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The Hillclimberís Handbook

from Northeastcycling.com

 


 

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 Washington would not reach the 600 rider limit.In 2006, a second race was added when the August event sold out in three hours.Also in this seven year period, annual events have begun at Ascutney, Whiteface, and Equinox with pre-registered riders numbering in the hundreds.Many riders are doing their first climb each year.Other riders are looking to improve their previous best times.†† I hope this guide will help these riders to attain their goals.

 

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 Washington racers, anybody may post on this open forum.It has become the gathering place of northeast hillclimbers in cyberspace.Questions on gearing, tires, weight, training, weather and many other topics are eagerly answered here.Another resource for northeast hillclimb enthusiasts is Northeastcycling.com.This site provides technical content on grade comparisons, W/kg to time ratios, gearing selection, etc.

 

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.

 


1.Training

 

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 Washington can be conquered with much less training than this.To be competitive in my age class, I need to put in this many hours.Avoid too much intensity early in the season.Long bouts of moderate breathing build your aerobic base.Try to get one or two workouts in per week that exceed a couple hours at comfortable pace.By mid spring, pick the pace up.If you do group rides, challenge your riding buddies up that hill or for the town line.

 

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.Mt Washington takes an hour and half for most people.Thereís no recovery on the way up.It is all steep.It is hard to ride an hour or more at steady, hard pace on regular roads.Traffic, intersections, hills, and wind can all perturb a well intentioned steady effort.Maybe the trainer is the way to go for some people, but not me.Try to find back roads or a loop that has minimal interference, then go out at the same pace you hope to barely finish it at.This may take practice.A heart rate monitor may help.If you go out too hard, youíll have trouble holding the HR towards the end of the 60 or 90 minute effort.Go out a little easier next time.This will help you determine how to pace yourself on a climb like Mt Washington too.I have a loop I do on my lunch breaks.Itís 30 miles, has long stretches with no traffic interference, but is somewhat hilly.My HR will not be very constant on this loop, but I try to finish it as hard as I started it.Iíll average close to 23 mph on this loop with an average heart rate approaching 90% maximum, which is about my lactic threshold.

 

2.Rest

 

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 Washington, which is one of my biggest events of the season, I do not taper more than a week out.Iíll reduce volume some in the week leading to the hillclimb.Iíll even do a little intensity work early in the week.But by Wednesday, intensity work is over.Anything you do at this point can only hurt your performance.Thursday and Friday are very short and light days on the bike.By Saturday, my legs are chomping at the bit to hammer.Older athletes generally need more days to fully recover from training to be in optimum form on race day.I know other athletes that like to do some intensity work the day before an important event.They call this ďopening,Ē getting the muscle ready to work.This does not work with me.I might be able to go hard two days in a row, but the second day is always a little bit slower than the first.

 

3.Diet

 

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.ĒPersonally, 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.ĒIt 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 Washington.One thing you must be careful of is this.Ingesting simple carbs right before an intense effort can leave you feeling blah.Simple carbs, like found in most sport drinks, gels, etc can cause your bodyís insulin system to over-react, resulting in a sugar crash a short time later.I know I am susceptible to this, so I avoid eating Guís or the like in the last 45 minutes or so before race start.

 

A typical 24 hours leading to Mt Washington for me looks like this.Day before, eat normal breakfast.This usually is a whole grain, low sugars content (but lots of carbs) cold cereal like Cheerios, Wheaties, or maybe one of the Kashi products.Mid morning Iíll have a yogurt.Lunch will focus on plenty of low glycemic index carbs and lean meat, such as homemade turkey and cheese sandwiches on whole grain bread.Usually weíre driving up to Mt Washington at supper time.Weíll often stop at Subway.Iíll get a large turkey, ham and swiss on wheat bread.Usually eat the other half of my wifeís large sub too.Good mix of carbs and lean protein with very little fat (I go very light on the mayo).Usually bring some fruit and wheat crackers along to snack on later in the evening.The morning of the race, Iíll eat two bowls of whole grain cold cereal and a yogurt.This will be around two hours before race start.Iíll bring some sport drink and a bagel with me to the race venue.Iíll eat the bagel an hour or so out from race start and continue to drink weak sport drink to make sure Iím fully hydrated.I do not carry water or food on the climb.The temperatures have been cool enough that I will not lose enough fluid to impact performance in 70 minutes.Nor will I blow through my glycogen stores.I can generally go 90 minutes before I start to fade, so Mt Washington can be completed with plenty of margin.Approximately half of the Mt Washington competitors will take over 90 minutes to finish.It makes sense for this group to take a Gu or two and a bottle of sport drink up.For two hour climbers, two water bottles should be considered.

 

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 Mount Washington.It may not be as easy as you think.Throw in fatigue, 50mph wind, and you have a real challenge on your hands.Since you canít coast, you canít rest either.Youíll be slurping that sport drink into your lungs if you donít practice drinking when your heart is pounding out of your throat.Another reason to practice long, steep climbs is to learn what cadence you climb most efficiently at.This may be slower than your optimal or preferred cadence on flat terrain.There are various reasons for this.One being that because you are going so slow, you have very little momentum.The force of gravity actually slows you down between pedal down strokes.Thus your speed accelerates appreciably each pedal stroke.This is quite different from cruising 25 mph where your speed is very nearly constant over each pedal stroke.It appears that since cycling up steep grades is more like stepping up stairs, a lower cadence works better for most people.A final reason to practice climbs is to verify if your choice of gearing is correct.You can only determine this by practicing on grades similar to those in hillclimb events, or the on actual climb itself if accessible.

