For many cycling enthusiasts conquering an ascent, whether it’s a local hill or an Alpine climb featured on the Tour de France, is the epitome of cycling. The winners of Grand Tours are often decided in the mountain stages and the title of King or Queen of the Mountains evokes the idea of an existential battle against the gradient to vanquish the mountain! Cyclists seem to be drawn to climbs but what is the best way to reach the summit? Here are my top tips for climbing:
The first thing to do if you are planning to tackle some of the iconic mountain climbs is to practice! It can be difficult to ride a long, steep gradient if you have never done it before. Riding the climbs of the Grand Tours will be a bit of a shock both physically and mentally if you are not used to riding hills. The climbs on the continent are long steady climbs rather than short steep inclines which are more common in the UK. If you can’t find a long climb close to home then just ride a decent hill a few times to get your legs used to climbing a longer distance.
Make sure that your bike is set up properly for climbing. If you plan to take your own bike overseas to ride the Cols then the main question is – does it have enough gears? The standard 39/53 tooth chainring with 11-23 cassette is ok for hills that only last a few minutes but climbs on the continent can take over an hour to reach the top so you should think about changing either the chainset, cassette or both for a lower gear ratio. Of course that is easier said than done so the best way to ensure that your bike is suitable and avoiding the need to change your existing bike set up is to hire a bike with compact gears appropriate for the local terrain, at your destination. Lots of hire bikes have a traditional compact chainset with 50/34 chain rings and 11 speed 11-32 cassette – perfect for the mountains.
The most efficient way of climbing is to spin in an easy gear. We all know someone who claims to have climbed a mountain in the big ring but look at the gearing the pros use up climbs and you will see that they spin up. Unless you are doing a specific strength building session then select a lower gear and spin. Try and stay seated as long as possible. When the going gets tough move towards the back of the saddle to get some extra power and only stand for the steepest of gradients or just to stretch the legs.
The main point to make about pace is not to go off too fast. The climbs on the continent are a lot longer than those in the UK so you will need to conserve energy to reach the top. The most energy efficient way to climb is to ride at the same pace from the bottom to the summit and remember to ride within your own capacity. Also don’t be afraid to stop for a rest on the way up – you don’t have to ride it all at once. Actually stopping is advisable to take a look at, or a photo of, the stunning scenery on route!
The mistake that many riders make is that they try to fuel the climb whilst on the climb. This is too late as your energy stores will already be depleted and what is worse it will be hard to digest whilst cycling hard and could make reappearance! Make sure that you have an energy bar about fifteen to or twenty minutes before you get to the climb. Energy gels are good for climbing as they are more easily digested and take affect quicker than solids. Of course keep taking small sips of drink whilst climbing. Some climbs have refreshment stops on the upwards slopes but that isn’t always the case so fill up your bidons at a café or shop at the bottom.
Helen is a former age-group European triathlon champion and World and European duathlon champion. In 2015 she cycled the entire route of the Tour de France as part of the ‘One Day Ahead team’, which raised £1m for Cure Leukaemia. You can follow her training and racing on Twitter via @helengoth. Read more about Helen in Anaemic On A Bike’s Hall of Fame page.