That is breezy and light, floating up a climb without undue fatigue, or that grimace of pain on your face. Hills. The bane of many cyclists that cause angst and suffering beyond our physical limitations. In this, the first part in a series dedicated to the angst we will look at the key components of hill climbing. In the next issue of Endurance Sport we will break down technique, and in the third and final part take an in depth look at training to improve your climbing.
If you suck at something, it’s easy to think “ok I suck at hills so I am going to get out there and ride heaps of hills to get better at them.” Problem is, if you suck at them for a particular reason, whether it is technique or aerobic fitness, then you will repeat your experience, but just more frequently by riding them more. So essentially you will “suck” more. Neat aye. Instead you need to look at why you suck and go about making changing to improve, not just repeat the same old same old.
To climb hills quickly we need essential ingredients which are broken down into the components of your body, and your training/racing.
Body Components of Climbing:
Power to weight ratio is the most important thing. Ok that sounds good, and we’ve all heard that before, but what on earth is it? It is how much power you can produce relative to how much you weigh. Er yep, but what’s that got to do with climbing? Let’s have a look at an example: Two riders, one can put out 300W, and is 60kg. Therefore there power to weight is 5 watts per kilogram (W/kg). The other rider, let’s say rider “b” for convenience sake, is 75kgs, and also puts out 300W, so here power to weight is 4 W/kg, meaning they will ride slower up the climb, which is a bugger for them. So for rider “b” to climb just as fast as their competition that also produces the same amount of power, they have two choices: 1) loose weight, or 2) improve their power. While some of us are at our end to option 1 without turning into a supermodel, option 2 is more realistic for almost everyone.
The gradients that hills provide increase the power output at which we must ride, 1, 2 or 3 fold more than what we would average on the flat roads, and this is why power is important. Going one step further what enables us to produce power? Our hearts, our lungs, our muscles: our VO2max. Or maximal rate at which we can take oxygen into our bodies and deliver it to our muscles, and use it. As an example it takes approximately 1.5 liters of oxygen to be sucked into your bodies and used to produce 100 watts, 2.1 litres of oxygen per minute to produce 150 watts, and so on, increasing thereafter. So to produce more power we need to make our bodies more efficient at increasing their ability to take in oxygen and use it. This means that aerobic training at the right intensity (even on the flat roads) helps our hill climbing. In Part 3 of this series we will take a detailed look at aerobic and specific hill training to improve your climbing.
Training/Racing Components of Climbing:
Appropriate technique climbing in and out of the saddle is essential for effective power application to the pedals. Why? The amount of power you can produce is the result of not only oxygen consumption as mentioned above, but also how well you apply your aerobic ability to the pedals. Do you have a rock solid, but relaxed upper body? Or do you have a death grip on the handlebars so energy that could be going into the pedals is instead helping your knuckles go white, and shoulders tighten? What is your climbing cadence? Do you grind at 60 rpm up the hills but spin happily at 90+rpm on the flat roads. Then why do you grind the hills? As power goes up, it is more efficient to spin at higher rpm’s. This is why it is important to keep cadence high up hills. It helps delay fatigue by keeping it aerobic, despite working at high power outputs.
Positioning is key in a race or event. Riding at or near the front of the bunch on climbs is essential if you are not “climbing confident”, so you do not have to ride around others that may open gaps, and so you can ride your own pace up the hills. If you can’t quite sustain the pace at least by starting the hill at the front of the bunch by the time the hill ends you will either still be in the bunch but further back, or just be able to jump on the back. In Part 2 of this series we will look in depth at technique both climbing in and out of the seat.
Do you always struggle on a particular type of climb? Is this relative to your weight? Ie. Are you heavier than your competition and always get dropped on steep hills? Or is it both types of hills? Find out by testing yourself. Pick a gradual climb, and a steep climb of a decent length. If you have a Polar cycle computer and heart rate monitor or another monitor that has altitude you can calculate your climbing velocity on each type of climb, and see which you are quickest on. This is called “VAM” as Michelle Ferrari first coined it “velocita ascensionale media”: average climbing speed, so you can directly compare climbs. Polar software automatically works out VAM for those technically inclined who download each night. Or you can manually calculate it by measuring vertical ascent (in metres), and dividing it by time (in hours), to give you VAM in metres per hour. Compare your VAM’s on different types of climbs, and this helps to direct your training, and compare yourself to Lance who could climb at 1500-2000 metres per hour for an hour or more. Ouch.
Look at what cadence you average on climbs. Is it quick? Too quick perhaps? Or mortifyingly slow? But you maybe in your smallest gear, & absolutely can’t push it any quicker? This information tells you a lot. If for example you are in your smallest gear and are grinding up hills at 60 rpm, then you need to change the cluster, and/or front chain rings to accommodate spinning up hills.
Amy Taylor is one of the founders of Kinetic Edge – Training Technology (www.kecycling.com). Amy is an Auckland based Exercise Physiologist and Cycling Coach with a MSc(Hons) in Sports Science. She has been cycling herself for 16yrs and coaches recreational to world champion cyclists and can be contacted on 631 5436, or firstname.lastname@example.org