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advanced hill climbing Part 1


Dec 5, 2007
Hi everyone

My name is Patrick and I am rather new to this website and blogging in general, however, I am not new to cycling. Having raced xc mountain bikes in Canada and hill climbs at the elite division for over ten years, I have gathered a lot of valuable information that I hope will come in handy to any interested. I work for a fitness company as their technical cycling consultant and attend training camps all across North America. I specialize in fitting and the pedal stroke in relation to weight distribution. (not necessarily in that order, haha)

I read Newton's article on improving your hill climbing and what he wrote is well researched and pretty much spot on. (good work Newton!) However, this is the basics of hill climbing and much more can be said about the topic as we will see below. here is the first in a series of articles on advanced hill climbing. (NOTE: many of the tips are designed for advanced cyclists and should not be attempted by novice riders. All tips are used at your own risk.)

Bike set-up

Effective hill climbing uses the arms as much as the legs. It is said that a good hill climb training session should leave your arms as tired as your legs! This means you should constantly be pulling on your bars. Not tugging on the bar but maintaining a constant pull on the bar. You will see this creates a better, smother pedal stroke as well. People who "tug" either have poor technique or suffer from fatigue. Usually when i see this in a competitor, i think "attack!" because his pedal stroke has begun to break down. It is no longer circular and he is either using only hamstrings (rarely the case) or only quads (almost always the case). You may notice in between "tugs" the bike slows down a bit. This is reducing momentum, a BIG no-no in cycling and especially hill climbing. The most optimal position to pull is to ride the "T-Bar". this is the part of the bar before it bends. placing your hand on either side of the stem before the bar makes its first bend. Unfortunately for hill climbers, road bikes are set-up to be ridden in the hoods (hands on the top of the levers) so I recommend extending your stem by 10 to 20 millimeters, depending on the reach of your bar. What this does is stretch you out a bit on your bike and allow you to produce more power from your arms, glutes and core which translates to more power (watts) generated by your legs. The second trick i like to do is go one size up on my bar. If i normally ride a 42cm bar, i use a 44cm. The reasoning is simple, it opens my lungs and also increases my leverage when out of the saddle. Depending on grade of the hill, many of you might want to run a compact geared crank on a 12-25 or 11-27 cassette cluster. Only pros use 11-23 on a standard cranks and even that is for single day races. The seat should be level but I do know some pros who have a tendency to move forward on the seat so they tilt it back a few degrees to compensate. I would suggest getting proper technique down instead of tilting the seat back. Those looking to build a light bike should opt for a smaller size sloping frame and use a longer stem and layback seatpost. the bike will be marginally lighter but definitely stiffer out of the saddle. Because of extreme power generated climbing, some pros open the rear brake before climbing and then close it at the summit before going downhill. They use the cam lever normally used to open the brake when removing a wheel. (this is a lever on the brake on shimano and a pin on the brake lever on campy) This allows the wheel to flex within the rear triangle without having the rim rub against the brake pad. A minor detail but if you are racing up Mt. Fuji for over an hour, every bit helps.

Making the bike lighter for hill climb races: there are a lot of tricks but here are a few to get you started without spending crazy money.
A. eliminate the rear brake. Most breaking control and power comes from the front brake and the reduced speeds of an uphill do not warrant a rear brake (IMPORTANT: check with race organizers for brake requirements)
B. use 18 x 700 tires (triathlon) instead of 23 x 700. smaller casing so lighter but less comfort. You can afford to lose comfort because of reduced speeds and time. (make sure to find 18 x 700c tubes. preferably the lightest ones available with the shortest valve that fits on your wheels)
C. find an old seat and remove all the padding. Ride the bare plastic. (this only works well with riders under 65 kilos due to comfort issues)
D. get rid of bottle cages and water bottles for races under 1 hour. Most coaches agree drinking has little effect in hard efforts sustained under 1 hour. You should already be well hydrated coming into the race and plan to re-hydrate directly after the race.

