We bring you technique, nutrition and session guidance from professionals and science experts to see you ascending faster than Nairo Quintana*…
...rather elegantly surmised,
“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up hills and coast down them.” Hemingway was known for his economical and understated style. French philosopher Roland Barthes wasn’t. “It’s a god of evil to whom sacrifice must be paid,” he said of what many deem the most fearsome climb in cycling, Mont Ventoux. “It is a true Molach, a despot of cyclists. It never pardons the weak and exacts an unjust tribute of suffering.”
Whatever your literary wont, there’s a reason sportives like L’étape du Tour, the Fred Whitton Challenge and La Marmotte sell out each year: the challenge of ascending. Pain and suffering are synonymous with climbing, exposing to many romantic cyclists what it is to be human. That’s all very well but emotions and lyrics won’t help you climb faster – GCSE physics, however, just might…
POWER-TO-WEIGHT IS KEY
“There are three key forces holding back your cycling,” explains David Bailey, head of performance at professional team BMC Racing.
“The first is rolling resistance where the deformation of each tyre results in a loss of up to five watts of power. Then we have air resistance. This takes into account factors like your frontal area, air temperature, air speed and humidity. Finishing off the path of most resistance is gravity, pushing down on you at a force of 9.8m per second.”
Air resistance is your dominant barrier, until the road tips upwards. Then, at a gradient between 4-7.5%, gravity becomes the greatest limiter. Weight is key to taming the hills. The heavier the object, the greater the effort to move it. Seen through a cycling lens, this is where power-toweight ratio dictates whether you’re a mountain goat or a sinking boat.
On the flat, speed is all about absolute power. Take uber-sprinter Marcel Kittel, whose muscular German frame reportedly generates 1900 watts. Only for around 20 seconds, mind you, but enough for victory. Then you have General Classification contender Adam Yates who hits the scales at just 58kg. The Brit rider simply lacks the muscle mass to cling on to Kittel.
All that changes as they pedal toward the sky. Why? Say Kittel’s functional threshold power (what you can hold for one hour) is 400 watts and Yates’s is 350. That’s
HEMINGWAY “A 1KG DECREASE IN WEIGHT RESULTS IN A 1% INCREASE IN CLIMBING SPEED, SO FOR A 10-MINUTE CLIMB AT THRESHOLD THE SAVINGS WOULD BE ABOUT 6 SECONDS”
significant but so is that weight difference, as the more watts you can sustain and the less you weigh, the faster you’ll climb. To calculate each rider’s power-to-weight ratio, divide their threshold power output by their weight. In Kittel’s case (82kg), his theoretical power-to-weight ratio is 5.49w/kg whereas Yates hits a lofty 6.21w/kg. When the gradient rises, Kittel’s extra muscle mass becomes a hindrance rather than an advantage.
So, what is a good power-toweight ratio? Typical ratios are around 5.7-6.2w/kg for the pros, 3w/kg for keen recreational riders and less than 2w/kg for leisure riders. What does this mean to you? “A 1kg decrease in weight results in a 1% increase in climbing speed,” explains coach Joe Friel, “so for a 10-minute climb at threshold the savings would be about 6 seconds.”
That might not sound a lot but lose 3kg, 4kg… and marginal gains evolve into a maximal advantage. What weight should you aim for to conquer the climbs? We’re not advising you to follow the Bradley Wiggins route, whose racing body fat nestled at around 5%; anything between 10-15% body fat is optimal.
“This is complicated because fat loss is often accompanied by a slight loss of muscle mass,” adds Friel. That’s why a muscle-repairing protein intake of around 1.5-2g per kilogram of bodyweight is essential when training hard, which equates to around 120-160g of protein each day from sources like chicken, tuna and nuts. Ensuring a quarter of your plate includes a protein source is a good place to start.
HILLS AND FASTING
Team Sky has become the flag-bearer for glycogen-depleted sessions where you train with low carb stores, forcing your body to rely on burning fats to help you ride longer and stronger. A recent journal in Sports Medicine, co-authored by Team Sky’s nutritionist Dr James Morton, recommends completing 30-50% of rides in this depleted state to maximise the benefits. The doctor also advises a protein hit on fasted rides to, as Friel mentioned, maintain muscle mass.
This 30-50% figure is unrealistic and arguably dangerous to recreational riders but try out a two-hour ride at no more than 80% of maximum heart rate before breakfast, fuelled on water and maybe a protein gel. If you feel good, try one a week or every 10 days.
Hill sessions are a staple if you’re to maximise your climbing ability. The consensus among many coaches is ideally twice-weekly hill sessions, confronting hills that mimic your goal event, especially in the final 12 weeks before your sportive.
We spoke to Sky’s head of performance support, Tim Kerrison, at a Majorcan training camp, who elaborated on what Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas and crew regularly tackle in the search for more speed.
“On the ascent of Sa Calobra [famous Majorcan climb, 9.4km long with an average gradient of 7%], there are kilometre markers,” says Kerrison. “When the riders reach each marker, they go hard for 10 seconds. They also do a ‘double spike’ as the gradient sharpens, so 10 seconds hard, 5 seconds recovery and then another 15 seconds hard. It’s high-intensity so good for speed; varies pace for attacks and recovery; plus there’s the overall demand of the 10km effort. For the riders that’s about 25-28 minutes of high aerobic conditioning work.”
