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Tips for riding a big col

Sardinia climbing

Taking on climbs in the UK is one thing, but tackling an alpine col is another – here’s how to take yourself to new heights.

Here in the UK, we’re graced with rolling green hills and easy swathes of flat roads that make for some incredible riding. If you, like many other riders, are searching for something a bit more challenging, though, then you need look no further than the Continent. Europe, with its abundance of peaks and accompanying cols – the lowest point on a mountain ridge between two peaks – can be a thrilling adventure for a for cyclists. France’s Col du Tourmalet and Italy’s Stelvio Pass, for example, should both be on everyone’s bucket list. As indeed should France’s highest paved pass, the Col de L’Iseran where this month we sent our man Craig to learn how to how to conquer a col. Here’s what he came back with…

Keep that cadence high

It’s tricky to train for a climb that breaks 2,000m altitude when the UK’s highest peak (Ben Nevis at 1,345m) doesn’t even come close to that figure, but you can give yourself a good foundation by working on your cadence. Many pro riders use a higher rate of pedalling to minimise the strain of climbing on both muscle tissue and energy stores. 

If you’re not familiar with riding at a lower gear and higher cadence (the rate at which your legs spin around) it may feel jerky to begin with, but stick with it. By training your body to pedal at these higher rates, you’ll notice a greater grace to your cycling as your core starts to stabilise any bouncy movements. Your pedal stroke will become a more circular movement, rather than  one of an up-down stomping motion. Our man looked to keep his cadence above 80rpm as a good benchmark, practising regularly before he went, even on the flat. To measure your cadence, simply count how many times one leg spins around in a minute’s cycling –  that’ll give you your rpm.

Climbing in a group

Prepare your bike 

As much as you need to make sure your body’s up to what is some pretty tough riding, there are a few things that you can do to help get your bike ready too. Dropping weight is one major change that’ll make a big difference. 

If you normally ride with deep-section wheels, swap these for some shallow-rimmed alloys or, if you’ve got the cash, some carbon wheels, You can also change the cassette – road bikes in the UK are typically sold with an 11-25 tooth cassette, but if you change this to 11-28 or even 11-32, you’ll notice things get quite a bit calmer as the gradient starts to pick up. Much like driving a car up a steep hill, you want to be in the lowest gear possible. By increasing the number of teeth on your cassette, you’ll make climbing that little bit easier for yourself. 

Dress appropriately

Taking on a col is usually a task best reserved for the summer riding, when the elements are most likely to be on your side. Don’t be deceived by bright sunshine, though, as mountains are sneaky when it comes to weather. It may be above 25ºC at the bottom when you begin but by the time you reach high altitude, the temperature can drop, turning what started out as summer jaunt into what feels like a winter slog. When our chap took on the Col de L’Iseran, even though it was August the temperature dropped to 3ºC at the highest point, so make like a boy scout and be prepared. Carrying arm warmers, leg warmers and even a windproof jacket tucked away in your rear pockets will prevent you from burning extra energy trying to keep warm on the way up. These will also help on the descent when your legs aren’t spinning and you’re being buffeted by chilling winds. 

Stay hydrated

Cols are steep, long and hard, and much of the riding is done in searing sunshine, making it imperative that you stay on top of your hydration. Preventing your grey matter from frying can help you stay focused on reaching that peak. Water helps maintain a good level of performance as it transports oxygen to muscles more efficiently, which – along with making sure your energy stores are sufficiently stocked up – will help keep you from the dreaded bonk. Allow your body to dry up and you’ll never conquer that col. 

col du tourmalet 15

Get in the drops 

Getting to the top of a col is a great buzz but as the lad Newton pointed out, what goes up must come down, and if he’d been a cyclist we’re sure he’d have recommended you get down low for the descent. To do this right and prevent any mishaps when descending at speed, lower your body and place your hands in the drops of the handlebars. This lowers your centre of gravity, making it harder for any bump in the road to knock you off. Your body is in a much better position, too, to absorb jolts from any dastardly divots lurking in the road. You will also be able to react more quickly, shifting your body to either side should you need to make evasive manoeuvres. Finally, if worst comes to worst, you’ll be able to control your brakes more effectively because your hands will be in a position to use the greatest leverage point possible. Perfect for when you hurtle over that 100kph mark! 

Take in the scenery

Lastly, take in the scenery. It may seem obvious but don’t let the sheer challenge of what you’re doing ruin any enjoyment you’ll get  from the stunning settings. Stopping every once in a while can help you both mentally and physically by ensuring that you stay relaxed and don’t wear yourself out. After all, it’s not every day you overcome snow-peaked mountaintops.

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