Climb Hills Like you Mean It!
The best thing about cycling is that amateurs often ride the same races at the same time as professionals. But, as Garth Coppin finds out, what’s good for the pros isn’t necessarily good for the masses of weekend warriors.
When I starting training for my first cycle race I had this brainwave for climbing hills – don’t use my bottom gear in training. In this way I reckoned when I got to hills in a race I would have an extra gear or two to enable me to fly up hills. My training, which consisted of cycling once a week and never more than 50 kilometres at a time, progressed satisfactorily on this basis, until one day I decided to change my route home. I went up this road which started gently but got progressively steeper; at the top it was like the north face of Eiger – at least it was for me. At that point I realised my second hand bike wouldn’t go into the bottom gear which I really needed to get to the top of the hill, so I had to push it to the top of the hill. Even if I had got into the desired gear I might have needed the hospital that was at the top. Sometime after that first race I saw a bicycling magazine advertising an article on how to climb hills better. I decided to buy the magazine to see how others climbed hills. Perhaps that was an admission that my brainwave didn’t work, but in later years it was probably the reason I supported Jan Ulrich with his use of big gears against the high cadence pedalling of Lance Armstrong in their duels in the Tour de France. The article said when approaching a hill I should ride to the front of the peloton and then as I went up the hill I could slide from the front of the group at the bottom of the hill to the back of the group at the top. That sounds good in theory so I have tried it. Now whenever I think of this approach, which is basically the same as advice seen in other similar articles over the years, I have a number of different responses.
1. So what do you do when you get to the second hill?
I use all my energy getting to the front of the group on the first hill and staying with the peloton on the hill that I don’t have the energy to get to the front of the group on the next hill. Accordingly what advice should I follow when going up the next hill?
2. That advice is fine for professionals, but I am an amateur.
And herein lies the problem – who better to ask how to climb hills than those who do it best, namely professionals. I am convinced the articles have been written by professionals for professionals (or good enough to be semi-professionals), so what advice should I follow as a mere amateur?
3. How do you know whether the advice works or not?
I wouldn’t have believed this one until it happened to me, not once, but twice in consecutive years. Here I was going up Wynberg hill in the Argus (to give it its politically incorrect name) with hundreds of cyclists and large spectator support, but when I went over the top of the hill I was all alone. Had I popped off the front or been dropped? I don’t know, but when it happened a second time I started to ask myself how do you know whether the advice worked?
4. Give me a break – I am 60!
I have discovered that cycling prematurely ages you. Here I was not wanting to face up to the fact that I would be 60 soon, but the race results were already regarding me as 60. Upon enquiry I discovered all cyclists have the same birthday, namely 1 January. This means I was 60 about 11 months before I was ready to face the inevitable birthday. Being mature should have its benefits, like not working at the front of the bunch. I can still beat over 70% of my fellow cyclists at the Cape Town Cycle Tour, but this drops to about 50% on the Momentum 947 because of its many hills. It might be just a passing phase, but at this ripe old age perhaps moving backwards as groups continuously pass me is perhaps what I need to accept.
Therefore I am convinced the advice for climbing hills is for youngsters, so what advice should more mature cyclists follow?
5. I think everyone is following the same advice! The advice, by definition, only works if some are following it and others aren’t. I am convinced that on occasion everyone is following the advice as they speed up when a hill approaches, meaning everyone wants to be at the front when we hit the hill. This so exhausts me that I don’t care what happens up the hill. So how do you climb a hill when everyone is following the advice?
6. When does a hill start?
The Momentum 947 for me is a lot of uphill and downhill so starting on the M1 highway is just the lull before the storm. You go on a bridge over Corlett Drive and then the road starts its upward incline. You go past the Atholl-Oaklands interchange, followed by Glenhove Road and the 11th Avenue off ramp before it gets even steeper. So at which interchange did the hill start? There is about 2.5 kilometres between these interchanges, so where was I supposed to be at the front and where could I start to slide back? That is why I want to know where does a hill start?
7. What happens if you don’t have a peloton approaching a hill?
The Ride for Sight starts at a healthy pace. I can sometimes do 40 kilometres in the first hour. Around about that time, the peloton starts to get smaller and smaller and so by the time I reach the first hill at the most southern point of the race at precisely 59.11 kilometres, I start a climb of 96 metres in 5.53 kilometres but relatively alone. Is there a minimum size for a group? I have come to the conclusion that this comes to the crux of the issue with hill climbing; it depends on me and not a peloton. Therefore how do you climb a hill better assuming no peloton? I did find an answer to this question, but it only worked twice and then nearly killed me. The answer was energy sachets. On my very first race, the Argus, I decided to take my first sachet at 50 kilometres as I entered unchartered territory as far as distance was concerned. It really gave me a boost as I was flying up Smitswinkel; a spectator was warning about the hill to come while I was saying to myself ‘what hill?’ Then I went round a corner and came to a grinding stop as I saw hundreds of cyclists standing still. Unfortunately a gentleman had suffered a heart attack and we were waiting for a helicopter to take him to hospital.
By the time we were going again either the energy boost had dissipated or there were so many cyclists that there was no way through them for a few kilometres. The other time the energy sachet worked was going up Chappies a few years later. The energy kicked in and I flew up the mountain pass and down into Hout Bay. On one corner on the downhill I didn’t get my line and speed right and with hands desperately grabbing the brakes and getting my feet out of the pedals for what I thought was an inevitable tumble over the side wall, I somehow managed to narrowly avert disaster. I don’t know if it is just me but apart from the above incidents, taking sachets doesn’t consciously seem to affect me and as a result of the above incident I am not sure I want them to. So perhaps I have resigned myself to the fact that hill climbing is never going to my strength and that I should be grateful I am still able to enjoy cycling – and beat many younger than myself!