How to Come Back From the Dead on Climbs

This year’s Tour de France features some tough mountain stages with 56 categorized climbs over the three weeks, and one of the major highlights of the race will be on Stage 12 when riders will climb to a mountaintop finish on Mont Ventoux. On a long stage that features big climbs, the distance and the terrain cause the selection even if the racing isn’t very aggressive. But when a mountain stage is crucial to the outcome of the overall event, racers ratchet up the intensity to force the critical selections. With such aggressive racing groups constantly form and split up and many riders experience both periods of brilliance and collapse – sometimes within the same climb! Fans sometimes struggle to understand how riders can be strong one moment, off the back the next, and then ride themselves back into the group. So here’s an inside look at how that works, and how you can manage your efforts on big climbs.

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The Reasons Riders Blow Up

It’s easy to say that riders blow up because they push themselves above a sustainable power output and they have to slow down to recover. While that’s true, there’s also more to it than lactate threshold power.

Core Temperature

Core temperature is one of the big factors that doesn’t get that much attention in mountain stages. When you descend a big mountain pass you cool down significantly. As riders start up the next climb, especially when there is not a big valley between the climbs, they often feel quite strong. Their core temperature has come down, they’ve fueled up on the descent, and they’re raring to go. But then the high-intensity effort, slower speeds on the climb, and the heat of the day combine to spike an athlete’s core temperature. The effect isn’t immediate, but after about 10-15 minutes on the climb it can catch up with you. When you overheat your power output drops significantly, you feel awful, and your motivation to ride aggressively disappears.

Core temperature is one of the reasons you see dropped riders almost immediately reaching for bottles from spectators to dump over their heads and bodies. It’s difficult to cool yourself on a hot day when you’re moving slowly up a big climb, simply because there’s not that much airflow. But if a rider can bring his core temperature down a bit the power and motivation can return relatively quickly and he can make a comeback.

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Nutrition Mistakes

Food – or lack of it – is another reason riders blow up. It seems like an elementary problem that pro athletes should be able to avoid, but every rider out there has made a nutrition mistake at some point in their racing career. In the heat of racing you sometimes eat less frequently than you should. A nutrition mistake can definitely lead to a sudden loss of power, but if you can quickly consume some food and you’re still hydrated you can often turn a caloric mistake around.

Surges and Accelerations

Repeated surges and accelerations wear down riders sooner than maintaining a steadier pace on big climbs. Riders who are already on the ropes aim to find a pace they can maintain, and riders who have the strength use surges to crack their rivals.

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How to Come Back From the Dead

The strategies the pros use to come back from the dead are the same ones you can use in your own group rides and competitions:

Don’t Panic

There’s no worse feeling than watching the wheel ahead of you slip away. But if the climb is long then you have to stay calm and work the problem. Your chances of rejoining the group are greater when you can minimize the initial loss of ground. Sometimes that means ratcheting back your effort before you reach the point of no return. The deeper you dig that hole, the slower you’ll have to go in order to recover before you feel good again.

Bring your breathing under control

Many times riders are working at an unsustainable rate right before they get dropped, and that means effort level is high and their breathing is often uncontrollable panting. As you slow down, get your breathing under control. In order to reel the group back in you will need to ramp your effort back up until your power output is sustainable and your breathing is labored but controlled.

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Cool Off

Open your jersey, pour water over your head and body, and take a drink. If your effort to stay with the group has led you to overheat then you need to get your core temperature under control in order for your power output to come back up.

Decide on a Strategy

The best way back to the group depends a little bit on the terrain and the type of rider you are. If you’re a punchy, sprinter type then you may be better off with a short, high-intensity effort that gets you onto the group right before the summit of a climb. This effort can’t be too long, though, because if it turns into a time trial you’ll fatigue and you won’t make it. As you watch the Tour, this is the rider who gets tailed off the group and dangles 30 seconds or so off the back for most of the climb, but then surges back to the group right at the top or just over the top.

If you’re more of a diesel engine time trial type rider, you’ll want to avoid the need for that aforementioned acceleration. Instead you’ll benefit from gradually reeling in the group. You have to be patient, but you can’t afford to be too conservative because otherwise you’ll get close but not all the way back on. In the Tour you’ll often see this strategy from riders who gradually close the gap by the summit or bring it down to 30-60 seconds by the summit and then use their descending skills to rejoin the group on the descent.

Regardless of how you try to get back to the group, always remember that where there’s a wheel there’s a way. Unless you’re going for the solo victory you don’t want to be alone if you can help it, because having teammates or a group to pace with is beneficial, even on climbs.

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Comments 9

  1. coming from the UK we don’t get lots of time to practise on really long hour+ climbs – if riding to power targets would you recommend trying to hold Steady State/Sweet Spot or tempo power for say 90min climbs?



    1. Yes. I live in the UK and entered the Marmotte. I trained for it on a turbo by calculating the power I would need for a 7:30 finish from the data of fellow rider who had done this time. Since it involved 3 big climbs it was around 80% of FTP. I ended up riding 7:35. Training on a turbo is not fun but it does simulate the unrelenting power demands of a long climb and, since it’s warm work, helps get you used to heat. That just leaves nutrition which can be practiced by doing long 4-7 hour rides and going hard towards the end.

      1. PS I wrote up some more detailed advice here

      2. That’s great advice Martin, thank you for that. I’ve been working on turbo more this year to increase sustainable power on longer sustained climbs which are in short supply. Thank you .
        Oh, and not only a great time but fantastic plan execution from you ;-))

  2. Coach – core temp management is a serious issue for me on moderately hot to hotter temps, that is mid-80s and higher. This can be exacerbated by humidity. Thanks for your guidance. Even on event rides, not racing, nobody wants to go slow, but sometimes I get so overwhelmed with heat, I end up cutting ride short than suffering some heat related medical issue.

  3. I am 78 years old and sometimes find it difficult to do much climbing. I live in South Eastern Kentucky and we have nothing but hills and I will do my best to use your suggestions. I really need them. I ride approx. 100 miles per week and I do my best. Thanks for all of your tips.

  4. Great article Chris, I love how you always give great advice and giving insight in to the pro world. Thanks again!

  5. It’s not a race: our rides are WATT rides: the first people to the top Wait At The Top for the last rider before going on.

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