Toolbox: Five Tips to Better Strategic Climbing
If there’s one thing that the three Grand Tours this year has taught us, it’s the overwhelming importance of solid climbing to stage racing success. At Il Giro, Ryder & Purito took turns being the attacker and being the steady diesel. Le Tour featured a Sky-high climbing clinic of riding so hard that nobody can attack. And now at La Vuelta, we’ve seen Contador, Purito, and Valverde giving awesome examples of climbing styles…
We at AthletiCamps have been coaching for 10+ years. Every athlete that approaches us has specific goals they want to accomplish. There are two at the top of the list that seem to stand out. One is to lose weight (another article) and the second is how to become a better climber, which is the focus of this article.
The two goals of weight loss and climbing do go hand in hand and there is a reason that the pros want to lose that extra kilo. It allows them to perform at their highest level when it comes to the climbs of the Grand Tours. In this article, I want to put the specific types of training aside (e.g. what workouts you should do to become a better climber.) Instead we will review some general concepts and most importantly, tactics and strategies you can employ while you are climbing in race situations.
It’s still the engine – This cannot be ignored, as the bottom line is you still have to have a range of fitness equal to your competition level (e.g. Elite 4, 3) to compete on the climbs. More importantly, try not to stereotype yourself as a climber or non-climber. I think way too many riders inaccurately classify themselves as a specific style of rider and this does not allow them to fully develop as bike racers. The key is working on a general level of fitness, as this will allow you to compete in a variety of race types successfully.
Patience – Being patient and relaxed is essential to good climbing. Everything in a sense moves in slow motion, so your moves on a climb can be a bit slower and smoother. For example, if an attack goes, try to pick a landmark to bridge up to the attack over time, as there is no need to accelerate as hard as the attackers did. Accelerating hard only produces more lactic accumulation and fatigue. After all, what you are trying to do is eliminate major changes in intensity during a bike race, which is a primary cause of fatigue. As a good example, look at the way Cadel Evans responded to the numerous attacks throughout the 2011 Tour from the Schlecks and Contador. Or an even better example was this past year’s Sky performance, where every attack from Nibali and others was closed down by Boassen Hagen, Porte, Rogers, and Froome continuing their relentless steady pursuit.
The Dog Whisperer – Have you ever seen the show the Dog Whisperer? One of the key elements you take away from the show is how Cesar Milan consistently talks about how the human should show strength, confidence, and calmness towards the dog. In other words, the dog will immediately sense weakness from the human if you are scared or intimidated. Apply this lesson to your competitors on the hills. During a race, we usually encounter better climbers, but those climbers don’t have to know that. Ride next to them, right along their shoulder, your bars close to their hip and show them you are present and are confident. If you display any type of weakness, trust me, they will sense it and attack hard to drop you as soon as possible, just like a dog!
Poker face – What ever you do, don’t allow your competitors to know you are suffering. Climbing hurts, there is no doubt about that, so do your best to put on your best poker face, act the role of a lifetime, and not allow anyone to know it. This goes hand and hand with the tip above concerning the Dog Whisperer. Good riders will look at how you are acting, watch your movements, and listen to your breathing to get a gauge on how much you are suffering. Probably one of the best examples of a climber that does this is Ivan Basso. His style is smooth, his face the same, he rides as near the front as possible, showing his presence. Whether he is hurting or not, he is showing the confidence needed to climb with the elite of the sport.
Manage your physiology – We all have a specific style of climbing, whether it be standing, sitting, sustainable (Leipheimer, Basso) or attacking (Evans, Contador.) The key is to either use that style to stay on the climbs, or, when you are the dominating rider, use it to drop other riders. For example, if you are an attacking type of rider, use that attacking mentality to: a) eliminate riders over time and 2) bridge up to attacks without taking other riders with you. And when you are a sustainable style climber, the opposite will be true. Again, Sky put on a clinic for Bradley Wiggins, the stereotype steady climber. His team set a monster tempo that eliminated so many riders. It was done to perfection! It was a perfect example of good tactics using a rider’s style to dictate what happened on the climb. It obviously worked!
In the beginning – The beginning of a climb is always a challenge, especially if there has been a long descent before, where your legs have not applied much force to the pedals. You begin the climb and your legs feel like bricks. A lot of times there is not much you can do about this. You can help ease the feeling, by keeping your legs moving on the descent as much as possible in a gear that allows some force. Also realize that the feeling will not last long as you start the climb. Try to both physically and mentally ease into the climb and know that your legs will eventually adjust to the new applied force. It may take a minute or two, but the key here is to realize that it will happen, just hang in there and don’t slow down!
Heads up! – So you are climbing along, suffering, focusing on the rider in front of you. You are super proud of yourself for the job you are doing. You then proceed to look up and there is 10-bike length gap up to the group! You are on the edge and find it almost impossible to bridge back up to them. I would say that this is one of the more common mistakes made by amateur racers. It’s important to keep your head up and look around and in front of you to see what is happening, even when you are suffering. By doing this, you can anticipate when gaps open a rider or two ahead up the line and move up to where you need to be, before it’s too late. It’s easy to look down when your HR is 180+ beats! Resist that temptation and keep an eye out to see what is going on around you.
I hope that we’ve given you a few valuable tips that will help you compete better on the climbs. It’s important to understand that climbing is also a learned skill, not just pure fitness. Riders who don’t excel in this area can make up for it with confidence and smarts!
Ride safe, ride strong,
Bruce Hendler is a USA Cycling Coach and owner of AthletiCamps in Northern California. For the past 10 years, he and his experienced team have helped athletes of all levels achieve their goals in the great sport of bike racing thru cycling training camps, cycling coaching and performance testing. To contact AthletiCamps, visit their website at www.athleticamps.com or follow them on Twitter.