Unless you live near a big mountain range like the Alps, Pyrenees or Rockies, you’re unlikely to come across many long endurance climbs – the kind of climbs that roll out over more than a couple of miles. What most of us are more likely to encounter are lots of short, sharp and repetitively nasty climbs, shockers that bite like venomous scorpions, smacking your legs and lungs into lactate overload.
Although we could consider these the realms of climbers, in reality they are not long enough to bring out the best in a true climber. No, these are power climbs: short, intense efforts that hurt every bit as much as the longer climbs, but require a totally different approach and demand different qualities to master successfully.
These qualities are highlighted in the British hill climb season, where explosive riders such as Chris Boardman and Malcolm Elliot often triumph over the scrawny mountain goats. With this in mind we spoke to Cadel Evans and Trent Lowe, a pair of tough Aussie riders who are able to tackle both styles of climbing well, and asked them how it’s done.
Positioning in a bunch
Trent: As with any critical climb in a race, you need to start close to the front of the group – the only issue with that is that every other rider wants to be there too! You should try to be relaxed and not waste too much energy getting into and holding a good position, as you don’t want to be above your threshold before the climb starts. You also need to be sure not to get boxed in, because riders will bunch up as the pace slows and you could get baulked, so always leave some get-out room.
Pay attention so you don’t get caught behind a rider who may have got their gearing wrong, or who is just going backwards because they’re not so strong. Always try to leave yourself a way out or around other riders. Look for the part of the road that is least steep, and sometimes it may be smoother on one part of the road than another, so aim for that if it’s dry.
Cadel: Positioning in the bunch is more important for the shorter power climbs than endurance climbs because there’s less time to make up lost ground. You always have to pay attention to what the riders are doing ahead of you; if someone loses the wheel in front of you then you need to be ready to close the gap immediately. Otherwise it’s the same for the longer climbs: stay close to the front and out of trouble.
On the bike position
Trent: Most often the road will be smooth, and so you focus on getting the power out effectively. That means predominantly riding out of the saddle, with your upper body and trunk taking a lot of the workload, bracing your legs to get maximum power out.
If the surface is poor, you may need to stay in the saddle and keep your upper body well anchored by pulling on the bars – but do try to stay relaxed at the same time. In the wet you need to keep some weight over the back wheel to maintain traction, and you should find that balance before you slip.
Cadel: On shorter climbs you’ll be pushing at a higher level, which means a lot more out-of-the-saddle riding with your upper body also working hard, sitting at times to ease things.
If the road conditions aren’t optimal then a rider will always have to remain seated and maintain a smooth, consistent pedal stroke, with an even power output. That’s the best technique for avoiding any loss in traction.
Find your pace and rhythm
Trent: Practice and experience are important here; if you can learn to put out a lot of power in the saddle at high cadence I think this will really help you. And practise anchoring your upper body. Each time you push on the pedals your arms pull on the bars. Core strength is key, so plenty of crunches and an exercise ball will also help.
Cadel: Finding the right pace and rhythm comes with experience, knowing your body and how it reacts, what you are capable of sustaining… But ultimately the lactate in your legs will tell you!
Choose the right gear
Trent: Enter the climb in the right gear and then shift down accordingly. Always underestimate slightly, because on power climbs you often can’t shift down easily, especially off the bigger chainring. Never let the gear get on top of you.
Cadel: On shorter climbs you will nearly always use larger gears to maintain speed before, during and after the climb. This may mean a faster approach, but be sure not to find yourself stuck in a huge gear that you cannot react to.