The Hillclimberís Handbook
Having participated in numerous hillclimb cycling events
over the past seven years, I felt compelled to capture some philosophical
perspective on the subject.† In this seven
year period, I estimate hillclimb participation has quadrupled in the
northeastern part of the country.† Not to
long ago Mt
One of the best places to obtain additional information on
any northeast hillclimb is the Mt
Washington Hillclimb Racers Forum.†
Although this forum exists to support Mt
Ten topics were selected for discussion below.† They are not necessarily in order of importance.† Some of the topics such as Training or Diet could never be covered in adequate detail here, so references are given to authorities on these topics.† If you have any questions on this material, feel free to contact me through the northeastcycling.com website.
Hillclimbing can be a tortuous experience for the untrained cyclist.† However, even a modest training regimen can improve oneís experience conquering big climbs.† Whatís in a training plan?† Generally, most coaches these days recommend periodizing your training plan over the course of a year.†† Personally, I have never fully subscribed to the periodization method, not because I donít believe in it, but more because I just like maintaining constant fitness throughout the year.† I may forfeit some potential by not periodizing, but itís a trade I continue to make each year.† Periodization basically means you break a training year up into periods, starting with prep, which gets you ready to train, possibly involving cross training in the off season, then base, which is light aerobic work and lots of volume, then build, which begins adding intensity to aerobic workouts, then peak, where volume is reduce and highest intensity workouts are added.† The peak period culminates in race readiness.† Joe Frielís ďThe Cyclistís Training BibleĒ is the reference standard for competitive cycling training.† It is still widely available.† See http://www2.trainingbible.com/about.htm for more info.
Say youíre not a licensed competitive cyclists, and youíd
like some basic ideas on how to prepare for a rewarding hillclimb.† I can share what works for me, which might
not be for everyone.† Begin by staying in
shape over winter.† Avoid putting on
excess weight.† A few pounds wonít hurt,
but 20 pounds or more will be tough to take back off.† You donít have to cycle to stay fit, but a
little spinning on the trainer or in spin class helps.† The last few years, Iíve focused more on
cross country skiing to maintain cardio fitness.† Itís a great change of pace, and skiing can
stress your cardio system even more rigorously than cycling. †As winter fades, you will want to increase
hours on the bicycle or trainer.† How
many hours depend on your goals.† For me,
I try to maintain 8 hrs of cardio work per week in the winter, ramping this up
to 12 hrs, mostly cycling, by spring.† Mt
By late spring, you should be adding some interval training to your routine.† I tend to do some of this year round, as I donít like my fitness to drop much in the winter.† Interval training for hillclimbs varies from several 5 minute high intensity bursts to two or three 20 minute efforts to a single 1 to 2 hour effort.† Maybe do 5 minute work one day in a week, recover a couple days, then do a 1 or 2 hour effort later in week.† Key is to start the intervals at a pace you can barely hold for the duration of the interval.† Thus a 1 hour interval would be started at a significantly easier pace than a 5 minute interval.† 5 minute intervals push your body deeply into the anaerobic realm, making you nauseated, possibly feeling on the verge of puking.† These build your tolerance to lactic acid and train your body to process the lactic acid.† These intervals donít have to be boring, precisely timed bursts on some flat piece of road.† Keep it interesting.† Find a hilly loop that has a bunch of hills that are about 5 minutes in duration.† Three minutes or 10 minutes work fine too.† Thereís nothing magical about 5 minutes.† Do recover between the intervals though, so you begin each one somewhat fresh.† Warm up before turning on the intensity too.† I tend to avoid the really short intervals in my training, as Iíve never been able to sprint and I avoid races that require sprinting, like most crits.† These would be the 10 or 30 second type intervals.† Thereís probably still some value in doing them, particularly if you do other racing.† Itís just not part of my regular training routine.† One of my favorite interval sessions is to go out to Pack Monadnock, an 800ft rise park road.† It takes me around 10 minutes to climb it.† After the fourth time, Iím cooked.† When you find you canít maintain a heart rate or pace after several intervals, itís time to quit for the day.† Donít over do it.† Itíll just take that much longer to recover.
