(Over the next three issues, we’re going to focus on climbing. We’ll start today with a look at the psychological side of hauling yourself uphill. Then we’ll talk in more detail about how to climb short, steep hills. And, finally, we’ll provide climbing tips for the Clydesdales among us.)
You’re riding with a friend who’s killing you on the hills. You know you’re equally fit because you’ve accumulated about the same number of miles this season, and on flat time trials you can hold your own against him. You weigh about the same, too, so the power-to-weight ratio isn’t a reason for your suffering. Why is your friend so much better when the road tilts up?
Climbing is a highly specific form of cycling. Notice the difference in how your pedal stroke feels when you’re riding hard on the flat compared to climbing. Flat riding depends on pedaling speed (and aerodynamics if you’re alone). There’s only a moderate amount of pressure on the pedals if you’re in the correct gear.
But when you encounter a hill, pedal speed drops and the effort becomes more muscular than cardiovascular. That’s why in a 3-week tour, pros hate the first day in the mountains. After a week of riding flat stages, tucked in the pack and waiting for the sprint, their legs complain loudly when they have to generate significantly more force per pedal stroke. Just like yours do when you hit the climbs.
What, in addition to talent and fitness, separates good climbers from mediocre ones? It’s got a lot to do with attitude, desire and mental focus.
It's possible to have a lot of fun on the bike without being a very good climber. That's why compact cranksets and, to a lesser degree, triple chainrings are so popular. If you want to climb better, you'll have the motivation to work at it. If not, there's nothing wrong with you. Just go a bit slower and enjoy the scenery. Also, motivation can vary from day to day. I've found that some days I like to climb hard and other days I want to cruise. Listen to your body.
Climbing is hard work. Being able to ride right on the edge of blowing up means you can get the most out of your ability. This isn't fun, but it builds character (or so I'm told). You can work on your suffering quotient whenever you climb. When it gets tough, push a bit harder, but only for a minute or so. You have to be careful about training to suffer. A little goes a long way. Suffer like a dog on every hilly ride and you’ll soon overtrain and learn to hate the bike.
Enthusiastic climbers have learned to love climbing. Some of them don’t go uphill very fast, but they love the challenge nonetheless. Use whatever psychological gimmick works for you to develop a love for ascending. Maybe it’s the scenery, or the satisfaction of getting to the top, or even a feeling of superiority to your cycling friends who cower in the lowlands instead of seeking out climbs. Maybe it's knowing that every hill ridden fast makes you fitter.
And of course there’s the poor climber’s best reason for climbing -- the reward of a screaming descent!
(Note that Coach John Hughes’ eArticle, Gaining a Mental Edge: Using Sports Psychology to Improve Your Cycling, covers the mental side of cycling in detail. And my eBook, Climbing for Roadies, is a good overall resource for improving your climbing ability.)