Why is one subset of cycling enamored with climbing, when most of the rest of the bike riding world avoids it? God granted some of us climbers’ bodies, and that might explain it. But I mislaid mine about twenty years ago and I still love climbing. What explains that?
I know where my climber’s body went. It’s directly south or, more precisely, beneath. Like a miner trapped underground with unlimited oxygen and food, it is safe and recoverable but not without heavy excavation.
Some who weren’t born climbers are nevertheless drawn to ascending. They pretend by doing. If an imitator imitates long enough he stands a good chance of becoming what he pretends to be.
Why do I love climbing? A flat and featureless road does not talk back to me. I have a conversation with a road that climbs and hairpins and pitches and switches back on itself. It talks with its hands, its knees and elbows. It shows me its ridged back, and its torso, with its depressions and arches.
As it rises in elevation a road undergoes costume changes like an actor in a community playhouse. A typical climb I might ride is clothed in desert greasewood and creasote bush. After Act I it ducks behind a curtain to emerge with a cover of juniper and pinyon pine. The higher I ride up mountains like this the more likely I’ll see incense cedar, white fir and jeffrey pine, and perhaps western juniper jutting out of granite — if the latitude is sufficiently northern — the oldest of these craggy trees born before Christ.
If the road’s elevation is sufficient the mighty yellow pines become sparse, replaced by red fir and smaller treeline pines like the limber and the lodgepole. I might climb through quaking aspen stands, or groves of giant sequoia. As you see, these roads have a lot to say — in fact they’re downright chatty.
That’s why I find climbing interesting. But it’s also challenging. Facing that challenge is good, but facing it in style is better. How is that best accomplished?
Apart from the obvious training and talent that attends good climbing — discussed elsewhere on Slowtwitch — one way to approach ascending is to consider qualities like momentum, leverage, timing and cadence. These are the elements that determine how effectively you’ll get up a hill. This omits the tactical questions that attend racing. If what you read here helps you to be more competitive on ascents, that does not mean you necessarily ought to try to "compete" with whomever is in your proximity during an ascent while in a race. If your average power during an event's bike leg is 225 watts and it's going to take 450 watts to maintain contact with a competitor, you have to decide whether that's in your tactical interest. What follows is a description of the technical elements of climbing, and not the tactical.
I’ll break this down into: when to apply power versus how to apply it; and, is this a long hill or a short one?
Let’s tackle that last question first, and please pardon if I answer that question with a question: Which part of the hill do you want to win? Do you want to be first to the halfway point, or first to the top? I ask this because one of the more common mistakes triathletes make is the headlong charge up the hill from the bottom. This is the case whether the hill is five miles or 500 meters long, but let’s assume we’re talking about a hill less than a kilometer in length.
My rule of thumb on a hill ascended in two minutes or less is to always be accelerating until gaining the top. The naivete of other triathletes always works to my advantage because they almost always do not follow this rule. If it’s tactically critical that I keep with a group of riders (typical in training, occasional in racing) I will ride an unusually and, perhaps, uncomfortably fast cadence on the lower part of the hill but I do so willingly, letting my training or racing partners do the work on the first half of the climb. I'm just hanging on, trying not to get dropped but riding without any high-torque effort applied to my hip and lower leg extensors.
Most hills gradually get steeper prior to their crests, and the higher cadence I'm turning will gradually "come back" to a more comfortable one, say, 90 or 95rpm. By the time I'm halfway to the top of a grade things start to turn in my favor. My contemporaries beside and in front of me experience declines in their cadences, speed and momentum. I’ve still got my momentum, because I’m still riding that nice cadence — I never let my cadence bog. I always downshift five beats per minute earlier than I really need to so I'm never in danger of being "behind" the gear I'm in.
Therefore, when I'm starting to accelerate — within clear sight or reach of the top — I haven’t been lugging a big gear up the hill. I've always been spinning that nice, economical cadence. I'm almost always, by the way, outfitted with lower gears than those with whom I ride, so that I can ride the hill at the cadence I intend.
I might lose three or four seconds in the first half of a hill. But I can lose 40 seconds in the second half of the hill if my lack of momentum causes a trend in the wrong direction while others are just starting their drive for the top. If you apportion your effort correctly, you’ll accelerate as the pitch begins to top out, gearing up as the road flattens in the same manner you geared down when the pitch trended steeper. As others falter, or must rest, at the top, you’re simply maintaining your power over the top.
In my younger years, when I rode with an enclave on a regular basis, it always amazed me how I could ride with the same group of top triathletes week after week — smart guys all — who never caught on that I was no stronger than they were. I just ascended more intelligently.
