The BeFitApps team suggested that I write a post on how to climb cols like a professional cyclist which is a topic frequently covered in magazine articles and online features. As I cycle up large alpine passes regularly, competitively and even for “fun”, they assumed I would have some secret professional tips that I could pass on which would help them to also enjoy this hobby and improve their performance in competitions and sportives. The existing magazine articles are based on the premise that if we closely watch professional riders, we can emulate their techniques and strategies and so make easy and rapid improvements to our own climbing on the bike.
As cycling up an alpine col can take anywhere between 20 and 90 minutes I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on this subject and unfortunately I have come to the conclusion that there really aren’t many lessons a humble amateur aspiring cyclist (such as myself) can adopt from the elite mountain climbers in the Tour de France. For instance here are some of the key techniques used by the leaders of this years Tour de France in the mountains which we should all do our best to avoid:
Use of high gear ratios – the use of a compact modern gear set up or even a triple chainring is considered by many recreational cyclists as being non pro, with macho cyclists taking pride in their large inner chainrings (39 tooth) and small rear cassettes (25 tooth). This may be fine for grinding up short steep hills in the UK and appropriate for professionals with power to spare in the alps, but for mere mortals it is a sure fire route to knee problems, great suffering and poor performance once the climbs become long and sustained. Don’t be ashamed of sporting a realistic, compact gear set up (e.g. 34T chainring combined with a 30T cassette). You will be watching your friends eat their words at the end of a long day in the Alps.
Be paced up the initial kilometers by your teammates at warp speed – this is a strategy practiced by all the leading professional teams and aims to thin down the field and soften up the opposition for the attacks to come later. Hammering flat out on the run in and up the first few kilometers of a climb is however an extremely bad idea for those of us who are just trying to enjoy the climb, get over the top or perhaps even set a good personal time. It is always very easy to go too hard early on a climb when the legs are fresh and the watts come easily. 20 minutes later however and you will be paying for those efforts with legs burning with lactate and it will be too late to recover without stopping and lying on the grass! I know, I have spent a lot of time looking longingly at verges! Start considerably slower than you think is appropriate and slowly build the pace only after the first few kilometers have passed. You will still have plenty of time to suffer if you want to!
Following wheels on these long climbs does offer significant benefits both for saving energy drafting and also psychologically for pacing, but do make sure you chose the right rider to follow. That’s one who sets an appropriate steady pace and who doesn’t mind you sitting in!
Ride out of the saddle – watching Alberto Contador dancing out of the saddle for kilometer after kilometer as he effortlessly climbs Alpe d’Huez leaving his competitors in the dust, is certainly an appealing image to aspire to. However for most of us standing up on the pedals is a much less efficient climbing technique than staying seated and is likely to result in greater fatigue and lower performance. Riding out of the saddle for short periods on a climb is a great way to change the loading on your legs, stretch out muscles and push through short steep sections. However you should probably tackle most of a long climb in the saddle, making the most of what energy you have available.
Spin a tiny gear – a regular scene in the Tour de France is watching Chris Froome accelerate away from the opposition, his legs a blur as he spins a tiny gear at a crazy pace. This approach certainly seems effective for him, however in all my experimentation with gearing choices and pedalling cadences I just can’t get this to work for me. I seem to perform best when turning quite a high gear at around 80 rpm and I can’t get close to the 100+rpm used by Froome. From my reading around this subject it seems that everyone differs and so its only by exploring the gearing and leg speed options available that you will really get to grips with what is most suitable for you. For me its always feels best to start a climb in a lower gear and to force myself to spin, and then as the top approaches to increase the gearing and slow the pedalling into the range which feels most comfortable. This seems to save my strength for when I really need it!
Vary the pace dramatically – another tactic used by all the best professional cyclists in the mountains is to launch repeated fierce attacks at high speeds until you distance your opposition and then push on to the summit and victory. If only it were that easy! If you are riding anywhere near your maximum on a climb, any attempt to suddenly speed up is going to fill your already straining legs with burning lactate which will then take many minutes riding below your maximum to dispel. This is not a recipe for survival on a long day out in the mountains or even a good time up a col. Leave such heroics to the professionals, find your optimum pace, stick to it and ignore what your competitors are doing.
All this being said, don’t stop watching the grand tours or aspiring to be like the professionals just yet! There are two simple things we can take from the professionals that will definitely improve our performance and enjoyment cycling in the mountains:
Lose weight – it’s not necessarily the easiest to achieve but will probably result in the greatest boost to our climbing ability on the bike. You can spend large amounts of money to lose a small amount weight from the bike or save money by eating less to lose significant weight off the body. Your choice!
Train specifically for climbing – this is difficult to do if you don’t live near a 10-20km climb of around 9% gradient, and lets face it not many of us do. However Froome used to train for climbing by cycling with his brakes on, so it is possible given enough ingenuity, motivation and commitment. Rather than wear out your expensive rims braking continuously I would suggest that for many the turbo trainer is the best tool for training for long alpine climbs. Set a high resistance on your trainer and choose a gear that means you are pedalling at about 75-85rpm and then after a warm up, ride for 20 minutes as if you were climbing a col making sure you are pushing hard enough that you are building up the lactate just as you would doing the real thing. Make sure you don’t ease up at any point for the full 20 minutes and you can switch between sitting and standing, and lower and higher gears to emulate the variations inherent in the real thing.
Cycling in the Alps is one of the best aspects of the sport offering spectacular views and exhilarating descents. Unfortunately both these aspects are coupled with long periods of suffering and fatigue riding up the climbs. Hopefully these tips will mean you can enjoy your own cycling in the mountains even more without worrying about looking like or performing like a king of the mountains such as Nairo Quintana despite what the other magazine articles might say!