Longer intervals like 20 minutes, or particularly an hour or
more, build both muscular and cardio endurance.†
If you train hard, you must also rest hard.† Some of the lunch time riding group at work are perplexed by my riding habits.† I may ride a pace they like in the winter or very early in the season.† But as the season progress, my hard rides get harder, and my easy rides get easier.† It doesnít all get harder.† You see, the harder you train, the more important recovery becomes, especially for somebody like me in their 40ís.† The lunch crowd likes neither end of my riding spectrum once winter passes.† My hard is too hard, yet my easy is too easy.† I often will do block training days, where two or three days in a row involve intensity work.† Then I need two days of recovery.† I rarely take days completely off, so I go out for short recovery rides and stretch afterwards on my rest days.† The pace I ride at is one half my 30 minute power, which is roughly 60-65% of my max heart rate.† This is a very easy pace and takes focus with HRM to keep it that easy.† But if I go harder than this, I donít recover as well, and go into my next intensity block with sore or tired legs.† I find maximum adaptation is gained when doing intensity work on fresh legs.† For many riders, taking one or two days per week completely off the bicycle may be best way to recover.
Frielís book referenced above discusses much on rest.† There are weekly, monthly, and annual rest cycles.† I really donít periodize my training much, so no true annual rest period.† I do curtail biking when I begin XC skiing, but I ski rigorously.† There may be a week within each month my training drops off a bit, but this is not planned, and itís not a large roll back like Friel recommends.† I do however, rigorously recover within weekly cycles.† You just canít go out and hammer every day and derive maximum value from your training hours.† You need hard days, and those can only come after resting.
There is another factor to rest.† This comes into play when tapering for an
important event, say the Mt Washington Hillclimb.† There are a lot of opinions on how to taper
oneís training in the days or even weeks before a big event.† For Mt
Most athletes are pretty good with their diets, avoiding excess fat, getting plenty of fruits and vegetables, etc.† How one eats in the days leading to and during a big hillclimb event vary considerably among individuals.† Generally, as you taper for a big event you want to make sure your glycogen stores are topped off, and you are fully hydrated.† Weíve all heard the term ďcarbo-loading.Ē† Personally, I think this is often overdone.† I find as I taper for an event, which means backing off on training volume and intensity in the days prior, I top off without eating additional large volumes of carbohydrates.† I just continue to eat a sensible diet as if I were training.† Since I stop burning 1000+ calories per day as I taper, these calories will first replenish muscle and liver glycogen stores before adding to fat stores.† My weight will often rise several pounds as I taper for an event.† This is not fat gain, but rather glycogen and hydration reaching topped off levels.† Never try to loose weight right up to an important event.† You will come to the event with depleted energy stores and perform and feel terrible.† A book I found highly informative on proper nutrition is Chris Carmichaelís ďFood for Fitness: Eat Right to Trail Right.Ē† It is still widely available.† See http://www.trainright.com for more info.
What to do on race day also varies widely among
individuals.† Many cannot tolerate eating
in the few hours prior to competition.†
Iíve never had this problem.† In
my early cycling days, Iíve been known to wolf down three burgers on the way to
a two hour group MTB hammer ride.† I do
not eat this way anymore, but for longer endurance events I do like to eat up
to within an hour of the event, such as three hour road or mountain bike races.† Shorter events like hillclimbs are generally
ridden at or above threshold.† This means
most energy production is coming from glycogen stores, and to a much lesser
extent from fat breakdown and ingested energy.†
Donít think that the Power Bar you ate 15 minutes before the cannon goes
off will do much for you.† Some Gu or sport drink, yeah, maybe.† For most people, it doesnít hurt to take a
little sport drink up on the climb, especially for Mt
A typical 24 hours leading to Mt
4.† Practice Climbing
You donít necessarily have to train on big mountains to gain
climbing fitness, but it does help to practice riding big climbs.† There are several reasons.† First, you canít coast going up a steep hill.† Not even a few seconds.† This may not seem like a big deal, but if you
are accustomed to coasting for a moment while you reach down for that water
bottle, surprise - youíll fall over if you try this on
There seems to be this irrational fear of gearing a bike too
low.† Really, gearing a bike too low
means you run out of big gears.† I have
never heard of this happening on hillclimbs.†
I have heard over and over again, ďnext year Iím going to gear
lower.Ē† Cyclists come back the following
year with lower gearing and take minutes off their time.† Since most road bikes are sold with 39/53 by 11/23
gears, why canít there be a standard gear set for all Mt
We want to avoid extensive modifications to an existing bike along with associated cost.
