Mike Cotty Interview: The Mountains Are Calling
In the bowels of winter, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s easy to lose inspiration, eat that extra donut, and spend your days in the office astral projecting towards the warmer days of summer. Well, all of this is true until you meet Mike Cotty. He’s not a RAAM racer, and he’s not someone who believes in the impossible. In fact, he doesn’t even goes as far as to believe in possibilities, as every ride is always on the table. I was lucky enough to grab some time with Mike while he was in Annecy, France, and he was kind enough to provide some insight on what makes him tick and how he gets through the winters when the mountains are calling his name. And in case you’re not familiar with his riding, here’s a bit to whet your palate:
In a single word, how would you describe the type of riding that you do?
Excuse the simplicity of this question, but why do you do these rides?
Usually the simplest question requires only the simplest of answers. It’s who I am and what I’ve always done. The fulfillment I get from being amidst the heart of nature, halfway up a mountain, challenging my very existence is what I live for. Each experience on the bike is unique, and I’ve found that over the years I can adopt what I’ve learnt to motivate, instill belief, or overcome moments of adversity in every day life as well. I’ll admit, I’m intrigued by perceived limits and the strength of the body and mind. I remember sitting in science class when I was about 14 or 15 years old and thinking to myself “100 miles is only a long way because we have a unit of measure that quantifies it and, therefore, it’s perceived at being a great distance.” I’ve always tried to look at things for what they are and not how they may appear through the eyes of perception. I think that helps to break down the barriers of limitation and the fear that it brings. The real fear in life is knowing deep down that you can do something but being too scared to try in case of failure. I can live with failure, I just never want to face that fear.
Ok, so maybe sometimes the simplest questions aren’t the simplest to answer after all….next.
Last summer, one of our buyers, Chris Mackay, rode from Germany to Italy with you. Of course, he left the Strava rolling, and while the distance was obviously impressive, the real takeaway was just how fast the average speed was. Would you say that the pace of your trips is of equal importance as the distance?
My pace has developed naturally over the years, and I try to ride within a zone I know I’m comfortable with. Speed doesn’t form the basis of my rides, for example, I use my Garmin for just about everything else except to monitor how fast I’m going. My priority is the route, mapping a course that I’m inspired to ride with my raison d’être being ‘I wonder if I can do this?’ If I do make it in a respectable time, that’s an added bonus. I’m not a speed junkie, but my crew usually appreciates it if I don’t hang around.
Given your pace, there seems to be a fine line separating a ride like Les Alpes from a race like RAAM. Would you classify yourself in the “ultra” category of athletes, or are you just out for a bike ride — a really, really long bike ride?
The latter. I haven’t classified myself at all really, the rides and challenges I set myself bubble up inside when I pose a question to myself, ‘can that be done?’ I have competed in events like Race Across the Alps in the past that could certainly be tagged as an ultra event, but it kind of goes back to what I mentioned about perception. What makes something “ultra?” We all know what a long ride is. Let’s keep it simple.
Judging from your travels, it seems that your heart belongs in the mountains, particularly the Alps. However, this region is notorious for having limited summit access for a large chunk of the year, leaving you to climb elsewhere. Where do you ride in the winter, and what does your training schedule look like?
Winter, ahhhh, the bane of my life! Living in the UK certainly hinders my riding opportunities at this time of year, but as the saying goes ‘where there’s a will…’ I work full time, so like most people, I have to plan training around my schedule. Provided it’s not biblical conditions outside, I will try to get two-to-three hours in per day in the week (depending on my work load) riding on my local roads in and around the New Forest. Whilst they have absolutely no resemblance to the Alps, the terrain presents other challenges. The climbs are short, punchy, and continuous, and there is a lot of wind. It’s tough, because unlike a good alpine climb, you can never find a good rhythm, and by the end of a longer ride, you’ll definitely feel it.
I normally race cyclocross in the winter from September to the end of December, which means I get a fair amount of intensity in as well as brushing up on the bike handling skills. ‘Cross gives me a focus during the winter months with the added bonus of being ridiculously good fun. On the weekends when I don’t race, I’ll plug as many miles in on the bleak and windswept roads mentioned above with rides up to six hours.
If anyone fancies a house swap over the winter, then I’d love to give ski-mountaineering a proper go. Oh, did I mention how beautiful the UK is at this time of year?
In peak season, how many hours would you estimate that you’re riding per day?
