Correcting the Biggest Mistake Cyclists and Triathletes Make on Climbs

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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 later this month, 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.

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.


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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.

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.


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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.


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HillAccleration Workout
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.

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

16 Responses to “Correcting the Biggest Mistake Cyclists and Triathletes Make on Climbs”

  1. Duke on

    Chris ~ Thanks for the heads up. (Anything that will keep us Tri Guys from continually mashing it up up is always welcomed advise) keep um coming !
    Duke

    Reply
  2. Jean Weiss on

    What happens if it is really steep and you are already in your lightest gear and pushing hard out of the saddle and your max cadence is around 70 rpm?
    Thanks.

    Reply
    • Tim on

      I agree. Nobody ever writes about how to handle that. 8% grade for 5 miles. 34 x 30 at 60 RPM. HR 165. How do you spin up from that?

      Reply
    • CTS on

      There are definitely grades where you simply run out of gears. The key to getting up these grades without destroying yourself is to resist the urge to pour everything into every pedal stroke. You already know your cadence is going to be low, that your speed is probably going to be pretty low, and the goal is to get up the climb economically so you can regain a solid pace over the top. Settle in and find a rhythm, even if it’s a slow rhythm. Otherwise, you’ll fatigue too soon and then your power will drop even more, your cadence will fall even more, and the climb will get even harder. – Jim Rutberg, CTS Pro Coach

      Reply
  3. sandro D on

    Great advise, Chris, I always keep 80 RPM min or more no matter what, especially climbing and find my average speed is higher and it is easier climbing. There is power at 80 RPM or above, below that U BOG down.
    Thanks 4 the tip.

    Reply
  4. Dr. Richard DalCanto on

    The problem I have is with the “Hole-Shot” in mountain bike racing. Unless I want to get stuck behind a bunch of slow riders on the single track climb (15-30 minutes long depending on the course) while the leaders pull away, I have to spike my HR and lactate level in the first 3 minutes of the race to stay in the top 3 spots when the single track starts. I do have a hard time recovering after that and seem to pay the price later, especially on the second and third lap. I would love some good advice on how to deal with this problem….

    Reply
    • CTS on

      Richard,
      You’ll need to train specifically for that hole-shot scenario with repeated short maximum-intensity intervals, and be sure to get a very good warmup prior to your events. The interval training is necessary to maximize your ability to tolerate high amounts of lactate and then process it quickly so you can surge and then recover (at speed) once you’re in a good position on the climb. The warmup is essential because even if you develop the necessary adaptations to clear and process lactate, those mechanisms have to be activated and running at full-tilt as soon as the gun goes off. If you’re not properly warmed up, you’ll spike a ton of lactate before your body has a chance to deal with it. – Jim Rutberg, CTS Pro Coach

      Reply
  5. Sean on

    Great article. The big debate with my friends is sit or stand? I sit and grind but some of my friends accelerate by standing at the beginning. What’s the best tactic?

    Reply
    • CTS on

      The best option is probably a bit of both. When sitting you can typically maintain a slightly higher cadence and delay skeletal muscle fatigue. Standing enables you to take advantage of your bodyweight to turn the pedals, but you typically use a lower cadence and your leg muscles will fatigue more quickly. A scenario that works well for a lot of riders is to sit for moderate grades, then shift into 1-2 harder cogs as they get out of the saddle for short steep pitches. Just remember to shift back into a slightly easier gear when you sit down again. – Jim Rutberg, CTS Pro Coach

      Reply
  6. Enrique on

    This does work wonders! I’ve always been a great sprinter, thus as soon as the road goes up, I get dropped by the pack… I used to be able to keep up on small climbs, but anything longer than 10 min was a torture, I started pacing more a couple of months ago, just like you guys suggest, sometimes even dropping out of the pack a little, but always with the lead in sight, I’ve improved greatly just by doing this! Totally recommended!

    Reply

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