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How to become a better climber in just one month

Jonathan Manning
12 Mar 2020

Mountains are a cyclist’s nemesis but, as we discover, anyone can boost their climbing ability in a month

About 45km west of my front door stands Rutland’s alp. There are no chalets along its flanks, no whistling marmots in its meadows and no snowy peaks. But there is a proper switchback – a real zig followed by a genuine zag.

Stockerston Hill is a 1.6km-long category 4 climb, according to Strava. It’s not the longest or spikiest hill by any means, but it is a superb benchmark for a mission to see how far I can improve my climbing ability… within one month.

Every summer for as long as I can remember I’ve arrived at the start line of a serious event wondering whether I’ve done enough to actually make it to the finish.

I want this year to be different. I want to laugh in the face of contours, grin at gradients and attack ascents. So how do I go about unleashing my inner Simon Yates?

It's February, and by chance I find myself riding through the flatlands of the Fens alongside Italian ex-pro and veteran of nine Grand Tours, Matteo Carrara.

I asked him how he trained for the mountains, and in flamboyant fashion he reveals how he would build power on the flat: select a high gear, stay seated and pedal hard for five, 10, 20 minutes. And then he demonstrates, accelerating towards the horizon.

So for my next few outings I introduce bouts of high-gear pedalling, until a friend asks me what I’m doing and I’m stumped for an answer. This, I realise, is the nub of my problem.

Pretty much all of my training knowledge has been gleaned by osmosis, picked up when I wasn’t looking for it, absorbed when I wasn’t paying attention.

Titbits of fact and fiction masquerade as expertise. Have I got up climbs despite or because of my approach?

Now, as the voiceover says in film trailers, it’s time to get serious. I’m going to explore the realms of physics, biomechanics, nutrition and training programmes in a quest to make climbing hills and mountains easy.

Well, easier.

The pull of the Earth 

On any ride, three factors sap a cyclist’s energy: rolling resistance, air resistance and gravity. On the flat, it’s primarily the first two that hinder progress.

But as the road ramps up and the speed drops, the importance of aerodynamics diminishes and the battle with gravity intensifies. 

‘At very slow speeds [16kmh or less] air resistance is negligible,’ says Dr David Swain, professor of exercise science at Old Dominion University in Virginia.

I don’t tell him there are plenty of climbs where I’m proud to get anywhere near this ‘very slow speed’, and instead focus on his point: I need to think less about my aero profile and more about defying gravity, since the less weight I have to carry uphill, the easier life becomes. So naturally I start with the bike.

A £259 upgrade would shave 53g from my pedals; £280 invested in a new saddle could cut 65g; and £50 could remove 13g (less than a nose blow) from my bottle cage.

An investment in some new wheels, though, seems a wiser bet.

‘Weight saved on any revolving part is worth more than saving it on a static element,’ says Chris Boardman in his Biography Of The Modern Bike.

‘The effect of low rotational mass is so important that riders are prepared to use super-light carbon fibre rims and sacrifice some braking efficiency in order to minimise weight around the extremities.’

Jake Pantone, marketing director at wheel builder Enve, confirms that: ‘The lighter the wheel, the better it is for going uphill unless you are riding at speeds in excess of 13mph [21kmh].

'Basically the faster you go, the more you benefit from aerodynamics.’

Riding up any serious gradient at 21kmh is as much of a pipe dream for me as finding the £2,500 for a new pair of Enve hoops, and as the needle of the bathroom scales spins to 75kg I reluctantly acknowledge that whittling timber from my six-foot frame is the most cost-effective option to reduce my uphill load. 

Jo Scott-Dalgleish, a nutritional therapist specialising in endurance sports, understands my conundrum. I want to lose weight but maintain sufficient energy to train, plus any adjustments to my diet have to be family-friendly.

After all, it’s tough enough to get the children to eat lasagne and peas, let alone a Team Ineos-style beetroot, carrot and ginger smoothie.

‘If you want to lose weight you need a small calorie deficit,’ says Scott-Dalgleish. ‘A big calorie deficit is going to be counter-productive because you need energy to train, so look to eat about 300 calories per day less than you normally would.

'Plus you need to increase your protein intake to protect your muscle mass. The first thing that has to go is junk. You can’t expect to improve your body composition by eating crisps and sweets, and alcohol has no benefit.’

In the end, eating one slice of toast instead of two for breakfast, choosing soup in place of a panini at lunch, and foregoing wine with dinner comfortably takes me beyond the target 300-calorie daily deficit.

Time now to focus on the training element.

Professional approach

Pete Williams wasn’t born at altitude, nor does he live at the foot of Pyrenean peaks,he still managed to win the Skoda King of the Mountains jersey at the Tour of Britain in 2015.

When I catch up with him at his home in Skipton, he even admits that climbing didn’t come naturally to him, so he’s had to work hard to rectify his weakness.

In a four-hour training ride he can squeeze in as much as 2,500m of climbing, and he encourages me to add as many hills to my routes as possible.

As for technique, ‘I tend to stay in the saddle as long as I can, but if it gets really steep and I can’t get on top of the gear, that’s when I get out of the saddle,’ says Williams.

And he leaves me with one final motivation: ‘A lot of the time it’s a climb where the selection of a race is decided, and if you can get up over the climb near the front you’re there for the kill.’

Truth is, I need my own training plan, so I contact Rob Wakefield, a level 3 coach with Propello in Exmoor. His first advice pings into my inbox with an irresistible header: ‘Improve your climbing with no training.’ 

