Climbing – Tips & Techniques

When we launched the Skylark Sportive, the event was always going to involve plenty of climbing. We always emphasise that the event is about more than the big Tour de France climbs, but the bottom line for most of you is that you’ll be thinking about Cragg Vale, Ripponden Bank and Holme Moss before during and maybe even after the event.

Tempting views - where will you be stopping for a breather?

The author takes a breather on Cragg Vale

This is because, as a cyclist, climbs define a long road ride. Your ability to get over the climbs will dictate how quickly you will be able to cover the distance. The climbs are likely to be the setting for your toughest moments of the ride, but will also lead to some of the most rewarding – there’s nothing quite like reaching the summit of a long road climb, with view stretching ahead of you, probably a long descent to enjoy and rest on, plus that overwhelming sense of achievement at having conquered the ascent.

Skylark Sportive organiser Phil Ingham has lived and cycled in the South Pennines for most of his adult life and, by his own estimation, has climbed well over 8 million feet whilst cycling in that time (over 250 times the height of Everest). He’s also a British Cycling registered coach and veteran of events such as the Etape du Tour and the 3-Peaks Cyclo-Cross. Here he offers his tips on how to climb better.

Training: It may be blindingly obvious, but training hard naturally improves your climbing. If you live in hilly terrain, don’t be afraid to tackle climbs and de-mystify the experience of going up on a bike. The bottom line is very simple: the better your power to weight ratio, the faster you will climb. So, that means that you can either reduce weight or increase power, to obtain an improvement. I’ve never been a lightweight and I’ve occasionally dieted to in search of a leaner physique. But, in truth, as a cyclist who is doing the sport mainly for pleasure, dieting isn’t much fun whereas cycling is. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m better off cycling more, enjoying myself more and letting my weight look after itself. In other words, don’t get hung up on your weight at the expense of enjoying your cycling!

Experience: A spin-off of training in hilly terrain is that you gain experience too. You learn how your body reacts to going uphill and soon work out the best cadence and gear combinations for different types of climbs.

uppermill-rr-diggle-550

The author out on his bike in the South Pennines

Technique:  On the whole, it’s best to climb whilst seated. Out of the saddle efforts are useful to stretch your muscles and avoid the discomfort of remaining in the same position for long periods. Standing can also give you a bit more leverage to get you over a brief steeper section or round a tight bend. However, for long climbs like Holme Moss and Cragg Vale, it’s more important to settle into a consistent and comfortable cadence (i.e. how fast your legs are going round). For most reasonably fit cyclists this is in the region of 80 to 100 revs per minute. Like a car engine, your body has a “power band” where it’s most efficient and it should naturally find that on a climb. Use your gears to keep yourself  in that power band or rev’ range. Some riders find that by using the Turbo trainer or riding fixed wheel on a track they can improve their ability to maintain a high cadence. This can make you more efficient on climbs. For all the damage he did to cycling, Lance Armstrong was a trend setter through “high cadence” climbing. He opened the eyes of many riders to the possibility of climbing better through spinning a lower gear at 100 to 120 rpm.

km countdowns all the way up Cragg Vale - starting here, 8.38km from the summit

km countdowns all the way up Cragg Vale – starting here, 8.38km from the summit – careful pacing is a good idea on a climb this length

Pacing: on any long ride you’re always conscious that what you are doing at the moment might be having an impact on your cycling in an hour or two’s time. Go too hard up the first couple of climbs and you will pay the price later in the ride. Again, think about maintaining an easy spinning cadence on the early climbs, as this will take less out of your legs than slower grinding. Equally, keep your effort level under control and save something for later. It’s all too easy to be dragged into a “race” on a climb. You will almost certainly pay the price sometime later on another climb. Keep something back and stick to a good technique and easily sustained pace.

Think Ahead: This applies to the road immediately in front of you. Several of the Skylark’s steeper sections come upon you quite suddenly: look to keep on top of gear selection and don’t get trapped in a high gear on an unexpectedly steep ramp of road. But, also look further ahead – well before the event, check out the route profile and see just exactly how steep the major climbs are. Find something similarly steep and see if your gearing is up to the job. If you already training in a hilly area, the chances are you will already have a bike with appropriate gearing. But if you don’t then it might be worth a trip to somewhere with some decent hills to test your gearing and bear in mind that gearing which is fine when you are fresh might be pretty uncomfortable when you have five hours of cycling in your legs. Modern compact chainsets are a big help, but don’t be afraid to get some help at the rear cassette too. I ride a 36/28 combination most of the time, but have also gone up to a 34 at the back with a long rear derailleur for long rides in the Alps and Lake district. Climbing slowly ON the bike is always preferable to walking OFF the bike!

The lower slopes of the Holme Moss climb

The lower slopes of the Holme Moss climb and a group of riders begins to split as the gradient bites!

Group riding: if you are riding with a group of friends or club-mates and you suspect you are one of the weaker climbers, get yourself to the front of the group before the climb and allow yourself to drift to the back during the ascent. This will only work up to a point, but particularly when you’re riding “lumpy” terrain with short but steep climbs, it can work very well and keep you in the group.

Nutrition & Hydration: This is another aspect of planning ahead. Start the ride well hydrated and having eaten well in the days before. Then don’t forget to eat and drink through the event. Once you’re in the saddle for more than about 90 minutes, eating and drinking becomes very important for your continued enjoyment and wellbeing. Work out how much you need to eat and drink every hour and stick to it. When you’ve got big climbs to face, try to eat perhaps 5 miles before the foot of the climb. Eating whilst climbing is really tough, so time your “refuelling” for downhill or flat sections and don’t let the excitement of the ride overcome you. If you are prone to forgetting about nutrition, tape a plan to your handlebars so you have a constant reminder.

So, there you have it. Climbing is one of the most satisfying parts of cycling. It’s also the most testing aspect of the sport and the one where your weaknesses will be most exposed. But if you’ve trained hard, know your own limitations and look after yourself, you can turn climbing into a strength and a pleasure…..of sorts! Good luck on the 12th April!

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