With a few tips from the experts, you can unleash your inner mountain goat
On a sodden sixth stage at Tirreno-Adriatico 2013, the peloton arrived at the foot a climb at Sant’Elpidio a Mare, and the unthinkable happened. After 300 metres at 18%, the road ramped up to 30% for another 50 metres, and one after another the world’s greatest cyclists got off their bikes and started pushing them up the hill. Yes, it turns out they are human after all.
It’s a feeling that most riders can sympathise with – the inexorable pull of gravity, while your legs fill with lactic acid and your heart threatens to pound its way right out of your ribcage – but whether you’re rolling over the Rutland Ripple or facing the 25% ascent of Kirkstone Pass, success on the hills depends on a mixture of training, nutrition and technique, as some of the country’s top cycling experts will attest…
Weight of expectation
‘It’s simple – you must lose bodyweight before you spend money on fancy kit,’ says Madison Genesis rider Jack Pullar. And the 24-year-old Lancastrian
should know. October 2012 he tamed the 947-yard Rake ascent in Ramsbottom to lift the National Hill Climbing title at his first attempt.
The secret to Pullar’s climbing success is his power-to-weight ratio. Pullar measures 5ft 9in and tips the scales at 64kg. If Pullar’s maximum sustainable (MS) power output is 400 watts, in the mountains he’ll deliver 6.25 watts per kilogramme (w/kg). Now, if Pullar went off the rails, developed a love for equine-blessed frozen foods and piled on 10kg, his power-to-weight ratio would drop to 5.4 watts per kilo, and his time would increase.
‘Roughly, a 1kg decrease in weight results in a 1% increase in speed,’ says legendary endurance coach Joe Friel. ‘So for a 10-minute climb at threshold – the maximum effort you can hold for an hour – the savings would be about six seconds.’ Which, in a race scenario, could mean the difference between glory and obscurity.
That’s not to say you should ape Bradley Wiggins, whose racing body fat is about 4% with a body mass index of 19, but anything between 10-15% body fat and a BMI of 20-22 is optimum, says Friel. ‘Although this is complicated because body fat loss is usually accompanied by a slight loss of muscle mass. It’s why high protein intake is essential when training hard.’
Your other option is to put your bike on a diet. ‘Before the national hill champs, the first thing I did was to change my seat and seatpost to the lightest possible,’ says Pullar. ‘I stripped the saddle and drilled it, removed the front mech and cut the bars down. I also shortened the chain to improve tension to stop the chain from coming off, took the headset internals out and changed the tyres to lighter tubs. The overall saving was 2.4lbs over my standard race bike. The total weight was 12.2lb [5.5kg].’
Joe Beer, time-trial and sportive coach, suggests that the opposite approach could help with your climbing abilities – making your bike heavier. ‘If you can only find small hills to train on, add weight to your bike instead. Many a pro has filled their training water bottle with a couple of kilogrammes of iron filings. Just ensure that you have a stable bottle cage! It takes effort, but persist with the goal of matching a good club rider’s power output, which is around 280-340 watts for 20-40 minutes.’
That’s just the start. Technique, bike position… there’s much to master before you scale the heights with Contador-like ease.
Anyone who’s ever wept in the layby of an Alpinepass will recognise the importance of pacing. When the road climbs, the temptation is to dig in and try
to crush the climb beneath the power of your pedal stroke, but more often a pragmatic approach is best.
‘Know yourself,’ says Chris Boardman, a three-time prologue winner during his Tour de France career. ‘If it’s a proper Alpine climb, you can’t go into the red.
What needs to run through your head is the same as in a time-trial: how far have I got to go and how hard am I trying – and is it sustainable? If the answer’s yes, you’re not trying hard enough. If the answer’s no, it’s too late. The answer you’re looking for all of the time is “maybe”.’
This ascending introspection manifests itself in your riding position – namely in or out of the saddle. Many riders begin the climb with optimum form: hands on the brake hoods or bar tops, sitting a little more upright to assist with breathing, tilting pelvis forwards to lengthen spine and encourage greater contraction of the buttocks and core, and maintaining relaxed arms and grip.
