looks suspiciously like Oren running back up the steps of the hotel, for another visit to the men’s room.
But Oren’s come too far to quit now and doesn’t want to let down the team he helped create. So he gets on the bike and starts the stage, which includes three high passes in the Pyrenees, the first being the Col Du Sulour, at 1,474 metres.
Within two kilometres he knows he’s in trouble when he checks his power meter. He’s generating 230 watts, despite originally targeting 285-295W. Worse, on the second of the stage’s three climbs, he can only manage 180W.
“With your wattage output, you can very quickly tell when something’s not right. It was very evident that I was having to dig very deep to generate anything and my heart rate was going through the roof despite the very poor power output,” he says.
Oren doesn’t quit. He struggles to the end of the stage, rehydrates and refuels and goes to bed. On the second day, when only the top four riders in the team will score points, he stays in, alternatively sleeping and vomiting.
He’s desperate to recover for the final stage the next day, which will take riders up to the fearsome Col du Tourmalet pass, a 30km climb reaching up to 2,115m above sea level.
The following morning he visits the men’s room nine times before the start. But he feels better and goes on to reach the top of one of the most torturous climbs in the Tour de France, coming seventh in his team of eight.
“The body is amazing. I was deeply dehydrated that day and still not feeling great but somehow you still manage to race,” Oren recalls in wonder.
Compare Oren’s 2014 effort to his performance in 2012, when he was healthy but not as fit and lasted barely ten minutes. It’s more proof that fitness isn’t always about clocking a great time or producing a selfie showing amazing abs; it’s about helping you survive serious adversity or illness when an unfit person might not make it.
After the Trois Etapes, Oren took five weeks off the bike to rest, revitalise and rediscover his motivation. He’s now training again. It’s Cyclo Cross season and he has entered seven races between now and year end.
“Riding the Trois Etapes with an illness really burnt me out, but I feel much better and Cyclo Cross is more laid back and the races are short; that way I can race back into form and also stay fit over the English winter. It’s also a great discipline to improve your bike handling skills.”
A NEW RACE
No matter how much training he does, Oren knows he’ll always be too heavy for mountain passes that even 60kg pros struggle with.
But next year, a “Classic” edition of the Trois Etapes will be held over the European heartland of professional cycling — the flat (and cobbled) roads of Belgium. The hills are brutal, but they are short and will suit his power riding perfectly.
He’s already in training.