If you’re anticipating a forthcoming week in the mountains, you’re far from alone.
The months from February through to April are ideal for heading off on a cycling holiday, and UK riders temporarily migrate in their drones each year to escape the familiar cold snaps in Blighty and rack up the miles.
Most of the go-to destinations provide warm temperatures, smooth roads, and mountains – that last one will elicit joy for some and groans from others.
Natural mountain goats relish a 30 kilometre ascent as much as they do the helter skelter of joy down the other side. But if you’re not a born King or Queen of the mountains, there are a few ways you can make them easier and learn to love them…
Prepare in advance
A long climb is not dissimilar to a time trial, except that gravity has poked its ugly head up to mess with the proceedings.
You’d prepare for time trials by honing in on your FTP (functional threshold power, the power you can hold for an hour), and climbs aren’t too different. You need to improve your ability to hold a constant effort.
Sessions such as the infamous 2×20, where you complete two 20 minute efforts at around FTP, separated by a five to 10 minute break are a great place to start, or split it up into four 10 minute efforts to get started. If you can find a long enough hill, doing these on a gradient outside will make them even more relevant.
To prepare for steep sections, try short, sharp hill reps – these will act as a more anaerobic effort and help fire up the muscles you’ll need to get over any steep ramps (we’re looking at you, Mortirolo).
These sessions will take it out of you a bit, so make sure they’re interspersed with easy recovery days.
Don’t exhaust yourself on the way out
Sometimes riders who know they’re weaker on the climbs like to motor along the flat on the way out. But the result is usually that the climbing experts arrive at the bottom of the ascent fresh as a daisy, and those who are less adept are already tired.
If you’re not a climber, don’t feel afraid to sit on a wheel and save your legs, unless you’ve actually made some sort of team pact to play on each others strengths.
Know your limits
If you’re preparing for a busy race season, it’s healthy to enter into a bit of competition with your mates.
However, pick your battles sensibly. There’s no point going into the red to hold on to a wheel for 10 minutes, if it’s going to leave you grovelling for a further 50 once the elastic snaps.
Ideally, you’ll know about how long the climb is and about what heart rate or power you can sustain for that duration. If you’re happy to suffer, go for it and ride above and below that throughout to see who weakens first, but if you want to secure the best time you personally can, hold it steady.
Climbing well is just as much a mental battle as it is a physical one.
If you’re smashing it up with friends, remember they’re hurting as much as you (probably). If it’s a solo battle, keep breathing deeply and hold on to that steady rhythm, try and relax your upper body whilst keeping your power and heart rate within the sustainable zone.
If you simply want to reach the top, then you really just need to keep your mind in a positive place – keep spinning and take some time to look around you, it’s likely you’re surrounded by views you won’t get to enjoy at home.
Whether you’re more comfortable in or out the saddle often comes down to body composition.
Regardless of your chosen style, aim to get out the saddle every few minutes, even just for a few pedal strokes to stretch your back and hamstrings out.
Use any respite given to you
Usually, somewhere along the way there will be a few metres of mirage worthy descent. Use this to your advantage. If you’re feeling good and want to make up time on your friends (or the Strava leaderboard), feel free to push on. If you’re tired, keep your legs spinning a low gear to clear out the fatigue.
Resist the urge to stop pedalling altogether, as this will lock your legs up and make turning the corner into the unavoidable ramp feel a lot worse.
When you’re working at less than around 70 to 80 per cent of maximum heart rate (the threshold varies between riders), your body can access fat as a fuel source, and the supply of calories from body fat is almost infinite, even in lean athletes. As soon as you go above that safe zone, you body needs glycogen in the form of carbohydrates to fuel the activity.
Humans can store around 1,800 to 2,000 calories of carbs. Once they’re gone, if you try to exercise over the magic threshold, you’ll bonk. On a climb, you’ll most likely be in this zone and therefore you need to keep topping up with carbs. A large serving will sit heavy in your stomach, so eat little and often.
Of course, hydration is important as well, especially if the sun is beating down on you so don’t neglect your bidon either.
Whilst temperatures might be soaring at the bottom of the climb, by the time you get to the top you’ll have added many metres to your elevation, and it often gets pretty cold.
Treat recovery with respect
If you’re riding for multiple consecutive days, make sure you rest up and recover well on return.
Eat a good mix of carbohydrates, to replace your glycogen stores, and protein to aid muscle repair. Get your feet up, and think about booking a light sports massage around mid-way through your holiday/training camp.
Prepare for the way back down
Riding down a switchback laden descent is just as much an art as riding up it, only you’ll be travelling at a much higher speed.
If possible, find some shorter descents to practice on before you leave, taking care to hit the apex of corners.
Far too many riders get carried away, taking the racing line, even if it means drifting over into the other side of the road on corners. This really isn’t worth the risk and puts you and your friends in danger as well as oncoming traffic.
Stay within your limits, and enjoy the view!