This should be enough to get you started.

Stay tuned for my next blog where we will discuss advanced pedaling technique for climbing. Isolating the upper body.
hill climbing Part 2

Hi everyone

So here is the second part of hill climbing. Pedaling. I know most of you are thinking...well how complex can it be? crank on the pedals until i go lactate, right? Well, almost but nor quite. Ok, i lied...not at all!!!

Your pedal stroke (climbing or otherwise) is affected by 4 main factors.
1. rotational pedal technique
2. breathing technique
3. upper body isolation (or lack there of)
4. bicycle fit geometry

Let's try to sort this out one by one then connect the dots. Without getting into a 20 page document on bike fitting ( and trust me..I could do just that!) the fit of your bike has a direct relationship and impact on your pedal technique and power output. Two main factors that should be given attention to are top tube length and fore/aft saddle positioning. Now I can't fit you to your bike in a paragraph! so I would HIGHLY SUGGEST you get yourself properly fitted to your bike regardless of skill level. A shop performing a 20 minute fit by eye is probably not the best idea. In this case, shell out the cash and get it done right. There may be someone out there aware of a certified fitter or reputable store in the Tokyo area. If so please feel free to post it at the end of this article. A minimum of one hour is the bare essential, however, depending on the client, I have given fittings lasting several sessions, each lasting at least an hour to several hours. In this case though, what we are looking to dial in is the position on your saddle because this directly affects the position of your knee over the axle of your pedal. Top tube, too short and you will develop mid to lower back pains and lose power. Too long and you can develop lower or upper back/neck problems as well as loss of power. If you are riding a lot of hills or doing a hill climb race, let your fitter know and see the previous post for stem length and bar width philosophies. Once your bike has been properly fitted, you will ride longer, faster with less fatigue.

Breathing...A massotherapist once asked me while they were working on me if I was stressed. I wondered what prompted such a question and this is the answer they gave me. When we are stressed, we breath with our chest, when we are relaxed we breath with our stomach. Essentially, when breathing, take deep breaths using your diaphragm and making a "bubble" with your stomach. Avoid rising your chest, as doing the latter will lead to hyperventilation. Breath in through the nose and exhale from mouth. Try to imagine your heart beating at the same slow deep pace of your breathing. This will decrease your heart rate a beat or two..maybe more. The more effectively you intake oxygen, the more oxygen you will have to fuel your muscles. Remember, the more muscle you have, the more oxygen you need.

Upper Body. (NOTE: the following is for road cycling on under 20% gradient hills. Body positioning for mtb and steeper hills is much more involved and will be discussed in a later posting)While pedaling, it is paramount to keep your upper body as still as possible. Avoid "bobbing for apples" as this is a clear sign of poor technique and fatigue. If you can't seem to stop moving your upper body, you might want to shift to an easier gear. One great drill that I developed to practice isolation is to get a plumb bob (available at any hardware store) and tie it to a string and wear it around your neck like a medal. As you ride it will sway back and forth. Your goal is to have it stay perfectly still...not so easy. Now I know some advanced riders out there are thinking...but the pros aren't still!!! Well, yes they are...to an extent. What they do is align their shoulder to their ankle to generate more power..however, take close note, they do not bob up and down and their side to side motion is very minimal and only in the most extreme climbs. If you look at sprinters, they stand up on the pedals but even at 70 kilometers an hour..their upper bodies remain almost perfectly still!! Take close looks at Pantani, Contador, Rasmussen and Armstrong. They have text book technique. Avoid emulating Barloworld's Mauricio Soler. Although he did take the polkadot jersey in this years tour, his technique is questionable and might work for him but few others. He is all over the place on that bike. One wonders what he could accomplish with a little polishing. Look for a dramatic improvement in his riding style in 2008.

Now that we have the simple stuff out of the way, lets talk actual pedal stroke. I am sure almost everyone has heard "pedal in circles! pedal in circles!" Well yes but..not yet. In order to pedal in circles, you must first learn to pedal in squares!