As many as I can squeeze in! Usually the weekends make up the longer rides of 6+ hours. The bulk of my weekday riding would see me able to get out for around four hours thanks to the longer days—frequently split into two sessions at dawn and dusk. The light is beautiful at this time of day, and it’s so peaceful.
Prior to Les Alpes I rode two ‘mini challenges’—a 300 mile non-stop starting at 7am and riding through the night arriving home 19hrs later. And to mentally test myself, I added another monster weekend to my schedule, starting at 9am on Saturday, riding until 5pm, then I went out through the night from 8pm until 5am, caught four hours sleep, and met up with my Sunday chain-gang from 9am until 4pm. This was an exception to my normal training, and it was to see how I coped with immense fatigue and tiredness. I didn’t want to take my chances when descending the Galibier in the dark if my mind wasn’t going to be up to the job.
What diets have you found to support these long endeavours?
For over a decade I’ve been a vegetarian with a bit of fish for added protein, so my diet is somewhat limited. My staple food is fresh fruit, yogurt, oatmeal, fresh vegetables, and pulses. I’ve eaten this way for so long and it seems to work well for me. I like to eat food as natural as possible and generally avoid high sugar energy bars, drinks, and gels in training, using them more during actual challenges when I use Torq energy products, which are natural and free of all the stuff I can’t pronounce. On longer rides, for example Les Alpes, I was conscious to eat consistently every half an hour. For the times when I just needed ‘real’ food, I had tuna snack pots, just the regular ones off the shelf, and a good granola. However, pre-prepared sweet potato is a real winner for something that digests well and makes a welcome change from the sickly-sweet flavours. If tiredness hits hard, and a shot of caffeine is needed then an emergency, Red Bull is normally on hand. Of course, I can never claim to be a ‘proper cyclist’ as I don’t like coffee. I do like the smell, though.
What’s your ratio of sports drinks to water on, say, a ride like the Les Alpes? Additionally, what do you think your calorie intake is per day?
For Les Alpes, I drank between 500ml and 1000ml of fluid per hour, slightly more during the hottest part of the day when the sun was trying to toast me alive. I mainly used Torq’s Vanilla flavour, which I’ve dubbed ‘mellow energy,’ and isn’t at all sweet like you’d expect from an energy drink. It’s perfect for huge rides. Approximately every forth drink was water, so a ratio of 3:1. Torq energy has a perfect balance of electrolytes and carbs, so they kept me well hydrated. For Les Alpes, I took in approximately 15,000 calories, aiming for 60-90g of carbs per hour through bars, gels and drinks, plus some tuna, cereal, and recovery shakes.
It seems like you’re typically tackling these rides with the assistance of a support car and crew. What role do they play in a successful ride, and have you ever considered making these attempts unsupported?
I’ve put myself in some pretty precarious situations over the years riding solo, and some of my greatest moments have been on the bike when I’ve been alone. Nothing unearths our natural survival instincts more than being miles from home, in a foreign country when it’s getting dark, cold and you are fast running out of food. It really makes you feel alive.
On the flip side, for Les Alpes, I wanted to share the experience. For me, it was hit or miss, and I had no idea if I could actually do it. To share that experience with a small team offers a different level of immense satisfaction. It’s a team effort, ‘we suffer together’ and we really work as one. Everyone experiences the feelings, emotions, tiredness, and anxiety, not just me as the rider. Plus, I really wanted to bring this to life to a bigger audience, my team were able to capture moments on film and on camera that I could never have achieved alone, and that in itself is worth so much for my own memories and for people to see and enjoy. The moment is only ever going to happen once, so it is nice to share this with those who are closest to you in real time, as opposed to the day after as part of a story. It’s for these reasons that I take on these challenges supported. I don’t have an immediate plan to do an unsupported ride, but of course, never say never. I tend to just go with how I feel, and if in the future that’s solo, so be it.
With a few exceptions, like Nibali and Contador, climbers aren’t exactly renowned for their descending abilities. Would you say that you enjoy the way down as much as the way up?
One of my support drivers from Mavic said he’s not struggled to keep up with a descending cyclist before, and he definitely knows how to control a yellow Skoda service course vehicle on a sinewy section of Tarmac, so I guess so! Mind you, I was on the Col de Turini at the time, just two climbs away from finishing Les Alpes, so maybe the adrenaline gave me a boost. I use compact gearing, so I can only go so fast. Even so, finding your flow on a good section of road can be one of the most exhilarating experiences on a bike. I am cautious, though. When it’s wet or I’m tired, I hold back. I’d rather get down the right way…..well at least that’s what I tell my nearest and dearest, but then she’s normally in a car following me (I’ve never been a good liar).