This is perhaps the most legitimate reason for posing the
ďhow should I gear my bikeĒ question.†
Very few people on this planet can push a stock 39x23 gear up Mt
We want to gear just low enough, but not too low as to sacrifice gear spacing.
Now we get into a finer point of gear selection.† The dilemma here is if you gear more than low enough, youíll have big jumps between gear ratios.† This is presumably bad, as your preferred cadence for certain pitches could fall in between available gears.† Letís look at this quantitatively.† Assume you need a minimum gear of 1:1.† A triple crank with a 24t granny coupled with a 25t road cassette will get you a 0.96 ratio.† But say you are not sure how low to go, so you slap on a 12/34t MTB cassette to be safe.† Is this so bad?† For the 25t road cassette, jumping from 25-23-21-19 gives percent changes of 8.0, 8.7, and 9.5%.† For the 34t MTB cassette, jumping from 26-23-20-18 gives 11.5, 13.0 and 10.0% changes.† Now say you find yourself at a 90rpm cadence in 23t cog with either setup, and you find your HR is going up.† With the road cassette, clicking up to the 21t cog will drop your cadence to 82 rpm, while with the MTB cassette, clicking up to the 20t cog will get you down to a 78 rpm cadence, 4 rpm lower.† While the jump is 50% bigger with the MTB cassette, it is unlikely that your optimum cadence (84 rpm) is exactly in between these two gears, and also unlikely that being 6 rpm above or below this optimum cadence will be detrimental to your climbing time.† Some may differ with me on this, but as a singlespeed MTB rider, Iíve learned reasonable power can be applied to the crank over a 3:1 cadence range.† I would hope optimum cadence, where power doesnít drop more than a couple percent, has a peak broader than 12%.
We want to gear just low enough because we lack discipline to stay out of gears that are too easy.
Now we get into one of the psychological aspects of gear
selection.† Personally, I think I have
suffered from this one in the past.†
Competitively climbing Mt W requires not only physical stamina, but also
mental fortitude.† It hurts.† If ever easier gears are available on our
bikes, we may cave in to the suffering and go for that easier gear.† Part of training for time-trials is mental
conditioning.† When you get used to
suffering for 1-2 hours straight, you gain discipline in maintaining the
effort, even though you can chose to back down by selecting a slower gear.† Gearing just barely low enough to force oneís
self to maintain a certain pace carries considerable risk on Mt
We want the lightest weight option.
There is some merit to this aspect of gearing as well.† On Mt W, most riders fall in the 15-30 seconds slower per additional pound of bike weight.† The difference between a full triple with MTB cassette setup and a 22t granny gear only, removed front derailleur, combined with 25t road cassette could easily be over a pound of weight savings.† But taking excess rings off with the front derailleur is extra work, and a 22t granny may require taking some chain links out too.† My personal opinion on this one is the weight savings really arenít worth the trouble to most people.† If you are an age group contender, or if you are right on the hairy edge of making top notch, then go for it.† As a friend of mine once said, either you got it or you donít.† Proper training, rest and recovery, diet and hydration going into a hill climb are orders of magnitude more important than shaving a few grams off your bike.
Letís face it.† Some roadies wouldnít be caught dead spinning a triple crank.† I was snickered at once when I showed up for a group training ride with a triple.† None of the 30+ other riders was sporting a triple.† This isnít just a guy thing either.† One year I was supposed to take a female climber back down Mt W.† When I noted before the climb that she had some pretty big gears for the climb (big even for Tom Danielson), I got a response something like ďstrong riders shouldnít have to modify their bikes to climb.Ē† She aborted the climb a short ways up.† Somehow, it seems more macho to push a monster gear up a hill at reduced efficiency than it is to spin a smaller gear to the top at a faster pace.† Sure, the muscular fatigue is far greater pushing too big a gear, and this is somehow cool.† But I posit that optimal gearing produces a ďmatchedĒ fatigue upon reaching the summit.† By matched, I mean this in a technical sense, in that muscular and cardiovascular fatigue are balanced, and your finishing time is limited equally by both.† Pushing a sub-optimal monster gear puts the climber into a strength and muscular endurance limited mode.† If medals were given out based on finishing time in gear ratio divisions, well then, thereíd be some value in pushing that big gear.† I find it amusing that we canít wait for the next mega-range Shimano or Campy groupo to come out, but then other influences force us back to the ever catchy compact double.
