Best Tips For Handling Long, Steep Climbs

By John Marsh, Editor & Publisher

Day 2 of the Tour de Wyoming in July was the kind of epic climbing day that defines us as roadies. Before the ride, I warily eyeballed the course and elevation map for that day, knowing it would test everything I had as a rider. 

Before starting the Tour, I had only been riding the road again for 3 weeks and 350 miles after my clavicle surgery in late April. 

In short, that day required every ounce of physical strength, mental fortitude, self-knowledge and riding acumen I had to haul myself up those 33 miles of climbing (over 6,500 feet of elevation gain) to TdW2016JohnScottMikeatPowderRiverPass.WEBthe top of Powder River Pass, at 9,666 feet (2,946m). With rest stops strategically placed about every 10 miles, the slog was effectively three separate, successive and brutal 10+-mile climbs, with long stretches of 8% and higher gradients.

It was one of my toughest days on the bike ever. But also one of the most rewarding. And, thinking about it and other challenging climbing days in years past, it offered numerous tips and lessons worthy of sharing.

Control and Fortitude Are Vital on Tough Climbs

My first lesson in how to handle a beastly climb came years ago on a tilt in the mountains of north Georgia called Hogpen Gap. Hogpen is seven miles total length, 7% average grade, with a 2-mile section that ramps up to as high as 15%. It’s rated as a Cat 1 climb and was featured in the former Tour de Georgia.

The first time I rode Hogpen in an organized ride was as part of my first Six Gap Century, which includes five other, less menacing climbs adding up to over 11,000 feet of climbing in the 103 miles. I thought my training was adequate for the ride, but when I hit the 15% ramp on Hogpen that hot day, I realized I had pushed myself deep into a place I didn't want to be.

My legs ached, my chest heaved. I desperately panted as I sucked in air. Sweat rolled down my face. And because I lacked the strength even to spit, the saliva from my mouth stretched uninterrupted to my top tube. And the feeling "down there" continued to fade, as I kept my butt firmly glued to the saddle, never standing once to relieve the pressure.

I focused all the energy and mental fortitude I had into turning pedal over pedal, and staying upright. And I prayed for help.

At my low point, I heard a voice: “You sure do have a nice-looking drool string there.” I was fairly certain it came not from God but from the cyclist who just pulled up beside me. “I sure do like to see a man working hard,” he continued.

I could only nod my head in acknowledgement, not even mustering the strength to glance sidelong and look at the guy. After he yelled, “Hoo-Ahh!” and took off up the mountain, I did see him from behind, though, as I continued to stare straight ahead.

Here's what I learned that day and have applied on every really tough climb since, including on that brutal day in Wyoming in July:

  • Steep, long – uber-tough – climbs require a combination of training, self-control, self-knowledge and moxie. Of course, this assumes, too, that you have the appropriate gearing to allow yourself to do such climbs in a controlled manner.
  • You have to measure your effort to keep yourself from overdoing it and ending up in a zone or deficit where you don’t belong. Most of us know that "forbidden zone" as surpassing our lactate threshold, or going anaerobic. Some riders can track their effort with perceived exertion. Some may even peg it to a power number. For me, though, it's heart rate.
  • Whichever method you use, you have to know yourself, and control yourself, on these kinds of climbs. I know exactly where to keep my HR now on serious climbs; I give myself a zone of 10 beats per minute and then try to never surpass the upper limit of that zone. If I do inch past it, I immediately ease off and settle back into a groove that brings my HR back into the zone.
  • You need to find a nice, sustainable rhythm that can carry you up the mountain. I ride lesser climbs in a similar way (more on that below), but on the steep, long grinds I work hard to find that sustainable pace and cadence that "syncs" with my breathing so that everything is in rhythm.
  • Never worry about anyone but yourself on a long, steep climb. Once you find your pace and rhythm that are sustainable for the duration, don’t let anything – or anyone – change that. Resist all temptation to think you have to equal anyone else’s pace – whether they’re older, younger, bigger, smaller, or riding a bamboo tandem (yes, I actually got passed by a bamboo tandem on that 15% grade once!). Staying within yourself is the only thing that matters.
  • You must stand at regular intervals on long, steep climbs to relieve the pressure on your nether region and get the "blood flowing." Not standing is a huge mistake that can, literally, stay with you for days, or longer. Standing every few minutes lets you stretch your legs and lower back a bit, and simply rising off the saddle and finding a new position can add to your overall comfort. Staying to the rear of the saddle is important, too.
  • Find a nice, relaxing hand position and focus on keeping your arms and shoulders relaxed. Because gravity and grade are grinding your butt into the saddle, climbing puts much less pressure on your hands. Take advantage of that by putting your hands on top of the bar and focusing on keeping your arms and shoulders relaxed. Your lower body is already under pressure; no need to add to your suffering through upper-body tension, too.
  • Climbing is, in some cases, as much about fortitude, determination, grit, guts (whatever you want to call it), as it is about training or the “form” that you’re in. Sometimes, riding up a mountain, everything else can desert you – even if you haven’t pushed yourself into trouble, trouble can find you. You may simply be having a bad day on the bike. And all you’re left with is the mental strength to keep going.
  • To me, the mental side of climbing is just as important as the physical side. On the really tough pitches, I often feel like I'm the arbiter of an ongoing conversation between my brain and body, where I'm forced to convince my brain to allow my body to keep "bringing the pain" and not simply stop and get off the bike to avoid further suffering.
  • Keep in mind that if you do lose the argument with your brain and stop, you've either got a long walk ahead of you, a demoralizing ride in the SAG wagon (if there is one), or the difficult task of clicking back in on a steep grade and trying to recover the hard-earned bit of momentum that you just abandoned. None of those is a good choice. So try your damnedest not to lose that argument!

John Marsh is the editor and publisher of RBR Newsletter and RoadBikeRider.com. A rider of "less than podium" talent, he sees himself as RBR's Ringmaster, guiding the real talent (RBR's great coaches, contributors and authors) in bringing our readers consistently useful, informative, entertaining info that helps make them better road cyclists. That's what we're all about here—always have been, always will be. Click to read John's full bio.

 

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