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Type cast?

Matt Barbet Bike Box Alan
Matt Barbet
23 Sep 2015

There's plenty of room in the peloton for all kinds of riders - so don't be a square peg in a round hole.

It had been a while since I’d tasted my handlebars. But there I was, straining on too big a gear with my chin almost resting on the tops. The allure of the Dolomites had proved too romantic to turn down and after seeing Tour winner Cadel Evans blast off up a 10% climb, I had to try and follow suit. What an idiot.

I’m no natural climber, or grimpeur if we’re using the French. In this part of Italy, scalatore is more appropriate. I’d been lured to these magnificent mountains by the Trois Etapes where, as well as filming the race for The Cycle Show, I was in one of the four charity teams, taking on five timed general classification sections over three days. The plan was around 210 kilometres, but we were to climb over 6,300 metres in that distance.

I’m always riding, so my base fitness on the bike is fine. However, emulating climbs that can take over an hour isn’t easy in south-east England. Sure, there are plenty of inclines, and you can rack up a decent amount of ascending in a morning on the North Downs. But no repeat climbs can adequately replicate the sustained effort it takes to scale something in the Alps, or, when it goes well, the sublime rhythm you can find without worrying about turning around and doing
it over and over again.

Luckily, a week before, I had planned a family holiday to cyclists’ theme park Majorca. I say family holiday – my wife and two daughters are now accustomed to my trusted companion (Bike Box Alan) coming with us. In between trips to the beach and getting ice creams, I squeezed in a handful of hard rides with a few even harder riders. My mates Alex and Reece were on the island. They race fixies in the Red Hook Crit and are always going at full gas. As we pummelled the pedals on the way to the island’s famous lighthouse at Cap de Formentor, I felt a twinge of climbing form returning to my legs.

What sweet hopes had been raised vanished a couple of days later as I did the same climb with Alex Dowsett. At the time, he was still holder of The Hour record, and as we pushed up the road he explained how he’d gained some muscle bulk and was determined to get back to a more appropriate weight for going uphill. I, on the other hand, did no talking, as his conversational pace saw me teetering at around 400 watts, thinking about how I had also gained bulk, but around my bulging middle in pursuit of record-sized portions of the local jamÓn.

If the cycling cap fits

Having your pace set by other riders is one of the most painful things you can experience on a bike, wherever the ride. So a couple of days later I vowed to attack the near-mythical Sa Calobra solo before climbing Majorca’s highest road up to the Puig Major. It was going to be an altitude fest. I set off at sunrise, and went at the winding climb with gusto, getting to the top in a respectable 35 minutes. I carried on, and descended the Puig before turning at the bottom to notch up another 1,000 metres of ascending. This was my undoing. It was hot. I hadn’t eaten or hydrated enough and my legs were empty. I crawled up the climb like a sorry snail.

Afterwards, I thought I’d surely done enough to cope with the Italian job that was coming a week later. Foolishly (again) I had put my Balearic exploits on Strava, and so my competitive team-mates thought I would be Nibali-esque on the likes of the Fedaia and Passo Giau. Unfortunately, my performance was fair-to-middling as I dragged myself up some of the most difficult roads I’ve ever ridden.

Maybe I’d overdone it in Majorca, and should’ve rested. Maybe I just had a few bad days. It happens – even to champions like Alex and Cadel. Or maybe I’m just not a natural climber. Everyone is a certain type of rider. Climbers and sprinters dominate the races, but there’s room for rouleurs (all rounders) and puncheurs who prefer rolling terrain or attacking the short, steep hills found in many of the Spring Classics.

While a pro-sprinter like Cav could out-climb everyone except the most dedicated amateur, and a featherweight grimpeur like Quintana still has a kick on the flat; for mere mortals, life in the saddle is a lot more enjoyable if you understand your limitations and play to your particular strengths.

Of course, try it all, and don’t shy away from the suffering when you’re pushed far from your comfort zone. If, like me, you’re more of a puncheur than a grimpeur, just remember there’s no shame in chanting the following mantra: ‘I’m not a natural climber’. After all, not everyone is – and some things are only clichés because they’re true.

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