Friday, April 10, 2009

5 Ways to Become a Better Climber

Unless you purposefully seek out flat routes you will find that in Italy you are invariably climbing. It might be to the hilltop towns in Tuscany or Umbria, or the long climbs of the Dolomites, or the epic climbs such as the Stelvio, Gavia or Zoncolan. Here are 5 tips that you might find helpful with improving your climbing before traveling to Italy.

5 Ways to Become a Better Climber
By Richard Cunningham, Road Bike Action

What do I need to do in order to improve my climbing abilities?

Once a week I ride a 15-kilometer climb with an 8- to 14 percent incline. Although I started this two years ago, I've never noticed a real improvement, even when I replaced my old ride (a stock Scott Speedster S2) with a lightweight (7.5kg) Specialized Roubaix Pro with DT Swiss 1450 wheels.

I also mountain bike, which includes pedaling to the top of the same mountain on a 34-pound rig. I expected that climbing on a heavy bike would give a boost to my leg-power.

I climb at a very slow cadence (40 to 55 rpm) on my road bike. I stay in the lowest gear during long climbs while my friends ride two to three cogs higher. I've also noticed that since I started road biking my legs have become skinnier. I was expecting my leg muscles to grow bigger.

Sometimes I feel pain on my knees too. A friend told me to try a compact crankset or a triple chainring setup, but I'm not sure if this is the solution. I am 1.80 meters tall, weigh 72kg and am in good shape with a low fat percentage, and I also swim and weight-lift to prevent injuries. Do I do something wrong?

— George, Greece

Climbing is an art form that requires more of a mindset from a rider than it does strength and leg power. If superior climbing was simply a power-to-weight ratio, then big men, like Miguel Indurain could not have made their marks on the infamous European ascents of the Grand Tours.

Your letter and its mention of the mountain bike lead me to believe that your fitness is not the problem—nor do you need lower gearing. You do, however, need to abandon your mountain bike pedaling mentality and develop proper road bike climbing technique.

As far as your legs getting skinnier; it is natural for unneeded muscles to atrophy as a cyclist reaches peak fitness, especially in the calf area. The following five techniques have been helpful to me.

1. Lose the Mountain Bike Mentality

Rough ground and uncertain traction require a mountain biker to ride much lower gears than a road rider to remain efficient. Mountain bikers need to remain slightly below, not right at, their anaerobic threshold because they must conserve energy and recover from intense maximum-output bursts of power needed to cope with technical sections of the climbs.

The road rider has the benefit of a smooth surface and gradually changing gradients, so it is not necessary (nor wise) to exceed the anaerobic threshold. The road climber combines powerful, rhythmic breathing with an unyielding focus on power output at every degree of the crank revolution, so that pedaling pressure never exceeds (or drops below) the anaerobic threshold.

Tip: The regulation of power is more important than a specific cadence RPM for a road climber.

2. Good Pain/Bad Pain

The key to climbing is the same one that time-trialists use on the flat—putting the maximum amount of pressure on the pedals, while remaining just below the anaerobic threshold. To simplify this: a burning feeling in your legs means you have exceeded your threshold and are accumulating lactic acid in your muscles This accumulation causes intense pain and acts to short-circuit the nerve impulses that tell your muscles to move—both of which will defeat you before the summit.

Soreness and dull pain are normal effects of high-level efforts and are ignored by top climbers because the sweet spot, the place were a climber knows he or she is pedaling at peak performance, lies at the threshold between dull pain and the lactic-acid burn. Once you discover it, this place will be your new mental home on the bike.

3. Mental and Emotional Preparation

There is a French saying that roughly translates to: "Put a frog into boiling water and he will hop out and dash away. Put the frog into cool water and heat it slowly, and he will swim around happily until he is cooked." Arrive at the climb as fresh as you can. Stay relaxed as you begin ascending and work on establishing your breathing and pedaling synchronized into a smooth, relaxed cadence.

Watch ProTour climbers in action and you will discover that most climb at about 70 to 85 rpm. Don't stress on a particular cadence, instead, pedal at the rpm that allows you to meter out power as smoothly and efficiently as possible throughout the pedal circle.

Minimize your suffering by remaining seated as long as possible, and when you stand, relax your body and use your weight to turn the cranks so that the out-of-the-saddle interval is actually a resting period for your lungs and heart to catch up with your legs.

Never attack a mountain, instead, let the climb come to you. The key is to add pressure slowly, know that suffering is inevitable, but it is best served in increasing increments. Pile on the pain one tablespoon at a time as the climb progresses. It will be a lot easier to overlook intense suffering when the summit is within sight—and the top of the mountain is where a maximum effort cannot defeat you.

Tip: Remember that you must always climb alone—it is a dance between your will and your body's power threshold. Be prepared to let rival climbers go ahead. Most often, the early leaders are reeled in and crushed well before the summit.

And do not doubt yourself if you leave riders with powerful reputations behind. You can only be sure of your own output on a given day, so don't waste precious concentration and energy second-guessing the fitness of others.

4. Your Secret Weapon

Twice a year; once as you ride in to your fitness in late spring and another time near your peak in mid-summer, climb a mountain or pass that is twice as long and hard as anything you will see throughout the year. One of the reasons that professional road racers can motor over mountain passes in big gears is that they are completely confident that they can top the climb and recover in time for the next ascent—they have all survived worse on many occasions.

One way to achieve such confidence is to pick a couple of days each year to climb harder and higher—to push yourself so far beyond what you have led yourself to believe is your limit. The end result after your massive effort is that all lesser climbs will seem well within the realm of possibility, regardless of your perceived fitness or pain threshold on a given day. Absolutely knowing that you can bust out a big climb is far more empowering than most cyclists would believe.

5. Serve It Up

Last but not least; if there is going to be suffering involved, it is always better to give than to receive. Keep the pressure on when you are climbing with a group and, often, superior athletes will crack.

Always keep in mind that, regardless of the façade, everyone suffers on a climb—so find that place within yourself where you can block out everything and everyone around you, keep your effort steady and balance your power output on the edge of your pain threshold.

Resist the urge to back off the pressure when your rivals relax and sit up. Why prolong the effort by taking a break? The sooner you can reach the summit, the less you will hurt.

Photos: climbing Passo Gardena in the Dolomites

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