Improving your ascents: What does it depend on?
It is the workhorse, the Achilles heel of almost every cyclist. As soon as a climb turns up and the slope gains in percentage of incline, our bodily efforts increase at the same time that our performance, measured by our speed, decreases drastically.
It is, indeed, the rigours of physics. When our movement is uphill, in addition to facing rolling resistance or air resistance, difficulties that already exist when pedalling on flat terrain, there is also the added handicap of fighting against the laws of gravity. The steeper the climb, the greater the resistance.
1. The goal to achieve
Given the difficulty of climbs, it doesn’t come as a surprise that these are the focus of many cyclists, who aim to improve their performance on them. Improving your performance on climbs not only makes you perform better as a cyclist but also allows you to have more fun, or in other words, to suffer less on your bike precisely at the most critical moments.
2. How is this achieved?
That’s the million-dollar question. Sometimes, simply practising climbs is not enough. We spend more time practising ascents, but in exchange, we get little results. This is because uphill performance depends on several factors, not just weight, for example, as many cyclists think. For this reason, in Deporvillage, we have decided to review all the aspects that factor in, to a greater or lesser extent, our ability to climb with speed. We hope that, with this article, you will get an overview of how to improve your climbs and therefore, a practical guide of the things you can do from now on to better them.
To put in order all the things that affect us and that we can improve on, we are going to group them into three categories.
3. Aspects related to physical condition
Power to weight ratio
The power we generate when pedalling in relation to our body weight is crucial in explaining our performance on climbs. This is called power to weight ratio. That is, how many watts of power we generate we need to move each of our kilos of weight. It is obvious that the more watts that go into moving a kilo, the faster we will be able to move uphill. This relationship can therefore be improved in three ways. Reduce our weight, increase our power, or both.
Let’s take some examples to understand it better. A rider who develops 300w pedalling power and weighs 75kg has a ratio of 4w/kg while another rider with the same power, 300w, weighs 65kg. In the latter case, the power to weight ratio is 4.6w/kg. It is obvious that the second rider could climb faster than the first, having a higher power to weight ratio.
This concept refers, in general terms, to the physiological capacity we have to sustain an intense effort for many minutes. That kind of effort is very much in line with what we need to perform adequately on the climbs. The greater our capacity for effort at this anaerobic threshold, the better performance we will have on a climb, especially if it lasts more than 30 minutes, such as the big mountain passes or climbs in the Pyrenees or the Alps. For reference, our anaerobic threshold, depending on the fitness level of each cyclist, is between 75% and 90% of our maximum heart rate.
Another crucial quality when it comes to climbing faster on a bike is our ability to generate power. Especially in the legs or lower body. If we maintain our body weight, and at the same time increase our leg strength, we will improve our power to weight ratio and thus our climbing performance.
Improving strength in other areas of our body, especially in the core region (abdominal and lumbar area) can enhance our performance. Having a more solid core helps you to exert more force on the pedals when pedalling, thanks to greater hip stability and a better transfer of forces between this area and the legs.
4. Equipment and configuration of your bike
Getting the lowest weight on our bike, just like on our body, is essential to improve climbing. One of the most critical points to lighten the bike are the wheels. Due to the rotary motion of the wheels, getting a lightweight wheel allows for better acceleration and less effort in turning them in almost any circumstance. Generally, wheels with carbon rims are the lightest on the market and are the ones that can help you climb the fastest.
Choosing a drivetrain with the right gear ratios adapted to your physical condition will help your climbing performance. They do this by offering you combinations or ratios between your bike’s chainring and cassette that allow you to maintain a smooth and sustainable cadence over time as you climb. If these ratios are not suited to your level of strength and fitness, they will prevent you from sustaining the effort. There are currently an infinite number of compact drivetrains on the market in road cycling or single chainring with the 1×12 concept in mountain biking that allow optimum uphill performance for any user.
The position you adopt on your bike can also affect your performance on climbs. Positioning the saddle too far back in relation to the vertical projection of the bottom bracket or carrying your torso too upright because the handlebars are too high will reduce your efficiency when pedalling uphill. Be sure and compare the geometry between different bikes when choosing your new frame, to get an idea of which one can offer you the best climbing position.
5. Effort management and mental strategy
Use of potentiometers
The management of the cyclist’s effort has its best tool in the potentiometers. Nowadays, there are countless devices on the market that can measure your performance and, therefore, be better able to measure and optimise it on long climbs. Having your own references as to how much power you are capable of generating on a climb and controlling this from a potentiometer will help you to get the best out of yourself, without overdoing it, when climbing at the limit.
Use of heart rate monitors
Although heart rate measurement does not have the accuracy of a potentiometer, the use of a heart rate monitor is still a popular and practical tool to, in some way, manage your effort and performance on climbs. Knowing your heart rate reference values at intense effort will help you to know your optimal heart rate zones to develop your best performance.
Set partial objectives
The feeling of physical effort to the limit, when we face a hard climb, can make us give up and put our foot down. So much so that, on many occasions, even if we have the physical capacity to continue climbing, the unpleasant sensation of the effort can become unbearable for some cyclists when the minutes start to pass. One strategy to avoid stopping more due to mental fatigue than physical fatigue is to set partial objectives, to the detriment of the sole objective of reaching the summit. Thinking about completing a kilometre or 100 metres is usually more bearable than thinking that you still have 7 kilometres to go. Think of several partial goals, small, it will help you to climb better than if your goal is unique and its achievement is prolonged in time.
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