By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Head Coach of CTS
The 2020 Tour de France peloton slams headfirst into the high mountains on Stage 8, with an hors categorie climb sandwiched between two Category 1 ascents and a screaming descent to the finish line in Loudenville. This is the terrain the climbing specialists and overall contenders salivate over, and with 11 riders within 15 seconds of the yellow jersey, there will be fireworks going uphill and tremendous risks taken going downhill.
On long climbs riders can be divided into three categories: The Aggressors, The Followers, and The Survivors. More important, a rider can move from one category to another, in any order, at any time. You might start out as an aggressor, get relegated to being a follower, and then eventually left behind to be a survivor. Followers can summon the strength to become aggressors, and survivors can come back from the dead.
The key is to accurately assess the category you’re in, without attaching any judgement to it, and then take steps to maximize your chances for success. This is as true in the Tour de France as it is in the local group ride or even a solo expedition into the mountains.
The Aggressors are often the riders who must take advantage of long climbs because they are at a distinct disadvantage on terrain outside the mountains. This is the terrain where small, lightweight riders have to create a separation and take time away from heavier rivals. And even if the climbing specialists don’t manage to drop everyone else, it’s important for them to press their advantage to make rivals work harder. You don’t chop down a tree with one strike of the axe, but you can weaken the strongest trunk by taking chunks out of it with each successive climb.
If you’re in a position to be The Aggressor:
- Attack when gradient is steepest: To quickly get a sizable gap you want to launch a sharp acceleration where it is hardest for your rivals to get up to speed. For lightweight riders, steeper sections reward your high power-to-weight ratio.
- Attack when the pace is high: When a high pace puts riders on the ropes, your attack can be the knockout blow. Even if you don’t launch a full-on attack, short surges at the front of the group disrupt other riders’ rhythms and soften them up for attacks further up the mountain.
- Wait until you’re close to the summit: Riders gain the majority of their advantage in the first few minutes of an attack on a climb, and then the gap stabilizes. Because of this, if you can attack closer to the summit you can reap the maximum advantage and then go over the top, rather than working to maintain that gap for several kilometers going uphill.
The Followers are the riders who aren’t likely to drop the climbing specialists, or who just need to contain more aggressive riders and avoid losing time. Of the three categories, this is the one riders spend the most time in. Sometimes you get to be the aggressor, and ideally you don’t have to be in the survivor category.
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If you’re in the Follower category:
- Keep your head on a swivel: You don’t want to get caught by surprise, because then you’ll waste energy overcoming poor positioning or having to catch up. Watch and listen to the riders around you to learn who is strong and who is barely hanging on. Who is telegraphing their next move, looking twitchy like they’re about to attack?
- Respond rather than React: You react with your reflexes and respond with your mind. It’s important to keep your mind engaged on long climbs so you can judge whether you need to dig deep to follow an acceleration, gradually ramp up the tempo to reel it back in, or ignore it.
- Take care of yourself: The Aggressors are going to try to wear you down and leave you behind, don’t help them out by forgetting to eat and drink. It is easy to overheat on a climb because you’re going slower and there is less airflow for evaporative cooling. According to Strava, the hors categorie Porte de Balès climb on Stage 8 is a 48- to 55-minute effort for top pros (George Bennet has the KOM in 48:51), and for amateurs it can take 2-plus hours to reach the summit. At any point during long climbs, what you now determines how you’re going to feel and perform 10 minutes in the future (or sooner).
The Survivors are just trying to get to the summit, either because they’re carrying more weight, have less fitness, or because they are paying for decisions they made earlier in the climb. At some point, everyone will be in the position of The Survivor. Just remember that no matter how tough it is, every pedal stroke gets you closer to the summit and the sweet relief of the descent.
When you’re struggling as a survivor:
- Back down your effort: When you can’t follow the wheels it’s time to minimize your losses. The longer you continue to struggle at an unsustainable pace, the more or longer you’re going to need to slow down before recovering to a sustainable pace. It is better to back off a little bit and drop back 10 meters than to be stubborn and then crack and slow to a crawl.
- Regroup: No matter how bad you feel at one point of a climb, you can take steps to regroup and come back from the dead. Get your breath under control. Take deep breaths and establish a steady rhythm with your cadence and breathing. Take a drink, stretch your back, look around. Struggling makes riders turn inward and resort to tunnel vision. These steps break the trance so you can re-engage, set your pace, and get going again.
- Stay positive: Getting dropped doesn’t mean you’re done for the day. On Stage 6, Cofidis rider Jesús Herrada was dropped twice at the beginning of the final climb to finish line atop Mont Aigoual. Although he didn’t pull off a fairytale ending by winning the stage, he mounted a strong comeback to pass all but one of his breakaway companions to finish second to Alexey Lutsenko on the stage. Don’t give up. You don’t know what might happen in the groups ahead of you.
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