Blog: Matt’s Hill Climb Guide

Matt Clinton – Occasional Racing Cyclist — guide to riding hill climbs as that season approaches fast

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Matt’s Blog –
Hill Climbs — The Events (choose HC from the distance drop down)

Matt Clinton writes … This was originally written in 2006 (while I was preparing for the student champs) and edited 2008, hence references to Curbar Gap/BUSA Champs. My technique for preparation has changed somewhat since this, yet it provides a good basis for getting into your climbs! Thanks to Mike Vaughan Cycles for their help in every hill climb I’ve attended!

Here’s a fairly detailed guide of how (I think) to best prepare and ride for a hill climb, it’s fairly long, but you should hopefully all gain something out of reading this.

Preparation & Training;
Having been riding and/or racing this season, you should have a good base- doing some longer climbs (such as the Alps) will give an excellent power base, but any riding up until now should give you the foundation.

Hill Reps:
Reps I suggest starting around the end of September/early Oct, for an event which is the last weekend in October. Leeds is an excellent place to do some reps, with several hills which can be used to develop a constant power (which is not possible on hair-pinned climbs due to accelerations needed to exit the hairpin.) Previously I’ve used the East Chevin Road out of Otley, which is 5.30-10 minutes long depending on how well you’re going. Another climb which I suggest is Norwood Edge.

A couple of weeks of reps should stand you in good stead to compete at your best. Typically, my reps include a warm-up riding to the hill and then doing around 5 sets of reps, riding to tempo up the hill, rolling back down, spinning your legs and then riding back up. The aim of this is to get your body used to putting out a high level of power for a relatively short time. One of the reasons I chose East Chevin was because of it’s time being similar to that of a longer UK hill climbs (such as Curbar Edge for the BUSA at 6min+). The best technique for reps is to stop as soon as you  start going a certain percentage, say 25% less that your fastest time that day. EG: when a 4 minute climb takes you 5 min, stop and ride home.

Typically, I’d do reps Monday & Tues, Weds do a ride on a hilly route (eg. Cow & Calf – Langbar- Cow & Calf) which is fairly short, but going quite hard on the hills. Thurs & Fri, possibly a short ride and/or day off. Normal rides again on Sat/Sun, but not massive miles. 50 miles max is fine.

Backing off:
Two weeks of this should get you on form. A week before the hill climb, stop the hard rides, stop the reps. Chill out for the week; go on rides, but nothing that will stress the body too much. Short sprints are fine, but don’t over do it. This is especially important in the few days before the race.

Before the event;
Get your bike sorted in plenty of time, possibly the Wed or Thurs before the weekend You don’t need anything which is unnecessary; this means bottles, bottle cages, toolbags etc. These will slow you down. Make sure your bike is in good condition and for an extra boost – clean! Chain and cassette should be cleaned- you’ll lose a fair bit of energy if they’re covered in old grease. Tyres should be pumped up to recommended pressure- if they’re too hard or soft, it’ll slow you down.

Race day;
Review the course: When getting to the climb, you should either drive, or ride the climb. If riding, go as slow as you like, keeping an eye on the steepness of the road (the bottom) and where the bends, and most importantly, the finish line is. If you’re off early, make sure you’re ready. Visit the toilet before you go (in plenty of time) and you’ll save a few seconds.

Clothing to ride in should consist of just shorts and jersey; or if you’re keen, a skinsuit. No gilets, no jackets, no 3/4s, no armwarmers… jersey and shorts only! Gloves are optional, a HC is so short I don’t bother. Helmets again are optional – remember its extra weight!

The warm-up should hopefully be done on a turbo-trainer or rollers, it’s difficult to get warm enough just riding. A personal stereo helps with this… but keep an eye on the time! I tend to get on the turbo about 45 – 60 min before my ride, the shorter the hill, the longer the warm-up. You should be wearing your race kit with your number on, but in addition you should have long leggings, a warm top and a hat on. When you start going you’ll soon warm up, but the idea is to stay warm, don’t be tempted to strip off!

Start by easing your HR up, but then after getting up to speed add in some short, fast intervals- these will raise your HR and also start the lactic acid buffering process. Don’t go mental though! About 20min before my ride I tend to strip my leggings off and apply warm-up oil, then get back on the turbo. Try to stay on the turbo for as long as you can, to get to the line warm. Remove your warm layer about 1-2min before you ride.

