ALEX STIEDA, the first North American to wear the yellow jersey in the Tour de France, with 7-Eleven in 1986, leads tours and skills camps.
* This is a repost of his infamous article with Bicycling.com talking about How To Master the Mountains with the Right Strategy.
Many riders at my camps are anxious about their climbing skills—specifically, whether they’ll be able to keep up with the group. Pro riders struggle with the same issue. When we watch the Tour de France on TV, we always see the leaders at the front hammering comfortably up the mountains, but the truth is the rest of the field is simply trying to survive. Those riders need to expend their energy as efficiently as possible so they can make the time cut and advance to the next stage. As a neo-pro riding for 7-Eleven, I was no climbing specialist, but the strategies I developed have helped me over many years of riding. Here’s how to make the most of your own climbing ability.
TRAIN THE TERRAIN
If you typically ride flat roads, you will most likely find climbs difficult. Even if your local rides include short, steep hills, don’t expect to lead on a long climb. Andy Hampsten, the only American to win the Tour of Italy, grew up in the flatlands of North Dakota. It wasn’t until he moved to Boulder, Colorado, that he became a true climber.
SPIN LIKE A PRO
Most of us aren’t naturally blessed with a climber’s 4 percent body fat. Consequently, we need to be strategic about how we approach a climb. A general rule is the bigger the rider, the more important it is to sit and spin. On an extended climb, the pro peloton’s larger climbers pedal seated at 110 to 120 rpm for greater efficiency. A lighter rider might be in and out of the saddle, pushing a bigger gear at 80 to 90 rpm.
RIDE YOUR OWN PACE
Many people make the mistake of hanging onto the wheel in front of them until they blow up. They think that if they do this often enough they will improve, but it’s the opposite of what you need to do to get better. Instead, try the following workout.
Warm up for at least 30 minutes.
The first week, do one five-minute climbing effort, pedaling at 90-plus rpm. Go as hard as you can while keeping your breathing under control.
Each week, add another five-minute effort to the ride until you can do five in one session. Pedal easy for at least five minutes between intervals.
USE THE TERRAIN
Most climbs don’t have a constant grade. When you reach a flatter section, shift into an easier gear and spin at a faster cadence to let your legs recover. As you approach a short, steeper section, you may want to shift into a harder gear and get out of the saddle. As the terrain levels out, you can sit down and go back to your easier gear and higher cadence.
Even the best riders will have a bad patch during a climb. The key is not to panic–if you stay within your limits, you’ll often start to feel better mid-climb and go on to finish strong.