by Fred Matheny
I was once riding with some friends over Black Mesa near Gunnison, Colorado. The road climbs onto the mesa and then rolls up and down along its edge. It’s a rhythmless ride because you’re always climbing and descending.
On the third or fourth long hill, one of the riders gasped: “Is it better to stand on a long climb or should I sit and spin? I can spin faster seated but sometimes it feels better to stand and crank.”
At the time, I was too blown to answer. Now that I’ve caught my breath, here’s the current thinking: It depends!
Any rider’s most efficient climbing style is highly individual. Factors include muscle fiber type, fitness, body weight and training.
Generally, heavier riders sit more because when they stand, they have more body weight to support as they push the pedals around. The saddle does that for them while they’re seated, so standing exacts a larger energy penalty. Also, fast spinners have trained themselves to spin. It’s not a comfortable technique on climbs because it puts a premium on the cardiovascular system. High cadence pros don’t pant and gasp a lot, but you will.
You’ll need to determine if standing or sitting is more efficient for you. Here’s how:
• On your favorite training climb, ride up while standing. At the top, record your time, heart rate, perceived exertion and, if you have a power meter, your average wattage. Recover for 10 minutes and repeat the climb, this time seated. Record your data again.
Several days later, again climb the hill twice. This time make the first ascent in the saddle and the second while standing. Record data and compare. You should begin to see a pattern of lower heart rate, lower perceived exertion and a faster time (or higher wattage) for the technique that works for you.
Be careful with these results. Most riders climb best when they alternate sitting and standing on climbs. It takes quite a bit of climbing experience to determine the best mix of the 2. That’s one reason it’s important to climb frequently.
• Do “Mosers.” You can condition muscles for standing even if you don’t have hills nearby. Try this drill, named after Francesco Moser, a top Italian road pro in the 1970s and ’80s. On a flat road, shift to a very large gear and stand. Don’t accelerate, just turn the crank at 40-50 rpm, letting your weight push the pedal down. Many riders need a gear of 53×12 or 13 to get the desired cadence and effect, particularly if there’s a tailwind. Continue for 5-10 minutes, sit for 5 minutes and spin in an easy gear, then repeat.
• Alternate techniques on climbs during interval sessions. If you’re doing intervals up a hill that takes 2-5 minutes to climb, alternate sitting and standing. Do this 2 ways. First, perform the initial interval standing all the way. Do the second interval seated (in a lower gear, of course). Continue to alternate for the number of intervals you’ve scheduled. Or you can stand for 30 seconds then sit down and spin for another 30, alternating all the way to the top. You don’t have to grind up the same hill repeatedly to do this drill. If your route has several hills, simply ride the course, using these techniques on each hill and enjoying the variety.