Last week I wrote about riding a two-day credit card tour from Winter Park, Colorado (8,573 ft. / 2,613m) to Steamboat Springs (6,732 ft. / 2,052m). I covered 100 miles over two days, which the Tour de France would cover in one day. And I’m obviously much slower than the pros, but the same principles of riding the multi-day Tour apply to my mini-tour and to any back-to-back days of riding.
Today I’ll focus on some tips for climbing. And next week, I’ll add some tips on eating and nutrition.
Leaving Steamboat on my way back to Winter Park I climbed the west side of Rabbit Ears pass, which climbs 2,600 ft. (790m) in 7 miles (11 km) averaging 6.5 to 7.5%. It’s very similar to the Category 1 Col d’Aspin in the Pyrenees, which is 12 km of 6.5%. However, the top of the Col d’Aspin is just 4,900 ft. / 1,490m, which is below the start of Rabbit Ears. The highest point of the 2016 Tour de France is the Port d’Envalira, which is “only” 2,408m /7,900 ft. The pros raced over the Port on July 12 after the rest day, with Michael Matthews (Orica-BikeExchange) winning the stage. The height of Rabbit Ears might elevate it to a Hors Catégory. Whatever the rating, Rabbit Ears is a sustained grind!
Climbing Ability is Vital – Not Just for TdF Riders
“My number one lesson from riding the Tour is a very simple one – learn to ride hills and you will have a big advantage! —Miguel Indurain won five consecutive Tours de France from 1991 to 1995. Despite his physical size—6 feet, 2 inches (1.88 m) and 176 lbs. (80 kg) —he was an excellent climber.
“Everyone knows that you can’t win the Tour if you don’t know how to climb. But still many people do not put this in their training; maybe they are intimidated by the fear of the climb? Pick the biggest, longest hill you can find. You need to push yourself beyond what you thought was possible. The mental strength you will gain will be enormous.”
Climbing is a skill that is vital to any roadie, not just Tour de France riders. How you train for hills depends in part on where you live, but there are numerous steps you can take to train to push yourself beyond what you think is possible.
- I live in the foothills of the Continental Divide, and so far this season I’ve climbed Trail Ridge road (12,183 ft. / 3,713m) from both sides. It’s the highest paved pass in the U.S. I’ve also climbed Independence pass (12,095 ft. / 3,678m) from the Aspen side.
- Most roadies don’t live near long climbs. What can you do? My 72-year-old friend and client Elizabeth Wicks is training for the PAC Tour Northern Transcontinental. She’ll be riding 3,600 miles averaging over 100 miles per day including several days with sustained climbs in the Cascades and Rockies. Elizabeth lives in Massachusetts and says, “I decided to embrace the quad busters [short, steep hills) I have so readily available around here. My new attitude is to relish the challenge of getting up the steep stuff, mentally and physically. Stay relaxed, keep as high a cadence as possible with loose upper body, zig zag if I have to and celebrate when I get to the top. Don’t worry about speed.”
- No hills? I coached my friend and former client Rieks Koning who lives in the Netherlands to a successful RAAM. He prepared by doing both sustained rides and short repeats into the wind.
- Improve your power-to-weight ratio:
- Weight. Almost every rider can improve more by losing more weight than by buying an ultra-light bike. I’ve lost 15 pounds since last season. My friend and former pro Chris Grealish says losing weight is simple, “Ride more, eat less.” (It’s not quite that simple!) I cross-country skied 71 days last winter and have been riding regularly since March. Brooke O’Connor, while racing on Team Hub Racing, lost 16 pounds when, she says, “I started drinking water, not caloric beverages.” I didn’t diet to lose those 15 pounds since last season. In addition to plenty of low-intensity, high-volume exercise, I too started drinking just plain water.
- Power. Since ski season was over at the end of March, I’ve been doing a variety of intensity workouts once or twice a week. My time climbing Flagstaff (892 ft. / 272m in 2.9 miles / 4.7 km) – one of the ways I gauge my progress as a rider – has improved over two minutes since last year. My eArticle Intensity 2016 explains specifically how to train for power.
