Climbing to the Top

Training & Health

10/15/2008| 0 comments
by John Phillips

Climbing to the Top

Climbing can be one of the toughest yet most enjoyable aspects of road cycling.

Climbing can be one of the toughest yet most enjoyable aspects of cycling. The strain of getting to the beautiful summit makes the view sweeter, and typically, the sweeter the view, the more grueling the climb. Many cyclists, myself included, seek out these great experiences as often as possible. Others avoid them like the plague because they think they can’t climb well. There are many ways to improve your climbing. Most important are a positive outlook and an enjoyment of climbing, but there are also many climbing specific workouts, techniques and equipment you can utilize to get better on the hills or mountains.

Improving your watts per kilogram is the major goal. Since gravity is pulling down on your mass, you’ll want to minimize your weight & maximize your sustainable power to go uphill faster. Needless to say, all the workouts and gear won’t make you a super climber if you’re lacking the desire. No matter how easy your favorite climbing superstar makes it look on television, that athlete is really suffering to climb as well. Though they know proper preparation and equipment are vital to their climbing successes, their internal desire to ascend powerfully is probably the most important fuel for the fire.


Let’s begin with simple tactics to improve your climbing technique. These are basically free speed since no hard work is necessary. Many riders don’t understand whether they’re faster climbing seated or standing, and there’s not a definite yes or no. It is true that you conserve more energy seated, yet standing is important when you want to attack or accelerate since you can put much more force into the downstroke. Generally speaking, bigger folks should spend more time seated than smaller riders. When you stand you have to support your body weight in addition to applying force to the pedals. Hence, more body weight means more energy used when one stands. Yet, don’t let being big keep you in the saddle for all your climbs. It is OK for anyone to stand on short steep sections. For longer climbs, you’ll want to spend more time seated since you need to preserve more energy.

Optimal hand position is another matter for debate. Should you climb in the drops, or on the brake hoods, or on the bar tops? Again the answer varies depending on the terrain & effort. Generally the hoods are the best place to be. You can easily stand for a quick burst of power, yet it is comfortable enough for a long climb. The bar tops also put you in a powerful & comfortable position. You just have to be quick to get your hands to the hoods if you need to stand & accelerate. The drops, believe it or not, can indeed be a good climbing position, but only in the right situation. That situation is an attack or acceleration on a moderate grade. Marco Pantani demonstrated the beauty of this position in his prime. If you have to stand & attack or accelerate on a hill on your next group ride, try it in the drops. Just like sprinting, it’s a powerful strong position. I think it can be a very effective position if you’re going for your club ride KOM points!

Climbing Tactics

There are many tricks for improving your tactics when hill climbing in a race or group ride. One of the most common for weaker climbers is to start the hill at the front of the group. Keep an effort that is not too far out of your comfort zone so that you’ll slowly slide to the back of the pack at the summit of the hill without blowing up. If your group ride is racing to the top of hills, then you’ll want to position yourself near the front for the first third of the climb. There are always those riders that hammer the pace early on a climb, but then blow up and lose lots of time before they reach the summit. Some never learn, eh? Stay ahead of them of just a few riders behind them and be ready to accelerate. Once those early leaders begin to fade you’ll want to begin moving up. Others will be trying to do the same so make sure to hold a good smooth line as you pass.

The final third of the climb is where the cream rises to the top. Keep up your hard effort all the way to the top. Don’t worry if someone latches to your wheel. The draft effect is minimal so it will be hard for them to slingshot past you like on a flat sprint. Here on the climb the leader is in the control position since it takes a huge effort to be overtaken. Be ready to accelerate to the summit as you keep up the pace. It’s much like what you see at a fireworks show. There are many sparks down low, but you want to be the star that shines the highest. Another strategy is to bolt from the group early. This is counter-intuitive to most racing logic. It can work well if you’re a strong time trialist. By attacking very hard early on the climb, you’re making a statement to the group that you are strong & confident. You’re now in control turning the climb into a time trial which is your strength. Once the gap is established settle into a steady effort all the way to the top.

How can you climb better if you are a larger built rider? Being larger is indeed a disadvantage since you have more weight to lift against gravity, but it is still possible to go uphill fast. There are some that say you need a weight to height ratio of 2lbs per inch (357grams per centimeter) to climb at a world class level. I strongly disagree as there are exceptions such as Miguel Indurain (2.36lbs per inch or 423 grams per cm) that weigh 18% more than this recommendation! With proper training, you can maximize your ability, regardless of your size. It takes time & much patience, but you can indeed develop into a big strong climber.


The key to improving your climbing is to increase your maximum sustainable power output. You’re goal is to be able to maintain a higher pace from the bottom of the climb to the top, and that can be a 30-60 minute effort sometimes. The workouts that lead to the kind of power increases you’re looking for consist of long intervals right below your lactate threshold, which is your maximum sustainable pace or power output. The idea is to gradually increase the length of these intervals, and then increase the number you’re completing, so you accumulate more and more time at this important intensity level.

So, how would this work? After you have a good base of fitness from endurance rides and some interval work on flat and rolling terrain, it’s time to hit the hills. Find a road where it takes 8-15 minutes (or more) of sustained climbing to reach the top. During your Preparation Period, or pre-competition period, you should incorporate two or three days of ClimbingRepeat workouts into your weekly schedule. Start by climbing at a pace that’s just below your time trial intensity for 8 minutes, then resting for 15 minutes, and then repeating the interval two more times. As you adapt, increase the interval times to 10 minutes and then 12 minutes, while reducing the recovery times to 12 minutes and then 10 minutes.

