Climbing is either one of your strengths or a “painful annoyance” to be dealt with on the way to the finish where you may be able to utilize your sprint (assuming you have some strength left). How many times have you heard a sprinter say they just need to get over a climb and get to the finish line with the main group? Or a climber says, I have to get away from the sprinters on the climb so I have a chance to win the race.
How do the pros train for climbing? We quiz Burke Swindlehurst, one of the top domestic pros well-known for his climbing prowess. We also talk with Chechu Rubiera, who we have seen for years and years at the front of the Postal/Discovery train stringing out the field whenever things got vertical in the Grand Tours.
Pez: Climbing is one of your strengths as a cyclist. Obviously there are many different types of climbs ranging from short steep climbs to longer sustained efforts. How do you approach your training program when thinking about improving your climbing? Or do you approach it by improving your weaknesses, so your climbing skills will be less affected?
Burke: That’s an interesting question! It seems that I’ve always excelled on longer climbs at altitude. I’m not sure if that’s just a function of genetics or more of a reflection of the fact that that is the kind of terrain I’ve had access to by virtue of living in Utah. I would guess that it’s more the latter. I recently finished up with my Team Bissell training camp in Santa Rosa, CA, where we tackled multiple climbs every day that were more of the short and steep variety and found myself wondering if I really was a climber as I watched larger riders like Ben Jaques-Mayne and Tom Zirbel pedal away from me up the steep grades! That being said, I believe that “you are what you train for.” Knowing that short, steep climbs were a bit of a weakness for me, in my preparation for the (now defunct) San Francisco Grand Prix I would focus on doing big-gear repeats up steeper climbs similar in length to Fillmore street and reaped great benefit from it when the race came around.
Chechu: I do like to focus and try to improve my condition on the longer climbs of 30+ minutes, especially when I am getting closer to the grand tours (Giro, Tour, and Vuelta). It’s important for me to feel confident on those types of climbs because there are so many of them and they have such great importance during those races. I also make sure that my body weight is down as I go into those races, as 1-2 kilos can make an enormous difference in my performance. But, at the same time, I don’t train them as often as people may think, because the majority of our races have shorter climbs in the range of 4 to 7 kilometers, like Paris-Nice or the Basque Country.
Pez: Specifically, when climbing, do you try to vary your cadence, or try to keep it at a certain level? What do you feel are the positive and/or negative effect of getting out of the saddle on the climbs?
Burke: I’ve always like to change positions and cadences while climbing, particularly on longer climbs where it’s important to give your muscles a break from time to time. Generally speaking, I pedal at a relatively high cadence while climbing. I think that has a lot to do with fact that I’m more of an “aerobic” rider than “muscular” rider and pedaling a higher cadence seems to be more efficient in keeping my muscles from being overtaxed.
Chechu: I train varying the cadence on shorter climbs (4-7 km long), but not as much during the longer ones. It is enough training to do the long climbs at 85-90 rpm cadence for more than 30 minutes where I work on smooth pedaling, relaxing and sustainability of effort. Shorter climbs are faster and more aggressive, so I work on more acceleration, which of course helps me for those times during the longer climbs. In terms of standing versus sitting, I get out of the saddle mainly for relaxing the other muscles. I do feel like I use more energy when I stand, but like everything, you must train both to be successful.
Rubber on the Road
Let’s summarize some key points:
You are what you train for. Burke making the statement “you are what you train for” is very important. He has taken an approach that he can overcome certain weaknesses through hard work. Too often we hear riders, both new and experienced, stereotype themselves as a certain type of rider before even giving themselves a chance of working hard and improving their weaknesses. Make no mistake about it, every rider will excel in certain areas and struggle in others. It’s important not to box yourself into a classification without giving yourself a chance of improving.
Different kinds of climbs Both riders focus on different types of climbs for different events. For Chechu, climbing the longer climbs in preparation for the Grand Tours not only prepares him for those races, but also gives him the opportunity to work on his aerobic capacity. It’s much easier to train the aerobic engine in the hills. In the hills, it’s easier to control the intensity, where you usually find yourself “holding back” versus on flatter terrain where it’s more about having to push harder to reach the intensity you are trying to improve (e.g. lactate threshold). The obvious message here is they train on the types of hills related to their goals.
Power to Weight Does it surprise us that the weight issue and losing that extra kilo or two is important to a climber? They want to shave any additional ounces off the bike and themselves for good reason. Improving the weight to strength ratio through healthy weight loss and increased power is always a good thing and cannot be over-emphasized. How much weight to lose? That’s a challenging question because there is a fine line to optimal performance and “going over the edge.” Some things you can recognize or do to find that balance:
• Have a nutritional analysis done by a qualified sports nutritionist that can examine your food intake and help you determine how to optimize your diet for weight loss and health.
• How often do you get sick? Cyclists put an enormous amount of stress on their bodies with training, work and home life. Staying healthy is so important and if you are getting sick a lot, losing too much weight can be a red flag to review as a possible contribution to your ill health.
• How is your recovery from harder efforts? As you lose that extra kilo or two, make sure you notice whether you are able to recover adequately from hard efforts and races.
Climbing Cadence. Toolbox has addressed this issue many times. Finding the optimal cadence for climbing is no easy task and takes a lot of work. One thing is for certain is that good climbers work on increasing their cadences during training. A “relatively” higher cadence on longer steady climbs will help emphasize your aerobic engine. Remember, you just don’t start to climb with a higher cadence; you must train the body to adapt to a higher cadence.
Tempo. Because of the nature of climbing and it being “slower” and less dependent on drafting, riders can really work on developing a climbing tempo or rhythm. One simple tip is to literally count in your mind “1-2-3-4” and repeat as you perform your efforts.
Climbing is probably one of the most widely desired improvements amongst bike racers. The obvious thing here is in order to climb better; you must climb. At this time of the year, which is still relatively early in the season, additional climbing may take some speed out of your legs. Never fear though, as you improve and begin to add other elements to your program, that leg speed will come right back.
Ride safe, ride strong!
Bruce Hendler created AthletiCamps to provide cycling specific coaching and training to athletes and cyclists of all levels. Find out more at www.athleticamps.com and check out the AthletiCamps Blog.