type of cyclist

What Type of Uphill Cyclist Are You: Aggressor, Follower, or Survivor?


By Jim Rutberg,
CTS Pro Coach,
co-author of “The Time-Crunched Cyclist”,
Training Essentials for Ultrarunning

On long climbs riders can be divided into three categories: Aggressors, Followers, and Survivors. The category you fit into depends on your goals, fitness level, and how you’re feeling on a particular climb. Any rider can move from one category to another, in any order, at any time. For instance, you might start out as an Aggressor, get relegated to being a Follower, and then eventually get left behind to be a Survivor. On the positive side, 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 Aggressor

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 Follower

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.

If you’re in the Follower category:

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  1. 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?

  2. 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.

  3. 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 working hard but going slower and there is less airflow for evaporative cooling. At any point during long climbs, what you eat and drink now determines how you’re going to feel and perform 10 minutes in the future (or sooner).

The Survivor

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Stay positive:

    Getting dropped doesn’t mean you’re done for the day. You have no idea what will happen in front of you and if the group sits up and backs off the speed, you could be back in the pack with a chance to win. Don’t give up. If there is a descent after the climb, ride aggressively on the downhill, but don’t take too many risks and always ride within your skill level. And if you don’t catch back on by the bottom of the descent, try to gather some other survivors and form a pace line to share the work.

The Effect of Training

On any given climb, on any given day, you could fulfill the role of Aggressor, Follower, or Survivor. And in long races, you could feel strong and aggressive on one climb and suffer to hang on to the back of the peloton on another. Training also plays a role. If you almost always find yourself in the Survivor role, your training plan needs to be adjusted so you can produce more power for the specific climbing durations in your races or group rides. Maybe you’re always a Follower, despite having great fitness and power numbers, because you lack confidence in your ability to go on the offensive. Or maybe you revel in fulfilling the Aggressor role, but you can’t drop the group or use your aggressiveness effectively to win races. Interval work and talking with a coach of sports psychologist can help in these scenarios.

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Comments 11

  1. I’m doing the PAC Tour Ridge Of The Rockies ride in September and while it’s not a race, this article will prove invaluable as we make our way back and forth across the ridge. When I first started riding seriously lo, these 25 years ago, I dreaded even the slightest climb. After training for and completing the Central Transcontinental in 2000, I was a whole lot more comfortable with climbing. Currently (at just short of age 70), though I don’t relish the thought of a drawn-out, high degree gradient, I’m much more at home doing them than at any time previously. As I said, this article will help exponentially…many thanks…Keep Calm And Rock/Climb On!!! Jeff Sipos John 16:33

  2. As a moderate climber, I traditionally go to the front at the start of the climb, you would be surprised how many people will continue at your pace. Often the person leading the climb at the beginning, is perceived to be the best climber, not always the case. Then, if they attack at the top of the climb, I have less distance to retrieve.

  3. So I just finished Truckee Gravel 100 miler.
    The first aid station 17 miles in and approx 2000′ of climb had a time cut at 1+15.

    I saw folks really burn a few matches making this cutoff and coming in at sub 1 hour times and average speeds above 16MPH.

    I choose to target a sustainable pace to “meet” the time which was actually 1+15 to 1+30.

    The next climb to the peak elevation was another 1500’+ and lots of spikey cat 3 and 4 sections. Again I saw a lots of aggressive riding. I choose again to maintain a sustainable pace.
    The carnage at mile 42 Aid#2 was very obvious.
    Being from the ultra-running world and new to cycling – I fell back to the runner tactic of keeping it sustainable and betting on the long bet of Time v. Pace v. Distance.
    At 66 years old I can’t do a 18-20Mph pace…LOL
    But I can suffer a long time and at a steady pace.
    (I was #1 in my category – which isn’t saying much.)

  4. In my 30s I was an aggressor, in my 50s a follower and now in my 70s a survivor. Still enjoying cycling! But what category will I be in my 80s?
    I hope in the “live and cycling” category.

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