Masterclass: Climb Like an Angel
We all know riders who relish it when the road begins to tilt skyward. They may not necessarily be built like whippets, and in some cases they may not even be that great at climbing, but they seem to enjoy it nonetheless. Wouldn’t that be nice – to surge forward with anticipation when a brutal climb lurks around the next bend instead of clinging desperately to the bars and praying that it won’t last forever? Well, the good news is that you don’t need great genetics or a diet of lettuce and mineral water to improve in the hills: there are lots of ways to shave valuable seconds off some of the bigger climbs you might encounter – add those seconds together and in a relatively short space of time you’ll see rapid overall improvement.
FIRST, YOU NEED TO RELAX!
A lot of the drama associated with big climbs can be psychological. Monitor yourself regularly to relax and save energy; are you wasting energy by gripping the handlebars too tight? Grimacing or clenching your jaw? Holding your breath then recovering with shallow, panicked breaths? All of the above? Instinctively we know these things are not helping but we often do them anyway in response to finding ourselves in an uncomfortable situation. One solution is to approach your next climb with the deliberate goal of riding up it slowly, smoothly and with consistent effort. Don’t worry about how long it takes to get to the top – just ride, and concentrate on regulating your breathing, relaxing your arms, neck, face and shoulders and pedalling smoothly in a small gear with a comfortable cadence.
FIND YOUR RHYTHM
One of the keys to cycling success in the mountains is accepting that the climb is going to go on for a while, and will probably be followed by others, so it’s best to get into a rhythm and save energy rather than trying to emulate your favourite Tour de France rider and attack at every opportunity. The best way to establish a rhythm that can be sustained is by cycling with a high cadence.
Sitting in the saddle for as much of a long climb as possible is the most aerobically efficient way to the top. Sitting back in the saddle will recruit your glutes, giving the hamstrings and the accompanying smaller muscle groups more input to your pedalling. Standing up on the pedals out of the saddle is more powerful but will use vital glycogen stores faster.
Even so, getting out of the saddle occasionally is essential to give your butt a rest, get circulation flowing again and varying the muscle groups that are doing all the work. When you're out of the saddle, try to resist rocking the bike too much, as an exaggerated side-to-side movement is inefficient and wastes a lot of precious energy. Just before you stand on the pedals, change up to a bigger gear to compensate for your lower cadence and to keep your power consistent. Change back into an easier gear when you sit down again.
Focus on climbing with your back straight and shoulders back, with your hands resting on the bar tops. This will open up your diaphragm, making more space for your lungs to expand into and improve your aerobic efficiency.
Part of what can be so deflating about a big climb is the unknown – will it ever end? How much further? What if it gets even steeper? Knowing the terrain gives you confidence, and confidence gives you power. If you are racing or just want to lead the bunch into new territory, wherever possible scope out the route in advance either by going on a slow recon ride or driving the course. The fact that you have taken the time to prepare gives you a real mental boost that often translates directly into better performance, and your newfound knowledge will ensure that your ride is consistent and that the final climb of the day is as strong as the first one was.
Knowledge of your fellow riders is important too. Let the mountain goats go and do their thing – if you know somebody is particularly strong in the hills it may not be wise to try hanging with them and blowing up – rather, pick a bunch or even a single rider to ride with that you know will offer a challenge but that you can hang with, at least for a while.
Positioning on a climb is equally important. It’s always a good idea to start every climb at the front of the group if possible – you then have plenty of wheels to hold if you start to go backwards. Make the most of the riders in front of you: even at slow speeds there is a drafting advantage to be gained by sitting close to the wheel in front, as well as the benefit of following their cadence, rhythm and letting them dictate the pace. If there's a lull on the climb, make an effort to move up again, preferably on the sheltered side of the bunch. Use your head and think about saving energy.
We can’t all afford to buy the lightest carbon frame and groupset just to shave a few seconds off our favourite climb, but there are things you can do that cost little or nothing. The most obvious (and the cheapest) is not the weight of your bike but the weight of you! It’s unlikely that you’ll find a way to make your bike a kilogram lighter, but with a bit of discipline you can do exactly that with your waistline. A recent study found that one extra kilogram would cost a Tour de France rider two minutes up Alpe d’Huez, so watch your calorie intake and reap the benefits!
Make sure your bike is well maintained, your chain and cassette are clean and lubricated and your tyres are properly inflated and not too worn. A few minutes spent checking these things can save excessive wear and tear, as well as time. And remember, you don’t need to be a hero when it comes to your gear ratios. If you find yourself struggling to stay in the saddle, or even being forced to get off and walk, you might need to consider a larger cog on your rear cassette. Speak to the guys at your local bike shop about this – better to have an easy gear you don’t have to use too often than being unable to turn the cranks halfway up a 25km climb.
