Cadel Evans is one of the top mountain climbers in the pro peloton. Here he tells us how to sizzle uphill like the greats of the Tour de France
When you sit in front of a TV and watch the great climbers in action it really is humbling. It’s so difficult to even comprehend how such scrawny little guys can suddenly turn on superhuman powers and fly up mountains as if on a motorbike, at speeds most of us mere mortals struggle to manage on the flat.
Each and every one of us knows what it’s like to ride a bike uphill, and many of us will know what it’s like to ride up a serious mountain pass, so it’s easy to relate to the constant speeds these guys ride at in the mountains, even if it remains a staggering thought. Sure enough, climbers are a breed apart in relation to most cyclists, a little insane maybe, for starters; to suffer like that day in day out and then go back for more. But it’s not just diminutive climbers who get to ride up mountains fast, just look at guys like Armstrong and Indurain who aren’t exactly small men. So there must be more to the art of climbing than natural insanity and talent. There must be things that any cyclist can do to climb mountains faster and easier.
Which is why we enlisted one of the current mountain greats to show us the tricks of the trade. In this feature we are concentrating on longer climbs. Climbs that require a great deal of fitness, composure, technique and a strong mental approach to conquer, as opposed to the short sharp lactic efforts.
So, read on, put these suggestions into practice and you could soon be leaving your mates behind on those club runs, training bashes, and even races when the road starts to rise…
Love the mountains
First of all you have to learn to actually like, or at least not dread, riding uphill. If you worry about it too much you’ll just freak yourself out before you even get to the start. The only way to get to this point is to keep riding in the hills, and learn to like them by knowing how you deal with things and working out how to handle them. You must have belief in yourself, but temper that with the obvious practicalities – in other words, know yourself and your potential limits. At those times when it gets really tough you need to learn how to switch off and put yourself out of the picture; just focus on keeping a steady rhythm and distract yourself from the pain.
The more you ride in hills the better you’ll get at it, it’s as simple as that. I spend a lot of time riding in the mountains, especially when I’m coming up to a mountainous tour. A lot of the local guys stick to the flat all of the time, so never improve their climbing.
I always ride for a while on the flat before tackling a real climb to make sure I’m well warmed up, and then ride at a good steady pace. To build power I do sustained efforts on climbs in a big gear, not for too long or flat out, and it tends to build strength a great deal.
Cyclists in general should avoid bulky muscle mass, but a strong trunk and upper body are very important for climbing. Coming from a mountain bike background I developed a strong but lightweight upper body early on, but I still focus on this in the off -season by using a Swiss ball and doing pilates. If well-trained, your upper body can take a lot of the stress off your legs, especially when climbing out of the saddle, so it’s worth the work.
No matter how good you are it always takes a while to get used to riding in the mountains, especially the high ones. Before a big race I make sure I do some high passes in training, otherwise it can be tough when you get to the high cols. If you find yourself in the mountains, try and build up to the higher climbs, and take things easy for a few days until your body gets used to the altitude, otherwise you’ll blow yourself and recovery will not be easy.
It’s really important to learn your limits and to know how you react to climbing and other situations. It really depends on the situation and your abilities/climbing style as to how you work out pace levels. Some riders use HRMs to monitor their effort, which is okay when you’re on your own.
However, when you’re in a group it’s a different matter. You need to figure out if you’re better easing off some and taking it at your own pace or whether to grin and bear it and risk over-cooking things. In the 2005 Tour, I took the risk of overpushing myself to hang on to Lance, and somehow I got away with it. But if I’d blown half-way up a climb with another one to come then I’d have lost a whole load of time and places.
If it’s late in the day and it’s a last climb then maybe you can go over the limit. If on the other hand it’s early in the day and you’re fighting to hang on to guys who are too fast for you, then maybe you should just switch off and hit your own pace. This is where knowing yourself, the other riders, and the route come in to their own.
Never be afraid to ride too low a gear when going uphill, it’s better all round than struggling. Always work on saving a gear lower than you need, though, just in case. People have different styles, but for most of us low gears and fast pedalling are the key. Try and work on keeping a steady 70-75 rpm pedal rate on longer climbs. Sometimes it can feel unnatural and strange pedalling so fast, but keep plugging away at it and train yourself to ride like that – it’s false bravado riding a gear that’s too big for the climb.
Tactics are more of a luxury in the mountains; fitness tends to be the key factor, unless you’re really lucky and strong. The main thing is to mask your pain and suffering, try not to look too much as if you’re suffering – or at least not when you can be seen.
Try to use a more experienced rider for pacing, keep calm, look for when riders start to suffer (bobbing around, heavy breathing, weaving around), and then you can apply pressure. But don’t always be fooled if a rider seems to be suffering; Vinokourov is the classic example of unpredictability in that situation.
In or out of the saddle
My climbing style is fairly unorthodox in many ways; it’s a bit like Armstrong or Pantani. I tend to ride out of the saddle quite a lot, which is mainly because I have good upper body power. If you can develop your upper body power then riding like this will spread the load. We all need to ride out of the saddle at times to ease our lower back and help maintain an even pace. Personally I think it’s more efficient than simply staying in the saddle and only really using your lower body.
In general I don’t tend to think too much about my breathing, unless I really start to suffer. If you’re riding at the right pace and effort level this will take care of itself. But focusing on keeping my breathing smooth and regular helps me regulate pace and keep calm when it gets really tough and painful. But you need to remember that unless you are well acclimatised the high passes can be difficult on the breathing, so you will need to ease off a little to cope.