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What's the fastest way to the top of a mountain?

James Witts
3 Oct 2016

A steeper gradient means a shorter distance whereas a shallower gradient means less effort. So what is the quickest route to the top?

As you’ll no doubt know from watching the Tour, climbs in pro races are ranked from 4th to hors category, the latter being reserved for only the toughest and hardest slopes, but can science conclude if there’s an optimal gradient to deliver us to the top? 

Well, the simple answer is yes. When it comes to purely considering work done, the steeper the incline the better. Fighting the force of gravity to reach a given height for a given weight always requires the same amount of effort. 

However, if the climb is longer in distance – as a shallower climb would be – in a strictly mathematical model a rider still has to overcome the same amount of gravity only this time over an increased distance so it will always require more energy to reach the summit.

However, anyone who has tried to ascend a 25% incline may suggest otherwise, and they may be right. A mathematical model and a misty mountain are two very different beasts. 

‘It’s a minefield,’ warns Dr James Hopker, senior lecturer in sports science at the University of Kent. ‘People have tried to model different scenarios but things quickly become so complex that it ends up being unlike anything in reality.’

OK, that’s not the best of starts – although we can’t say we’re surprised. Like Hopker, Cyclist attended the World Cycling Science Conference in Caen this year, where Simon Jones, Team Sky’s head of performance, took issue when Trek-Segafredo’s head of sports science, Daniel Green, presented data modelling on uphill cycling.

‘One of the criticisms was that there were so many assumptions made about important factors such as temperature, air pressure and the like that his [Green’s] results simply couldn’t be considered conclusive, ’ Jones says.

Watts the answer 

‘Based on the mathematical model for road cycling power – that broadly takes into account rolling resistance, the mass of rider plus their bike, speed and air pressure – a 1% rise in gradient might require around 50 extra watts to maintain the same speed,’ says Hopker.

Clearly you can’t keep generating extra watts ad infinitum. Instead, according to Hopker, it would logically be the rider whose lactate threshold is closer to their VO2 max who’ll be able to maintain the higher intensity required to get up the steeper climb… arghh!

What if we were to throw a third potential scenario into the mix: an initially steep part of the ascent, followed by a brief flatter stretch (where your legs can recover a little), followed by a final steep push to the summit. Logic suggests that pedalling flat-out, then having a stint of recovery before another all-out effort could potentially be a good happy medium and result in the fastest ascent.

‘But that depends on an individual’s rate of recovery,’ says Hopker. ‘If you have a rider that has a good ability to recover, then that could be their fastest option. But that’s heavily down to oxygen kinetics – essentially how quickly you can get oxygen into your body and around your system.’

It seems like every door we open just leads to another corridor full of more doors.

Uphill battle 

Let’s set aside science for a moment and look at some real-life examples instead. ‘For sheer VAM [that being the abbreviation for mean ascent velocity – a term coined by ‘Dr Evil’ Michele Ferrari to define the speed of elevation gain], a steeper gradient will always be the faster way to gain height for the pure climber – assuming perfect pacing, reasonable temperature and suitable gearing,’ says Dan Evans, 2014 National Hill Climb Champion. 

 ‘My annual training camp in Gran Canaria provides the perfect example,’ Evans continues. ‘On the Maspalomas-Pico route, it’ll take roughly two hours to ascend the 1,970m peak, with the route featuring small sections of flat road (and even a few descents) on the way up.

‘On the other hand, the more savage route from Ingenio to Pico is a constant climb with sustained ramps at over 20%, yet is completed in around 90 minutes – nearly 30 minutes quicker. Personally I prefer the steeper way up.’

It’s a useful insight but is it borne out elsewhere? Cue Strava, and in particular the 14.3km Alpe d’Huez segment, which climbs from 728m to 1,825m at 8% – an elevation difference of 1,097m. The fastest times, not surprisingly, have been set by professionals: Thibaut Pinot (42:18min) and Emma Pooley (50:40min) respectively. Compare that to the shallower Alpine ascent of the Col d’Izoard, which according to Strava measures 18.8km in length, rising from 1,258m to 2,371m – a difference of 1,113m.

Though it only gains an extra 16m in elevation and has a comparatively ‘casual’ 6% average, the best times are significantly slower – David Lopez (51:43) and, again, Pooley (58:24). But then you have the extra physiological pressures of the Col d’Izoard starting 500m higher. Oh dear, oh dear…

‘Ultimately,’ concludes Hopker, ‘considering the three outlined types of climb, and assuming you’re going to be riding them all at a pace above your threshold or critical power, then go for the steeper, shorter way to the top.

‘It’s likely to be the most painful but will at least get it ticked off quicker because of its shorter overall distance.’

For now that’s as definitive an answer as we’re going to get. It ignores a host of factors, including cadence, wheel selection, whether a cyclist is a high-intensity fat-burner or not, their nutritional state, the possibility it might rain… but to try and factor all that into the equation really would be a mountain to climb.

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