Whether your goal is to finish in the top ten or just to finish, you are still going to have to get over every climb on the Haute Route. Unlike in flat country, there’s no use hiding at the back of the peloton and hoping to do well in the sprint. The mountains take no prisoners.
The key to doing well is to climb at the right pace, with the right cadence. Climb too fast and you won’t be able to sustain the intensity; climb too slowly and you are missing an opportunity. This may seem obvious but is not easy to get right.
Cadence: the foundation.
In the mountains the optimum cadence is lower than on the plain: typically 60 to 75 rpm compared to 80 to 100 rpm, depending on the rider. It also varies with the gradient and the speed: the steeper the grade, the lower the cadence is going to be.
Most of the top climbers in the professional peloton climb with a high cadence. This ability to turn the pedals faster gives them an advantage in terms of muscular endurance: they can maintain the same power output with less force, resulting in less stress on their muscles. So should you do the same?
- If you are at ease at higher cadences – for example if you regularly cycle on the flat at 90 to 100 rpm – then you should climb at the highest cadence you can manage comfortably without getting out of breath. This will most likely be in the range 75 – 80 rpm.
- Don’t do this, however, if it is against your nature. Especially at this point, just a few weeks from the start, it is too late to learn a new style. If your normal style is to ride with a high gear and a low cadence, you will certainly do better if you stick to this when climbing.
Your ability to choose your cadence during the steepest climbs depends on your lowest gear (known either as the “granny gear” or the “get-out-of-jail gear”). Individual differences make it hard to give specific advice. The best suggestion we can make is to come ride the climbs for a few days and see what works for you.
By observation and experience we know that:
- The majority of Haute Route riders prefer a 36 or a 34 inner ring combined with a 27 or 29 tooth sprocket.
- Very powerful riders will be comfortable with a 39 tooth chain ring
- Riders that are particularly at ease at higher cadences may even choose a triple chainset with a 30 tooth inner ring.
- The largest sprocket might be a 32.
If in doubt, choose a lower gear: it is better to have it and not need it than the contrary!
Power and intensity
Along with cadence, the second crucial factor in climbing is power (or intensity). The need to measure these is why we highly recommend you use at least a heart rate meter and better still a power meter during the Haute Route. Without either measurement you are relying exclusively on your sensations. These can often be misleading, resulting in either under or over-doing it.
Again, the key here is not to ride up each climb as fast as possible but to find the level that will get you up and over ALL the climbs at the fastest overall speed.
The general guideline* for this level is around 80% of your maximum heart rate, 75% of your functional threshold power (FTP). This is the crossover between the endurance (I2) and the tempo (I3) zones, and is a level you should be able to maintain for +/-3 hours.
This is not of course a strict limit that you must never exceed, but an average to aim at. On steeper sections and perhaps on the first third of the first climb of the day, you might push slightly harder, in order to stay with a group that will help you save energy later.
Make sure, however, that you take account of the accumulated fatigue over the week:
– In terms of power, you will find it more and more difficult to sustain the same level as time goes on. This should incite you to be prudent and ride at least the first two days at a lower level than you would on a one-day sportive.
– Your heart rate is likely to be lower for the same power output after 2 or 3 days. This is normal so you should take it into account and reduce your target heart rate by 5 to 15 beats per minute as the week goes on.
*The strongest riders can climb at a higher intensity, for two reasons:
- Their aerobic threshold is higher and they are physically capable of maintaining a higher intensity over several successive climbs;
- Due to their higher speed, they spend less time climbing and therefore can afford to climb at a higher intensity.