By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Head Coach of CTS
Climbing is the most intimidating aspect of many cycling events. When events or tours post their route details (or even virtual routes these days) a lot of people get hung up on the vertical gain. In many cases, they’re more concerned about the amount of climbing than about the stage distances or the hours on the bike. Rides with a lot of climbing – even 10,000+ feet in a day – don’t have to be intimidating. Here are the cycling tips for climbing that I share with riders.
Don’t Start Climbing Too Hard
A lot of people ride away from me at the bottom of a climb, but I often catch up to them within a few minutes. Whether it’s an hour-long grind up a mountain pass or a big rolling hill, going harder at the bottom is rarely the fastest way to get to the top. Attacking the bottom of a climb may be necessary and a good tactic in a race, but in non-competitive events or timed-segment racing, a more gradual start will likely allow you to maintain a steadier, more comfortable, and typically faster pace.
Don’t Rely Too Heavily On Your Power Meter
Many of us ride with power meters and they are great training tools. They can be great pacing tools, as well, as long as you take other information into consideration. Riders get themselves in trouble when they have a rigid mindset about power outputs. Your sustainable climbing power might be 285 watts according to the training software you use, but on Day 3, riding into a headwind at 10,000 feet above sea level, your sustainable power might be 20 watts lower – or more.
At every event I went to over the past several years I saw cyclists ride themselves into the ground by trusting the numbers they’re “supposed” to be able to maintain over the feedback their bodies were sending them. This is even more prevalent in multi-day events because most cyclists have less experience dealing with the stress of back-to-back big days on the bike. In 2020, with events cancelled and people spending more time on indoor trainers, we are seeing similar disconnects between the power riders can sustain on virtual climbs and outdoor climb. Many times you can produce more power outdoors than indoors, but it can also be harder to adapt to changes in pitch and environment outdoors.
Prioritize Perceived Exertion and Breathing Rate
Effective climbing is a matter of finding the right balance between exertion and comfort, and that balance can change in the middle of ride or even the middle of a climb. To climb at a sustainable pace, your breathing will be labored but it should be deep and rhythmic. If it’s shallow and rapid, you’re above a sustainable effort level. Your perceived exertion should be 7-8 out of 10, perhaps starting at 6-7 on long mountain passes.
What trips people up is that both RPE and breathing rate can gradually increase as a long climb progresses. You get focused on the challenge and start creeping your intensity level up. Before you know it, your RPE is 9+ and you’re gasping for breath. Pretty soon after that, you’re stopped or reduced to a crawling pace because you blew up. To avoid this, check in on your breathing and RPE every few minutes and evaluate whether it’s still where it should be based on your goals for the climb.
Get Your Feet Moving
There isn’t one specific cadence that works best for all cyclists. Pedaling too slowly puts a lot of stress on leg muscles, but pedaling too fast reduces economy and drives up heart and respiratory rates. Regardless of the starting cadence, during long climbs many cyclists gradually slow their pedaling. Many end up grinding along in a bigger gear just because they didn’t realize their cadence had gradually gotten slower and slower. As with breathing rate and RPE, check in on your cadence. If your legs are getting tired, shift down a gear to get your feet moving a little faster.
Get the Right Equipment
Back in 1985, I think I rode the Giro d’Italia with my lowest gear combination being a 42-tooth chainring and a 23 – or maybe 25 – tooth cog for the mountain stages. Drivetrains have come a long way in 35 years and it’s important to get the components that match the intersection of your fitness and the demands of the event. For long events with a lot of climbing, I recommend cassettes with closer ratios at the low end (smaller jumps between the number of teeth) and bigger ratios at the high end. It’s more important to be able to fine-tune your cadence and effort level than it is to have more high-speed gear options for the downhill.
Get Out of the Saddle Sometimes
You’re going to spend most of your time seated during long climbs, but it is good to get out of the saddle sometimes. Standing on the pedals lets you take full advantage of your body weight, but you can’t stand all the time because your legs and upper body muscles fatigue relatively quickly when your weight isn’t being supported by your saddle. There is no set rule for how often you should stand, or for how long, but many riders self-select to standing for about 30 seconds every few minutes. The terrain can also dictate where it’s best to get out of the saddle. When the pitch of a hill gets steeper, standing up and using your bodyweight over the pedals helps to maintain momentum in the face of increased resistance. Surges and accelerations are also a good time to stand up. In order to take full advantage of your bodyweight, and to avoid a loss of momentum in the case your cadence slows when you stand up, shift up one or two gears as you rise out of the saddle. Just remember to shift back into an easier gear when you sit down.
Get the Right Mindset
Whether it’s the Alps, Rockies, or Watopia, the big climbs are going to take a while. They’re going to be challenging, and there’s going to be some pain. Embrace and accept the discomfort and the fact it’s going to last a while. Look around instead of staring down at the road. If it’s a mass-start race or timed-segment race, then tune in to your competitive drive. If it’s a non-competitive event, be nice to yourself and try not to compare yourself to others (like that super-skinny dude who just flew by you) or to a younger/thinner/fitter version of yourself (“Why is this climb so hard this year?”).
After all these years as a cyclist and a coach, “I love my bike” is the affirmation that works best to get me back to the right mindset when I’m struggling. I picked it up from NBA Hall of Fame basketball player Bill Walton. That’s his response if you ask him how he’s doing on Mile 1 or Mile 101, no matter whether it’s hot or cold or raining or windy, or whether he’s going fast or slow. When I say it, the phrase reminds me I’m doing what I love to do and I’m where I’m supposed to be, even if it’s a hard place to be at that moment.
Don’t let the numbers discourage or intimidate you. It’s just a hill (or mountain). You can train to get faster, but don’t underestimate your current abilities. Getting to the top is more about how you ride and how you think than how much power you have.
Have a Great Ride!