So, Mavic has obviously played a massive role in your recent rides. What sparked this relationship?
I started working for Cannondale Europe in 2000, and during that time, I was doing a lot of product launches, photo shoots, shows, races, and events, so my path kept crossing with Mavic’s Global PR Manager, Michel Léthenet. It’s a small industry, we became friends and Michel started to support me with some product around 2007-2008. Then in 2012, we met up at Eurobike and I explained that I was going to set-up my own business (Media-24) and to see if there may be any opportunities to work more closely. We began working on specific projects together, and now I’m also a Community Manager for them, helping consumers online with any questions that they may have about the brand or product, and connecting them with the brand in the right way. Mavic are a truly unique and pioneering company that understand what I am about and why I do what I do. They have shown a lot of faith in me and my ability as a rider, especially as I don’t come from a professional racing background, and for that I’ll always be humbled and grateful of their support.
For a climb like the Col du Galibier, what Mavic gear could we expect to see you using?
This really depends on the weather, so provided nature does what’s intended and is in a good mood, then you’ll find me in Mavic’s Helium jersey and shorts for the very hottest days where breathability is the most important factor. If it’s cooler or looks a little more unsettled, then I’ll opt for their Infinity line of gear. Both use the latest materials and technologies, keeping me comfortable during the longest days in the saddle. You’ll see during Les Alpes I actually used two jerseys, I started in the Infinity and switched to the Helium around mid distance to freshen up. Despite covering each in sweat and salt stains, neither skipped a beat. Even in the summer, it can be chilly at the 2,642m summit, so arm warmers are essential, as is a lightweight shell for the way down. My jacket of choice is the Helium H20, as it’s super lightweight but is also waterproof. I’ve been caught out in the past, so knowing I’m going to be safe should it start to chuck it down gives me a lot more confidence, and as it packs down so small, there really is no compromise. I tend to get cold hands really quickly, so I normally take a pair of Spring Race Gloves with me. I like these, as they’re brushed on the inside, which makes them super comfy. I rode the whole night during Les Alpes in them, so whether they like it or not, they have a friend for life! Head and toes will always be covered with the Plasma SLR helmet and Zxellium Ultimate shoes, naturally in yellow, so no drivers can ever say they didn’t see me. And while my body is important, I can never overlook my bike either. The CC40C is now my go to wheelset for practically every ride, including climbing an ascent like the Galibier. Their versatility and consistent braking performance in all conditions make them a marvel in the mountains, and if that’s not enough, did I mention how cool they look?
You’ve ridden the most historic climbs in cycling, what’s been your favorite and what’s still on the list?
How can you do this to me? Such a cruel, cruel question.
Okay, the Col de la Finestre in Italy sent a real tingle through my body when I first rode it. I remember watching the Giro in 2005 in awe at the gravel sections towards the top. Unfortunately, when I rode it the following year after a hard winter, the groomed gravel for the race looked more like a landslide, and we got quite a few looks from the mountain bikers having trouble descending it as we made our way up on road bikes. By the summit, the clouds had rolled in and a two-up time-trial ensued all the way to Sestriere in a bid to out ride the storm. We made it, though. A great, great, ascent and ride I’ll never forget.
More recently, when I was riding in California, I discovered Mount Figueroa just outside of Solvang. It has a great little unpaved section, but for the most part, it is the ideal climb—tranquility, tiny roads and breathtaking views, especially when the ocean comes into sight. All the ingredients to put any rider in a great place, plus I think I saw, at the most, two cars during the whole day (and I think one was mine as I left the car park).
Yet to climb…a very good question, I’d like to venture away from Europe and see more of the world, Japan is on my list, as is Colorado (I think I have a thing for gravel), but I don’t have a ‘must do’ climb per se.
Lastly, if you had to choose only one climbing technique to impart to our readers, what would it be?
Relax and do what feels natural. I spend a lot of time out of the saddle and try to get into a good rhythm this way. Lift your head, look around, and cherish the view.
All Photos Courtesy of Media-24.co.uk
Get more day-to-day coverage of Mike Cotty