QUESTION: I’m a strong climber with good endurance on long, gradual hills, even at the end of long rides. But as the climb steepens to 6% or more, I fall apart, especially if I stand. How come, and how can I get better? — Mel S.
RBR REPLIES: You didn’t mention your size, but climbing always depends on your power-to-weight (PTW) ratio. If a friend puts out more watts per kilogram of body weight than you do, he’ll climb steep hills faster even if you generate more power in an absolute sense.
Example: A 90-kilogram rider who can produce 360 watts for 20 minutes has a PTW ratio of 4.0. A guy who’s 70 kg and produces 300 watts for 20 minutes has a ratio of 4.3. He’ll climb the steep stuff faster even though he’s putting out fewer watts.
But a big, powerful rider will go faster on the flat where gravity isn’t an issue. That’s why bigger riders typically time trial better than light climbers.
As the grade steepens, the advantage of pure power lessens, and the advantage of a superior PTW ratio increases. So, if you’re pretty big and typically ride strongly on the flats, this explains why climbs get harder for you as they get steeper.
You mentioned having trouble when you stand. That’s often the case with larger riders because when you get out of the saddle, you have to hold up your body weight as well as push the pedals. The more you weigh, the more of your available power goes to supporting your body.
Now, how can you improve on steeper climbs?
• Lose weight if you carry extra body fat.
• Increase power with well-designed interval training.
• Get to the front of the group before hard climbs. You’ll gradually slip back and may even lose contact, but big riders can descend faster and catch up.
• Finally, employ the technique all good climbers know: Suffer!
Want to get better at climbing? Check out our $4.95 e-article about improving your climbing skills and confidence.
“You may have reasons to dread hills. But it doesn’t have to be this way. When viewed and used appropriately, hills are a great tool to improve fitness and add enjoyment to your cycling. This eArticle is designed to help you become more competent and confident in your climbing. It will explain equipment and techniques to help your climbing ability. It then provides a series of workouts to use to improve your ability to climb long and gradual, as well as short and steep, hills.”
Written by Coach David Ertl, Ph.D. USA Cycling Level 1 Coach