When I began to ride a bicycle seriously, I avoided hills like . . . well, a guy who hated hills. I wanted to be better, but I would not commit to learning how to climb better. I have written about it before in other posts: To climb better, you simply must climb. Yes, it has a “ton” to do with power to weight ratio and cadence and blah, blah, blah, but there is a simplicity to it also. I did not say easy. The word was simple.
Recently, a friend gave me a cycling magazine that he just finished reading. It is a European publication that costs 12€, so more than likely I will never be buying it. Anyway, within the first three pages there was an article entitled “How to make Big Climbs Easier.” These magazines aggravate me because they target new riders who do not have a clue, just like bodybuilding magazines who target some skinny kid who can have 16″ arms in six weeks (the magazine forgets to mention that Dorian Yates also ingested heavy amounts of medical enhancements to get his arms). In this particular cycling magazine, the article asked some experts to provide tips. These tips include the following:
- Lose weight
Uh, yes that would be good, but it is easier said than done and takes time. On a group ride last week, I watched a “big guy” power his way up a climb only to be left ragged at the top. Needless to say, he was dropped only a few miles into the ride. Power to weight is extremely important, but a rider must learn what kind of cyclist he is before trying to be a straight-up climber. If he naturally a big person with a big frame and was never actually small his entire life, he might be more of a sprinter or time trialer. Someone who can drop 1700 watts in a thirty second burst might not be able to climb six miles up with a nice pace. So what if you are that guy? How do you make the climbs and still compete or not get dropped? More on that in a minute.
- Get stronger legs
You do not just “get” stronger legs. Having lots of power in your legs does very little if those legs have to move lots of weight . . . meaning you. Yes, leg work in the gym is a must and crucial to being better. I strongly disagree with this particular article on the how. The “expert” suggest heavy weight with only four rep sets. To be a better climber? That is more for sprinting! If I work out the entire off season, with those sets, my legs will be “use to” giving power for a very limited time with no top end of endurance. I suggest moderate, not light, weight for 10-15 reps, if you are focusing on climbing. Stairs with a weighted vest is also good. Box step ups are also excellent.
- Grind at a lower cadence
What? This particular expert said to maintain a low gear cadence for big climbs. That is absolute nonsense. Grinding in a low gear will exhaust you and is fueled by glycogen stores in your body. Okay, let me stop for a second. THIS ALL DEPENDS ON LENGTH AND GRADIENT, which is no where in the article. If I have a three-mile climb at an average gradient of 10% and decide to tackle that climb with a grinding cadence, it will turn ugly very quickly. On the other hand, if the climb is less than a mile and only 3%, I might stay in the drops and punch over it in a lower gear. Now, all that being said, cadence is NOT a set thing, but it is important to keep as high of a cadence as possible. High cadences will help a rider use the aerobic engine more than pure glycogen. It is FAR easier to recover aerobically after a good climb than to recover anaerobically. Actually, it is almost impossible while in a fast-tempo ride.
- Think about something else when climbing
I get the idea that this expert is trying to convey, not thinking about the pain, but it is very hard if you suck at climbing. With a heart rate that is through the roof and breathing like a fat man in a 5K, telling yourself to think of something else is not very likely.
- Be a good descender
Yes, this is a good tip in recovery for the next hill and continuing momentum, but that is all that is mentioned. The why is not there. Rolling over the top of a climb where you have experienced extreme difficulty, many riders will free wheel over the top and coast until they HAVE TO pedal again. This not good. This false idea is so that a rider can get his breathing back and “rest” his legs. What needs to be done is changing gears from the easier, spinning gear to a medium/lower gear and continue to pedal down the backside. Not only will you gain better momentum for the next hill, but your legs will actually respond better when going from a medium gear back to a higher gear as the road ramps up again. Switching back and forth from anaerobic to aerobic and back aids a rider in using the full range of tools at his disposal.
Now, back to the climb with a big guy who is trying to lose weight and improve his cadence over time, what does he do in the meantime? Suffers and climbs. I am not being sarcastic, but riders who are not yet good at climbing must reject the idea that if they read an article on how to make things easier when climbing everything will be peaches and cream on climbs. THERE WILL NEVER be a point when all of a sudden you do not hurt anymore or breathe hard. Progression takes time and will hurt. If you have the frame that can be smaller, learn how to spin and use your aerobic engine. Eat properly. Rest adequately. You will be tempted to power up the climb, but resist that urge. Take your time on the climb. You will see an improvement over a period of weeks and months . . . even then, it will NOT be easy. If you are a big guy by nature, you must use tactics. Get to the front of the group before the climb and stay up front as long as you can. As the group passes you, there is a chance to be still attached to the group by the time you reach the top. Use your talents to your advantage. Do not take the bait of chasing a little guy up a big climb. To quote a famous line from Star Wars, “it’s a trap!”