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T. Burke Swindlehurst “aka” T-Bird, is a retired professional road and mountain bike racer whose career accomplishments include a record 6 stage wins and 3 overall victories in New Mexico’s mountainous Tour of the Gila as well as podium placings in both US Professional Road and Marathon MTB championships. Now days he puts his energy into promoting his on/off-road event in Utah, the Crusher in the Tushar and chasing KOM’s on Strava. He’s been an avid First Endurance user since day one.
Hi there! So, the cool cats at First Endurance recently asked if I would be interested in contributing an article to their newsletter with some tips for becoming a better climber on the bike. I immediately said “sure!” and then almost as immediately found myself scratching my head and quickly overcome with a feeling of dread at knowing I would surely have to speak that most dreaded of phrases… you know the one…”power to weight ratio”.
There, I said it.
Yes. The truth is, there is no bigger limiter to how quickly you can pedal a bicycle up an incline than amount of power you can produce relative to your body weight. But don’t let this deter you from reading on, because you’re not going to hear me ramble on about strategies for starving yourself to death. No. I’m going to fly squarely in the face of that fact and give you three simple tips that will have you climbing faster on your bike without having to pass on a single scoop of your treasured Chubby Hubby.
Tip # 1: Climb you silly fool, climb!
Now, you’ve all heard the legend of the great Blues Man, Robert Johnson, right? He wanted to play the blues guitar better than anyone. He wanted it so bad that, legend has it, he struck a deal with the devil one late night at the legendary crossroads and sold his soul in return for being able to play like nobody’s business. Now, of course, there’s the legend and then there’s the truth. The truth is that early on, the young Mr. Johnson couldn’t play the guitar worth a lick, and the older, more accomplished Blues Men told him to get lost when he’d show up hoping to sit-in with them. So, what’d he do? Well, he holed-himself up for a good while and did nothing but play the guitar. He played day and night and when he finally returned to the scene, he blew the doors off the other guys so badly their jaws had to be scraped from the floor like old bubble gum.
What’s this have to do with climbing faster on a bike, you ask? Well, there’s an old saying in bike racing that goes like this: “You are what you train.” In other words, if you want to climb, then CLIMB! I’m always amazed when I hear someone lament the fact that they can’t climb as well as they’d like to and yet when I quiz them as to how much time they spend riding hilly terrain, they usually say something along the lines of “Well, I don’t really like to ride climbs because I’m so terrible at them,” and other such chicken before the egg sentiments. If you wanna climb, then you gotta climb.
Tip #2: Don’t bring a knife to gun fight.
So, now that you’ve resolved to spend more time actually riding in those hills, it’s time to address one of the reasons why you’ve dreaded it so much to start with. You say when you climb, you feel like you’re just slogging along, slowly churning out a cadence that seems to keep perfect time with the mournful loop of “Taps” that’s playing in your head? Could it have anything to do with the fact that you’re still running the same gear ratios that the Cannibal used to conquer the cobbles of Roubaix back in the Spring of ’68? Perhaps.
There’s really no better way to put a spring in your step when the road goes up than having the appropriate gearing. And, just as da Vinci surely didn’t use the same brush to create the Mona Lisa that he used for painting his siding, you need something other than that 11-21 cassette combo you’ve been stubbornly clinging-on to since you won the local Wednesday Worlds back when Tom Petty was still runnin’ down a dream. The good news is that nowadays, through the miracle of modern technology, you can have pretty much any gear you need for any situation. With advent of “mid” and “compact” cranksets in tandem with today’s 10 and 11-speed cogsets, there’s really no hill that even the most Clydesdale of riders can’t tackle with graceful cadence on Tuesday and still have the gears to duke it out on Wednesday night, just like back when you was fab.
Tip# 3: It’s in the way that you use it.
Okay, so now you’ve got both the motivation and the gear inches for the job, so now it’s time to go ride, right?
Well, yeah, but remember, it’s not just what you ride, it’s how you ride it. This is particularly the case with longer climbs. And, just as you don’t want to grind along at a cadence whose very sight is suggestive of imminent knee replacement, you also don’t want to simply spin so fast that all your energy evaporates like steam.
This is where rhythm comes in. Just like with your favorite epic extended-play song, tackling a big climb means changing the tempo to keep fatigue at bay. We’re talking real LA Woman-type stuff here. If you feel your back starting to ache a bit after riding at a high cadence while seated, shift down a couple gears and climb out of the saddle for a while. This can help stretch your back, take some of the strain off of your hamstrings, and dissipate tension that can build in the body. I’ve found that often a simple change of cadence and position can breathe new life into both the body and the mind and keep me truckin’ to the top of a mountain. You can also experiment with more subtle position changes such as switching from resting your hands on the tops while climbing seated, to sliding forward a bit on the saddle and really grasping the hoods. I use this position when there’s a shorter, steep pitch that doesn’t necessarily warrant getting out the saddle but does require a little extra “ooomph.” I find that I can really drive into the pedals for short periods and then ease back into steadier tempo all without having to stand and shift gears.
So there you have it. Three simple strategies that will help you turn what was once a Stairway to Heaving into a Stairway to Heaven. (Sorry, that was bad.)
-Till next time