In my short but fairly intense experience of road riding I have found that most riders can be separated into two different categories. In the first camp you have those riders who actively want to ride up hills, easily identifiable as they tend to look like mountain goats wrapped in Castelli branded lycra. You can generally find them in hilly areas uttering phrases like “hurt locker”, “V02 threshold” and “Shut up Legs!”. Then you have the second camp of riders, the ones who view going up hills as a necessary evil. I am mainly in the second camp. I say mainly because I would love to be a more proficient climber for no other reason than I love descending at speed on a road bike. Up until now I have only really climbed big hills for the reward of the descent, or if they were very rudely found in the way of where I wanted to go. The reason I do not class myself as a hill seeker is a very simple one – physics!
At 6ft tall and 16st 10lbs I have a ‘sprinters physique’ (a classic cycling term for ‘I am 2 stone over weight’). I am also a casual smoker. These are not characteristics you would naturally associate with the Polka Dot Jersey owner. Before you completely give up on me I used to be 20st and a heavy smoker so there is progress being made here! When I first started to become seriously interested in road cycling I had a major issue with gradients. I had tried to go up a few modest hills as a novice and this had resulted, half way up, in a complete evacuation of my stomach. It started to feel like the only attack I would put in up a hill would be of the coronary variety. I was understandably put off by this failure and my riding as a beginner was largely conducted on pancake flat routes. It was only when I deciding to take on LeJog, and started my route planning, that It quickly dawned on me that I was going to have to be significantly better at going up(without throwing up).
The classic cycling quote on climbing hills rolled out to beginners is; “Climbing hills never gets easier, you just get better at it!”. I do not buy this. It is perfectly possible to do many hours of training on a bike and see no tangible increase in hill climbing performance. I know this because I have done it. I am taking on ‘CTC in a Day 2015’ next year which includes 4500ft of going up hill over 150 miles of riding. I HAVE to improve my climbing or things are going to be very ugly for me come next June. The good news is that after a year and a half of road riding, and heavy consumption of cycling blogs, podcasts, books, documentaries and internet forums I think I am in a good position to make real improvements in my ability to climb. I thought it might be worth blogging some of the wisdom I have picked up during my journey across Britain on a bike, and also about my plan of attack for the months to come.
1. Weight (or more importantly – fat). It is pretty obvious that losing fat is going to be the biggest single factor in improving my climbing ability. It is by far the cheapest way to make your bike lighter! From my 18 months training before LeJog I know that I find it hard to lose weight while putting in big miles on a bike. I personally find it difficult to be in a calorie deficit if I have to cycle 50 miles plus over the course of 3 hours in that day. I need decent fuel in me to ride long and I feel incredibly bad if I don’t eat properly afterwards. This is the reason why people often do not report much weight loss while training for a marathon or similar endurance event. So this time I am not going to do that kind of endurance, steady state riding as often. I know from last year that my best time of year to lose weight is over the winter months when I have less going on socially and can regularly put in shorter, harder gym and hill rep workouts. I plan to lose one stone between October and January, then another stone between February and June. That gives me the chance to lose around 1lb per week, and have a few stable or gaining weeks which I consider to be a sensible and achievable way to shift fat while still training hard.
2. Focus. The biggest mistake I think beginners can make is to get fixated on miles covered and hours in the saddle. I found myself getting sucked into this trap and being more worried about the miles covered statistic on my training diary and less worried about any form of real progression. Strava is guilty of encouraging this kind of behaviour by mainly rating its riders in terms of miles covered. I find it astonishing looking at the mileage statistics of some of the strava stat junkies. We are talking 80 miles in the morning followed by 50 miles in the evening every single day. Professionals are not training like that, day in day out so why on earth would it be effective for anyone else to do that? I am not mocking those riders as they are clearly super fit but if you are putting that much time into a sport why not use it more effectively than just covering ground? Base miles are clearly important, but so is actually training for the event you are taking on. During my preparation for LeJog it was important to factor in long rides for building endurance, but I wasted many valuable hours of training by spinning out a flat 30 mile ride over a couple of hours rather than doing a much shorter ride that had real purpose to it. As a result of that I would often get disappointed with a lack of progression despite devoting many hours of my week to riding. I was also guilty of rewarding myself with too much food after what in reality was a long, but pretty low effort ride. CTC2015 is going to require me to climb big gradients, multiple times in(hopefully) a 12-15 hour period. So my training needs to reflect this. I need to be get up 30% hills, and climb 5-10% gradients at a good pace throughout the day if I want to make it before midnight. During Lejog I was never in danger of not getting my miles in before the daylight ran out. Yes it was physically and mentally tough, but I could take my time to gently spin up climbs and could stop when I liked. My touring speed with stops on LeJog was about 10mph, that alone would be 15 hours of riding to complete CTC and that is really the maximum I would want to take. I have become more efficient at climbing hills by working on my technique and riding position but I still struggle with being quick up hills, I struggle with recovery and I really struggle with climbing anything over 15%. Riding a flat 30 miles at 17mph average is not going to address those weaknesses – I need to use my time on the bike smarter
3. Attitude. Climbing is most definitely a mental game. I have already become better at this aspect of cycling and I am mentally strong after a solo tour and many tough, solo miles. I have decided for the next year to think like one of those weirdo’s who actively seeks out hills. I am going to pretend for a few months that I am a climber and embrace hilly rides and search out bigger and harder gradients. All I need to do is convince myself I want to climb a hill until I get half way up it, at that point things might get painful but you know it will not last forever. For a poor climber the thought of hilly rides is often worse than the reality, and the feeling you get after completing a climb far out ways any misgivings you may have had before it. Whilst climbing I am trying to be relaxed positive and to ‘think light’ and use all those mental tricks that even professional riders use….. Distraction, zoning out, counting rpm, matching breath to cadence ect ect. Anything I can try to distract myself from the pain of climbing I will give a go.
