In Search of Power

Pantani finds his power in the drops. Photo: Tom Able-Green/ALLSPORT
Pantani finds his power in the drops. Photo: Tom Able-Green/ALLSPORT

It’s no secret that I’m prone to riding in the big ring as much as possible, mostly on account of my not being a giant sissy. In accordance with the ISO Non-Sissy Standard, I also never read instruction manuals or ask for directions when lost. I make sure to only rarely ask my VMH to turn up the radio when Adele comes on, usually followed quickly by an ernest explanation of how I thought it was Metallica, and how Rolling in the Deep ripped off the opening to Enter Sandman. The record does show, however, that I occasionally fly into hysterics when surprised by an insect or amphibian – but that’s just good common sense.

Pantani’s in-the-drops climbing style has always impressed me, but he’s only one of the riders who won races going down in the drops looking for more power on the climbs; Jan Ullrich was often climbing in the drops as well as our mate Johan Museeuw – not to mention Richard Virenque and so did Frank Vandenbroucke. Looking at that list, I wonder if the UCI should explore adjusting the test for EPO to examine time spent climbing in the drops.

Riding the route of Liege-Bastogne-Liege with Johan last Keepers Tour, I noticed a pattern in his riding style. Whenever the gradient increased on a climb, instead of changing gear he just moved his hands to the drops and rose out of the saddle to casually push the same gear over the steep. It looked so easy, it was impossible to resist trying it myself. At first, there is a strange sort of sensation, like you’re dipping your nose into the tarmac. But then when you switch to the hoods, you notice an immediate loss of leverage. After practicing it, it becomes second nature.

Someone once told me that the key to going fast is to try to break your handlebars, and that’s just what I’ve been trying to do lately although I hope I’m ultimately unsuccessful. Since gleaning this trick from Johan’s riding style, I’ve been staying in the big ring longer and climbing  out of the saddle in the drops, pulling hard on bars and feeling them flex. Its not always faster than spinning a low gear but it has the benefit of taking the load off your cardiovascular system and putting it on your muscular system – a handy thing if your form is missing something or you’ve got massive guns (which I don’t).

This has brought another notion to light: the lower the hand position, the better able you are to find the leverage you need to turn the pedals. This is one of the principle issues with the sit up and beg epidemic, apart from it looking crap and being less stable. But hand height seems to impact power; I’ve noticed that when I’m climbing on the tops, I can breath easily and I’m able to maintain a speed well, but acceleration is difficult. To accelerate or hold a pace up a steep gradient (which is almost the same as accelerating), I’m better served riding on the hoods where my position is a bit lower. But when I really need power, I go looking for it in the drops.

All this brings into question the current trend towards compact bars and flat hand positions between the tops and hoods, with the drops only a bit lower. Compare that to the deep drops ridden in the past, in the style of Eddy Merckx and Roger de Vlaeminck where the hoods were halfway between the tops and the drops. The modern bar shape and hood position seems to reduce the riding positions to as few as possible, while in the past, they were designed to provide as many as possible.

In any case, big sweeping drops look the business and I’m pretty sure they are in complete compliance with the ISO Non-Sissy Standard.

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120 Replies to “In Search of Power”

  1. @frank

     This is part of the skill we Cyclists refer to as “bike handling skills”.

    YOU’RE a toolbag. Seriously though, its totally its just a tool to have. I’m not about to big-ring Haleakala (although I will mount a 42×25 vs the 39×26 for next time.)

    Re point 1 – I’m not too shabby as I also still ride the dark side and trash a reasonable percentage of folk 10-20-30-40 years younger than me, uphill, downhill and singletrack.

    Re point 2 – I think we are saying the same thing – on both counts!

  2. @Teocalli he had this habit, which was almost a nervous tick, of touching his rear tyre with his finger, supposedly to clear any pieces of crap stuck there, so I guess that is maintenance!

  3. @piwakawaka

    @Teocalli he had this habit, which was almost a nervous tick, of touching his rear tyre with his finger, supposedly to clear any pieces of crap stuck there, so I guess that is maintenance!

    I had a picture of him unpacking an EPMS on the go and pulling out lube and rags and giving the bike a quick lube and shine to while away the climb………

  4. While still very much a greenhorn, I was using my drops to climb steep grades when out of the saddle.  I was chastised for this, and immediately ceased said climbing position.  I try to do as much climbing from the saddle as possible.  Especially when all those around me are huffing and puffing it, on the hoods and out of the saddle.

    I used to be quite comfortable climbing in the drops, until being badgered into a different position, and use the hoods now.  I think I will begin practicing from the drops some, and try to drop those who once chastised me away from that position.

  5. @Puffy I don’t doubt you for a minute. Lots of us have some variant of Asperger’s to some extent. Keep up the techno posts.

  6. @ frank: besides obligations and travel, recently something blocked me from posting, for last 4-5 mo….??  I just thought it was my work computer that was the issue, but not now

     

    whatever, glad to be back

    will post my souplesse commentary again

  7. @frank

    @piwakawaka

    I rode with a fine bike rider who always said to try and maintain your gear as you climb, when you change to an easier gear your cadence will naturally tend to drop back to where you were, rather than increasing, so you just go slower, and why would anyone want that?

