I sometimes ride with a relatively small, light climber who flies up long hills but doesn’t time trial well. He stands on climbs, but when forced to exert power while seated — as in flatland riding or even on short hills where he’s trying to conserve energy by staying in the saddle — he just can’t make the bike go. What can he do to improve?
Small climbers often like to ascend out of the saddle while larger riders often climb seated. The reason is that when you stand, you not only need to exert enough energy to get up the hill, you need to support your body weight. Light riders pay less of a penalty for standing, so they can take advantage of the benefits of climbing out of the saddle: butt comfort, more leverage and using their weight to push the pedals down.
But it’s important to learn to climb short and long hills while seated to conserve energy. And the power you develop carries over to seated efforts on the flat, like time trialing. Here are some tips.
Emphasize the downstroke. A smooth, round pedal stroke is important. But there’s increasing evidence that top riders go fast because they stomp powerfully during the downstroke.
A study by famed exercise physiologist Eddie Coyle at the University of Texas highlights this point. A group of “good state-class” racers had about the same oxygen uptake (VO2 max) as a more accomplished group of “elite national-class” cyclists. However, the elite riders were able to ride a 40-km time trial (indoors on ergometers) 10% faster than the less accomplished riders.
Analysis with force-measuring pedals revealed that while the elite riders’ VO2 max wasn’t higher, they were able to push down on the pedals harder and thus generate 11% more power. The study concludes: “Elite national-class riders have the ability to generate ‘higher downstroke power,’ possibly as a result of muscular adaptations stimulated by more years of endurance training.”
A smooth pedal stroke is still important. Don’t penalize yourself by pedaling in a rough and jerky fashion. But if you concentrate on giving the pedal a little “kick” as it goes over the top and begins its downward travel, you may increase your seated power.
Do specialized training. Do intervals up short hills while seated. Find a hill that’s moderately steep and takes about 30 seconds to climb. Use a fairly large gear and hit it hard at the bottom. Don’t let your cadence slow too markedly by the top — your gear should enable you to maintain at least 90 rpm for the whole climb. Remember to apply power forcefully on the downstroke while retaining a smooth pedal stroke.
Second workout: Do longer (10- to 15-minute) time trial-like intervals, seated, at a heart rate of about 85% of your maximum at a cadence of about 90 rpm. Kicking the pedal over at the top of the stroke is important in this drill, too, but it’s more subtle.
Coach Fred Matheny is an RBR co-founder who has four decades of road cycling and coaching experience. He has written 14 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach Fred Matheny, including the classic Complete Book of Road Bike Training, which includes 4 eBooks comprising 250 pages of timeless, detailed advice and training plans. The Complete Book is one of the many perks of an RBR Premium Membership. Click to read Fred's full bio.