If there are only short climbs where you live, you’ll have to do more intervals instead of longer ones, but remember that the main goal is to increase the total time spent at this intensity each week. It’s good to focus on ClimbingRepeat work for 4-8 weeks, taking a recovery week after the third or fourth week.


Your choice of cycling equipment is important to your climbing success. Just like time trialists have specialized aero equipment and mountain bikers have suspension tuning options, climbers can benefit greatly from the right equipment. The main goal is obviously to lighten your bike to further maximize the watts you can produce per kilogram you have to haul up the hill. However, gearing choices can be just as important as lightweight parts.

It takes an incredibly strong cyclist to climb well with an 11-23 rear cassette. The 11-23 works well on flatter ground, but with that gearing on a hilly route you can be at a big disadvantage. The 39 x 23 combination at 60 RPM gives you 12.8 km/h. If you know that you’re climbing below that speed then you’ll need to modify your gearing. At 60 RPM you’re using a great amount of muscular strength to get yourself up the hill. This is fine for a strength building workout, but highly inefficient if you’re aiming to get to the front of the group ride. A more optimal climbing cadence would be 80 RPM or greater. The higher cadence minimizes muscular fatigue. Start out with a 12-25 or 12-27 rear cassette. Even Lance rode a 12-25 all winter, so no shame in choosing such. If need further gearing for even steeper and longer climbs, then you should consider a compact crankset. Shimano, Campagnolo and FSA now offer compact models. They come with a 50-tooth big ring and 34- or 36-tooth inner ring. The 34-tooth chainring with the 25 & 27 rear cogs give you the ability to maintain a higher cadence on steeper climbs without resorting to a triple chainring crankset. With the proper gearing installed you can climb the long and steep hills much more efficiently. This increased efficiency will go a long way to improving your climbing position in your club peloton.

The latest rage in wheelsets is to create the wheels that are extremely light while still sturdy and stable enough for rough roads and fast descents. Some now weigh less than 1kg, for both wheels! Most climbing-specific wheelsets have a rim depth of 30mm or less. There are a few very light wheel sets with rim depths of 50mm, but they are closer to the ‘aerodynamic’ category and that’s for another article. There’s a famous quote about bicycle components by Keith Bontrager: “Strong, light, cheap. Pick two.” So unfortunately for the consumer of light wheels, there is no low end of the price range. In the ‘middle’ of the price range ($1100 USD; €925) is the Mavic ‘Ksyrium ES.’ This wheel set is an update of the proven Ksyrium SSC design. The ES version saves a few more grams by going with a shallower & lighter front rim as well as lighter hubs. It totals 1485 grams for the set. Other great choices in this price & weight range include the Zipp ‘303,’ Shimano ‘WH-7800,' and Reynolds 'Stratus-DV.’ At the high end of the climbing wheel set is the Lightweight ‘Ventoux.’ It’s constructed of a shallow carbon rim with a kevlar/carbon spoking system that never needs truing. The hubs have carbon bodies. It’s tough enough for riders up to 100kg. At 950 grams [the only UCI approved wheelset below 1kg] and $5500 USD [€4575] its in a category all its own.

You’ll notice the greatest improvement with a lighter wheel set. After you’ve done that and are looking for more weight savings, there are plenty of other ways to lighten your ride. Cranksets, brake calipers, and seatposts are the areas where you can save the most weight. A great source for these lightweight parts and builds is at Weight Weenies [] but also check out our advertisers for places to shop. These parts will also lighten your wallet, so spend wisely. Remember that improving your fitness and reducing your body weight are the cheapest ways to maximize your watts per kilogram!


Altitude training is quickly becoming an often talked-about training tool. It’s still not mentioned or used as much as a power meter, but it can still be a great training tool. In studies, researchers Dr. Ben Levine and Dr. Jim Stray-Gundersen, have shown that altitude training improves performance by as much as 5% (Levine). Five percent is quite a bit when it comes to climbing. For example in the 2004 Tour de France, Lance Armstrong won the l’Alpe d’Huez uphill time trial in 39:41. Five percent slower there was 2 minutes back; only good enough for 5th place. Not everyone can climb like Lance so let’s say a strong cyclist can ride l’Alpe d’Huez in 70 minutes. A 5% increase from that makes you 3:30 faster. It’s hard not to be happy with that improvement. The increased red blood cell mass from altitude training helps deliver more oxygen to your muscles. The thinner the air, the more red blood cells you’ll need. If you’re going to climb the cols of the Tour de France, proper altitude training can help you since many of the summits are over 1600m elevation. As you get closer to the summit of these high peaks, your body is more fatigued yet is working even harder to deliver adequate oxygen. At 1524 meters, available aerobic power is estimated to be 94.4% of sea level power in acclimatized athletes and only 91.1% in non-acclimatized athletes (Bassett). When incorporating altitude into your training plan, make sure to reduce your training volume & intensity to allow for the increased stress that high altitude places on your body.

Improving you climbing ability is hard work, but the process yields great results. There will be many tough days on the hills. A positive attitude and long term focus will help you through the challenging sessions. Stick with it, because the view from the top of the climb is indeed the sweetest.

John Phillips is a Senior Coach for Carmichael Training Systems, Inc. (CTS) and an elite cyclist and duathlete. Although he’s big and tall for a cyclist, he can climb like the wind. To find out what CTS can do for you, visit

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