So couldnít we answer the ďhow should I gear my bike for the climbĒ question with a stock answer like ď24/39/53t triple crank coupled with 12/34t cassette?Ē† This range would get nearly all climbers up the mountain.† However, those with double crank setups will be faced with extensive modifications.† Stronger riders who donít need this low of a ratio will complain about the ratio spacings.† Others will want to avoid unnecessary easy gears because they will use them.† The gram weenies will whine about the weight of all that excess steel and aluminum.† And finally, a few will avoid denigrating their ride with a triple at all cost.
6.† Infant Mortality of Bike Mods
Never modify your equipment the night before an important
event.† You want to have at least a
little time on your equipment to weed out the infant mortality failures and
just plain make sure you didnít screw something up.† Swapping out the drive train the night before
Ė bad idea.† Swap out wheels Ė maybe
ok.† Messing around with chains, derailleurs, cranks without putting some time on the
changes before the race is taking lots of risk.†
Iíve botched shortening a chain before, having it come apart during the
next ride.† Iíve had rear derailleur
alignment issues after adjusting cables or swapping to MTB cassette.† You can forget to torque crank arm
bolts.† You might have a chain alignment
issue when swapping cranks.† All of these
things should be done days if not weeks in advance of any important cycling
event.† You will want to test your
changes on a similar grade if possible.†
One thing many cyclists are unaware of is mixing used drivetrain with new drivetrain
parts.† A new chain will rarely work with
a worn cassette.† Even a slightly worn
cassette can cause a new chain to hop over teeth and slip.† This is an extremely unnerving experience,
and you wouldnít discover this riding on a flat road.† You need to be in granny ring at a low
mashing cadence to bring this problem out.†
New cables can stretch in the first week or two of use, requiring
frequent barrel adjuster tweaks.† You
donít want to find out at Mile 5 on Mt
Many riders rely on their LBS to modify their bike for an important climb.† This is ok as long as you schedule this plenty in advance.† Donít wait until the week of the race to call them.† If they do finish it in time, you will have no time to test their work.† My experience with LBSís is mixed.† For the last several years I have done 100% of my own maintenance, everything from rebuilding suspension forks, hub bearings, lacing up custom wheels, new bike build, and general maintenance.† Requires some mechanical aptitude and mistakes are made along the way, but I never have to wait for the shop to turn a repair around.† I encourage all riders to learn bike maintenance and buy what I consider staple tools.† These are cassette lock-ring, crank extractors, chain-break, bottom bracket, complete set of metric hex wrenches, and cable cutters/crimpers.† Some bike shops offer winter bike maintenance courses and will show you how to use these tools.† People I know that have taken these have very positive reviews.
7.† Holding Wheels
On grades steeper than about 8%, for most people it makes no
sense to ďdraftĒ another rider.† Drafting
benefit at less than 10 mph is negligible.†
One exception may be if thereís a strong headwind, which can be expected
above 5000ft on Mt
Hereís an actual, slightly complicated example from a Whiteface race a couple years ago.† I was leading the 40-49 year old wave into a vicious headwind.† Another rider asked if we could work together.† I thought ok, itís not an individual TT, so why not until at least we get out of the wind.† Well, I could tell I was stronger than the other rider.† The pace would drop each time he came to the front to block the wind.† I didnít like this peaky arrangement.† But I could not go hard enough into the wind to drop him.† He was almost as strong as I, and the wind was so strong that I had to work way harder into it than he did in my draft.† But I knew the road would turn south at the toll house, and the wind would become predominantly cross wind.† My competitor would then lose the drafting benefit I was giving him.† What happened next was my speed picks up.† Note that my power output and heart rate stayed constant, just my speed went up because I wasnít pushing into a 30mph wind anymore.† But when my speed went up, so too did my competitors speed to stay with me.† But now we each were fighting gravity on an equal playing field.† He no longer could use me as a shield.† My speed went up, but my power stayed the same.† His speed went up, and his power went up, into the red zone.† When I felt the time was right, I rolled away from him.† He fell back and was eventually passed by other riders.† He would have done better to let me go as soon as we turned out of the wind.† He may have realized a net gain over the climb by drafting me into strong wind on the first three miles, but this is the only case where drafting makes sense on a hillclimb.† All other times, find YOUR pace and stick to it.
