It’s only 9 a.m., I’m climbing at 10,000 feet – and I’m hot! Can you guess why?
I closed the office on Monday and went for an early Fourth of July ride, climbing Independence Pass (12,096 feet/3,686m) from Aspen. Independence is one of the iconic Colorado climbs. The U.S. Pro Challenge has raced up and down both sides. From the Aspen side it has a European feel, with one-lane sections with only low stone walls to keep the rider from falling over the edge.
When I started at 8,800 feet at 7:30 a.m. it was only 45F (7.2C) and chilly. I put on a polypro undershirt, jersey, tights, arm warmers, thermal vest, heavy rain coat (“Big Yellow”), long-fingered gloves and warm hat. I was comfortable for an hour or so.
“Aha,” you’re thinking. “By 9 a.m., Coach Hughes was wearing too many clothes.”
But you would be wrong. I stopped to eat a snack and drink — it’s impossible to eat and drink while climbing at altitude; I’m breathing too hard — and was very comfortable even standing in the intense sunlight.
My Engine (And Yours) Is Extremely Inefficient
The problem wasn’t the ambient air temperature or the solar gain at altitude.
The problem was my inefficient engine.
The human engine is only 20 – 40 percent efficient. For every 1,000 calories I burned chugging up the mountain, only 200 to 400 calories produced forward movement. The other 600 to 800 calories produced heat!
If you drive your car too hard up a sustained climb, the temperature gauge will start to go up. In the old days your radiator might start to vent steam. Your body is the same. Your blood flows through your working muscles and your vital organs, and then to the skin, where the heat is dissipated as sweat.
To keep my radiator topped off, I carried three bottles: one of water and two of my homemade sports drink:
- 1/3 cup (80 ml) natural unsweetened orange juice
- 12 teaspoons (50 g) of sugar, sucrose (table sugar), glucose or maltodextrin
- 1/4 teaspoon salt (1.7g)
- Enough water to make 1 quart (about 1 liter)
One 8 fl. oz. (240 ml) serving meets the American College of Sports Medicine recommendations:
- Carbohydrates 12.5 – 13.5g (50-55 calories)
- Sodium about 150 mg sodium
- Potassium about 35-45 mg
Commercial so-called electrolyte drinks don’t meet the ACSM guidelines. Some are too sweet, which delays absorption, and most are low in sodium, to improve palatability.
At my food and drink stop, I took off the undershirt, warm hat and gloves and stuffed them in my seat pack. I strapped the heavy rain jacket to the seat bag.
Why Not Wear Less?
“Why didn’t Coach Hughes just wear less?” you ask. Thunderstorms can move in and the temperature can drop rapidly by 30 degrees! Even if that didn’t happen, descending at 40+ mph can be cold at altitude.
The road climbs up the Roaring Fork River. The river gets its name from the sections with the rapids and falls – sections where the road gets steep! I was comfortable except for the roaring sections. Until about 11,000 feet.
In the mountains, as the denser valley air warms up more, it flows up the valleys, so I had a great tailwind. Except that the air and I were moving at about the same pace, so I wasn’t getting any ventilation.
At 11,000 feet, I took off the thermal vest and strapped it on the bag. I kept on the tights because I like to keep my knees covered until the ambient temperature is at least into the 60s. Keeping my knees warm is one of the ways to prevent injury, along with spinning low gears.
I left on the arm warmers with a 50+ UPF.
A word of caution. According to my dermatologist it’s very difficult to test the actual Ultraviolet Protection Factor, and with repeated wear and washing, the UPF is reduced. The Sun Protection Factor of sunscreens can be measured in the lab. Only a few companies produce sun protective clothing that meets the dermatology standards. None of the mass-market cycling clothing meets these standards. (RBR recently ran A Primer on Sun-Protected Cycling Apparel and Sunscreen Info and Tips.)
I wore the arm warmers for warmth and some degree of sun protection, which I think is better than arm warmers with no sun protection.
Finally, I reached the pass about Noon and got a motorcycle rider to take my picture. He said, “You must be in great shape. I’m short of breath just standing here.” I modestly replied, “It took all morning – what else was I going to do?” The secret to climbing is to go slowly to suck in all of the beauty!
I put on Big Yellow and headed down the mountain. Because of the upslope wind I didn’t get much above 40 mph. Still I was back at the car in 35 minutes — and gladly stripped down to just shorts and a jersey while I packed for the drive.
Even if you don’t ride in the heat, heat is a factor for every roadie!
New Summer Riding Bundle of eArticles Now Available!
Summer is here. The 4-article cost-saving Summer Riding Bundle gives you the all the info you need to ride better and more comfortably in what can be challenging summer riding conditions. The 4 articles in the bundle include:
- Cycling in the Heat, Part 1: – Ride Management. 20 pages on how to acclimate, how to ride in the heat without overheating, how to stay (relatively) cool, what to wear, what to eat and drink, how to cool down if you overheat, and heat-related problems
- Cycling in the Heat, Part 2: – Hydration Management. 21 pages on assessing your personal sweat rate and composition, how much you should drink, electrolyte replacement and the pros and cons of electrolyte replacement drinks, supplements and foods.
- Preventing and Treating Cramps. I haven’t cramped in decades. 10 pages on what causes cramps, how to prevent them, and what to do to break a cramp so you can keep riding.
- Eating and Drinking Like the Pros: How to Make Your Own Sports Food and Drink — Nutritional Insight from Pro Teams. 15 pages covering what the pros eat and drink, what you can learn from this, how to make your own sports drinks, gels and solid food, and what to eat at a minimart.
For photos of Coach Hughes’ climb, go to his Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/john.hughes.5283
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Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.