Climb to the top

7 Tips for Climbing to the Top

By Josh Horowitz

Unlike other aspects of cycling, climbing success is considered by most to be almost 100 percent dependent on fitness and natural ability. But in reality, climbing is a much more subtle and complicated skill that encompasses not just fitness, but strategy and psychology.

Over the years, I’ve picked up numerous tricks and techniques that have allowed me to occasionally put one over on a stronger competitor. At the grass-roots level, it is possible to just outride your opponents, but as you get into the higher categories and the gap in ability narrows, strategy becomes increasingly important.

Training Tips

1. Cadence — Due in part to the influence of Lance Armstrong, it is generally accepted that keeping a higher cadence on the climbs is more efficient and more effective than pushing a big gear at a low cadence. A low cadence emphasizes the muscular system which tires quickly and takes several days to recover. A higher cadence places emphasis on the cardio and pulmonary systems which tend to have greater endurance and faster recovery.

It is not enough to just click into your smallest gear and attempt to spin up the next climb you encounter. Your body needs time to adapt. One of the most important and effective workouts I have my riders do to improve their climbing is the high-spin interval. There are other variations of leg-speed drills—such as rev-ups—but I’ve found the no-nonsense high-spin interval to be the safest and most effective.

Here’s how you do it: Find a flat road and attempt to pedal at 120 rpm for 10 minutes. Try to do it all at once with no breaks. There should be very little resistance on the pedals. Do this once or twice per week, adding five to 10 minutes each week. Over time, build up to a full hour.

At first you will find yourself bouncing around in the saddle and you may even experience cramping and saddle irritations. However, as muscle memory develops, you will become smoother and more efficient.

2. Base Training — Contrary to popular belief, doing thousands and thousands of feet of climbing is not necessarily the best or fastest way to achieve climbing fitness. Whether you are training for a 10,000-foot death ride or a pursuit on the track, base training is where it all begins.

Aside from dreary, moderate (zone 2) riding, I also have my riders do a cycle of tempo (zone 3) intervals which include two long intervals per week ranging from 30 to 90 minutes. These are done below threshold level but help to improve endurance speed as well as threshold power to a smaller extent. Strength building is also very important in the off-season, and much of it can be done right on the bike.

After the tempo cycle, my riders do a three-week cycle of muscle-tension intervals. These are also done just below threshold level but at a very slow cadence. Throw it into your big chain ring and do 10 minutes at a time at 50 rpm. Do this two to three days per week with two to three intervals each day.

3. Threshold Training — After a strong base has been established, improving threshold power is the next step toward bringing you into climbing shape. I’ve found the most effective and efficient way to do this is with simple, 15-minute time-trial (zone 4) intervals. These should be done right at anaerobic threshold level, or the point where your lungs start to burn and your legs start to ache. They can be done in sets of two or three, three to four times per week.

Instead of seeking out the steepest climbs around, it is much better to do these on a two- to three-percent grade. You will want to spend five to six hours over the course of a three-week cycle in this zone, so if you are training on eight-percent climbs with a cadence of 70 rpm, your muscles will exhaust before the cycle is complete and you won’t be able to put out the effort needed for adaptation. By keeping the cadence above 90 you will be able to do back-to-back interval days with plenty of recovery in between.

4. Anaerobic Training — The last part that many climbers ignore is anaerobic training. Many athletes, especially touring cyclists and triathletes, ignore the need for training above threshold because their events don’t necessarily require it. By training above threshold level, not only will you improve V02 max and anaerobic endurance, you will also improve threshold power. In addition, it will prepare you to follow accelerations and adjust to grade variations.

Technique Tips

5. Positioning — Start the climb near the front. If you start near the back, not only will you have to keep the pace of the lead riders, you will have to make the additional effort of accelerating around dropped riders. A strong climber might be able to bridge one or two gaps, but if it is a long climb and a big pack, eventually they will burn their last match and go off the back, even if their power-to-weight ratio is higher than that of the leaders.

In races such as the Vuelta Sonora, I’ve had to fight for wheels at the base of the climbs, the same way sprinters do at the end of a criterium. We were smashing shoulders, pushing each other out of the way, riding each other off the road. It’s quite amusing seeing these skinny little guys, normally considered somewhat docile, getting so aggressive.

6. Pay Attention — Don’t just look at the move in front of you; try to see two or three moves ahead. Pay attention to everything. Listen to the breathing of the riders around you. Notice what gear they are in and if they discretely shift into a bigger one. Watch out for a rider who seems fresh and is looking around sizing up his competition.

Look up the road for switchbacks or changes in pitch that may spark an attack. If you are not paying attention, by the time you shift, get out of the saddle and accelerate, the attacking rider may have opened up a gap that will take considerable effort to close.

If you can predict which rider is about to pounce, stay right on her wheel and then match her acceleration. In this case, all you have to do is keep his pace rather than sprint to catch up with him and then attempt to stay on his wheel.

Similarly, keep your eye out for a rider who is about to be dropped. If you see her start to struggle, shift gears, or rock her body back and forth, don’t sit around waiting to see if she’ll hang on. Immediately accelerate and take the wheel she was on. Closing one bike length might not be that difficult, but if you wait till he has dropped, you might be required to close three or four.

7. Follow Through — Whatever you do, do not sit up as you crest the hill. It’s tempting to think, “Great, we made it to the top, I’m safe.” I’ve seen riders do just that. They lose three bike lengths to the rider in front just as they begin the descent, or they get gapped by the rider in front of them and never catch back on. You’ve done the hard part. Don’t do all that work just to get dropped on the descent.

Josh Horowitz is a USCF certified coach and an active Category 1 racer. For more information about his coaching services and any coaching questions you may have, check out his website, LiquidFitness.com.

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