Then heart rate rises, hand in hand with lactic acid, and it’s decision time: remain seated or stand?
‘There are no specific guidelines,’ says John Dennis of bike-fitting specialist Retül. ‘Fitness, technique, gradient all have a bearing. Some pros, like Contador, stand for relatively greater periods of time and certainly when trying to attack. You’ll also find cyclists who are quad dominant will stand out of the saddle sooner than riders who generate power through their hips.’
Riding out of the saddle requires more exertion, so you have to manage that effort within your limits. Finding your rhythm in training – whether seated or standing – is key. ‘Get used to counting,’ says Phil Cavell of London-based bike-fitter CycleFit. ‘Pedal for 20 strokes seated, then change up a gear and stand up for 10 pedal strokes. Sit down and shift down. Amend the actual number to your own taste.’
In or out, maintaining the optimum cadence is the aim. But what is ‘optimum’ creates divisions so deep that Henri Desgrange would turn in his grave. Forums forever debate whether low gear, high cadence trumps high gear, low cadence. Even the pros can’t make up their minds. Riders such as mountain legend Charly Gaul were capable of scorching bursts of pace in a low gear with spinning legs; six-time King of the Mountains Federico Bahamontes used higher gears, out of the saddle.
A cadence of 80-90rpm should conserve what energy you have left at optimum speed – although this will drop on steeper climbs – and that rpm should remain soul-witheringly metronomic. Until, that is, you face a feature of many European ascents – the hairpin or switchback. ‘I’m not a climber but, if you get it right, you can almost be slungshot out of the corner,’ says Team Sky’s sprint king, Ben Swift. ‘Simply flatten them out by going wide and then darting back to the inside.’
Boardman adds, ‘No matter how fierce the climb, always adopt the same mindset. Break it down into chunks – small chunks. When I was racing, if your mind wandered the night before tackling a beast like Galibier – the biggest, most monstrous climb I ever faced – or you thought, “I’ve got another two weeks of this,” you were in trouble. Small chunks can keep you sane.’
What goes up…
Through curtains of sweat you reach the top of your climb, the view floods your senses and all the effort suddenly feels worthwhile. But the real fun is yet to come. Descending a mountain at speed on a bike is one of the greatest experiences known to man.
Ben Swift, a speed-seeking missile from Rotherham, recalls seeing the light: ‘In my amateur days, Ian Stannard [current Team Sky team-mate] and I competed in the Giro delle Regioni. The stage went past our base in Italy. We knew it like the back of our hands and we’d gone off the front. We were coming to the top of this climb and Rod Ellingworth, our directeur at the time, screamed, “Go on lads, stretch your lead.” We went flat-out down this descent, overtaking lead cars and the police. It’s a technical drop but there’s one fast, straight stretch in the middle and we flew over 100kmh. I was on Stannard’s wheel the whole way. You can’t beat that feeling.’
Tales of hair-raising descents permeate the sport – their place cemented in cycling folklore usually by a crash or narrow miss – but it’s simpler than you think to dispel nerves. And it’ll save you seconds or even minutes if you focus on more than simply self-preservation.
‘A balanced position on the bike is vital,’ says Dennis. ‘Essentially this simply means you feel comfortable and haven’t loaded your weight either front or rear. This should lead you into a sustainable position on the drops.’ Once you’re nestled into the drops, your elbows should tuck in neatly, which should bring your chin toward the bar. It’s common sense – boost aerodynamics and cut drag by presenting a minimal profile to the air. But problems occur when you become stiffer than your bike.
‘You must remain relaxed,’ says Swift, who admittedly probably stiffened up and subsequently lost consciousness on a downhill section of the Trofeo Alcudia that ended his Tour of Mallorca in February. ‘When I’m not crashing, this is the fastest way to a better time!’
Staying relaxed on a bike also requires correct set-up. ‘Bike fit needs to be exemplary for descending,’ says Cavell. ‘The fitter should focus not only on biomechanical alignment but also on centre of mass. It pays dividends downhill when the rider is down on the drops for extended periods of time with their head up.’
