Stripped down to bare physics, climbing success is a simple formula: produce the maximum possible number of watts for every kilo you’re carrying. But that tells us nothing about the texture and particulars of the human stories behind the stats and palmares of those men and women who have carved out their place as some of the greatest climbers in cycling.
From them, we can learn, if not how to become a mountain G.O.A.T. ourselves, then at least how to work on and improve that part of our riding. CW caught up with a selection of exceptional climbers, from a one-minute specialist to the 48-hour record holder, to find out how defying gravity to go fast uphill is far more than an exercise in pie-dodging and masochism. Consider this a cornucopia – literally, a goat’s horn overflowing with blessings – of climbing wisdom!
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Alan Colville: The ultra climber
Mountain biker turned ultra-climber Alan Colville, 50, turned his attention to Everesting as lockdown took hold last year. Realising he had a talent for epic-duration climbing, he took it one step further and in September this year set a new world record for elevation gained in 48 hours.
Starting late need not hold you back
Where I grew up in Tipperary, in Ireland, there was no grassroots cycling infrastructure, so I came to it incredibly late. I didn't start until 2007 [aged 36], while in New Zealand, when a friend put me on a mountain bike, threw me onto a descent, and I absolutely loved it. By 2010 I was finishing inside the top 20 in the UK national XC series.
You can bounce back even from terrible setbacks
In 2011, I got hit by a 3.5-ton scaffolding truck from behind while cycling to work. It lacerated my kidney and liver, broke my back in two places, and I lost the use of my right gluteus maximus [buttock muscle]. Medical specialists told me I’d never compete again, and I was on my back for six months. The fabric of my identity as a competitive cyclist was being unpicked, but I had a photo on the wall of me competing in the national XC series, and I was determined to get back there. Once finally back on my bike, I discovered that the loss of the right glute, though it affected me on the flat, wasn’t such a big deal on the climbs.
Maryka Sennema: The hat-trick hill-climb champion
Master of many disciplines Maryka Sennema, 47, won the British national hill-climb championships three times in a row, from 2013 to 2015. She has also won age-group titles in road race and crit series. These days, she prefers to race off-road in cyclocross and MTB.
You don’t need to start young
I came to cycling later in life. Having grown up in Canada, I moved to the Netherlands in 2005 and competed as a triathlete. The Dutch being great cyclists, I got much more into cycling and realised I was better at it than I was at swimming and running – but I didn’t realise I was good at hills until moving to England in 2008, aged 34. Once I joined a club and started doing some rides in the Surrey Hills, I was beating quite a few men and realised I was quite good uphill.
You don’t have to love it
Hill-climbing has been a bit of a love/hate thing for me. I always say that the only reason I ever did it was because I was good at it. It's so painful and such a mental as well as physical effort to race them. I committed to them because I was committed to winning – and winning as often as I could. The funny thing is, since I stopped doing them, I've completely gone off them!
Jim Henderson The 5x hill-climb champion
Jim Henderson is one of only two riders to have won the British Hill-Climb Championships on five occasions (the other being Stuart Dangerfield). The 48-year-old won his titles between 1998 and 2003, and though he came out of retirement in 2015 and raced two events this autumn, the Southport rider has no more plans to return to competitive action.
Commit to the hurt game
To rationalise what was coming up, I’d think that it was only going to be horrible for three minutes, so get on with it. At the start, you’re thinking of the 180 seconds of murder coming up and how brutal it is going to be, but you’ve got to treat it like a kilo race. I’d look at a house, then a spectator, then a telephone pole and constantly give myself little carrots to chase that were only 10 seconds away.
Road racing helps climbing form
A normal race would last three hours, and I found that that helped my climbing, because there were always frequent climbs, or chasing attacks, during races. It conditioned me into going hard for what is a relatively short period of time. With road racing, if you didn’t put the effort in, you’d be dropped and out of the race, so it forced you to go deep. That helps the mind in tough moments when you’re hurting all over and the body is burning.
You can read the full feature in the November 4 issue of Cycling Weekly magazine, on sale in store and available to order online (opens in new tab). You can subscribe to Cycling Weekly magazine (opens in new tab), save on the cover price and get it delivered to your door each week.
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