Climbing often falls into two categories.
1) I love climbing (meaning “I climb well compared to others”)
2) I hate climbing (meaning “Climbing is not my strongest asset”)
There are many factors effecting climbing. They include how you train, what your natural abilities are, the tactics and strategies you use while climbing, and to some extent the equipment you use. This month I’m going to discuss the tactics and strategies that lead to more successful climbing. Next month I’ll outline some specific workouts you can use to improve your climbing fitness. I want to start with how you climb because it’s an area that, when applied, can result in immediate improvements and is often overlooked by even the athlete most dedicated to improving their climbing through training.
Regardless of your current fitness and natural abilities you can climb better by climbing smarter. Sprinters I coach have also won the Washington and Arizona State Road Race Championships by applying some of these strategies. Yes, I did have them train in a way that helped them improve their climbing and will discuss that in Part II next month, but that is just part of the equation.
Here is some of what you’ll find in my book Base Building for Cyclists and some of the advice I give my athletes.
Be near, but not on the front
Be sure you’re near the front when the race reaches the climb: know the course! Don’t get caught having to work too hard to get to the front just before the hill. You want to be somewhere around the 10-15th rider (or at least in the front third of the group) early on and top 10 when you reach the base of the hill. Get to that place in the bunch early and focus on staying there. If you’re too far back you may get gapped when the climbing starts, but you don’t want to be “on” the front (in the wind) and working hard on the way up to the base of the climb either since that will use up energy you’ll need for the climb.
If you’re a strong climber you’ll want to be up near the front to go with the attacks on climbs. If you’re not a strong climber you want to be up near the front to try and slow the pace down and not risk getting gapped from the front group. Message here is that you want to be near the front at the start of the climbs!
I’ve had my sprinters move to the front at the base of a climb and just gradually slow the pace down and settle into their comfortable pace. Many times everyone else will just follow that pace; at least for a while. This lets you get up at least some of the hill with the front group at a pace you can handle. It also makes it necessary for the climbers to find their way around you before they can launch an attack. It also gives you the most room for fading back. If the bunch is 50 riders strong at the base of the hill and you’re in the top 10 you have some room to move back and still stay in contact even if the field splits. If you’re at the back and have 50 riders in front of you then as soon as the climb starts you will lose ground that is very difficult to make up. Put another way, it’s easier to drop back 20 riders on a climb and still be in the pack than it is to catch and pass 20 riders.
One of the keys to successful racing is using the least amount of energy for most of the race and then having that energy available, and using it, at critical points during the race; like climbs and breaks. Power meters give us insight into when, where, and how much energy a cyclist uses in a race. Looking at the files after can help cyclists see how efficiently they ride.
The pace will often start out very fast when the climb begins. There will be climbers wanting to break up the field and other riders that don’t know how to pace themselves and they’ll go too hard at the base of a climb only to blow up. Knowing your competition is important so you can make good decisions regarding who to try and stay with. The pace will often settle down a bit after that initial surge. The other place the pace picks up is usually near the top when someone will attack and try and gain an advantage over the top. Listen to the breathing of the riders around you. If someone sounds like the effort is easier to them than everyone else watch that rider and stay near their wheel since they’re likely to have something left in the tank for an attack.
If you do find yourself in a battle on a climb you might have an advantage being behind the rider, or riders, you’re climbing with. Even at speeds as low as 14 mph you can gain a benefit from drafting. If there is a headwind then an advantage can be gained at even slower speeds. You may find that being on a wheel rather than in front of the group also gives you a mental advantage. Being able to see your competition in front of you is often more comforting than wondering what’s going on behind you. If you are a very strong climber and find that you’re the one usually setting the pace then being at the front may work to your advantage as you ‘turn the screws’ in and tear the legs off the riders clinging to your wheel.
If the pace picks up and you’re having difficulty just hold on as long as possible. We often can hang on longer than we think is physically possible. That gap forming between you and the wheels in front of you may be as much a mental as a physical one. There is a point when an “effort” becomes as much, or more, mental than physical. I’ve also seen riders give up and drop off just seconds before the leading group eases up.
If your climb is a time trail race, or during a triathlon, you have the opportunity to choose the pace you climb. Ease into the climb. Heart rate and perceived exertion will lag behind actual effort. A power meter can help you stay within your appropriate range from the start of the climb. Self pacing can be as challenging as trying to hold on to stronger climbers. The motivation of hanging on to a wheel can help keep you going when you might normally back off on your own.
Don’t focus on the discomfort. Find something positive to focus on like looking up the road and driving the bike forward. Put all your energy and movements into driving the bike forward. Don’t waste any energy; mental or physical. One idea I tell cyclists is to sense that they have a harness around their upper body with a cable attached to the front of it and that there is a giant winch pulling that cable, and you, up the hill. It creates the sensation of being pulled up the hill and acts like a slight mental assist.
Focus on pushing the pedals up over the top and down while very gently pulling on the bars. Think about how with each push of the pedals you’re driving the bike forward and up. Climbing is also a good time to lift your knees while pedaling. This helps un-weight the pedals so that the leg pushing down doesn’t have to lift the weight of the other leg that is resting on the pedal. Don’t try and create power by lifting the pedal, just un-weight it.
The better you know the climb the easier it seems. It’s funny, but the more times I go up a hill the easier, and shorter it seems; given all other things being equal. When you know where the hill kicks up and when it crests you have a better understanding of what to expect and when to exert. Knowing what is around that next bend in the road is an advantage you want.
Keep your head up
Be careful not to focus on just the wheel in front of you. Look up ahead! I’ve found myself doing everything I can to hang on the wheel in front of me only to find that he lost the wheels in front of him and that we were both off the back. If the rider in front of you is loosing the wheel in front of them you have to make your way around them and get back up to the lead group. If you do find a gap forming don’t try and close it with a huge effort. Close the gap gradually with a steady effort. Large increases in speed use up a lot of energy.
If you do find yourself separated from the front group then try and get to the top as quickly as possible. Any gap formed on the climb becomes even greater since the front group will pull away even more when they start descending ahead of you. Try and join or form a chase group. Several riders working together have a much better chance of gaining ground than trying to do it all on your own. If you can’t find anyone to work with then your road race just became a personal time trial to the finish. Pace yourself to get there as quickly as possible without blowing up.
Position on bike while climbing
During long climbs try moving slightly forward and back on the saddle from time to time. This helps distribute the effort throughout more muscle groups. More forward will activate the quadriceps muscles more and moving back will place more demand on the hamstrings and gluteus. Standing periodically may also help. Standing gives you a chance to stretch out and lets you use your body weight to assist in driving the pedals. I’ve found that lighter cyclists, or those that are strength limited, benefit the most from standing. Bigger riders are usually better off staying seated as much as possible.
If you’re already feeling maxed out then standing may be too much for your legs to handle. When you stand you have to support your body weight too and this can drive heart rate up. The key is to not increase the effort when you stand and maintain the same rhythm and power level. You might find that if you’re already redlined that you’ll want to stay seated on steep switchbacks rather than standing. Standing can get you around the corner faster, but it often jacks your heart rate up enough that you have to slow way down to recover. Try standing when the road levels off slightly instead. This will help you keep the pace up too.
Climb smarter not harder
Climbing may or may not be your strength, but by climbing smarter you can gain an advantage over those that waste energy by working too hard leading up to the climbs, attack the climb at an unrealistic pace, start the climb at the back of the group rather than near the front, and give in because they lose their mental focus. Practice these tactics during your training so that they become part of your racing skills.