CLIMBING AND DESCENDING

By Nenad Rodic
posted 04/05

CLIMBING

On this page, we’ll try explain different techniques used in cycling while climbing. It is safe to say that your climbing prowess will depend on your power-to-weight ratio and your fitness. If you are tall and big, do not expect to be great at this aspect of cycling. However, you can still improve in order to make climbing a more enjoyable experience.
There is a big debate about what gear ratio should be used when climbing. On one side there’s the high cadence/low gear camp, and on the other there is the big gear/lower cadence camp. Using a small gear will save your legs, but at the same time this type of effort consumes more oxygen, and exerts more energy for the same power output. Unfortunately, no triathlete has the VO2max of 90ml/kgmin like Lance Armstrong, so managing energy resources becomes a big issue. On the other hand, there is always that run after the bike which makes everything much more difficult. I suggest you try both ways on a hill that you ride often. Time trial it at a cadence over 90 rpm and then again at a cadence under 70 rpm in same conditions. You’ll probably find that both approaches are not ideal. Most great cyclists suggest a cadence around 80 rpm for hills. This is hardly over-gearing, and it will leave your legs fairly fresh. At the same time, you’ll be able to accelerate if necessary and will not tax your cardiovascular system too much (unless you go all-out).
As far as position on the bike goes, you need to try different things.

1 As shown on photo: you can sit far back in the saddle which allows the use of large muscle groups (gluteus, quadriceps, hamstrings). This approach works especially if you have a strong core.

Rider in the photo is Andrea Taffi climbing up Taylor street during 2004 San Francisco Grand Prix. The gradient is 16.5%. Notice how far back in the saddle he is and how close to his body his elbows are. Ideally you want to pull back and push down and not up on the handlebars. Elbows should point backward and never to the side.

Another approach to climbing while seated is, in my opinion, better for triathletes and strong time trialists. Move forward on the seat and use your hamstrings and quads as much as you can. This method limits the use of the gluteus, but it allows you a better use of the time-trial muscle groups mentioned earlier. Many riders do very well with this approach: Jan Ullrich and Oscar Sevilla, to mention a few. Perhaps it’s best to combine them as Lance Armstrong and Alexandre Vinokurov do. This way you’ll switch the stress from one muscle group to the other.

When hills become too steep, the only solution is to stand up (as seen in the photo).
Stand up and lean forward so there is not too much stress on your arms. Try to use your hip flexors for the backside of the pedal stroke (upstroke-lifting your leg). Keep your elbows close to your body like Levi in the picture below*. Hold the brake hoods, unless you are very small in which case you can hold the drops (tall people have trouble with this). Make sure you get in a good rhythm that allows you to go over the dead spot without slowing down. Sit every time it flattens out, but anticipate steep sections and stand up at the proper time (before your speed goes down).

1 Rider in the photo is Levi Leipheimer on Taylor street during 2004 San Francisco Grand Prix. Notice that elbows are pointing backwards. He is leaning over the handlebars and is right on top of the bottom bracket. Hands are on the brake hoods.

*Regardless of the sitting position, it is always good to keep the elbows in the confines of the handlebars. This will limit the tension in the trapesius muscle and allow easier breathing and the use of lats and abdominal muscles. Back to top


DESCENDING

I’ve put over a minute on people going down an eight-mile descent without even trying. I know that eight-mile descents do not exist in triathlons but fast descending is something everyone should learn. It is fun and it is safer when you go faster than cars. The most important thing in descending is aerodynamics and proper judging of corners and gradients. To gain aerodynamics, get in a tuck position. Knees should be in around the top tube, chin on the handlebars, hands and arms close together; nothing must stick out and weight should be on the front wheel. The bike is very unstable when you shift weight like this, so be careful! If the descent is too long, sit on the top tube since holding yourself up is very tiring. While doing this, beware of the sudden turns; you don’t want to be on the top tube through a corner.
The counter steering principle of cornering applies here except that when brakes are released you will be gaining speed so speed control (light brake application) might be needed. It is helpful to know the course so you can judge the corners and gradient better. Ideally, you want to be as far out as possible before getting into the corner. Slow down to a safe speed. Cut the corner on the inside unless another rider occupies that line, and come out wide on the outside of the corner (taking the apex of a turn). Back to top


By Nenad Rodic, founder of Triathlonplace.com