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Road Cycling Climbing Tactics for Non-climbers

by Dirk Friel - UltraFit.com

One of the biggest concerns I hear from road cyclists and road racers is how to improve hill climbing ability. In fact, many times this is the sole reason cyclists seek out a coach for expert advice.

Besides creating a specific cycling training program to make improvements in hill climbing, I find some simple strategies within races can oftentimes prove to have dramatic results when it comes to better finishes.

Within my own racing this limiter is a major concern as I am not a natural climber and much prefer short power climbs. I have to use every trick in the book to try to maximize my placing within mountain races.

Over my 10 years of racing professionally, I have learned quite a few tactics that have really helped me survive in the mountains. I hope you can take advantage of these tactics too.

When most inexperienced riders come to a climb they simply go all-out and feel an enormous amount of pressure to reach the top first. Their blood pressure rises, pulse quickens and muscles get tense, even at the thought of an uphill section.

This isn’t how it should be, and doing so will cost you enormous amounts of energy that otherwise could be saved for a strategic finish.

Personal pacing

Riders who are not proficient at climbing must maintain their own pace and rhythm that is slower than the so-called “climbers.” As compared to true climbers, average riders can’t react as quickly to accelerations and need to stay within their particular climbing zone, or else they lose lots of time by the summit.

Finding the exact personal pace that can cut your losses is crucial to maximizing results.

In addition to settling into your personal climbing zone, see if you can ever so slightly pick up the pace so that by the top you are able to re-enter the original group you started at the bottom with. Time the effort so you catch the group just as they crest the climb.

Sometimes this isn’t even necessary, as your own personal pace will naturally allow you to summit with the leaders as their pace slows. But at other times you may need to make an all-out effort the last minute or so to catch back up.

I would only make a high-intensity anaerobic effort if it’s crucial that you re-enter the group ahead. This may be the case of it is the last climb of the day and the finish is near, or if there is a long descent or flat section following the climb and being with a group will save you lots of energy. But don’t forget to look behind you as well.

The opposite tactic of cresting a climb riding easy can work just as well too, if you think the group from behind will eventually catch the group up ahead. Working with the second group can save you energy too.

Be aware of the pace of the groups that have formed. While on the climb you will have to decide which tactic is right for each situation. There are basically three choices to choose from: 1) Go hard over the climb to catch; 2) Go easy over a climb to allow others to catch you; or 3) Maintain your current pace, which will allow you to catch the front group as they are slowing down.

As you become more aware of group dynamics on climbs you will start to make better decisions earlier and therefore save even more energy.

You can also learn a lot from more experienced riders and play off their tactics. If a certain rider has your same climbing ability and is riding easy in a certain section, use that as a clue to do the same. Many times you can become someone’s shadow and get through to the end in a good spot simply by having followed their lead.

Try training with other more experienced riders as well, and make note of how they pace themselves on climbs to save energy while climbing.

Drifting to conserve

One secret you can learn from the slowest climbers of all, sprinters, is to drift. Professional sprinters are the sneakiest of all. They will start climbs at the very front and drift all the way back to last place. Then on the descents, in between climbs, they will make up all the spots they lost by doing daredevil moves to get to the front before the next climb begins.

You can do a bit of the same. Try starting climbs at the front and then settle into your own pace and actually allow the majority of the group to pass you through out the climb. It is amazing how much energy you can conserve this way. By doing this several times early in a race, when you are confident there is no need to be at the front, you will be much stronger for the end of the race when it really counts.

Drifting can actually be fun and give you a very real sense for how much energy is truly needed to climb. By timing it so you are one of the last riders over the top, you’ll feel as if you didn’t climb at all.

One warning though: Only do this when you are confident there will be no ramifications of cresting toward the back of the group. In general it is important to stay in the top 20% of the field, but if you are seriously concerned about finishing, or you are very confident that there will be no serious racing for a while, try drifting.

Racing smart can result in a much better finish than you really expect based on climbing ability alone. In fact this is the beauty of road racing. The strongest rider isn’t always the winner.

Dirk Friel has raced as a professional cyclist on the roads of Europe, Asia, and the Americas since 1992. He is also an Ultrafit Associates (www.Ultrafit.com) coach specializing in road and mountain bike events. Dirk is also co-creator of www.TrainingBible.com. He may be reached by email at dfriel@ultrafit.com.

