Conquering The Climb — Part 1: Developing Good Technique

DeckerClimb1RevThe road or trail goes up.  It always does at some point in the ride.  There are two types of cyclists: those who hate climbing and those who tolerate climbing.  At its essence, climbing is about suffering.  The question every cyclist must ask themselves before tackling a hill is: “Do I want the suffering to be excruciatingly long or mercifully short?”  For those cyclists who like to prolong their suffering, stop reading this now.  We have nothing for you — except the name of a good therapist.  If you are a rational, sane cyclist who likes to keep their painful experiences to a minimum, then keep reading.  We have some basic techniques to share with you that will help you conquer the hills.

Climbing Technique — Mashing vs. Spinning

When it comes to climbing, mashing is bad and spinning is good, right?  Wrong.  Ever since Lance Armstrong rocketed up the Alp d’huez in the 2001 Tour de France at 90+ RPMs, spinning has been touted as THE way to climb hills.  During that some Tour, Jan Ulrich was criticized for pushing a much larger gear up the same climbs — ‘mashing’ on the pedals.  The big German’s leg speed was much slower than Lance’s making it seems as though he was ascending at a slower pace. Interestingly enough, both Lance’s and Jan’s speeds up the climbs in that year’s Tour were almost identical.  So, what’s up with that?  The answer is physiology.  Not every cyclist should rely solely on spinning or mashing to get them to the top of the climb.  Rider weight, leg length, aerobic capacity, and core strength are all factors that help determine whether a cyclist should be a spinner or a masher.  But, what is perhaps the most important — and often overlooked — fact about climbing is that good climbers actually do both: they spin and mash.

Climbing Technique — Power Modulation & Tactical Application

So, what separates a good climber from a not-so-good climber?  Good climbers have two particular skills that help them get to the top of the hill.  The first skill is power modulation — the ability to adjust power output and corresponding leg speed during the course of an ascent.  During an ascent, good climbers adjust their power and leg speed based on the grade and technical aspects of the climb.  A short, steep section of the climb may be done in a lower gear while riding out of the saddle while a longer, moderate grade may be done while remaining seated at a higher cadence.  This dynamic approach is effective as the variation of position on the bike, leg speed, and power output make an extended ascent easier on the body and mind.  The second skill good climbers possess is tactical application — the ability to accurately assess the impending climb, develop an attack strategy, and execute the strategy without being influenced by other cyclists.  It is essential to be able to look at an approaching climb and determine your attack strategy.  A long climb may require a diversified attack, changing between seated and out-of-the-saddle positions and varying leg speed and power output given the length and grade of particular sections of the ascent.  A short climb may require only one position on the bike and one leg speed.  Once the attack strategy has been determined, it is important to execute that strategy without distraction.  Good climbers know how to play inside and outside their ‘comfort zone’ — the threshold between aerobic and anaerobic states — and they do not let other cyclists influence their climbing strategy.  A good example of this is climbing speed or pace.  A good climber will set their own pace while ascending.  As the cyclist passes another slower cyclist on a climb, he or she will not slow down to match the slower rider’s pace.  If the good climber is passed by a cyclist moving at a faster pace on the climb, he or she will not accelerate to match the speed of the faster rider’s pace.  Changing the attack strategy mid-climb is never a good idea.  This can result in a poor workout by setting a slower-than-optimal pace or the result can be a ‘blow up’ by attempting a faster-than-optimal pace.

So, that’s a bit on climbing technique.  Developing good climbing technique will make you a better climber as will developing better fitness.  We’ll discuss the issue of fitness and its relationship to technique in the next installment on climbing: Conquering The Climb – Part 2: Physical and Mental Fitness.

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