Here are some tips on how to climb like the pros
- Ride your strength(s) — My friend Pete Penseyres won the non-drafting Race Across AMerica (RAAM) twice. Pete is fairly small and climbs well so he pushed the pace on the climbs and then backed off on the descents, where he didn’t have the power to overcome the aerodynamic drag. Our mutual friend Lon Haldeman is a big guy who also won RAAM twice. He can climb, but not as fast as Pete; however, Lon has the power to ride faster downhill and across the plains. In 1987 Lon and Pete set the still-standing transcontinental men’s tandem record of 7days 14 hours 55 minutes.
- Attack on the steeps — A racer who is a great climber will often attack on one of the ramps in a long climb to break away. If you are hammering with your buddies on the weekend club ride or racing a hilly time trial, the general rule of thumb is the steeper the climb the more power you should put out, and the steeper the descent the more you back off. The same amount of power will gain you more of an advantage climbing than descending because of the aerodynamics. You don’t need to use a power meter to employ this rule of thumb. More power means ride up to your:
- Sub-barf pace if riding by perceived exertion.
- Lactate threshold (LT) if riding by heart rate.
- Functional threshold power (FTP) if riding by power.
Never ride so hard that you are gasping for air
- Don’t get shelled — any rider from the rabbit Nairo Quintana to a 67-year-old tourist like me can only ride for an hour at the rider’s sub-barf / LT / FTP pace. If you go harder than that for more than a few minutes or ride at that intensity on a climb that takes much more than an hour, you’ll be spit out the back.
- Don’t pedal squares — A rider who is shelled off the back often is reduced to pedaling squares, i.e., just using the rider’s strong quadriceps to push down on the pedals instead of employing all of the rider’s muscle groups around the stroke. The pedaling may also be ragged instead of a consistent cadence with a smooth stroke. If this happens to you, deliberately slow down and focus on your breathing. Get your breathing under control and then get your cadence to match your breathing. After a minute or two you’ll be riding smoothly and can pick up the pace — but don’t chase so hard that you blow up again .
- Ride tactically — If the other riders in your group are better climbers, then as you approach a climb work your way up to the front of the group. Then on the climb you can ride just a little slower and gradually fade to the back of the group without getting dropped.
- Ride your ride — If you are doing an endurance ride rather than any type of competitive ride then most of the above rules change. Never go above your tempo pace — you should always be able to talk but not whistle. By heart rate stay below 95% of LT and by power stay below 90% of FTP.
Use mental skills as well
By training to climb Indurain says, “The mental strength you will gain will be enormous.” In addition to gaining confidence you can:
- Divide and conquer — When Sir Bradley Wiggins attempted the hour record on the track in June 2015 he knew that he couldn’t possibly race flat out for an hour, so his strategy was to divide the hour into five 12-minute sections and just ride them one at a time. The result was the record of 54.526 km. When climbing a sustained pass, the top may seem almost impossibly far away to me. I just set a goal of climbing 500 or 1,000 feet and then I take a short break. “Stop while climbing?” you think. At altitude it’s impossible to drink or eat while pedaling! I use the same strategy time trialing Flagstaff — I race it one mile at a time.
- Ignore the pain — “Shut up, legs!” Jens Voigt was famous for saying this during difficult stages, especially on his long solo breakaways. It’s good advice during a fast club ride, time trial or sustained climb. When the riding is hard, an athlete can either distract himself or herself by directing attention externally, like Voigt focusing on the goal, or by talking to others or looking around at nature. Or a rider can direct his/her attention internally, paying attention to the legs and how they are feeling.
- Listen to your body — According to Dr. Robin Saltonstall, my friend and former tandem partner, riders who direct their attention externally are much more likely to be injured. Climbing Rabbit Ears, my legs were talking to me and I was listening. From the top I still had 30 miles of rollers in the heat of the afternoon to my motel in Kremmling – and the next day 45 miles of rollers climbing back up the valley to Winter Park. If I hadn’t listenend and cooked myself, the rest of the ride, and the next day, would have been miserable.
Next week, I’ll continue this series with tips on Eating Like the Pros.
Learning from the Pros: 35 tips on how to become a better rider is 26 pages packed with current information, and available for only $4.99 ($4.24 for Premium Members after their 15% discount). Whether you ride for good health, for better fitness or improved performance, Coach John Hughes translates these tips from the masters of the sport into terms that you can use.
Coach Hughes is posting pictures of his mini-tour on https://www.facebook.com/john.hughes.5283
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.