    Absolutely agree with that theory! You have a natural cadence and your body will always gravitate to it, and what’s more you will find its harder to accelerate again after the steep bit because your speed will have slowed and inertia is a total asshole.

    Indeed.  Each time I look for that extra gear I am hoping that Rule 10 really isn’t true.

  8. Might have to admit there’s something to this theory.

    Gave it a shot this morning on my commute. There’s a little section with a few little rollers. Normally I’ll spin up the hills, but I tried it out of the saddle and in the drops this morning. Knocked 13 seconds off my best time over that stretch.

    Now, there may well have been other factors involved, but I’ll take it.

  9. @KW

    Might have to admit there’s something to this theory.

    Gave it a shot this morning on my commute. There’s a little section with a few little rollers. Normally I’ll spin up the hills, but I tried it out of the saddle and in the drops this morning. Knocked 13 seconds off my best time over that stretch.

    Now, there may well have been other factors involved, but I’ll take it.

    Yeah, I tried it in a couple of places in my ride this evening and it’s definitely got something, and even just a few turns helps keep the momentum up over rollers.  But I found out real quick what my pins had in them — or didn’t — if the slope was a little longer.

  10. Tried climbing up and from the drops again the other day – felt good, but pulled a gluteal (that’s bum for you plebs) – no doubt due to my stupid go out & overdo it approach. So I’m thinking (vaguely)

    1. same gear, up an out of the drops for speed on short hills

    2. same gear as long as possible on long hills where I’m just trying to make the top in one piece, sitting or up on the hoods as feels best.

    and of course TRAINING.

    That’s about as scientific as I get.

  11. I just did one of my normal training loops and made an effort to stay in the drops as much as possible. And I soundly crushed all my best times. It was surprising because it didn’t feel like I was riding harder.

    Consider me a believer.

  12. @andrew

    @KW

    Might have to admit there’s something to this theory.

    Gave it a shot this morning on my commute. There’s a little section with a few little rollers. Normally I’ll spin up the hills, but I tried it out of the saddle and in the drops this morning. Knocked 13 seconds off my best time over that stretch.

    Now, there may well have been other factors involved, but I’ll take it.

    Yeah, I tried it in a couple of places in my ride this evening and it’s definitely got something, and even just a few turns helps keep the momentum up over rollers. But I found out real quick what my pins had in them “” or didn’t “” if the slope was a little longer.

    Could be a hidden classification in there of pins vs guns.  Though here I’m trying to catch the midday spring sun at every opportunity to tone up the celery sticks after the winter.

  13. @Teocalli

    @andrew

    @KW

    Might have to admit there’s something to this theory.

    Gave it a shot this morning on my commute. There’s a little section with a few little rollers. Normally I’ll spin up the hills, but I tried it out of the saddle and in the drops this morning. Knocked 13 seconds off my best time over that stretch.

    Now, there may well have been other factors involved, but I’ll take it.

    Yeah, I tried it in a couple of places in my ride this evening and it’s definitely got something, and even just a few turns helps keep the momentum up over rollers. But I found out real quick what my pins had in them “” or didn’t “” if the slope was a little longer.

    Could be a hidden classification in there of pins vs guns. Though here I’m trying to catch the midday spring sun at every opportunity to tone up the celery sticks after the winter.

    I don’t feel I’ve earned the right to ‘guns’ just yet.  I’ve got two cyclo-sportives coming up in May, and I’m signing up for my first races in August (Sparkassen Giro) and October (Münsterland Giro).  The first is 80km, and the second offers 70km, 110km or 140km courses.  I reckon I can sign up for the 140km and not embarrass myself if I Train Properly between now and then.  Maybe by October I’ll have earned my guns.

  14. This technique is great for rollers and short bursts requiring power.  I’ve been using it on the last few rides and certainly notice the benefits of the added leverage.

  15. Hello Frank,

    I like your blog very much, and have read this old post a few times. Then there was this interview GCN took Alberto Contador some time in 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vya4EgIX4lw

    I’ve looked for pics with Marco Pantani’s bike, and , well, his drops are where other (very tall) peoples’s hoods are. Barely a few cm drop of height between saddle and bars, on his already small frame size. Have sir Wiggo climb in the drops. Or Contador. In the GCN interview he stated he could climb out of the saddle using the hoods all day long, but as soon as he climbed in the drops, Pantani-style, his legs would blow up. I found too that the drops move the load towards the muscular system, and think that particularly Pantani looked for extra load there while climbing, but not because his legs would be overly strong (not that that wasn’t true) but because his bars were overly high. Come to think of it , yesteryear’s frames of chioce were taller , with taller bars, thus allowing the hoods to be low and the deep drops to be used during climbing.. Don’t want to start a debate, this is just a personal opinion I’ve expressed which (since i’m no pro) might be wrong ..

    Keep up Velominati!

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