Whether in the Balearics or Bolton, you can extract takeaways from Kerrison’s session, such as that fluctuation in speed and intensity, which stimulate certain physiological adaptations and acclimatise you to the unpredictability of a sportive situation.
You could learn from another Team Sky Sa Calobra session. “We have three groups and each chooses their leader,” explains Kerrison. “We then give them guidelines to do the climb. So, the first 4km in zone 3 [around 80% maximum heart rate], the next 3km at high-cadence [over 100rpm] in zone 3 and the last 2.5-3km, well, it’s just game-on hard. For us, you can see how they work together as a team…” For you, the recreational rider, it would increase competition among you and your mates, give a session some structure and add variety.
HILL SESSIONS ARE A STAPLE TO MAXIMISE YOUR CLIMBING ABILITY, IDEALLY TWICEWEEKLY
STANDING OR SEATED?
There’s more to climbing than pure fitness. The thinking man’s cyclist makes the most of riding position. Picture the scene… you hit the gentle incline in what you perceive as optimum form: hands on the brake hoods or bar tops, sitting upright to assist with breathing, tilting your pelvis forwards to lengthen your spine and encourage greater contraction of the buttocks and core, while maintaining relaxed arms and grip. Then nature steepens, your heart rate rises, hand in hand with lactic acid, and it’s decision time: remain seated or stand?
“There are no specific guidelines,” says Retül-qualified bike-fitter John Dennis, who’s worked with pro team Dimension Data. “Fitness, technique, gradient – they all have a bearing. Some pros – Alberto Contador was a good example – stand out of the saddle for relatively greater periods of time, while someone like Froome rarely stands.”
The issue of standing or remaining seated has been investigated by many including Professor Ernst Hansen, who in 2008 discovered that road cyclists were more efficient when remaining seated until the gradient hit 10%. Tip over to 11% and standing became more efficient. In fact, during short (less than 30 seconds) all-out bursts, peak power output has been measured at 25% greater when standing compared to sitting. Of course, there is payback. It’s been reported that shallow gradients of around 4%, ascending at 19kph, requires 10% less oxygen seated than completing the same distance and pace when standing.
While textbooks suggest larger riders benefit from staying seated and lighter ones should stand more, that’s too simplistic according to Bailey. “Muscle type is more important,” he says. “A guy who has a prevalence of fast-twitch muscle fibres can generate high amounts of power in short periods of time, so might perceive the shorter, sharper climbs out-of-saddle as more pleasant. Of course, these fibres fatigue faster but they’d have recovery time between climbs. A rider packed with slowtwitchers might ‘enjoy’ sitting down on long, shallower climbs.”
SPIN AND SHIFT
Discovering your exact muscle composition requires a biopsy, which is extreme for even the most committed recreational rider, especially as arguably your most efficient technique is the one you’ve become accustomed to. What’s of greater importance is finding your rhythm in training – whether
NATURE STEEPENS, YOUR HEART RATE RISES, AND IT’S DECISION TIME: REMAIN ORSESATTAENDD?
chamois planted in or out of the saddle – which can be achieved via pedalling practices. A popular session to find a good balance of ‘up’ and ‘down’ is to pedal for 20 strokes seated, then change up a gear and stand up for 10 pedal strokes. Sit down and shift down. And so on…
Maintaining efficient cadence is the aim. Forums debate whether low gear, high cadence trumps high gear, low cadence. Even the pros can’t make up their minds. Riders like mountain legend Charly Gaul were capable of scorching bursts of pace in a low gear and spinning legs; six-time King of the Mountain Federico Bahamontes used higher gears, out of the saddle and ground those limbs.
“A cadence of 80-90rpm should conserve what energy you have left at optimum speed,” says Bailey, “though this will drop on really steep climbs, and that cadence should remain metronomic.”
Beyond the physical, there’s the small matter of gear selection. Choosing the exact bike and apparel for your needs is a feature in itself.
“A CADENCE OF 80-90RPM SHOULD CONSERVE WHAT ENERGY YOU HAVE LEFT AT OPTIMUM SPEED,” SAYS BAILEY, “THOUGH THIS WILL DROP ON REALLY STEEP CLIMBS, AND THAT CADENCE SHOULD REMAIN METRONOMIC”
For now, we’ll hone in on the equipment priority: chainset selection. How can you tell if you have the right gear setup? Simple. If you always climb in your lowest gear and are in your lowest gear on the first climb, you need to revise your selection.
“Like technique, it depends on not only your skill level but also the gradient,” says Dennis. “Some riders may be better off with a compact chainset [inner of the double cranks has 34 teeth instead of standard 39]; stronger, more experienced riders may consider moving from a 21/11 cassette to a 25, 26 or 27.” And let’s not forget the demonised granny ring – aka the triple. This provides 30 teeth and, though more common in mountain biking, could be a lifesaver when the going gets tough.
Whether it’s the steepest mountain or the shallowest of hills, mastering climbing will carve minutes off your personal best while sending you flying up that Strava KOM leaderboard. Nothing beats hitting the ascents to improve, well, how you ascend. But playing around with riding position and cadence, tweaking session composition and manipulating your nutrition all elicit minor improvements for a greater advantage.
Below Power-to-weight ratios are key as proven by Kittel and Yates’ stats
RightYou may not have Sa Calobra on your doorstep, so if your closest climb is short, simply repeat it as often as you need to
AboveThe best way to improve your climbing technique is to try out some gradient-rich rides