The irresistible Sa Calobra. Photo: @roadslave525.

Sur La Plaque, Part Trois: Monkey in the Middle

Sur La Plaque, Part Trois: Monkey in the Middle

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Climbing is something I enjoy more than I am good at it; any time I see a new road pointing up to the heavens, I find myself irresistibly drawn to explore where it leads. Every season I come to the conclusion that my training routes are all very hilly and I arrive at the brilliant idea that I should plot out a new course which seeks out the flattest roads in town, allowing for an easy spin every now and again. As I ride happily along my new, rolling route, I will notice a twisty road snaking its way toward the sky and I will be helpless to resist exploring it. Before long, the route is as hard as any of the others. I simply can’t stop myself seeking out new climbs.

The beauty of climbing is found in its contrasts, in the beautiful duality of suffering and being in control – of burning muscles which somehow still feel strong and powerful. At 80 kilos and 193cm I will never be a good climber, but there is a magic zone of gradients between six and eight percent where I can get the guns turning over easily despite the pressure in my lungs and legs. At those gradients, I can feel myself sitting steady in the saddle, raising out of it occasionally to keep the gear ticking over or to offer some respite to my muscles. Beyond eight percent is a zone of gradients upon which I never feel comfortable; to maintain the tempo requires all my concentration; I feel the hill clawing at my jersey, pulling me back down to the valley. I can never seem to find the right cadence in this zone; either I’m spinning too much or I’m falling behind the gear. But beyond 12 percent, I find a renewed strength; despite my grotesque weight I am somehow still able to find the power to keep the wheels turning round. At these gradients there is little you can do apart from pushing on the pedals; skill and elegance have less little to do with it than does being stubborn and a bit dim.

The Prophet once said that to ride a time trial, you should start as fast as possible, and finish as fast as possible. When asked about the middle, he said to ride that as fast as possible. And so it is for climbing. In part one of Sur La Plaque, we examined how to ride the end of a climb; you go as hard as you can. In part two, we examined how to approach a climb and how best to tackle the base. Again, you go as hard as you can. We left it a mystery as to what one should do when riding the middle of the climb. Guess what? You go as hard as you can.

The middle part of a climb is mentally the hardest. At the top, you can easily wrap your mind around what needs to be done: push as hard as you can and embrace the lactic acid as it floods over you; the effort will be over soon enough. The bottom can be intimidating, but you are generally fairly fresh, though you may need some time to find your rhythm. The middle is where you settle in and focus as concentration and momentum mean everything. Breathing deeply in harmony to your cadence, the key is to make sure you don’t lose your concentration as you and your bike are urged to slow ever down by the Man with the Hammer’s loyal servants: Gravity and Fatigue.

The loss of tempo happens very gradually as a gear that was smoothly turning over begins to move a little heavier. In response, the cadence slows ever so slightly until finally you need to shift gear. It is a never ending cycle that leads irrevocably to plodding along in the lowest gear. Combatting this process takes complete and total focus. Concentrate on the rhythm and your breath, and if the gradient kicks up, rise out of the saddle to keep the pace up. If the gradient requires a downshift, do so before you fall behind the gear; once you allow yourself to become overgeared you will be on the back foot for the rest of the climb.

Climbing through the monkey in the middle is as much about mental strength as it is physical. Find a steady, fast tempo, and commit everything you have to maintaining it. Also, for the purposes of this article, Sur la Plaque is a state of mind more than it is a chain ring. And also remember that the only reason Merckx invented the inner ring is to give us a place to store the chain while replacing the worn-out Big Ring.

VLVV.

// Look Pro // Technique

  1. @Fausto Crapiz

    Prefers 6+kms of 15-19% grades, distills his own single malt, lives in a castle in Spain, owns an airline, dates supermodels…

  2. This article assumes that there is any other gear that is possible to be selected.  I rode out with a friend the other day and selected a new climb to try.  The UK is smattered with a dearth of short punchy climbs in contrast to the long European climbs where pacing is key.  Here it is a question of power and whether your lungs give up first or your legs.  The climb turned out to be 23%.  I do not mind admitting that coming in on the scales at a Clydesdale fighting weight of 105kgs….this was tough.  The legs were good…the lungs were not up to the task, and as for the brain….well I think was just a syrupy mush by the top.  I made it…but only just….

  3. @Deakus Amen brother. I am truly in Clydes territory, and after doing the Haydon Hundred a few weeks ago can attest that losing a few kilos wouldn’t hurt me too much…

  4. Right on, Puffy! Just rode for about two hours, 6-8:00. Love being home from a ride and feelin’ great before the VMH and the dogs and cats are even outta bed.

