How to climb effectively


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Climbing is equivalent to public speaking for many people.  We know it must be done from time to time, but we dread every second leading up to the event.  Most of the time, our fears are unfounded, or the fear is based on not being properly prepared for what we will undertake.  

For some reason, completely unbeknownst to me, many people hate going uphill on a bike.  It’s just like going downhill, only it’s a lot harder, and you could be reduced to walking to the top while pushing your bike.  Other than that, it is pretty much the same.  Ok, so maybe it’s not, but like everything in cycling there are techniques that can make climbing a hill not such a daunting task.  

Despite popular opinion to the contrary, climbing is not all about being skinny.  Sure, it helps to be under 60 kgs, but that is only if you can generate a fair amount of power.  A 60 kg rider who can only generate 120W is not going to fair much better than a 100 kg rider pushing 200W.  Sure, there will be a small difference due to gravity, but it will not be insurmountable.  The factor that influences climbing the most, in my opinion, is power management.  On the flats, a ten percent drop in power due to fatigue can translate to a bad day, but if you can hide in the draft, you may be able to recover or last until the end.  On climbs, a 10 percent drop in power means that the front of the race will quickly disappear, leaving you to suffer through the solitary drudge up the rest of the climb.  It’s pretty much the definition of the opposite of awesome.  So, how do we ensure that we don’t fade to black while climbing the bigger hills and mountains?  Well, there are a few simple things we can do.  

Evaluate the climb. First, take a look at the length, grade, and location of the climb.  If the climb is early in the race, why on earth are we going to attack it like a crazy person?  Unless the race is a climb followed by all downhill, there is no need to go out like your hair is on fire.  These climbs that are not decisive in the grand scheme of things need to be addressed as such.  Now, that does not mean we lolligag up the climb.  Au contraire mon frere, we should use that climb to dispatch some of the weaker climbers who may be able to sprint or make a late break if the climb is the only decisive terrain for a long while.  Or, we should keep the pace high enough to discourage attacks.  That’s where climbing at a steady effort and cadence come into play.  Team Sky and Movistar are masters at this.  Watch any mountain stage that either of those two teams want to control.  The pace is never easy, and the bigger or weaker riders get shelled early and often.  However, the majority of the riders can stay with the group, albeit while suffering a little bit. Why are they able to hang with such a tough tempo?  Well, that’s because the pace is consistent despite being high.  Our bodies adapt quickly, and as long as the effort is not above our threshold, we can usually settle in and maintain for a good while.  Provided the accelerations or few and small, riders can just get into their own rhythm and match the speed of the group.  This reduces the number of matches being burned, as you do not have to call on your reserves to catch back on to a wheel.

To sit or stand, that is the question. Determining when you should remain in the saddle or stand is really a matter of personal preference.  If I am fairly fresh and not throwing down, I prefer to stay seated and spin up the climb.  If I plan to attack or anticipate attacks, I may spend more time out of the saddle, as I can respond and accelerate quicker.  Standing has the benefit of allowing you to use your bodyweight to put power into the pedals, which is a great way to give your butt a break during a steady tempo climb.  It also taxes the system more.  Do your own experiment.  Get out of the saddle and push a little higher wattage than when you were sitting.  Your heart rate will go up significantly quicker than had you just accelerated from a seated position.  The difference is that you may not feel comfortable or able to lift the pace from your seated position, and you surely will not be able to do it as quickly or violently as when standing.  On the climbs, this is extremely important.  The price you pay for overdoing it on a climb is exponentially greater than on the flats.  On the flats, you can coast or soft pedal a good bit before your momentum completely falls away.  On a climb, once you start to lock up, you’re done.  It is very difficult to recover on a climb, as the pedaling never gets easier.  It is very similar to riding in erg mode on the trainer when you slow your cadence down below 50 RPMs.  At that point, you are simply mashing the pedals trying to turn them over.  With a lot of effort over some time, you can get it going again, but the cost of energy wasted is tremendous.  It’s the same thing on a climb.  

Remember, climbing is not much different than sprinting when it comes to having or taking an advantage.  Sure, some people are naturally predisposed to be better climbers than others due to size, but the ability to time attack and manage one’s effort can neutralize any size advantage.  Plus, throwing down a crazy-hard attack may just get you away, as the traditional climbers may not think you can hold it or manage your effort after the attack.  The next time you ride a hilly course practice laying down some attacks and managing the efforts.  Start easy and build up, just to see what you can do.  If you know your limits, you can develop your tactics accordingly, and good tactics can often beat strength if executed properly.


One of the things I’ve certainly learnt over the years is standing is hard work.
If I want (and this is on the flat or on a climb) to get my HR up, all I need to do I stand for a bit … and voila. And sometimes that’s helpful as an aside (for example when fatigued and freezing).
It’s just harder and at fairly high effort levels I’d suggest not maintainable in the same way sitting is.
A recent example for me was following / trying to catch a group up a hill in March. Was a fair way behind at the bottom. Settling into a VO2 effort was do’able sitting as long as I kept cadence at 85+ - it took me 10-15 minutes (essentially an FTP test type effort), but if I’d tried any of that standing (apart from as Ian says, to relieve the butt) I’d have died with my shoes on. Caught the group in the end and then merrily suffered for another 5,000 feet @charisemcmullin @tifflarson1 @AndyJ @eric

Thanks for the article @Coach_Ian