Bicycling (South Africa)

Hill, Yes!

Learn why short, punchy climbs are so hard – and the monster workout you need to start crushing them like a billy goat.


How to crush ‘em.

BBIG MOUNTAINS get all the glory, but anyone who’s ever ridden in KwaZulu-Natal will tell you that it’s not the towering Drakensber­g that breaks you, but the relentless rolling through the Valley of a Thousand Hills. Here’s why bumpy rides are such a beatdown.

SO. MANY. WATTS. It’s easier to parcel out your effort on a long, moderate climb. But some hills hit a 10 per cent grade or higher right out of the gate, and stay that way. That demands power – and lots of it. For example, to climb my steepest local hill fast – which is 1.3km long with an average grade of 8 per cent, and hits a bar-chewing 26.1 per cent max – I have to hold 260 watts for six minutes. That’s 10 per cent higher than my threshold power (the highest output I can sustain for 45 minutes to an hour) of 240 watts. Rides with multiple punchy rollers force you into the red repeatedly – and even a few minutes spent over threshold takes a physiologi­cal toll that adds up.

MAXED-OUT MUSCLE FIBRES Pushing the pedals with all your might to propel your bike up steep ascents (about a 10 per cent grade or above) can be akin to lifting weights – but without the luxury of resting between sets as you would at the gym. ENERGY STORE RAID Fully loaded, you have between 400 and 500 grams, or about 8 400 kilojoules’ worth, of stored glucose and carbohydra­tes (glycogen) at your disposal. You burn about 1 gram a minute just riding along, about 2 grams a minute at endurance pace (you can have a conversati­on, but you’re still working somewhat hard), and about 3 to 5 grams a minute at race pace, according to tests conducted by Iñigo San

Millán, PhD, of the University of Colorado Sports Medicine and Performanc­e Centre. Climbing out of the saddle increases that energy use by about another 10 per cent.

BRAIN DRAIN Anything that increases your heart rate – chugging up a steep hill, or even simply stressing out about the climb – causes you to burn glucose more quickly. When blood glucose dips too low, mental fog can set in, which makes it harder to stay motivated. Also, a growing body of research reveals that fatigue comes from your mind as well as your muscles. Your brain runs solely on glucose

– it requires about 120 grams of it a day, even if you’re just watching Seinfeld re-runs – and will take steps to protect its supply. If it senses that any of your body’s metrics (such as temperatur­e or fuel levels) seem off, you’ll feel tired even if your muscles could continue.

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