10. Climbing: the fundamentals

Finishing the Haute Route means climbing approximately 20,000m in a week (the exact vertical gain depends on the event). This is by any standards a considerable challenge, and you obviously need to climb as much as possible in preparation for it.

Unfortunately climbing the same one-kilometre hill fifteen times will not come close to simulating the effort required to climb the fifteen kilometres to an Alpine col. However, don’t despair: it is still possible to prepare yourself without having to move to the mountains!

Key Insight #10

First: get the right equipment

The most important element is the gears, closely followed by the wheels. Trying to do a long climb with the wrong gears will result in you exhausting yourself, with little chance to recover. Since triple chainsets have practically disappeared the best choice is a compact, with a 50-tooth outer and 34-tooth inner ring and a 12-27 cassette. SRAM even offer a 11-32 cassette, although this will only work with a SRAM rear derailleur.

Choosing the right wheels can make a big difference. Weight is important, but especially in the rims, since this is where it impacts the inertia. Low rims are the usual choice, and aluminium is often seen as the best all-round choice. Look out for a more detailed article on this topic coming soon.

Second: make climbing a priority on each ride

Look for as much climbing as possible during your rides in order to refine and adapt your technique for long ascensions. Good climbing technique includes the following factors:

  1. Pedalling technique. The goal is to achieve the smooth, fluid pedal stroke that will bring you the greatest efficiency and the least muscle fatigue. Read more on pedalling technique
  2. Find the right cadence. This is not straightforward: the optimum varies from one cyclist to another depending on the rider’s physical qualities as well as the slope. As a general rule, most people will find that once they have learned to climb at 70-80 rpm it is more efficient than at 60-70 rpm. The lower cadence however feels more natural so it needs considerable practice to develop this
  3. Find the right intensity. At the right intensity you will climb quickly without undue fatigue. Very experienced cyclists can estimate this level based on their sensations; for others a heart-rate meter or better still a power meter is indispensable to get it right.

Third: work on your strength

Riding at the same intensity on the flat or on a climb is not the same. On the flat your cadence is likely to be significantly higher than on a climb, and it is easy to take frequent micro-breaks without much impact on your average speed. On a climb however the cadence will be lower and so to maintain the same power output you must apply a higher force on the pedals. Not only that, you can’t take a break since the slightest let-up has an immediate impact.

You must therefore develop the ability to apply a high level of force to the pedals for a long period of time. One way to do this, if you don’t have access to any significant climbs, is to simulate a long climb by riding a big gear at 60-65 rpm into a headwind. Start with a 40 minute effort and increase the duration over the weeks to come.

Fourth: work at tempo/subthreshold intensities

Long rides at a steady pace (intensity I1 – I2) will build endurance but will not prepare you for passing the mountains. In the mountains many of the ascents are likely to take you over an hour at intensity I3 to I4, followed by short high-speed descents at intensity I1. You must therefore get used to repeating lengthy, high intensity ascents followed by short periods of recovery on the descents.

If you have so far done little work at I3/I4 intensities (tempo/subthreshold), begin by 4×10’ then increase to 3×15’, then 3×20’, 2×30’, 2×45’ etc. Ride at a lower cadence than normal in order to simulate a steep climb as much as possible.

Finally, combine the two exercises and repeat two or three sessions of 45’ at I3/I4, 60-65rpm, 15’ recovery at I1, 95-100rpm. This is easy to do if you have access to a long climb. In flat terrain you will need to ride out into a headwind and return with a tailwind.

Next article: optimising performance over repeat climbs…

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