Updated: Jan 9
It was probably the worst day of my racing career. I was competing in the Redlands Stage race with a team who's main mission was to support Amber Neben for the overall win. My role as a sprinter was to help gain time bonuses in the crit. Now anyone who truly knows me, knows my past struggles with climbing. The unfortunate part of this story was the fact that the day before the crit, was a road race which involved a pretty significant climb. All I had to do was to make time cut and I could race the next day.
The day of the road race I was so nervous about getting dropped that I threw up right before the start. As the peloton approached the climb, I raced to the front of the pack. Knowing my weakness as a climber, my strategy was to start at the front and sag to the back of the group. The first few minutes the paced started to pick up as attacks went. I thought to myself, ok, this isn't so bad, I can hang.
I was feeling good, until I wasn't...
It hit me hard. My legs started screaming. My heart rate increased. I began hyperventilating. I tried to have that mental battle that you have with yourself when you're in pain. It wasn't working though. The pain was so intense. Then the worst thing happened.
I went so far into the red that I blew to smithereens. It was like I hit a brick wall. I could barely turn 50 rpms in my smallest gear. It took me 10 minutes before I could even recover enough to pedal more than a 100 watts. The peloton was long gone by that time. I had to time trial by myself for the next two hours, knowing the crit was on the line. Needless to say, I didn't make time the time cut. I was gutted. That wasn't the worst day though.
The worst day was the day of the crit. Waking up and watching my teammates get ready without me brought embarrassment, disappointment, and shame. I watched helplessly on the sideline. Each moment was torture as I watched a horrendous scene unfold in front of me. Amber had started the day with the yellow jersey. However, lacking a strong crit team behind her, Amber lost valuable time bonuses and ended up losing the GC that day.
I put the blame completely on myself. I knew if I had raced the crit that day, I could have helped Amber hold on to her GC place. More than being disappointed in myself, I had let down my teammate, and my entire team. After coming home and reflecting on the trip, I vowed to do anything possible not to end up in a situation like that again.
From then on, I researched everything I could about climbing.
I read studies, talked to the best experts, and began analyzing my own weaknesses. I knew I couldn't change my physiology, as none of us can. I was gifted with worst type of muscle for climbing, fast twitch. I couldn't lose anymore weight either. At the time, I already had been given the name T-rex for my itty bitty arms. I begin to focus on things that I could change. I discovered the most significant improvements that I could make boiled down one main component.
You can deal with increased demand on your body in two ways. You can try to spin at a higher cadence ( if the grade allows) forcing your heart and lungs to work harder. Or you can increase the power demand in your legs by riding a harder gear and producing more tension strength per pedal rev. Pedaling at a lower rpm with more power decreases oxygen demand and lowers HR. This significantly produces less lactate because lactate is dependent on hr. This is where it helps know what type of athlete you are.
An athlete with a stronger aerobic system (more slow twitch) should pedal at a higher cadence because their ability to produce power is lower than their ability to clear lactate. An anaerobic rider (more fast twitch) would do better pedaling at a lower rpm to decrease oxygen demand. Do you remember the battle of Lance Armstrong vs. Jan Ulrich? The caveat though is that in order carry more tension on the pedals, the muscles have to be trained handle it.
Without the strength in your legs, you will just be pedaling slow and going nowhere. Worse than that your legs can just cramp up and stop working. Even though I was a strength coach, I had abandoned all strength training because everyone kept telling me cyclists shouldn't lift weights. Not knowing anything about cycling at the time, I listened to them.
My knowledge quest to become a better climber finally led me to a cycling coach with a background in strength. He taught me it was ok to abandon the old school cycling mentality and trust in the research I had been discovering, and the knowledge I had as a strength coach. He was the first person in the cycling world who told me that strength training was ok. Thanks Murray Davis!. Working with him, helped put the missing pieces together. It was all over from there.
I discovered my new power allowed me to stay with the pack without blowing up, cramping, or hyperventilating. I finally had strength behind my legs to ride a slower cadence, produce more power, and even have enough left in the tank for a sprint finish.
Over the years, I honed in what type of strength transfers best to climbing. I have used these methods to get results for myself and my athletes. Using on-the-bike training, such as tension drills, or off- the-bike training, such as isometrics, can significantly make you a faster climber. Even if you are an aerobic climber who rides a higher cadence, having more power can only help.
Climbing can make or break your race. I have seen too many riders over the years who either don't spend the time training climbing or don't maximize the advantages they can gain from training specific muscular adaptions. If you haven't added strength to your routine and are still having trouble climbing, this may be your answer.