While doing your warm-up, you should have concentrated on your breathing, the best technique being “belly-breathing”, forcing out your diaphragm and your stomach. You may have seen pictures of Armstrong, Ullrich etc. looking rather portly while time-trialling; this is due to them using this technique. Inflate your lungs while warming up; try to get full capacity out of them. When you get to the line take several deep breaths and focus on the job at hand. Continue this technique throughout your ride.

Food is important too. High carbohydrate meal the days before if you can, normal breakfast of cereal, no fry-ups, or you’ll see it later! Make sure you eat on the way to the event, but don’t stuff yourself. While warming up I generally have a few energy gels, bars and bananas. Save the nice stuff for after the ride! Have a gel about 15 min before you’re off. Also remember to drink, no fizzy stuff though; either water or an energy drink if possible.

The race;
Minute men: Some of you may be fortunate enough to have a minute man (starting one minute ahead of you) slower than you; others may have two slow minute men. Some riders may not be as fortunate being a minute man yourself to a faster rider. A few things to remember about minute men; firstly, if you’re catching, ride smoothly up to the ride and ride straight past – no drafting. Do not accelerate to gain on them, just maintain the speed you were originally gaining on them at, sudden accelerations will ruin rhythm and put out unnecessary power which will be needed on the top section.

Secondly if you get caught, do not try to accelerate to stay with the rider, they’ve already put a minute into you, which basically means they’re going a fair bit faster. Again, maintain your current speed, try to keep the rider in your sights, but if you can’t do that, don’t worry, just concentrate on getting to the top.

BUSA Hill Climb – Curbar Edge: (Could be applied to any long climb): The climb starts off steep, but don’t go mental, get yourself up to speed, but don’t red-line it too soon. Gearing is also quite important on Curbar, at the start you want to be in around 17-18 sprocket, too low and your acceleration will not be smooth and result in a wasteful power spike. For the rest of the climb it’s likely you’ll be resigned to your bottom one or two sprockets on a road bike- its hard work in a 23, but possible if you go fast enough. A 25 or 27 have some advantages, especially if you’re not planning on flying up the hill. If you’re doing it on a mtb, I’d recommend the granny ring as a big no-no.

Shorter climbs  (sub-4min) usually require slightly different technique, again don’t go mad off the line, the extra power needed in the acceleration will cause you to go into debt too early and redline far before the top.  Ease yourself off the line, get into a regular rhythm and it’ll pay dividends by the top. With a climb this short you should be aiming to ride near 100% the whole race, but be wary of changes in gradients on the climb.

Some climbs allow you to carry speed through sections (Weardley Bank, Cheddar Gorge, Maxstoke), you’ll find yourself gaining speed through these sections of slight descent or flat.  Use these sections to your advantage and try to speed up as much as you can – carry the speed though and it’ll save time when the road kicks up again.

Fixed gear can be an advantage on some, but not all climbs. Steeper, more regular gradient climbs are usually best off done on a fixed gear bike, allowing power to be applied thoughout the pedal stroke.  Don’t be tempted on a climb which varies too much, you’ll come unstuck!

Stay seated for as long as you can, you’ll have learnt and developed power to do this doing reps. Standing is a waste of energy. Keep your upper body relaxed, but in control. I used to prefer hill climbing on the drops, but I now favour the tops. In some cases the drops will be more aerodynamic, but often you can get more power through your legs and back by riding on the shifters. You may not like/be able to use the drops when climbing; just use your hoods – that’s fine. Keep your pedalling smooth and consistent over the climb- do not mash the gears like you’re Mr T, nor dance on them like a fairy! A smooth pedalling style should have been learnt though the reps. Some climbs do require sections of out-the-saddle climbing, this will hurt a lot, but is a necessary evil in these cases.

(And back to the BUSA) As you approach mid-way attempt to speed up a bit, but again don’t go mad. The top section of many climbs leaves many people lagging as they’ve gone too hard at the bottom; don’t be caught out, but save something for this bit- it will make the difference. Once rounding the final bend, ride so hard you can’t see!

You will feel sick.
Get warm again after, it’s good for you! Either sick or faint anyway! Many people throw themselves on the floor, do not be tempted to do this, it’s not really that good for you. Instead, ride slowly up the road, spinning your legs and breathing deeply to replenish your lungs; turn round and ride down. If possible, have someone at the top with a jacket for you to put on. Get to the bottom, get changed, have some food and a drink. It’s likely you’ll have a “smokers cough” after the effort you’ve put out, but don’t worry about it.

And there you have it – a hill climb ridden to the best of your ability (I hope)!

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