One of the biggest concerns I hear from road racers is how to improve hill-climbing ability. In fact, many times this is the sole reason cyclists seek out a coach for expert advice.

Besides creating a specific training program to make improvements in hill climbing, I find some simple strategies within races can oftentimes prove to have dramatic results when it comes to better finishes.

Within my own racing this limiter is a major concern as I am not a natural climber and much prefer short power climbs. I have to use every trick in the book to try to maximize my placing within mountain races.

Over my 10 years of racing professionally, I have learned quite a few tactics that have really helped me survive in the mountains. I hope you can take advantage of these tactics too.

When most inexperienced riders come to a climb they simply go all-out and feel an enormous amount of pressure to reach the top first. Their blood pressure rises, pulse quickens and muscles get tense, even at the thought of an uphill section.

This isn’t how it should be, and doing so will cost you enormous amounts of energy that otherwise could be saved for a strategic finish.

Personal pacing

Riders who are not proficient at climbing must maintain their own pace and rhythm that is slower than the so-called “climbers.” As compared to true climbers, average riders can’t react as quickly to accelerations and need to stay within their particular climbing zone, or else they lose lots of time by the summit.

Finding the exact personal pace that can cut your losses is crucial to maximizing results.

In addition to settling into your personal climbing zone, see if you can ever so slightly pick up the pace so that by the top you are able to re-enter the original group you started at the bottom with. Time the effort so you catch the group just as they crest the climb.

Sometimes this isn’t even necessary, as your own personal pace will naturally allow you to summit with the leaders as their pace slows. But at other times you may need to make an all-out effort the last minute or so to catch back up.

I would only make a high-intensity anaerobic effort if it’s crucial that you re-enter the group ahead. This may be the case of it is the last climb of the day and the finish is near, or if there is a long descent or flat section following the climb and being with a group will save you lots of energy. But don’t forget to look behind you as well.

The opposite tactic of cresting a climb riding easy can work just as well too, if you think the group from behind will eventually catch the group up ahead. Working with the second group can save you energy too.

Be aware of the pace of the groups that have formed. While on the climb you will have to decide which tactic is right for each situation. There are basically three choices to choose from: 1) Go hard over the climb to catch; 2) Go easy over a climb to allow others to catch you; or 3) Maintain your current pace, which will allow you to catch the front group as they are slowing down.

As you become more aware of group dynamics on climbs you will start to make better decisions earlier and therefore save even more energy.

You can also learn a lot from more experienced riders and play off their tactics. If a certain rider has your same climbing ability and is riding easy in a certain section, use that as a clue to do the same. Many times you can become someone’s shadow and get through to the end in a good spot simply by having followed their lead.

Try training with other more experienced riders as well, and make note of how they pace themselves on climbs to save energy while climbing.

Drifting to conserve

One secret you can learn from the slowest climbers of all, sprinters, is to drift. Professional sprinters are the sneakiest of all. They will start climbs at the very front and drift all the way back to last place. Then on the descents, in between climbs, they will make up all the spots they lost by doing daredevil moves to get to the front before the next climb begins.

You can do a bit of the same. Try starting climbs at the front and then settle into your own pace and actually allow the majority of the group to pass you through out the climb. It is amazing how much energy you can conserve this way. By doing this several times early in a race, when you are confident there is no need to be at the front, you will be much stronger for the end of the race when it really counts.

Drifting can actually be fun and give you a very real sense for how much energy is truly needed to climb. By timing it so you are one of the last riders over the top, you’ll feel as if you didn’t climb at all.

One warning though: Only do this when you are confident there will be no ramifications of cresting toward the back of the group. In general it is important to stay in the top 20% of the field, but if you are seriously concerned about finishing, or you are very confident that there will be no serious racing for a while, try drifting.

Racing smart can result in a much better finish than you really expect based on climbing ability alone. In fact this is the beauty of road racing. The strongest rider isn’t always the winner.

Dirk Friel has raced as a professional cyclist on the roads of Europe, Asia, and the Americas since 1992. He is also an Ultrafit Associates (www.Ultrafit.com) coach specializing in road and mountain bike events. Dirk is also co-creator of www.TrainingBible.com. He may be reached by email at dfriel@ultrafit.com.

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