In Search of Power
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.