I am very fortunate to participate in a lot of cycling camps, charity rides, group rides, and races; and all that time riding with other athletes can be very informative. A great number of the topics in my weekend blogs and Time-Crunched Athlete books are inspired by conversations and observations from these rides. With the USA Pro Challenge coming up in a few months, this is a good time to talk about one of the biggest mistakes I see when athletes start going uphill.
You’re starting too damned hard!
I love a challenging climb as much as the next guy, but attacking from the bottom of a significant climb is rarely the best way to get to the top first. And even if you don’t care about getting to the top first, starting out too hard will make the climb harder and slower than it needs to be.
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What You’re Doing Wrong
Here’s what happens when you get all fired up as soon as you hit the base of a climb. I see it in every single century, charity ride, and mountain bike race. You even see it in some triathlons when they include sizable climbs. Riders start out fast and are breathing heavily within the first minute. Within the first 5 minutes their pedal stroke goes from a smooth and fluid motion to something notably not smooth. Then the shoulders get into action. If they’re lucky they make it to 8-10 minutes before they blow up completely and slow down dramatically.
The real tragedy here is that once you blow up that spectacularly you won’t recover entirely for the rest of the climb. You increased your energy demand so abruptly that you generated a ton of lactate in working muscles. That lactate is always being reintegrated into normal aerobic metabolism and being broken down into usable energy in mitochondria. But when you generate a lot of lactate that process can’t keep up, contractile capability of muscle cells decreases, and your power output drops like a stone. Training can help you recover from this scenario faster, but in the second half of a sustained climb you’re unlikely to recover completely.
How to fix it
The solution to the problem is to change how you approach climbs. You want to envision a carpet unrolling. In the beginning when there’s a ton of carpet left to unroll, it moves slowly. But as it unrolls it picks up speed and by the end it’s going pretty fast. Like the carpet you want to be a controlled pace when there’s still a lot of climbing left to be done. As you get further up the climb and you have a good rhythm you can start to pick up the tempo. As you get to the final few minutes before the summit you’ll have the power and energy to give it some gas and finish strong.
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The big question people have is whether this strategy will actually make them faster overall for the length of the climb. More often than not, the answer is yes. When you charge from the base of the climb and slow dramatically, the amount of time you lose is greater than the time you gained by starting fast. When you start at a more controlled pace you’ll be more consistent throughout the climb, slow less in the final half, and have the energy to accelerate over the summit.
A slight aside: I think some people charge into the base of climbs because that’s what they see the pros do. But remember, in the pro peloton the riders leading the charge at the bottom aren’t usually around at the top. They’re doing their job to raise the pace to a level their team leaders can handle but that the majority of the field cannot. That’s how you create the selection. But I think many amateurs miss that nuance and figure that the best way to be a fast climber is to charge right from the base.
Finding the right starting pace
The key to finishing fast is finding the right intensity to start with. You don’t want to be so conservative that you lose all momentum and get dropped. If you know your maximum sustainable climbing power or lactate threshold, I think a good starting point is to ride about 10 watts below that value with a cadence of 80-90 (wherever in that range your more comfortable). Get into a rhythm with your pedal stroke and your breathing so both are in control. Remember what that feels like, because you want to learn to get to that intensity without looking at your power meter.
Over the first 2-5 minutes of the climb gradually bring your power up to your maximum sustainable climbing power or lactate threshold power and stay there. Use your gears to keep your cadence from bogging down as the pitch changes and resist the urge to spike your power output with short efforts on steep pitches.
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Riding strong to the summit
When you think you have about 2-5 minutes left to climb, start ramping up your effort level slowly. Pay attention to your breathing and your body. If you’re ramping up too quickly and starting to pant uncontrollably or feel your legs loading significantly, back off slightly. The sooner you make this adjustment the better.
As the effort level really starts to bite near the summit of the climb, resist the urge to gear up and grind a bigger gear. It will feel like a surge, but your power output is more likely to fall because your cadence is going down and your legs can’t produce enough force. You’ll find more relief and greater speed (or at least less slowing) from gearing down and spinning a lighter gear at a higher cadence. Near the summit, revving a lighter gear will keep your power output from falling; this is often very useful for athletes trying to maintain contact with the back of a group in the final 200 meters of a climb.
I like the HillAcceleration workout because it not only develops the power to surge on a climb, but also because it helps riders understand the difference between crawling to the summit and accelerating over it. Although you’ll use the technique on climbs of all sizes, the workout is best done on a smaller hill (2-4minutes to ascend) so you can do the repeats more easily. Gradually build up to your max sustainable climbing power over the first minute of the climb. Stay at this intensity until you’re about 300 meters from the summit. Stay seated and start ramping up your cadence to increase speed and power gradually as you approach the summit. By the final 50 meters you should be at maximum intensity. Continue the effort until you’re completely over the summit and gaining speed for the descent. Take 4-6 minutes of easy spinning recovery between HillAccelerations and aim to complete 5-10 efforts depending on your fitness level.
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