8.† Pacing Strategy
There are a couple instances where inexperienced hillclimbers get into trouble.† The first is at the start line.† You are excited, the body is well recovered, and it seems easy to go out fast.† You see some riders taking off faster than you, maybe even riders you know and makes you think ďIím stronger than they are, so I need to go harder.Ē† DONíT DO IT!!† Many studies have confirmed again and again that optimum time-trial strategy is to ease into the effort.† You do not want to start out deep into lactic acid production.† This will in a matter of a minute or two force you to back down.† One study showed that going out 40W too hard for a minute and a half forced the rider to back down 50W for two and a half minutes just to recovery.† This is net loss in time.† In training, you need to determine what pace you can hold for the expected duration of the hillclimb.† Then ease into this pace over the first few minutes.† You will avoid the slinky effect, where you go to hard to start, back down and recover, pick up too hard again, back down, and so on.† Riding this way will add minutes to your climb time, you will produce a lot more lactic acid, and your perceived exertion will be much higher than a steady pace effort.† Results of a couple easy to follow tests can be found at http://www.flammerouge.je/content/3_factsheets/2005/ttstrat.htm and http://freespace.virgin.net/martin.shakeshaft/10tt.htm.
A second place hillclimbers get into trouble is with natural variations in grade.† Many climbs will have less steep sections or even big down hills en route to the summit.† The inexperienced hillclimbers will encounter these and think ďGee, a gift, I can rest for a moment.Ē† DONíT DO IT!!† What will happen is you will indeed recover some, but then when the grade turns nasty steep again, youíll go deep into the red because you feel fresh.† A big batch of lactic acid will get produced, then in a minute or two youíll have to back way down so your body can process the built up lactic acid.† This again will result in a net loss against the clock.† It is far better to click up as many gears it takes to keep the power to the road on the less steep parts.† If you must let up or coast briefly, avoid the trap of hammering into the pitch when it turns up again.† Ease into it, like at the start.
9.† Weight Worries
Cyclists in general, hill climbers in particular, obsess over the weight of their bikes.† Much of this obsession has little bearing on results.† It has more to do with bragging rights, you know, ďMy bike weighs 65.17 grams less than your bike!Ē† You quickly reach a point with the current technology where each additional gram saved costs more and more.† To get to 15 pounds, youíll easily be spending $2 per gram of saved weight.† Want to take a pound off?† Thatís over $900!† You can buy a decent bike for that.† Ironically, lighter components often break easier and wear out faster.† You factor in that you are paying 2-4x as much for them and they last half as long, thatís like paying 4-8x more than standard componentry over the life of the bike.† So when does weight matter?† If you are at the edge of placing in a category AND you are about as lean as you can be, then maybe taking a pound off your bike would matter.† Everything discussed above is far more important than the weight of your bicycle.
In my experience, reducing bodily weight was far more effective in improving climbing ability than improvements in bike technology. †I can only speculate on some of the reasons behind this.† I weighed 230 pounds (104 kg) when I began cycling in 1996.† In a couple years I was down to around 175-180 pounds.† I still wasnít a good hillclimber.† But when I shed another 15 pounds, I noticed a profound improvement in climbing ability and in sustained power in general.† This was a disproportionate improvement, in that I lost only 8% weight, but seemed to gain 20% in performance.† Carrying weight on your body is not the same as carrying weight on your bike, or in a backpack, etc.† Body tissue consumes resources like oxygenated blood.† True, fat consumes very little resources compared to vital organs such as your brain, but your heart must work to pump blood through it.† Excess fat makes you overheat more easily too.† For these reasons, lose the flab before investing in a titanium screw kit for your bike.† It is the healthy thing to do.† Youíll feel better about yourself all year long losing another pound than you will by taking grams off your hillclimb bike, which likely will hang in the garage most of the year.
