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

In Search of Power

In Search of Power

by / / 119 posts

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.

// La Vie Velominatus // Look Pro // Nostalgia // Technique

  1. @Ccos @frank

    @Puffy

    Did it hurt when they removed your sense of humor?

    @frank since it’s pulled out of someone’s ass, it’s very painful (so I’m told). Getting it back in presents a whole new set of problems.

    Hey, I actually have a great sense of humour only sarcasm,subtlety, and veiled humour is lost on me. Actually, the greater problem is I just suck at conversation….

  2. @Puffy thanks for putting your nose in the wind on this. I can’t remember how many times I have told @frank that a gear inch is a gear inch.  His reaction to that one does not get old.

    @frank with all that talk of marginal gains I am surprised Sky haven’t offers you a gig.

  3. @Nate

    @Puffy thanks for putting your nose in the wind on this. I can’t remember how many times I have told @frank that a gear inch is a gear inch. His reaction to that one does not get old.

    @frank with all that talk of marginal gains I am surprised Sky haven’t offers you a gig.

    Then there’s the Belgian approach to chain rings: small in the winter, then move to big in the spring and summer. Of course, they only eat the crust of the bread, think house plants use up all the oxygen in a room, don’t have sex for a week before a race…

  4. @Daccordi Rider

    Heres me Pantaniing a KOM point in a race. It was a brutal headwind and I’m convinced the fact I can climb in the drops helped me win that one. Plus I look fantastic, please excuse a couple of minor rule transgressions…..

    What throws me with this is that you’re repping 3 different teams between kit, gilet & gloves! Helmet cover is forgivable as that’s being imposed upon you (for the non South Australian readers, that’s how the race organisers show the rider’s grade).

  5. @Teocalli

    @frank

    Interestingly I bought a second hand winter bike in the autumn and that was a good frame size for me set up for someone probably 6 inches taller. Riding that with a longer stem that was right for my setup just made the bike unstable as I ended up with my CoM too much over the front wheel. As soon as I shortened the stem the bike became massively more stable. This was most noticeable when standing on the pedals.

    Interesting, I find the opposite with stem length – the longer the stem the more stable (you have to move the bars more to create the same amount of steer as you do with a shorter stem). But I am very flexible and I exercise my core; I use my core to control how much the front wheel is being weighted when seated and especially when cornering – the low bars I ride together with the stem length does tend to get overweighted if I’m not loading things up right.

    Maybe it’s a proportion thing and being a shortarse otherwise known as somewhat vertically challenged, I hit some limit to be able to accommodate earlier. However, what I found with a longer stem is that with what is as my natural standing position I felt that the bike was on the verge of folding under me and I would go over the front wheel. Visually it looked as if there was some relationship whereby if the steering point became closer to the axle of the front wheel some dynamic changed somehow. So it could also be that with larger frames you can use a longer stem too before reaching that point. Of course in all probability it is neither and it’s just me! I was also ONLY taking about the effect when standing and powering not when riding seated

    A few things; the VMH rides a 51cm R3SL with a 13cm stem – no issues. I think its just a matter of how you are used to the bike feeling – for sure your weight has the ability to get out farther over the wheel which will make a huge difference in handling. If your upper body sits like a lump on your bars, then you’ll have a greater issue than if you are able to unweight it effectively. This is part of the skill we Cyclists refer to as “bike handling skills”.

    And just to point out the obvious – you’d need something like a 50cm stem to get so far out that you’d flip the bike over standing up. Just saying.

    On the other hand I did doubt what you were saying in the article until I tried it this evening with my brain engaged and found that over a quick “power bump” it is very effective as a method to avoid shifting and produce more effective power vs being on the hoods – which on my vintage rig with downtube shifters is a good method to have in the toolbag – but it is definitely for short bursts.

    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.)

  6. @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.

  7. @Buck Rogers Nope a proper race. I hate having stuff in my pocket except food. Plus it really fucks with peoples heads!

  8. @Mikael Liddy Yeh, sorry about that. We were mid brand change for the team and the new gillet had not come in yet. I am now sorted with nicely matching kit, gloves etc. The EMPS stays though!

  9. Hey Frank  …   speaking of Metallica do you agree that Wherever I may Roam was really intended to be about cycling when it was written?  I mean what else could it be about??

    “And the road becomes my bride
    I have stripped of all but pride
    So in her I do confide
    And she keeps me satisfied
    Gives me all I need”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qq9PxuAsiR4&list=RDQq9PxuAsiR4

  10. @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!

  11. @piwakawaka

    I rode with a fine bike rider who always said to try and maintain your gear as you climb,

    Impressive!

  12. @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!

  13. @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………

  14. 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.

  15. @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.

  16. @ 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

  17. @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.

  18. 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.

  19. @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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. @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.

  23. @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.

  24. @Teocalli Oh and we’re just hitting white asparagus season here.  Seems a pretty good description!

  25. 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.

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