What if the hill is longer: say, several or many miles long? This is where riding with a power meter is compelling. It’s notable how much easier on the muscles climbing can be if one understands two things: that climbing in a lower gear using a faster cadence can generate the same power with less high-torque riding that is so debilitating when it comes time to run; and climbing at a power rate close to that used while riding on the flats is really very easy, especially if you have gears low enough to spin the crank at your target power at your target cadence.
Let’s spend a moment on that second element. Simply put, most triathletes ride too hard up hills during races. That’s what cooks them in the run, like taking slow poison: you’ve committed suicide, you just won’t die for awhile. If you ask a really good triathlete who trains with power what number he targets during a race, he might say something like, “Ninety percent of FTP.” What he means is, an amount of power just below that which he can hold for sixty or so minutes. If you’re a triathlete, you have to run afterward, so you can’t quite hold FTP for a 40k time trial. So you ride at, say, 95 percent of FTP. Half-Ironman? Maybe 90 percent. Ironman? Maybe 85 percent. If you ask him what power he holds during a climb, he'll give you that same number. If he rides the flats at 90 percent of his FTP, he'll climb at 90 percent of FTP. This is antithetical to how age-groupers ride, nevertheless it is how it ought to be done.
That established, a case can be made for climbing at power above your average power, because your velocity gains per incremental increase in power are higher while ascending than while riding on the flats; and because what goes up must come down (since you can’t ride your target power on the descent, you can go over your target power on the ascent). But we’re talking maybe 10 percent, maybe 20 percent, above the average race power. Too many triathletes ascend at double their average race power. That’s like throwing a 6-minute mile into a run leg that’s performed at an average of 8 minutes per mile.
Enough about the application of power. Let’s talk technique. Since you're triathletes, what about aero position climbing? A bike made for the aero position should be ridden in the aero position virtually all the time. The two exceptions are when you're descending, in which case your hands are on the pursuit bar next to your brake levers, and when you're out of the saddle (which we'll get to). When you're climbing seated, you should stay in the aero position. This is not a "mash" position; the aero position is quite dependent on keeping your cadence up. You'll have a hard time believing — when you're laying down, climbing along with your arms in the cups — that you're as efficient as you might be while riding up and back on a road bike. But if you keep your cadence high, you'll motor right along.
Yes, there are times when you'll want to get out of the saddle, and this would be the case whether you’re riding a road or a tri bike. But the fact is, for most triathletes this is impractical, because a well-fitted tri bike will almost always exhibit a clearance issue between the kneecaps and the backs of the armrests. If you really do need to accelerate, or retain speed during a point where the road temporarily pitches steep, this is when riding out of the saddle can pay dividends. But if you intend this then the clearance issue is one that must be solved. Best in most cases, especially for tri bike ascending, to apportion your effort so you’ll not need to accelerate. Best to retain the speed you need by not overexerting on the ascent’s lower slopes.
Let’s talk about when it’s okay to not stay in the aero position while seated climbing. Ascending in the aero position can or should be the rule, but most folks like to ascend with their arms out of the cups at least on occasion. This is acceptable, and maybe occasionally preferable, but only under certain conditions.
If you look at all good professional riders (both time trialers and triathletes) they obey a particular rule if and when they come out of the aero position while climbing on their timed race bikes. They remain relatively forward in the saddle, and they keep their backs reasonably flat versus the horizon. They don’t sit up. There is good power to be had with the hip extenders working in the context of a particular hip angle. Make that hip angle too obtuse, and the power greatly diminishes. So, come up out of the armrests if you want, but don’t change overmuch the angle between your torso and your femur.
There is one more element to consider, and it relates to your choice of equipment. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of good to point to, because the right equipment either hasn’t yet been designed, or its very utility creates problems in other areas.
In the discussion of this, let’s consider how road bikes are ridden while seated climbing. The typical posture when climbing in the saddle is with hands on the tops, palms to be facing downward. Hands on the hoods is acceptable, but not preferable. Hoods are preferred for out of the saddle climbing.
Aero bars do not have a position that might work as a proxy for a road bike's "tops." The pursuit bar is too far rearward to serve this function. Perhaps a sort of “wing” across the extensions, midway between the pursuit bar and the bar ends, might work. I’ve rigged this up on aero bars in the past. The thing about this wing is, it allows for a palms-down posture, with the hands not far apart from one another. Hands too wide — on the pursuits, for example — just don’t seem to fit the bill for seated climbing.
Narrow pursuits work well, and the original HED integrated bar had its pursuit position quite narrow. If the hands are close together, and if the ergonomics of the pursuit allow for a palms-down position (the HED bar did, because its extensions were short and without an upturn at the end) the pursuit position can work well for seat climbing. Unfortunately, not having that upturn at the end causes problems when bracing oneself during braking, and the narrower the pursuits are, the less effective they at their primary purpose.