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Bike Climbing Skills

      Nothing determines the outcome of a race as much as a good hill. When the terrain tips up, things begin to happen. Those who climb well, especially the long climbs, are now in charge, while everyone else is struggling to catch up. The old saying is true: If you can’t climb, you can’t race.

            “What can I do to climb better?” is the most common question I hear from riders of all categories. There are several possible answers depending on the rider’s limiters. Common limiters for climbing the long hills are strength, weight, muscular endurance, lactate tolerance, economy and confidence. The following brief discussion of each may help you ride stronger in the hills if you first determine which limiter is holding you back the most, and then focus on improving it before going to the next one.

Limiter: Strength-to-Weight Ratio

            There is a close relationship between body weight and strength and how well you can climb. Even a casual observer of a bike race will notice that body type seems to play a role in climbing. Small riders, in both weight and height, usually do well in the hills. One way to express this phenomenon is in terms of pounds of body weight per inch of height. Divide your body weight in pounds by your height in inches to find a gross indicator of climbing potential. The sidebar, “How Big Is Your Anchor?”, offers some generalities about this relationship that I’ve found in coaching cyclists.


How Big Is Your Anchor?

Divide weight in pounds by height in inches to find your relative potential for climbing.

Pounds per Inch          Climbing Potential

<2                                Great potential for climbing

2 – 2.1                          Good climbing potential

2.2 – 2.3                       Fair climbing potential, work on strength

2.4 – 2.5                       Poor climbing potential, work on descending

>2.5                             Avoid hills


            Although losing excess weight will probably do much to help the average cyclist climb better, there are downsides to this strategy. Trying to shed pounds quickly, especially at this time in the season, by greatly reducing calories consumed is likely to detract not only from your climbing, but also from your riding in general. Recovery depends largely on getting enough energy in the form of food back in following long and hard workouts. The best time to work on dropping unnecessary body fat is during the winter months, but that’s too late for this season. Perhaps a better way to attack this challenge now is to work on eliminating the junk food from your diet. In general, riders eat far too much refined sugar between meals, most of which ends up as blubber to be hauled up the next climb.

            The size of your anchor is not the only story when it comes to climbing. You can be the smallest rider in the peloton, but a miserable climber if you don’t have much leg-extension strength. Effective climbing requires the capacity to produce great force when the hip, knee and ankle are all straightening out. Obviously, the smaller you are, the less force you can generate, but then less is needed since the mass to be lifted isn’t heavy. So the strength needed to climb is relative to body weight.

            One way to measure your leg-extension strength is in the weight room by doing either the squat or leg-press exercise. I’ve found that the best climbers can typically squat 1.7 times their body weight a minimum of six times. The minimum goal for this exercise is about 1.3 times body weight. For the leg press the numbers are 2.9 times body weight for top climbers with 2.5 as a minimum.

            A great strength-to-weight ratio, by itself, won’t make you a great climber. This is just the ticket to get into the dance. It’s a starting point. The following elements are also necessary for excellence in the hills.

Limiter: Muscular Endurance

            The one element of climbing physiology that has the greatest potential for improving is muscular endurance. This is the ability to maintain a relatively high work output for a relatively long time. The easy explanation is that it’s like time trialing up hill. In a race, the pace on the truly long climbs is dictated by the muscular endurance of the leaders. Those setting the tempo are generally just above their lactate thresholds and they know they can hold that for a long time, as in time trialing. Riding at the front with them requires good muscular endurance. Your muscles must resist fatigue under heavy loads for extended periods.

            One way to improve this critical ability is by doing “cruise intervals” on a hill. Find a long hill that takes six to 12 minutes to climb and is a 4- to 6- percent grade. That’s about the grade of an interstate overpass. Do three to five repeats on this hill keeping your heart rate in the range of eight beats below lactate threshold (LT) to three beats above. (For information on finding your LT see my story  “Straight From the Heart” on the VeloNews web page — www.Velonews.com). Recover after each climb for only as long as it takes to quickly descend. Select a large gear that keeps your cadence in the range of 60 to 70 rpm, but be careful with your knees. If you have knee problems, it’s better to skip this workout. Otherwise, do one a week.

Limiter: Lactate Tolerance

            At some point on a long climb, a strong rider is likely to make a move. This is often the deciding moment in a race. Those who can match the increased pace and make the break often have a shot at staying away until the finish. If the leg muscles are fatiguing rapidly, your chances of being one of them are slim. But if your muscular endurance is good, stepping up to and maintaining the new workload is a matter of how good your lactate tolerance is.

            During a ride the muscles are always creating lactic acid as a result of carbohydrate metabolism. This acid seeps through the muscle-cell walls and gets into the blood stream where it changes it’s chemical make up and is now called lactate. Lactate has the potential to cause fatigue. At low levels of intensity, the body has no trouble dealing with this lactate. But when the intensity goes well above the LT, so much lactate gets into the blood that your working muscles are now swimming in the stuff. If your ability to remove and tolerate that lactate is poor, you are forced to slow down or even stop.

            A workout that may improve your lactate tolerance is hill repeats. On a hill that takes three to five minutes to ascend, do four or five climbs. The best hill will be a 6- to 8-percent grade that gets steeper at the top. In the lower part of each climb, stay in the saddle while rapidly raising your heart rate four to 10 beats above LT. Use a gear that keeps the cadence above 70 rpm. In the last 30 to 60 seconds of the climb, shift up one gear, stand on the pedals, and power over the top. In this last part, your heart rate should exceed LT by 11 or more beats. You’ll now know exactly how lactate feels.

            Recover after each of these intervals for twice as long as the preceding climb took. For example, after a three-minute climb, recover for six minutes. This is a highly stressful workout and should be followed by at least 48 hours of recovery.

            After about six of these weekly workouts, you should begin to see a noticeable improvement in your ability to speed up on a long climb.

Limiter: Economy

            Good climbers are economical on long hills — they don’t use energy wastefully. Economy essentially is the ability to recruit the right muscles at exactly the right times to provide power to the drivetrain, while the other muscles which are no longer needed are relaxing. The more time you spend climbing while working on relaxation, the better this skill will become. Climbing when tired is a sure way to build sloppy habits.

            Also, good climbers don’t waste energy with extraneous rocking of the bike, or flailing of the head, elbows, hips or knees. Every movement has a singular purpose — powering the cranks.

            Climbing in the saddle is preferable for bigger riders (2.2 pounds per inch and higher) as it takes less energy, uses less oxygen and produces lower heart rates than standing. Occasional standing, however, is necessary to relieve muscle fatigue or to increase power due to an increase in speed or a sharp change in grade.

Limiter: Confidence

            Not enough can be said about attitude when it comes to climbing. Those who see themselves as good climbers relish the thought of making others suffer on the hills. They understand that it will hurt, but not as much as everyone else. Hills are opportunities for climbers. “Here’s where I win,” they say quietly. For those who see themselves as non-climbers, the discomfort and pain of the long hills in races are dreaded ordeals. “This is where I come off,” they lament.

            If you want to climb well, your attitude must back up your training. Work on it every day by reminding yourself how much you love hills and how much your climbing is improving. You’ve got to believe.