9 Ways to Improve Your Climbing

Mar 11, 2013

By Dan Fleeman

Someone once asked Robert Millar’s advice on climbing – his response was typical of the man; ‘Ride hills, lots.’ For some people, climbing hills comes easily; almost second nature. For others it can be more of a struggle. But we can all improve whatever level we’re at.

With this in mind, I’ve put together some points on how to improve your climbing. These should be relevant to you whether you’re an elite rider or somebody who is simply hoping to improve before the summer sportives kick in.

1. Improve your power/weight
This one is easy – lose weight and you’ll fly up the Cols, right? While this is partly true, it may be better to focus on improving your power first then look at losing a few pounds in a controlled way.

2. Work on your cadence
To become efficient at climbing you should learn to spin the pedals faster rather than just pushing a big gear at a low cadence. But it’s not just a case of putting it into the smallest gear you have the next time you get to a climb. You need to train your body to adapt to spinning at a higher cadence. Try adding blocks of 10 minutes spinning at 110rpm into your normal rides, first on flat roads and then when you have mastered this, move onto doing the same on a climb.

3. Build a strong foundation
Before starting more specific high intensive training intervals, it’s important to have a strong foundation or ‘base.’ This does not necessarily have to involve riding at zone two for hours on end – although work of this type is required. Try adding blocks of zone three into longer rides; 30-60 minutes continuous zone three will set you up well for climbing long mountains. For riders training for, say, the Etape du Tour but living in a flatter area this is a good way to prepare.

4. Threshold work
After the foundation has been laid then it’s time to move onto higher intensity threshold work which will help raise your FTP (Function Threshold Power). Try doing around 30 minutes in zone four which could be either 2 x 15 minutes or 3 x 10 minutes. If you have climbs of this length in your area that’s to the good. But if not, this can be done on a turbo but lifting the front wheel a little to replicate a slight gradient.

5. V02 Max
The next move is into training above threshold. V02 max intervals are great for improving your anaerobic endurance as well as improving your threshold power. 4/5 x 4 minute intervals in zone five would be a good workout for most riders.

6. It’s not all about average power
There are two types of climber; riders who set a single sustained high level of power all the way up a climb without making sudden accelerations (a la Wiggins) and the other type who don’t set a steady tempo but make constant bursts, changing their pace and causing others who try to match their efforts to explode (Joaquim Rodriguez is a good example). Bearing this in mind it’s a good idea to try varying the power on some of the intervals. You could try riding the first 40 seconds of a four minute interval as hard as you can then settle into zone four for the remainder of the effort; or flip it around and ride Zone four/five for the main part before going flat out in the final 40 seconds.

7. Position yourself well before a climb
When racing, it is important to position yourself well on the approach to a climb; it’s easier to start the climb near the front so you’re already at the sharp end, ready to attack if you’re a strong climber. Or being at the front will give you some sliding room if you’re not great in the hills. If you happen to be Carlos Sastre or one of the others pushing out over 6w/kg then you can start further back and move up when you feel inclined. But not only can this be frustrating and frightening for your team mates this is a waste of energy not many people can afford to make. If you start at the front you have 100 odd wheels to slip through – if you lose ground on the climb you should still be in the bunch over the top, but if you start at the back you will be way off the back by the top of the climb.

8. Follow moves – but be careful not to go into the red too often
If others are attacking then you need to follow as best you can. But while some riders can zip after the attacks with sudden bursts, others have to be more careful to not go too deep into the red. Wiggins in the Vuelta and Dauphine was an impressive example of this technique at its best. At the tour of Langkawi in 2009 I was in the front of the race going up Genting Highlands; the race had whittled down to four or five riders when eventual winner, Colombian Jose Serpa put in a big attack. I went after him straight away, going too deep into the red, failing to recover and slipping way down the field in the final 5km of the climb. I would have been much better to have slowly ridden my way back to his rear wheel, rather than panicking and trying to close the gap so quickly. The lesson was learned; don’t mess with a Columbian on a mountain – or if you do, play to your own strengths not theirs.

9. The top is not the end of the road
Many riders sprint to the top of a climb then sit-up and relax over the crest; this is where big gaps can open. The key is to learn to accelerate over the top when the climb levels out or starts to drop. This will catch out the riders still on the climb and those who have relaxed when they saw the top.

But as Robert Millar said, it’s best to; ‘go ride hills, lots!’


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