Jim’s Tech Talk
By Jim Langley
Last Sunday I pedaled to the top of Mount Diablo on the South Gate Road, which, in about 11 miles rises to 3,249 feet above the San Francisco Bay. It’s near the town of Danville, California and is a popular destination every weekend for roadies thanks to moderate grades of mostly 5 to 7 percent, decent pavement, sweeping turns and lovely views.
I was there to do the 37th Mount Diablo Challenge, an organized race and fundraiser to help preserve and protect the mountain’s recreational facilities. The fastest man this year was former Garmin/Cervelo pro rider Kirk Carlsen who beat the Devil with a 44:50 (about 15mph average). Clarice Sayle earned queen of the mountain honors, with a smoking 54:29 (almost 12mph average).
The support at the race was top notch all the way. The road was closed to cars for the first seven waves of riders. This meant you could cut every corner to save time and ride the less steep side of the turns. I especially liked the home baked treats at the summit and the way they posted the results on giant flat screens at the podium area at the finish. The awards were impressive, too, with the top riders winning Mavic wheelsets. The photo shows the expo and podium area at the start/finish.
You can learn more about the event and how the money raised benefits all users of Mount Diablo at their websites:
A Classic Way to End the Season
Traditionally, hill climbs have been a popular way to stay in shape after the regular cycling season in the spring and summer. And, in areas where there’s a lot of road riding, there’s a chance you can find a hill climb series. If so, every weekend in the fall, organized, timed races up various challenging climbs will take place.
When I first moved here to Santa Cruz, California in the early 80’s race organizer Velo Promo held a climbing series that ultimately led to some of America’s first top pros, such as Jonathan “Jacques” Boyer and Greg LeMond to come test themselves up those same climbs. One, known as Bonny Doon because it goes through that area, was later used in the Tour of California for a couple of years.
More recently, here in Northern California, for many years we were lucky enough to have a series called the Low Key Hillclimbs. The website is still live, though I’m not certain whether or not the series will resume: http://lowkeyhillclimbs.com/2018/.
If you don’t have a climbing series in your area, you might consider starting one. It wouldn’t be easy to do it yourself, but if you belong to a club, I bet you could get others interested in the idea. If you want inspiration, visit the link above and read some of the fun climb and race descriptions. It really is a fun event to be part of.
Other Ways to Test Yourself on the Ups
Climbing series like the Low Keys that were here may be on the wane in some places because of new hot cycling trends like Strava’s King of the Mountains records and indoor training’s Zwift and other online competitions like it.
But, I really enjoy lining up with a bunch of like-minded cyclists and battling it out on a significant wall. There’s a bond out there that you’re all trying to get to the top and, while it’s great if you can win or place, even if you’re dead last, you get credit and satisfaction for making it.
A Cycling Event for All Riders and All Bicycles
In my experience these types of vertical series are usually open to all cyclists, not just USA licensed road racers. They’re also open to all bicycle types, which is one of the most interesting aspects to me.
On Diablo, besides the standard carbon super bikes, I spotted lots of outliers. For example:
- Fixed gears bikes. Why? Because, while you can’t coast and have to pedal non-stop, you are directly connected to the drivetrain for maximum pedaling efficiency. Also, with such a simple drivetrain the bikes should be lighter than even the lightest derailleur bike.
- Flat-bar featherweights. Why? One way to strip weight is to get rid of the heavy shifting brake levers and bulky drop handlebars. Some riders feel more powerful with narrow flat bars.
- Tandems. Why? The best reason is to have two engines to get up the hill. And yes, a good team can fly even on a giant bike. Tandems made to climb have to withstand massive pedaling forces or else they can be hard to control and components will break – I’ve seen it happen and it’s dangerous..
- Unicycles! Why? I’m not sure but my best guess is to compare themselves with bicycles and I did see that they were plenty fast.
- Lastly, I even saw one daring rider who removed his seat and post altogether!
I asked him why and he told me that he climbs best when standing. And, quickly added that when you’re not sitting on a seat there’s no chafing issues, either. I told him that choosing to ride while standing only is unusual but not unheard of because I’ve run into at least one other person who removed his seat and post.
Dialing in a Road Bike
You probably won’t want to copy the seatless few, but one of the most fun aspects of hill climbs to me is customizing the bike for each hill. Because climbing is essentially carrying a weight up a hill, one of the best ways to go faster is making the bike lighter.
It’s always interesting figuring out how best to do that. I did it by running a set of Bontrager carbon Aeolus tubular (sew-up) wheels. At less than 1,000 grams, they’re the lightest set I own and the Vittoria tires are among the nicest riding. Going with feathery wheels and fast rolling rubber makes any bike feel like it’s easier to pedal uphill.
Gearing is a good puzzle, too. You have to know what works for you and understand the climb to determine if you already have the optimum gears or if you need to change. For Diablo I switched my lowest gear. I had a 39 tooth chainring with a 28 tooth cassette. I went to a 34 tooth chainring.
In hindsight, I now know that I would have done better with a 32 tooth small ring in front. The 34 tooth chainring forced me to have to push too hard with my legs, which tired them out too fast. Even worse, it aggravated an old hamstring injury. Had I been able to spin more I think I could have saved a little muscle fatigue, avoided the stinging hammy, and maintained a slightly faster pace.
“Old” Roadies Still Climb Fast
I’ve been racing uphill since 1980, when I did the Mount Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb. That series will be 48 years old in 2020, so I believe it’s one of the granddaddies of American climbing races. I managed a 3rd place finish in my amateur category back then. Previously, I had done the running race up the mountain. And my cycling and running times were almost the same.
At Mount Diablo I finished 5th out of 20 in the 65+ category. The winner was a masters champion I’ve competed with many times over the years, Mac Carey. He topped the mountain in 58:25 (11.3 mph). I was a long ways back in 1:12:30. The gold standard is to break an hour for which you win a T-shirt that says as much. There was only one woman in their 65+ event. She won with 1:18:34.
I found it interesting and motivating to see that the older categories (there are categories for every 5 year spread) had good numbers of riders and that even the 80+ category had a racer, Duncan Smith from Alamo, California. He reached the summit in 2:13:56.
If you get to compete in one of these hill climbing series, I wish you luck and am sure you’ll enjoy yourself no matter the outcome. And, if you can’t attend a series, an alternative that works for some riders is to travel to do great climbs. My coach Mark Edwards recently sent me this list. I was pleased to see that Mount Diablo and Washington are on it.
On the subject of travelling to conquer epic climbs – and because people often ask – my favorite was the Hawaiian volcano Haleakalā on the island of Maui. You start next to the ocean and ascend for 30 miles to the summit, which is slightly above 10,000 feet and usually in the clouds. I was almost turned back by the heat and humidity, but I kept going and made it to the top. I think you’ll love it if you get to go.
Ride total: 9,431
Jim Langley is RBR’s Technical Editor. He has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for more than 40 years. He’s the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check out his “cycling aficionado” website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim’s streak of consecutive cycling days has reached more than 8,000. Click to read Jim’s full bio.