Wakefield urges me to find a climb that takes about six minutes and ride it as hard as I can. Eager for progress, I head to the Rutland alp and bury myself.

Slumped over the handlebars at the top, I scroll through the data on my Garmin: time, 6m 21s; top speed, 29kmh; average speed, 16.7kmh.

Next time, Wakefield suggests, I should start at 95% of this average speed for the first minute, and then accelerate to 100% for the remainder. I try it and my time is similar, but I’m less of a wreck as I breach the summit.

‘A couple of days later go out and ride the same hill for the third time,’ says Wakefield.

‘Ride the first two-thirds of the climb at your average speed. For the last third of the climb increase speed to a level that you think you can hold for two minutes – pace an effort that will get you to the top. You will have set a new PB,’ he adds confidently.

And he’s right. I’m embarrassed to discover I’ve spent 25 years cycling in happy ignorance. Deploying these new tactics cuts my time to 5m 35s – 46 seconds faster – and it moves me from 866th on the Strava leaderboard to 374th.

My top speed was down by 2.4kmh, but my average, the more important figure, rose by 2.4kmh. This is a monumental rather than marginal gain, and if I can ally this strategy with better fitness I’m excited at what I might be able to achieve. 

Wakefield agrees to adapt his ‘Eight-Week Hill Climbing Training Programme’ into a four-week block to meet my deadline, and says he isn’t concerned that I don’t live in the Dales or Snowdonia.

‘This programme targets the cornerstones of climbing ability: strength, muscular endurance and aerobic capacity,’ he says.

‘Training these specific abilities will make your legs stronger and more resilient to continuous work and will improve your ability to use oxygen to produce energy.’ 

The first step is to calculate my ‘threshold heart rate’, which a brutal flat-out time-trial establishes as 161bpm.

Three times a week my rides now have a purpose. Junk miles are jettisoned in favour of interval sessions at varying levels of intensity, plus as many endurance miles as I can squeeze in.

The strength sessions I enjoy – high gears mixed with low cadence as I build power up hills. But the endurance and aerobic capacity workouts prove more challenging.

I find it difficult to match my target cadence with my target heart rate, fidgeting between gears, and I often struggle to summon the energy for the final drill.

The data fields on my GPS also become an obsession, and in one respect I start to ride like Chris Froome, staring at the screen rather than the scenery. At least we have one thing in common.

And for the first time ever headwinds become my friends – trying to reach my heart rate objective with a tailwind sees my legs spin like the Road Runner in Looney Tunes

Every last gain

As my fitness improves I’m determined to ensure every muscle plays its role in the conquest of gravity, and research leads me to a scientific paper entitled Muscular Activity During Uphill Cycling.

The conclusion is that standing out of the saddle generates higher power but at a higher energy cost than staying seated – which is to say, it’s less efficient, even if it feels easier.

‘The switch between the two pedalling postures in uphill mode enables cyclists to use two distinct muscular chains,’ says the study, which explains why it often feels easier to pedal in a seated position immediately after a short bout of standing out of the saddle.

Alternating positions makes sense on long uphills, it concludes.

Intrigued, I pursue the issue with Richard Follett, a physiotherapist who works with the British triathlon team for the English Institute of Sport in Loughborough.

‘Going uphill you want to use your glutes and quadriceps,’ he says. ‘You’ll see climbers in the Tour who ride on the hoods or drops on the flat, and as soon as they start climbing go up onto the tops of the bars.

'Rather than climbing on the drops like Marco Pantani, most of us want to sit up, which opens up your hip angle and means you can activate your glutes a little bit better.’

I decide that a perfect place to test the theory, and my training progression, is at a sportive, which is how I come to find myself shivering at the start line in Inverness, waiting to commence the Etape Loch Ness. 

It’s a beautiful ride, and the timed 8km climb from Fort Augustus is a peach. Deploying brain rather than brawn, I maintain a steady pace, keep my heart rate just below threshold, and I’m soon picking off riders who set off too hard.

When the results are published, I’ve come 73rd out of 2,500 riders on the ascent. I’m chuffed, but I can’t shake from my memory the rider who flew past me as if he were riding a Ducati rather than a Dogma. 

Finding form

‘Being able to accelerate uphill is a huge advantage,’ says Helen Kelly of Kelly Cycle Coaching, an ex-pro who raced for Australia in the World Championships.

‘Think of the athletes who can do it,’ she says. ‘Most of them are World Champs or Classics riders, able to cross to breaks up a climb.’

Helen instructs me in the art of ‘torquing’, a technique that extends the time each leg is on the down stroke to take advantage of the powerhouse quad muscles.

See more - How to get stronger legs for cycling

The skill involves standing out of the saddle, keeping the body still and angling the bike without zig-zagging the front wheel.

‘One arm bends as the other is straightened and vice-versa,’ says Helen. It should feel as if the straight arm is pushing the bike on an angle, while the opposite leg straightens to maintain stability, and she advises me to watch a sprinter in slow motion. 

Just over four weeks since I started this campaign I find myself back at the Rutland alp, 1kg lighter and armed with new tactics, a new technique, improved fitness and heart rate data to stop me surging into the red.

I stare up the slope. It’s not going to be easy, but I know I’ll set a PB. Five minutes and 15 seconds later I’m at the top, and this time I feel I could do it all over again.

Bring on the real Alps.

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