Many hillclimb events offer Clydesdale and Philly
categories.† Large athletes, even large
lean athletes, are at a power to weight ratio disadvantage.† They can put out more power, but not enough
more to make up for the excess weight.†
The fastest climbers tend to be thin as rails.† I believe Tom Danielson was 129 pounds at 5í
10Ē when he set the Mt Washington record.†
Even though Tom might put out less power than many of the bigger climbers
10.† Fun Factor
Hillclimb events have gained considerable popularity over
the last few years.† Before I did my
first hillclimb event, there was just
Hillclimbs are quite safe, unlike many traditional bike
and circuit races are notorious for crashes.†
Injuries are common.† You have 50,
maybe even over 100 riders all jockeying for position for primes and sprint
finishes.† Wheels inevitably touch, often
resulting in riders going down.† Compound
that with sprint speeds of 40 mph, and things can get ugly.† While most hillclimbs are mass start races,
speeds quickly settle down to less than 10mph for most riders.† And by the time the top is reached, everybody
is sorted out, coming over the line essentially one at a time.† No 50 rider bunch sprints at 40mph here.† Crashes can and do occur during hillclimbs,
however.† Some climbs have brief downhill
sections where high speeds can be reached.†
An inattentive rider could make a mistake and go off the road.† Never heard of this happening though.† What more commonly happens, especially on Mt
The biggest age class at most hillclimb events in the
northeast is the 40-50 year old group.† I
speculate a lot of guys (myself included) feel the effects of age settling
in.† Some may have been sedentary for
some time and are woefully out of shape and want to remedy this.† Some fear going downhill after reaching
40.† What better way to prove you arenít
over the hill yet by racing up a really big hill?† Mt
Hillclimbs can be family friendly events too.† Mt Washington and Mt Equinox both have lunch buffets after the event that draws many families.† Plus these two events do not allow bikes to ride back down, so families often come out to drive to the top and cheer their racer on as they approach the finish.
Hillclimb events are much less intimidating than other forms off mass start road racing.† You donít need to train in a pack of riders to learn paceline or pack dynamics skills.† Riders that are just getting into cycling or ride mostly by themselves donít get much experience riding in large groups.† Holding wheels (and a steady line) shoulder to shoulder with 50 other riders freaks a lot of riders out.† It still freaks me out, and Iíve been riding and racing in groups for a few years now.† A hillclimb race may start out as a pack, but in less than a minute the speed is down to a crawl, and thereís no need to hug a wheel in front of you.† Drafting benefit is near nil.† Leaving a large gap to the wheel in front of you in a road race will first draw the ire of other riders behind you, and then the gap will likely get filled by another rider.† This will keep happening until you fall off the back of the pack.† You simply have to draft in a road race.† The pack is that important.† The speed is that high.† A pack exists in a hillclimb only at the start.† Then each rider is on their own.
Because hillclimbs are individual efforts (no pack dynamics), you donít have to be super fit or lean.† You simply take longer to reach the top than the contenders.† You donít get ďdropped,Ē as in a road race if you werenít able to respond to a sudden acceleration or a burst up a short hill.† But in a sense, all but the winner of a hillclimb get dropped anyway.† Rarely do the first two finishers reach the top together in a hillclimb.† One will have slightly higher sustainable W/kg output than the other and use it to grow distance on the nearest rival during the climb.† If the climb is steep enough, the weaker rider wonít be able to derive enough drafting benefit to stay with the stronger rider.† Actually, itís been my experience that non-competitive and recreational riders find hillclimbing more rewarding than the highly competitive types.† They fret less over equipment, finishing time, and finishing place.† They simply seek the sense of accomplishment of a truly challenging climb.
Finally, hillclimb cyclists are a special breed of
cyclist.† When downhill has become all
the rage in mountain biking (where lifts are taken up), hillclimbers thrive on
suffering while striving for the summit.†
In fact, we donít even get to enjoy the descent on some of our favorite
climbs.† Uphill only?† I get weird looks from some of my MTB
friends, like Iím a few spokes short of a wheel.† Because we climbers share this common
masochistic pursuit, we are like family.†
Thanks for reading,
Last revised 11-AUG-2006