Almost any sportive in the mountains involves repeat climbs. The Marmotte, for example, means climbing the col du Glandon followed by the col du Télégraphe, the col du Galibier and finally the climb to Alpe d’Huez. It is the succession of climbs that is a trap for the unwary or inexperienced.
On multiple day events such as the Haute Route, managing your effort over several climbs in the same day is just as important as managing your recovery between days. As you will see, it is all a question of threshold…
It may surprise you to learn that your average heart rate (or average power) recorded during two events of the same duration, one on the plain and the other in the mountains, will be very close. The two curves will however have a completely different shape.
The first recording (Fig 1) was made during the Cyclotour du Leman, which is 180 km long and almost flat. The heart rate (HR) shows considerable variation around the mean, as the rider took his turn at the front of the peloton and rode up and down the few short hills. The average HR during the 4h32 minutes was 135bpm, and in spite of the high average speed (40km/h) the rider spent 56% i.e. most of his time in Zone 2, Endurance.
The second recording was made during the 2011 Etape du Tour, and shows the ascents of the Télégraphe, the Galibier and finally Alpe d’Huez. The average HR was 138bpm, only slightly higher than the Cyclotour. The curve, however, clearly shows the very significant difference in effort between the climbs and the descents. The rider spent far more times at the extremes (18% in Z1, 66% in Z3/Z4), than during the Cyclotour, and the effort during the climbs was practically constant.
Managing a series of long climbs
On a series of long climbs, therefore, the crucial factor is managing this constant, high effort at the right level. The key transition is at your lactate threshold (upper Zone 4). Just below this level, you can keep going for the better part of an hour or perhaps an hour if you are particularly well trained. Above the threshold (also known as Critical Power CP or Functional Threshold Power FTP), the intensity is too high and you will not be able to keep it up for long.
The objective, therefore, is to make the long climbs at an intensity situated just below the threshold. This is at 83-85% of your maximum heart rate (MHR), or just below 100% of your FTP.
These figures are obviously not much use if you don’t know your MHR and/or your FTP, so it is important to determine them during your training. By far the most accurate approach is to use a power meter, since this is the only direct measure of your effort. A heart rate monitor is better than nothing, but is a poor substitute since your heart rate is affected by many other factors (fatigue, temperature, stress, altitude and caffeine to mention just a few).
The critical moment: the first col
During a race, it is extremely easy to make the first climb way too fast. The excitement, the adrenaline and the natural desire to keep up with other riders all conspire to make you start out too hard. This is a serious error, because overdoing it at the start, even slightly, will irremediably drain your muscles of the glycogen you will need on the final climb. The result will be a significant loss of time overall.
The solution is to take the early climbs at an easy pace: fix a certain heart rate or a certain power output that you are sure you can maintain during the entire climb, and stick to it, no matter how many riders pass you! You will most probably catch them later…
During the descents
Your heart rate will drop dramatically. There is almost no effort since you spend a lot of the time free-wheeling. Take advantage of these moments to relax and recover your breath, breathing in and out deeply. Don’t forget to keep turning the pedals during the descents to help eliminate the lactates – if you don’t do this you can expect nasty cramps on the first small rise after the descent!
In the valleys
The intensity in the valleys should be moderate, corresponding to Zone 2 (endurance). Recover actively before the next climb: alternate pedalling at high and low cadence to keep the different muscle fibres working and prepare them for the effort to come.
The valley is also the best place to eat and drink: it is hard to eat a cereal bar on a steep climb!