 

5.Gearing

 

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.ĒCyclists 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 Washington hillclimbers?When I ponder these questions, five categories of this topic come to mind.

 

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 Washington, so if this is your starting position, gearing changes are required.The goal then becomes a multi-dimensional optimization problem, balancing keeping as much of the existing drive train intact while providing low enough gear selection.There are myriad ways to do this.Some weigh more than others.Some will work only for steep monotonic climbs.Others will be compromise solutions that work well for climbs and flats, but optimized for neither.

 

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 Washington, the last couple years being a case in point.You will not have bail-out options if youíd truly need them.And therein lies the conundrum.If you include a couple bail out gears and we get the promised good weather this August, will you be able to ignore them?

 

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.

 

Macho-ism.

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.ĒShe 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?ĒThis 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 Washington that your rear derailleur isnít centering on cogs.

 

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 Washington.So when another rider passes you on the climb, especially if they are going only slightly faster, should you ďhop on?ĒNO, DONíT DO IT!!Say you are climbing Whiteface Mountain at 10 mph and there is no headwind.You get passed by somebody else going 11 mph.Thatís one quarter walking speed difference.Whatís the harm in staying with them?A lot!You were probably already riding around your threshold pace, a pace you can barely hold for the hour or so it takes to climb Whiteface.This may be 250W for an average rider.But to match the riderís pace that passed, you will need to up your power by about 25W to 275W.This will place you well past your lactic threshold.You wonít last more than two minutes holding her wheel.Then you will melt down, drop to maybe 220W for several minutes while many more riders pass you.Had you just ignored the faster rider, perhaps none of those other riders would have passed you.Research shows an optimum time trial strategy is to hold a steady pace, one that you can just barely hold for the duration of the event.

 

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.ĒDONíT 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.ĒDONíT 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.

 

Mount Washington offers very little opportunities for recovery, as it all goes up.However, thereís one place on the Mt Ascutney climb many riders complain about.Itís about a half mile from the finish.Youíve been riding at or above threshold for about 30 minutes, then you get this brief downhill.Donít take the bait.Maintain a steady pace, that is, a steady cadence and force to the pedals.You will have to shift up several gears to do this, ramping speed up dramatically.Then when the steepness resumes, you just settle back into the groove you were in for the last few tenths of a mile of the race.This last bit isnít any steeper than the first 2.5 miles, but almost everybody thinks it is.This is because most riders recover on the downhill, then attack the last steep part.You will almost immediately hit deflection and have to back down.This is unfortunate, as the race is almost over.Most years I have done Ascutney, I have passed riders in the last few tenths.They are unable to respond because they peak on the initial steep part approaching the finish.

 

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!ĒYou 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 on Mt Washington, his power to weight ratio was astounding.Finishing time is determined almost purely by a riderís sustainable power to weight ratio.If you do tip the scale into the Clyde or Philly category and are well conditioned, hillclimbing can still be a fabulously rewarding experience.Donít be intimidated by it.

 

10.Fun Factor

 

Hillclimb events have gained considerable popularity over the last few years.Before I did my first hillclimb event, there was just Mount Washington, and it was just starting to take off.Now thereís a calendar full of hillclimb events, including two events on Mount Washington since the August race sells out 600 spots in a few hours.I believe there are several reasons behind this increase in popularity.

 

Hillclimbs are quite safe, unlike many traditional bike races.Criteriums 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 Washington, is the wind or steep grade causes a rider to unexpectedly stop, then they fall over.This happens even to proís on Mt Washington in extreme wind.Serious injury is unlikely.Some riders, due to extreme fatigue and/or inadequate gearing, will peter out on the 22% grade at the summit of Washington.Again, feet often donít come out in time, or even if they do, metal cleats donít grip the steep pavement and the rider topples over.Hip, elbow, or wrist injuries are possible.But overall, hillclimb racing is much safer than high speed pack racing.For events where riding back down the mountain is allowed, please be careful.Cars are often coming up, slower riders are going down, rims and brakes can overheat, and turns can be much sharper than you think.

 

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 Washington is often dubbed the toughest hillclimb in the world.For most people, just being able to finish riding a bike up is a huge accomplishment.To finish mid-pack in your age class probably places you in the top few percent in fitness with your peers nationally.Hillclimbing is addictive, as once most try it, they already start talking about ďnext year.ĒEverybody wants to better their personal best.Mt Washington has become an annual fitness test for many that keep coming back.

 

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.Mt Washingtonís August race is the capstone event on many climbersí calendars.It is the de facto gathering of the faithful.Rewarding accomplishment, great friends, fine food, and good times.

 

Thanks for reading,

Doug Jansen

 

Last revised 11-AUG-2006