You don’t 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 can’t 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 – you’ll fall over if you try this on Mount Washington. This British Global Cycling Network video explains a lot:
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 can’t coast, you can’t rest either. You’ll be slurping that sports drink into your lungs if you don’t 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 downstrokes. 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 upstairs, 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 hill climb events, or on the actual climb itself if accessible. You’ll see that it’s not only about training, rest, and nutrition, though these are all key elements to9 succeed.
There are a couple of 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 “I’m stronger than they are, so I need to go harder.” DON’T 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 hill climb. 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.
A second place will hillclimbers get into trouble is with natural variations in grade. Many climbs will have less steep sections or even big downhills en route to the summit. The inexperienced hillclimbers will encounter these and think “Gee, a gift, I can rest for a moment.” DON’T DO IT!! What will happen is you will indeed recover some, but then when the grade turns nasty steep again, you’ll go deep into the red because you feel fresh.
A big batch of lactic acid will get produced, then in a minute or two, you’ll 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, there’s one place on the Mt Ascutney climb many riders complain about. It’s about a half-mile from the finish. You’ve been riding at or above the threshold for about 30 minutes, then you get this brief downhill. Don’t 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 the 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 isn’t 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.
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, “My bike weighs 65.17 grams less than your bike!” You quickly reach a point with the current technology where each additional gram saved costs more and more. To get to 15 pounds, you’ll easily be spending $2 per gram of saved weight. Want to take a pound off? That’s 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, that’s 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 2006. In a couple of years, I was down to around 175-180 pounds. I still wasn’t 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 a healthy thing to do. You’ll feel better about yourself all year long losing another pound than you will by taking grams off your hill climb bike, which likely will hang in the garage most of the year.
Many hill climb 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 5’ 10” 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 rider’s 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. Don’t be intimidated by it.
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 hill climbs. I have heard over and over again, “next year I’m going to gear lower.” 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 can’t there be a standard gear set for all Mt. Washington hillclimbers? When I ponder these questions, five categories of this topic come to mind.