HILL CLIMBING, Raj Krishnan posted 10/8/01
Raj Krishnan is not a team member, but rode with the Harvard Cycling Team and graduated in 1993. He has written this article for their team website.
Does the thought of climbing a hill on your bike make you want to consider racing keirins or six day events? Do you go out of your way to avoid that nasty little climb on your way home? Do you plan your racing season around those races that recommend an 11-19 straightblock? If you want to become a better climber, or at least approach hills with a little less fear and a whole lot more confidence, read on...
There is nothing better to prepare you for climbing than riding a lot of hills during your training. But this doesn't have to be monotonous. I find that hill training takes several forms:
Now for the specific tips - Nathan asked me to come up with a few tips on climbing, and these tips build on a conversation that he and I had last summer after a particularly grueling morning session. Any questions, please ask:
- Form training - this is simply practicing proper hill climbing form on the bike. A favorite form drill of mine is to ride a steady grade in a very low gear - this is great for early season hill workouts as well as a warmup for hill repeats later in the season
- Aerobic training - like form training, this is about riding at 75% or so of your maximum output on hills. This is the cornerstone of any program of hill training, and is typically the focus of our Tuesday morning rides
- Anaerobic training - this is very high end stuff, usually a maximum effort. This is usually part of a longer workout (i.e. a final uphill sprint at the end of a hill climb) and should not be attempted until later in the season. This is akin to sprint training (except uphill).
- Strength training - can be achieved in the gym via weights, on the bike by riding in the saddle up a hill in larger gears than normal (i.e. larger than you would in a race), and by my favorite, big-ring out-of-the-saddle grunts up a hill at a very low cadence (again, best attempted later in the season)
- Mental training - there is no substitute for just going out, riding hills, and getting comfortable with them. But be aware that hill climbing is by definition a tough, tough discipline, and one that no one ever feels really at ease doing. Getting better at hills just means that you are getting more comfortable with your discomfort
Don't forget that while climbing hills on a bike is intrinsically difficult and unpleasant, doing it over and over again will get you comfortable with discomfort. While most of our races are rarely won on a climb, many of them are lost on a climb, so train accordingly, and embrace the pain!
- On the approach to a steep section of a climb (like the "wall" on the Water Tower climb), try not to push too big a gear. It's good to keep your legs fresh, and demoralizing to your competition if you actually go down a gear on the steep stuff
- When climbing out of the saddle, get your body vertical, not horizontal. Keep the breathing passage wide open (hard to do when you are hunched over your bars) and get your pelvis over the bottom bracket
- When climbing out of the saddle, drop your "downstroke" leg all the way to the bottom of the pedal stroke. Get as much leverage out of your leg length, and give your other leg a chance to recover. This is the part of climbing that is like doing one-legged squats
- When pushing a big gear in the saddle while climbing, slide your butt back off the saddle and try dropping your heel when your pull through on the bottom. You can squeeze a bit more power out of the pedal stroke, and you use more of your leg in the climb
- If climbing in the saddle in a reasonable gear and you want to accelerate, fight the temptation to go up a gear and jam out of the saddle. Rather, a few hard pedal strokes in a low gear often make for a decent acceleration at a lower gain in heart rate and fatigue
- Similarly, if you are in the saddle at the crest of a hill (i.e. not throwing your bike back and forth in a daze), scooting forward on the saddle (i.e. getting more "over" the crankarms) will allow you to turn the gears over faster and help you accelerate without destroying your legs at the top of the climb. (you should have shifted up a gear towards the top of the climb anyway, since most climbs tend to get shallower towards the top)
- Many people think that having huge quads will help you in climbing. The reality is that having strong hamstrings, strong calves, and a strong lower back will do much more for you than lots of leg extensions. Steep in-the-saddle climbs (pick your pass in New Hampshire or Vermont...) are best dispatched by developing strength in these body areas, and by focusing on a round pedal stroke. When the round pedal stroke theory goes to hell, then focus on pulling up (quadrants 3 and 4 of the pedal stroke)
- There are many theories on standing vs. sitting on a climb. In training, I like to sit and build strength by using a bigger gear than necessary, but in racing, I try to vary my approach to climbing and will do anything possible to get over a climb. Case in point - in a race last year, as we got to the top of a particularly awful pass, I was in my lowest gear and running out of steam. Instead of struggling in the saddle, I stood up (without going up a gear), relieved my hamstrings of their duties for a while, and maintained contact. A good rule of thumb is to go up a gear when standing out of the saddle, but there are those times that you just have to stand up to take a break (critical for longer climbs)
- On false flats, always go up a gear if you can. It is great training and especially effective in race situations. Races are very rarely won or lost on the really steep stuff where everyone is flailing wildly. They are won or lost on those "drag strip" false flats after the steep stuff when everyone is already suffering and doesn't want to go any more
- In a similar vein, if you are not a strong climber, try to go to the front of the pack at the beginning of a hill and drift back as the pack works its way up the climb. This will allow you to climb at your pace but still be in contact at the top of the climb
- Do all you can to stay in contact on a climb, but stay in contact with the people who are making the climb! There was a race last year where I was suffering up this power climb and was keying off a NEBC rider ahead of me. I rationalized that if I could keep him in my sights, I was okay. The problem was that the real race was developing ahead of him, and he was letting gaps open in front of him. That's bad. Similarly, be aware of those "grenades" that go off in front of you when you hit a steep section, or turn onto a climb. I think that it is always worth the effort to fight to stay at the front heading into a climb. If you don't, you just have to work harder to get around people who are blowing up
- Climbing in the drops works for Pantani and for uphill sprints. Although this is a personal preference thing, I like the idea of keeping the breathing passage open (i.e. back straight, not bent) and getting good leverage on the bars. That said, getting down on the drops for an uphill sprint or surge is remarkably effective for short bursts of power. It really does make a difference by getting you right over the pedals
- Turn off your HR monitor alarms at the bottom of a climb. There is nothing quite like seeing a lead group attack someone who drifts out of their target zone
- After a long and arduous climb, try to pedal on your way back down into the valley. Your legs may cramp up if you do nothing but tuck them against your top tube. Spin them out as much as you can on the way down
- If you are going to attack someone on a climb, make it count. Don't just be happy getting a gap and then holding it. Get the gap and do all you can to extend it. Remember - out of sight, out of mind
- If a big climb will make a race, and you think you have a shot at it, talk to your teammates to protect you as much as possible before the deciding climb. Then, when you hit the climb, go to the front and do your job, and try to make your teammates proud!
Ride to live- live to ride!