For cyclists, climbing the hills are a love hate relationship. Racers can see it as an opportunity to take control of a race or lose it altogether. Even for the recreational cyclist, some of the most spectacular sportive routes would not be so spectacular without the summits. Across the spectrum from Pro to weekend warrior, climbs can be a real weakness. They can make or break your day.
Generally speaking climbing is dictated by a cyclist’s power to weight ratio. Gravity becomes a major factor in terms of forces influencing bike speed. Bike and rider weight will have a big impact on climbing speed. This has always been a great place of focus for many riders who are constantly looking to shed pounds from either themselves or the bike. As technology develops bike weight is now defined more by rules instead of materials. Nonetheless if one can afford to, then one can usually find some easy weight savings with equipment and it is certainly worth doing an audit on the bike itself.
In terms of bodyweight reduction, this needs to be considered with a little more thought. While many riders may easily have some weight to lose one must think about health and performance. We would only recommend losing bodyweight if bodyfat percentages are above normal. There can be a detrimental effect to health if one was to become underweight or under normal bodyfat levels. Being too lean can have an impact on hormone function. This is particularly important to consider for female athletes health. For many recreational riders weight loss can be an obvious solution but for more advanced riders and Pros who are already lean, they may need to be more careful.
What many individuals don’t realise is that when they diet and exercise to lose weight they are creating a calorie deficit. The concern here is that the body is leaning more towards being in a catabolic state. Lack of energy will not support hard training. If an individual’s training intensity is reduced for a prolonged period then they may lose fitness. An even more extreme possibility is that of losing muscle mass. The cross sectional mass of a muscle dictates its force producing abilities. With that in mind losing weight through muscle is more likely to hinder climbing ability than support it. In any case of weight loss the calorie deficit should be conservative to allow for slow, gradual and consistent reductions in bodyfat.
Weight loss may be a very effective option and many riders will favour this strategy over one which may benefit them across all terrain types. Bike strength is often completely overlooked as a strategy to improve climbing. While power to weight is often the determining factor over long gradual climbs, anecdotally it’s not always that simple. With short sharp rises and climbs more maximal efforts may be required. A minute long kick may be a lot less taxing than a five minute grind. In rare cases a climb may be so steep that simply turning the lowest gear is all an individual may be concerned with as the alternative is walking.
Improving bike strength will improve power to weight ratio even if bodyweight was to remain constant. The good news is extra power production is also going to allow for better effort on the straights and during sprints. Generally having a higher level of strength also means submaximal efforts become relatively easier. Coasting steady in the peloton will be less costly, as a result your efforts across a stage will be less fatiguing.
There are two main strategies to improving bike strength; weight training and cycling itself. Strength training very directly improves force production and can be massively beneficial for increasing power and muscle mass. In addition, it can help prevent injury and improve mechanical efficiency through activation of less active muscles and correcting imbalances. Strength training can be completed by anyone and can be altered to suit all abilities. It is important to use proper form and technique as well as utilising an appropriate strength program. The cost of a strength coach’s input is often very good value to your overall training.
Training strength on the bike is also an option. The main concern here lies with injury. Cycling under increased loads is harder on joints than regular cycling. The knees, hips and back will all be under increased strain. While this strain can promote strength it can also increase the risk of injury, especially in those who may have pre existing issues. Despite this and as long as you are healthy to perform, these sessions can be of great benefit. The most common session types include “Big gear training”, “heavy hill climbs” and “power stomp” sessions. The main benefit of this approach is that it is more sport specific and can have extra benefit in terms of pedalling efficiency and confidence on the bike.
Becoming a stronger, lighter rider is the key to dominating the climbs. Your background should determine how you approach developing your power to weight ratio. The main point to remember is weight loss is not always the single best strategy. While riding more often will definitely be of benefit to those on a tight schedule may want to spend some time directly addressing their weakness. Many athletes can save time or use time better if they address their own weaknesses directly.
If you should have questions or need some advice on how to tackle a hilly ride or race on your schedule, don’t hesitate to get in contact with us.