As the Tour de France comes out of the mountains, Roger Rilling offers his professional advice on bicycling up slopes most people would be afraid of.
One of the coolest things in cycling is cresting the top of a major mountain in the front group or at least, not off the back. Sadly, climbing with the fast guys and girls is not an easy task. That’s why we are here to help with a few tips, tricks and workouts to keep you in the game when the road turns to the sky.
Know Yourself and Those Around You
Ask yourself what you are good at when climbing – do you like climbs over 6% or do you excel on slopes under 6%? Once you have your own preferences figured out, ask the same question of those around you. By identifying both your own strengths and that of the group, you can begin to develop a game plan for your ride.
For example: In the event that you know you are better suited for roads tilting up the mountain at pitches over 6%, don’t waste your energy on lower gradients. Instead, wait to put in your harder efforts on the pitches that match your natural climbing skills. You will also want to be mindful of the people riding next to you – if they are good at steep pitches and start attacking early, go with them and wait for another chance to show your skills.
“Race Your Strengths, Train Your Weaknesses”
This is a classic training idiom that can be easily applied to our previous example. Knowing that your weakness is on the tamer grades, you would be well advised to spend a good portion of your climbing interval training on roads with gradients under 6%. Now this does not necessarily mean you can neglect working on your steeper climbs, but simply means you need to work harder on your weaknesses!
Oxygen Is Your Friend
One of the easiest ways to add some speed to your ascent is to open up your body so you can take in as much oxygen as possible. To achieve this, you can start by making sure your shoulders are not rolling in towards the center of your chest. Next, make sure your hands are positioned in a comfortable place, concentrating on maintaining a position that keeps your breathing as open as possible. Riders have a habit of changing their body position as pain and fatigue increases – we understand it hurts, but it will hurt less if you fight to keep your air passages open and working. Focusing on being more upright with a broader hand placement will allow you to do this.
Shift Into The Climb, Not Out Of It
It’s always surprising to me how seldom some riders actually shift during a ride – I may even venture to call this gear abuse. The biggest example of such abuse is when a rider approaches a climb without shifting in preparation for the increased gradients ahead. Instead, they continue to pedal hard into the climb until their RPMs come to a crawl and they are forced to up-shift at the last second while under load. Outside of being really bad for your drivetrain, this type of shifting also causes unnecessary stress on your muscles. Shifting should be treated as an advantage tool, not as a bail-out system.
To take advantage of your gears, shift well before you have to. Use your gears to keep your RPM at a comfortable level. You will have to play with cadence to see what works best for you, but generally a good place to shift is around 75 RPM on a 5-7% grade. One trick that has been shown to be very useful on longer climbs is to start in a fairly easy gear and as you get into the rhythm of the climb, begin to shift into larger gears, giving you some extra speed. By preventing your RPM from dropping drastically at the start of the climb, you can maintain more control over the climb ahead.
Stay Out Of The Strike Zone When Possible
I see people falling victim to this one all the time. The basic principle is that you should stay just outside of the action unless you are planning on making your big attack. Most people will push into a climb trying to keep up with the guys and girls whose abilities surpass them, until they eventually get dropped. Do not put yourself in this situation – if you do, you are just asking for a bad climb. Instead, stay towards the front of the group that you think you can hang with, floating slightly off of the leaders so that you can maintain a smooth and consistent effort throughout the climb. In doing so this will allow you to avoid having to respond to every small fluctuation in pace triggered by the front riders (strike zone). Keep a good eye on those around you, and you yourself just might be able to execute a great attack with all the energy you’ve saved.
Gym And Water
Truthfully, climbing is all about 2 main things when you really break it down: power and weight – more precisely, your power to weight ratio. So, why is this tip called “gym and water” then? Because, to add power on the bike there will be times where you just have to hit the gym. When hitting the weight room, remember you want to add power, not mass, so be aware of the weight you are lifting. You should primarily be concerned with higher reps and lower weight. Additionally, refrain from drinking any recovery drinks that feature an over-sized picture of a highly vascular man with a tank top on!
Water has been proven to not only be a major positive influence on overall health, but also to help you cut weight! When drinking throughout the day, you will be much less likely to snack on high calorie foods and you will notice that you are able stay satisfied while eating less. Put both of these ingredients together and you are well on your way to increasing your power and cutting weight, which is guaranteed to help you over the hills.
Time To Climb And Repeat
One very simple way to improve your climbing is to work full climb repeats into your training. Unlike many climbing intervals, your goal is not to do precise drills on the climb, but to instead approach the climb using various methods in a short period of time. I have found the best way to incorporate this into your training is to plot and repeat a 10-15 mile loop that incorporates your climb of choice. This will keep your last climb fresh in your mind while eliminating the interval feeling from the workout. This workout is very useful in perfecting your local climbs, but can also give you valuable feedback you can apply to any climb you encounter in the future.
While riding, pay close attention to your RPM, shifting points, and effort levels. When using different methods to perfect your climb, pay close attention to the unique responses produced by your body. Soon you will be able to plot a ride that caters to your specific training needs, and you’ll notice as your weaknesses transform into strengths.
Whether you’re just looking to improve your cycling ability, or need a serious training program for a major race, TrainingPeaks can help you reach your goal – just choose from one of our various cycling training plans and get going!
Feature photo—Bicycle of traveler from Shutterstock