This week the professional peloton leave the relatively tiny (but incredibly numerous) bumps of the cobbles behind for the significantly larger lumps of the Ardennes Classics. These races, littered with short, steep climbs, and often complicated by wintery weather, provide great viewing for us fans, and a real challenge for the riders. Professional cyclists are humans after all, and although we may not be able to replicate their speed on steep, short climbs, we can mirror their technique to conquer the vertical challenge that we often face while riding.
Fail to Prepare, prepare for the bike to fail
You don’t have to have the legs of Chris Hoy, or be of the same miniature stature as Nairo Quintana to conquer short, steep climbs. One of the key things you need is a bit of forward planning to make sure that you avoid that dreadful moment when you’re at the steepest part of the climb and need to shift through the gears. Jumping chainrings or up the cassette should be avoided when under duress, i.e. when you’re having to put an immense amount of pressure through the pedals just to keep moving. If you do try and do this, your bike will punish you by way of the chain either getting stuck, jumping off or, worst case scenario, snapping!
When the climb is coming up, try to build momentum before the initial incline. The more speed you carry into the climb, the longer it will take to lose it. When on the ascent, always look up the road ahead and if the gradient looks like it’s going to increase, then it’s wise to change down a gear before you need to. This does depend on the length of the climb, however, if a climb is 30 seconds long or shorter, it should be possible to reach the top without having to change gear. In the event of having to shift into an easier gear, however, this should be done seated and with the pressure eased off the pedals to prevent damage to the drivetrain.
No point sitting around
The more uncomfortable you are through hard explosive exertion during the climb, the shorter it will be (hopefully). The best position for attacking short, steep climbs is out the saddle, using every sinew in your leg to power your way up. If possible, you should try to hold a cadence of about 60rpm, with your upper body in line with the handlebars, hands on the hoods, and with your body weight equally dispersed over the front and rear of the bike.
As you power rather than spin up these climbs, there are big advantages to be gained by having stiff soled road shoes that will not flex except under immense power. The combination of clipless pedals, which keep your feet from moving around, and a performance road shoe, should provide excellent power transfer and sustain forward momentum.
We could go to lengths to discuss the relative merits of losing weight from your bike versus losing weight from your body. However, while a higher power to weight ratio (shedding pounds) will definitely help you get up any climb that bit faster, neglecting your fuelling system is a recipe for disaster. Riding on a calorie deficit is a great way to lose the spare tyre you’ve been carrying around your waist, and it also trains your body to use its own fat stores efficiently, but if you’re riding to achieve a good time up a climb, you need to eat. A quick release energy source like a Torq Energy Gel is bursting with sugar and will give you a boost if taken a few minutes before the segment. It’s also important to stay hydrated with plenty of water or a dedicated energy drink.
The Ardennes Classics kick off with the Amstel Gold Race on Easter weekend, followed just a handful of days later by the infamous Flèche-Wallonne finishing on the frightening Mur de Huy. Liège-Bastogne-Liège rounds out the spring calendar on 23 April, the penultimate monument of the year and the final showdown of cycling’s spring calendar. Watch, if you dare, and take note of the suffering etched on the faces of your favourite riders.
(photo credit: Brakethrough Media)