4. Equipment. It is all very well for Eddie Merckx to have said “Ride up grades, don’t buy upgrades”, but not all of us are blessed with the perfect cycling physique and brain, and we are also not all off our tits on amphetamines! Correct equipment does make a difference and maybe even more so for an amateur. There is very little point buying a £300 second hand road bike with gearing so severe that you cannot get it up anything more than a pimple in the road. There is also very little point buying a £6k balls out Carbon racer if what you actually want is something that you can ride all day, with luggage at a touring pace. So I am now pretty clear what I want in any potential new bike. For me, I need a triple ring chain set(and I want shimano 105) I do not care if people like the look of them or not, or if they are unfashionable now you can get compacts. I do not drop down into the granny gear much but when I do, I really need it! My other requirements are that it is comfortable for long rides, and capable of doing some light touring if I want to do this again. For those reasons the frame will be steel or titanium with proper rack and or guard eyelets. My first bike was a good choice but was essentially the cheapest bike I could find that would tick as many boxes as possible. My new bike will only be specified to perform certain tasks that I need it to do. I am also going to take my time purchasing this time around and really find the best equipment for the job in mind.
5. Power. It is widely accepted that doing core resistance weight training is hugely beneficial to bike riding. I also find weight training to be the most effective way to lose fat. It is a complete myth that you have to do hours of cardio to lose fat. It is normally your glutes, back or quads that fail when climbing or when under constant effort for a long duration so it makes sense that if you strengthen those muscles you will be a better rider. I also find that the flexibility and core strength you gain from exercises like dead lifts and squats is massively beneficial to riding position. Over the winter months I plan to spend much less time on a turbo trainer and much more time doing resistance work in the gym. Although the turbo keeps you on a bike I think short outside hill reps backed up by a decent gym programme will be more beneficial for me.
’. It is pretty surprising how much technique is involved with peddling a bike. I found my climbing improved drastically when I really started to work on good peddling technique, high cadence, correct gearing, pacing myself through the climb ect. I am now finding big improvements from working on my bike positioning through a climb. I alternate between being on the front of the saddle and holding the hoods, then central on the saddle and gripping the edge of the bars, then right on the back of the saddle while holding onto the centre of the bar. This not only engages different muscle groups, effectively giving part of your body a rest, but it also gives you a mental boost and can take you out of pain during a climb. When I start to fail on a climb I am learning to recognise if the failure is from my breathing or from my legs/core. If I am struggling for breath then I will go to a harder gear and grind my legs more – this gives you a chance to catch your breath while your core does the work. If my legs start to fail then I will drop down to the granny ring, and up my cadence. This is harder on me aerobically but it means you give your core a rest before you collapse from a lactate overdose! The failing of this plan is when you cannot work out if it is your Vo2 or your lactate threshold that has just been hit – either way your fucked!
I will be referring back to this post and reporting my progress on these key focuses in my blogs over the coming months and this entry is as much for my own motivation as it is for anyone else to read. I would have found this kind of blog useful when I first started cycling and I would hope some of you do too. I am currently 3 weeks into a new regime of hill rep training, I am back in the gym doing core resistance work and I am actively searching for a new bike. This week I have completed 3 rides, total distance of 33 miles, but total elevation gain of 3300 ft. That is a complete culture change for me in terms of training and I am already feeling the benefits. 100ft of climbing per mile is a figure I am aiming for as much as possible in training and bizarrely I am beginning to enjoy the hill rep work. I am very much treating every foot climbed in training as petrol in the tank for next June. The good news is that I have a pretty big tank to fill up!