Eyes looking up is key here. Lock them onto your front wheel and you’ll be cartwheeling down the Alps like a rolling stone. Instead, predominantly sight 50 to 100m in front of you. Not only will you spot any potholes in good time to avoid them, but your body tends to follow your eyes, so look at the line you want to be riding on. Of course, sometimes fate deals a hand that defies logic. In 2007, a dog that The Guardian later termed ‘the world’s hardest Labrador’ meandered across a descent, just in time to stop T-Mobile’s Marcus Burghardt in his tracks. Thankfully, both rider and canine returned to their feet/paws with only bruised pride.
‘Another streamlined option, though certainly not advised on open roads, is the advanced aero tuck,’ says Beer. ‘This sees your chin nestle a chamois-thickness away from the stem with chest almost leaning on the top-tube. But this is more for the professionals – and only when there’s no traffic.’
Round the bends
Where descents crank up the heebie-jeebies is through the corners. Get off line, or come in too hot and you’ll tense up, and then it all gets a little nervy. Once again, the trick is to keep looking a fair distance in front of you. ‘Don’t enter the apex until you can see the exit,’ says Boardman. ‘The most common mistake is turning into the bend too early – you exit with too much speed and you’re forced to brake far too hard. It’s better to go in slow and exit fast.’
This advice is even more important when applied to roads soaked in fine British rain. ‘Stay a touch more upright when it rains and don’t lean forward as much,’ says Swift. ‘Taking precautions will pay dividends in the long run and remember: crashing hurts.’
Boardman concurs: ‘I had three bad crashes but the worst came in 1995 at the Tour. It was a 7.3km prologue. It had been raining and took place late at night for television. Well, there was this fast descent and I just lost my back wheel. I looked up, saw a barrier and that was that. I broke my ankle in six places, my nose and my arm, and that crash has actually stopped me running.’
Boardman’s wheel choice at that time was probably not as much of a factor as the rain-drenched roads, but certainly your choice of wheel is as important for descending as it is for ascending. ‘A good descending wheel needs stability,’ says Paul Lew, founder of Reynolds Cycling. ‘This is a result of a good aerodynamically stable wheel, combined with laterally stiff features, that will ensure you’re not surprised by sudden gusts.’
Once you’ve got the wheels, the set-up and the technique nailed, it only remains to find some sneaky tactics to beat your buddies on those long descents. Jean Robic, winner of the Tour de France in 1947, once told reporters that a helper handed him a bottle packed with lead at the peak of climbs for added mass on the descent. However, bike historians question his claim, as bravado came easy to the diminutive Frenchman. He once claimed he had a Fausto Coppi in each leg.
Down hill racers
Sean Kelly 1984
In 1984, Irishman Sean Kelly blitzed the Spring Classics, winning Paris-Roubaix and Liege-Bastogne–Liege. That year he racked up an incredible 33 wins. But speed aficionados will recall his flying descent on the 19th stage of the Tour de France as a season highlight, Kelly touching speeds of 124kmh on the drop from Col de Joux Plane to Morzine.
Paolo Savoldelli 2005
Italy’s Paolo Savoldelli entered the penultimate stage of the 2005 Giro with a 2m 09sec lead over two-time winner Gilberto Simoni. Trailing and isolated with 40km to go, his dreams of victory looked in tatters. Over the final summit of the day – the 2,178m Colle delle Finestre – Savoldelli lay 2m 23secs behind Simoni. Despite the descent averaging just 5.1% and 9.8km long, Savoldelli hit speeds of up to 100kmh to retain the maglia rosa and take the title by 28 seconds.
Thor Hushovd 2011
The God of Thunder grabbed the yellow jersey on stage two of the Tour and surprised many by defying several hilly stages to remain in yellow for a week. But the Norwegian wasn’t finished. The 152km 13th stage from Pau to Lourdes saw him overtake long-time leader Jeremy Roy of France in the final 2km for the win, helped in no small part by clocking 111kmh on the descent of the Col d’Aubisque.