At 6’5" and 180# you might look at me and think I can’t climb. And up until about three years ago, I couldn’t. We live and train in the flattest, windiest, rainiest, and coldest state in the union: Chicago, IL. How in the world can someone from IL climb?
I’ve learned that climbing is a skill. It’s not like Zwift where the person with the highest sustained W/kg wins. In the real world, skills and experience can help you climb faster, even if you are a tall (and heavy) rider like me.
- Most amateurs climb wrong. They go as hard as possible at the bottom of the climb, die at the top, and coast over the crest because they are full of lactate build up. When the road turns down they coast over the top. A faster way to to climb a short hill or rolling hills is to climb them at a steady low threshold from bottom to top, and accelerate over the top. By accelerating over the top for 10 seconds into a descent you can gain speed and then use gravity to pull you down the hill while maintaining tempo at a lower cadence.
If you are riding with experienced climbers they will attack over the top of hills. So never let off the gas over the top. It’s the best place to drop a rider.
For taller and heavier riders always start the climb at the front. You can surf backwards through the group as you climb short hills. Lighter riders will ride around you as you surf backwards. This technique only works if you know the terrain and position yourself up front BEFORE the bottom of the hill.
Long climbs are like slow TTs where aerodynamics are less important. That means you can stand and change your body position without getting punished for being tall. This is where climbing can be a skill and practice counts.
If you climb seated at the same cadence and same power for 30 minutes I’m sure you can visualize your quads hurting a lot. Now visualize that same 30 minute climb but vary your body position and cadence: stand, sit, high cadence, low cadence, shift forward back, go into the drop. By doing all this you can move the work around all the muscles in the legs. So rather than destroying your quads for 30 minutes, you can use ALL your leg muscles to either reduce fatigue or produce more power.
Long, sustained climbs works your lower back muscles and upper body, especially if you stand a lot. If you want to climb well, strengthen your core and lower back.
Once you figure out there is an upstroke, power will go up 15 - 20%, making you a faster climber. One of the biggest differences between amateurs and pros is pedal stroke efficiency. They make more power on the upstroke. They pull up on every pedal stroke. You can see it in how their body rocks back and forth while seated. This rocking is caused by pulling up. This takes a lot of practice, starting with high cadence drills. And it will crush your hip flexors. But over time you can master this skill. You can use it while climbing to either make more power or spread around the load to reduce fatigue.
The fastest way to go up a hill is to use grade changes to your advantage and gain speed as the terrain flattens out. This mean you conserve in the steep section and accelerate in the shallow or flat sections: exactly the opposite of how amateurs climb.
For example, when the grade kicks up to 10% or more you don’t drill it. Ride a strong, steady tempo to low threshold. Save energy for accelerations to come. As the grade flattens out and especially if the grade slopes down ACCELERATE quickly for 10 seconds, and use gravity to help you gain free speed.
- Keep tension on your chain when you are shifting. If you let off for one second while shifting you can lose one bike length. That is one bike length of wasted energy. This is a skill and requires practice. You can practice on the trainer. Watch your power as you transition and make sure it does not drop. Think about losing a bike length every time you drop the power while shifting. Improving this does not take more power, just practice.
Here is a video of me practicing transition control: https://vimeo.com/412073830/ee2d38e107. I take videos of myself like this and play them back to look at my body position and review power control. Look at the power control going from High Threshold to Tempo every minute.
Drop your weight into the peddle. Again, this is a skill that takes practice. Rather than muscle through the peddle stroke while climbing, focus on actually dropping your entire body weight into the pedal. This allows you to resist fatigue and use your body weight to generate power. This technique requires stabilizer muscles, so you need to practice it. But once those stabilizer muscles are strong enough, your body weight becomes a new source of power. Again, spread around the load to reduce fatigue or generate more power.
I think the last thing for me is mindset. I tell myself that my height does not matter on climbs, and my power and skills can overcome my weight. I know how to move the load around my legs so I can resist fatigue better than less experienced riders. And, I have more muscles that I can call on to produce power. So my power to weight in the real world is less than climbers, but I can still out climb them.
Many of these concepts are discussed in Tom Danielson’s recent book. He is one the greatest climbers of all time.