Cycling Plus (Malaysia) - - ASCENDING ADVICE -

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…


“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


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.


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.



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.”


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


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.


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

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