3 Phases to learning to pedal

Phase 1. The square. the circular pedal stroke can essentially be broken down into 4 movements. pushing down, pulling back, pulling up, pushing forward. What makes it circular is the transition from one movement to the other.

1. Pushing down. when pushing down, focus on leading with your heal. Imagine putting your heal through the floor. This does three things. It generates the maximum amount of power, avoids putting pressure on your toes (those that suffer from numb toes during a ride, take note!) and isolates your knee!!! Many who suffer from a wandering knee and subsequent ITB tightness (pain on the side or below the knee) can dramatically help this condition by using the above technique. If your seat is too forward, you will not be able to effectively push your heel down, this is one of countless reasons why a good fitting goes a long way. Your ankle should be slightly less than 90 degrees while in this motion.

2. pulling back. at the bottom of the down stroke, begin to pull back, keeping that heel as low as possible and imagine scraping something off the bottom of your shoe. Never open your ankle more than 90 degrees at any point in the pedal stroke. This maximizes power and continues to keep your knee stable.

3. Pulling Up. This is where most people stop using their leg and rely on the power generated by the opposite leg during its downward portion of its pedal stroke. What you must actually focus on is contracting your hamstrings and pull up on the pedal. Again, the 90 degree rule applies here too.

4. Pushing forward. Now at the top of the stroke you can begin to close your ankle below 90 degrees and prepare for the downstroke. Imagine throwing your knee over your handlebar.

You might want to do one legged pedaling to practice this until you are confident you got it down. Most serious riders and racers incorporate one legged riding into their training on a regular basis.

Now that you have learned to pedal in squares, now you can move to step two...circles. Once you have mastered the above, pedaling in circles should come relatively easy. Now that the above has become muscle memory, concentrate on always getting your foot the farthest away from the center of the axle as possible throughout the entire pedal stroke Think " centrifugal force".

The Final step...forget about circles!
Well, kinda. Actually, there is a pedal stroke philosophy currently gaining momentum out there and it basically asks you to forget all about your quads and hamstrings...ya, really! The muscle most forgotten about but most used by cyclists is the hip flexor. This muscle lifts your leg. You need it to lift your foot to walk, run and walk up stairs. If you possess the above mentioned techniques, then you are ready for step 3. the only muscle you should use is the hip flexor throughout the stroke. Because of muscle memory, your quads and hamstrings will fire automatically but by isolating the hip flexor, you reduce the chances over overusing your quads (99% of all cyclists suffer from this) [An easy way to know if you use too much quad is to check your flexibility. Chances are, with a flexibility test done, your quads are the tightest muscle in your leg. if you suffer from lower back pain, perceived tight hamstrings and calves then these are indications you need to stretch the quads and smooth out the pedal stroke.] This takes some getting used to but with a bit of practice you can get it dialed. Doing it on rollers is a good idea because you can feel the imperfections more and hear your tire when your pedal stroke gets choppy.

Revolutions per minute. As mentioned by Newton in "Improve your riding, hill climbing" a comfortable cadence for most people is about 80rpm when climbing. This is generally true but this can vary dramatically. A light, thin rider like myself who can't produce hugh amounts of watts will most likely "spin" at anywhere from 80 to 110 rpm (Lance Armstrong) on the climb depending on gradient. Other bigger riders like crit racers will tend to grind or "mash" at anywhere from 60 to 90 (Jan Ullrich). but climbing is not about pure watts or power. Climbing is about watts per kilogram. How many watts you can produce per kilogram of body weight. If you are one of the fortunate with an SRM power meter or any other power indicator on the market, you can experiment with cadence to see what's best for you. Many indoor trainers include power meters now for a reasonable price.

Once again I have tried to keep things as simple and short as possible but if you feel i have missed an element or simply would like further expansion on a topic mentioned, please feel free to message me.

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