As tempting as it may be, don’t be fooled into ditching your water bottles to save weight. The pros might do exactly that, but they have a support car following them and generally have a feed station somewhere not too far ahead where they can restock. The benefit you get from the contents of those bottles, both in terms of energy and hydration, far exceeds the weight you may save by jettisoning them at the bottom.
In addition to fluids, make sure you take in adequate nutrition during the longer climbs. As mentioned earlier, finding your rhythm during a climb is generally a good thing – as long as it doesn’t become hypnotic. It’s surprisingly easy to settle into a groove, watching the wheel of the rider in front of you, and forget to eat and drink. Your energy intake needs to be regular and consistent – snack away on gels, power cookies or whatever food you can easily digest.
WORKOUTS TO IMPROVE YOUR CLIMBING
Obviously the best way to improve your climbing is to ride as often as you can in the mountains or hills but, whilst effective, this can be an impractical and time-consuming solution for most people. Do your best, though, to include as many hills as you can in your regular rides, even if it means diverting your daily commute or group ride.
Additionally, try adding one of the following workouts each week to your regular rides – you might be surprised how quickly you start to show improvement.
UPHILL LACTATE SPRINTS
Find a hill that takes 10 to 15 minutes to climb. Start climbing at an intensity level of six or seven on scale of one to 10. After two minutes, stand up and attack at just below all-out sprint intensity (nine-plus on a one-to-10 scale) for 20 pedal strokes. Sit and go right back to climbing at six or seven out of 10 without pausing. Repeat every one to two minutes (depending on your fitness) all the way up the hill. Perform the drill between one and three times (again, depending on your level of fitness), and repeat the climb if the hill takes less than 10 minutes to complete.
TWO MINUTE ATTACKS
To keep going strong through rolling terrain, find a short climb or series of climbs that takes about two minutes to crest. Accelerate before you hit the climb so you're at an intensity level of about eight out 10 as soon as the hill starts. Continue climbing for 90 seconds, then go as fast and hard as you can for the final 30 seconds all the way to the top. Repeat four to six times.
SIX MINUTE HITS
Without breaking your rhythm, ride uphill for two minutes at an intensity level of seven out of 10, then lift the intensity to nine out of 10 for one minute. Go back to seven out of 10 for two minutes, then do another minute at nine out of 10. Ride steadily for six minutes, then repeat. (And repeat again if your fitness level allows).
THREE-PHASE HILL REPEATS
Find a hill that isn't too steep and is split into three distinct phases. The ideal is one that starts reasonably steep, say eight to 10%, then in the middle third flattens slightly and then in the final third rears up to its steepest, say 10 to 12%. The length of the climb should be about two to three minutes. If this is not practical, just find a hill that takes two or three minutes to climb and divide it into three segments by identifying landmarks such as trees, letterboxes or power poles.
Go hard (eight or nine out of 10) for the first one-third of the hill, settle in the saddle at a steady pace (six out of 10) for the middle section then stand and blast out the final third of the climb as hard as you can.
Roll back down to the start of the climb…repeat between four and eight times depending on your level of fitness.
CHANGE-OF-PACE HILL REPEATS
On longer hills that are reasonably steep, practise change of pace exercises. Start the hill at a moderate pace and then pick out a landmark about 150 metres ahead and sprint for it out of the saddle as hard as you can. Go back to a moderate pace and repeat as many times on each hill as the distance will allow.
As simple as this drill sounds, it’s fantastic for raising your lactic threshold and for mentally preparing to take advantage of hill riding rather than just trying to survive.
You can integrate Crest Sprints into your everyday rides quite easily – they’re a great way to increase your power and train yourself to ride over a hill rather than just to the top. As you approach the crest of a hill, stand up and sprint (remember to change up a gear or two as you stand). Then as you feel your bike reach the hill’s peak, change up into the big chainring and sprint hard for five or 10 seconds.
PEDAL POWER INTERVALS
Climbing in big gears strengthens your legs to put more power in every pedal stroke. By improving your peak pedal force, you help your legs stave off fatigue during long climbs, when you're typically using a smaller gear. To build your pedal force, find a long, gradual hill and start climbing as you normally would. After a minute or two, click into a harder gear and slow your cadence to about 50 to 60rpm, maintaining a smooth pedal stroke. Climb this way for one to two minutes. Then shift back into an easier gear and recover for five to 10 minutes. Repeat to the top of the climb.
ENJOY THE VIEW FROM THE TOP!
Don’t forget that part of the fun is making it to the top – so if you can, take a moment to check out the view and high-five your climbing buddies before you take on the exhilarating descent that your climb has earned you.
Issue: Bicycling Australia, 2013, Nov-Dec
Topic: Special Features
- Posted: 17th June 2015
- Posted: 17th June 2015
- Posted: 17th June 2015
- Posted: 17th June 2015