    Oh yeah, wore some of my new socks as well. The VMH gave me four pairs of DeFeet socks, in various cool colors for my recent birthday. What a gift! One pair is even in the LOOK color scheme. I can wear them when I ride my…LOOK. Ha, I’ll be the guy at the concert wearing the band’s t-shirt from their last world tour. (which is why I’ll wear them when I ride my Casati or Tommasini)

  5. @harminator

    @Fausto Crapiz

    Prefers 6+kms of 15-19% grades, distills his own single malt, lives in a castle in Spain, owns an airline, dates supermodels…

  6. @VeloJello

    @Deakus Amen brother. I am truly in Clydes territory, and after doing the Haydon Hundred a few weeks ago can attest that losing a few kilos wouldn’t hurt me too much…

    I cracked the weight thing (not that I was ever much more than a slightly chubby Shetland Pony) but it’s the losing years thing I need to crack………

  7. @Teocalli It’s my love of biscuits, damn it. This is me at the recent Haydon Hundred, tackling the wet 15% incline cobbles of Alston in Northumberland.  I stopped halfway up to let two old ladies on dutch bikes past. Oh the shame!

  8. I just want to go on the record and state that there is only so much of “I’m stomach breathing” one can get away with…

  9. @VeloJello   Fortunately I put my biscuits on a Rugby No. 11 or 14 build and not a No. 1 – 5 (tempted to insert random collection of punctuation marks) so I had less to shift off again.

  10. Frank, great article but I have little to add, 75% of my last decent ride was below sea level. I haven’t seen a decent hill in ages.

  11. @Barracuda

    Me, with the bitumen biting hard at the jersey pockets with my cohorts sailing off up the 12% + grade. I’m writing cheques that my body can’t cash!

    What hill is that?

  12. I love how everyone says “I’m not a good climber, but…”

    It’s true. Unless your name is Quintana there will always be someone faster than you.

    @VeloSix

    I have been using a power meter now for a little over a month. Wow, what a difference it makes to my climbing. I’m the 72 kg, 183 cm type (almost the same stature as Sagan, minus the guns); so not a pure climber, but decent enough to stay close to the little billy goats. Simply being able to pace properly, has made such a difference to getting over a hill. I have not raced with it yet, and don’t really have a plan for that. However, I think it will have great benefits for TT efforts as well.

    My problem is in a road race, the climbers always seem to hammer the bottom of a climb, where I immediately want to go to my rhythm. (Those in the 5 km length and beyond)

    I’m not a good climber but… I love putting in hard (hard!) accelerations in the middle of a climb just to see what happens.

    I’m 172cm, 71kg. Even though I hate them, I’m decent on the short, steep stuff where I go over my threshold and then try to hold on until I collapse (I used to run 400m/800m at school – basically the same thing).

    I like the longer, steady climbs where I can settle in (and throw in a couple of those accelerations).

    I just need to be 10 kg lighter, but I can’t imagine how I could do that! 2kg I could lose, but I’m built more like a track sprinter than Chris Froome, and I just can’t see how to change that.

  13. @The Grande Fondue

    When I started training, and riding beyond the short commute I weighed 95kg. I am at 68 right now (185cms). My wife is actually concerned I have developed, or developing an eating disorder because I keep saying things like “I just need to loose a couple more kgs”! I reply with the fact that according the BMI scale, I can go as low as 63kg and remain in the “healthy weight range”.

    I’m careful what I say now but I do have skin folds left around my waist that I want gone and I don’t want an intervention! And yes, I am worried that I look like a spider doing a light bulb.

  14. @The Grande Fondue

    @Barracuda

    Me, with the bitumen biting hard at the jersey pockets with my cohorts sailing off up the 12% + grade. I’m writing cheques that my body can’t cash!

    What hill is that?

    Crows Nest Road – Port Elliot South Oz

  15. @The Grande Fondue

    I’m decent on the short, steep stuff where I go over my threshold and then try to hold on until I collapse.

    The lunch time training sessions you keep doing up Kensi probably don’t hurt in this regard!

  16. Climbing. What other reason is there to ride our bikes?

  17. Course profile for the Norseman triathlon, bike section is 180k. :-)

  18. @Mikael Liddy

    @The Grande Fondue

    I’m decent on the short, steep stuff where I go over my threshold and then try to hold on until I collapse.

    The lunch time training sessions you keep doing up Kensi probably don’t hurt in this regard!

    They fucking do hurt. But that’s kinda the point isn’t it?

  19. @The Grande Fondue

    I love how everyone says “I’m not a good climber, but…”

    It’s true. Unless your name is Quintana there will always be someone faster than you.

    @VeloSix

    I have been using a power meter now for a little over a month. Wow, what a difference it makes to my climbing. I’m the 72 kg, 183 cm type (almost the same stature as Sagan, minus the guns); so not a pure climber, but decent enough to stay close to the little billy goats. Simply being able to pace properly, has made such a difference to getting over a hill. I have not raced with it yet, and don’t really have a plan for that. However, I think it will have great benefits for TT efforts as well.

    My problem is in a road race, the climbers always seem to hammer the bottom of a climb, where I immediately want to go to my rhythm. (Those in the 5 km length and beyond)

    I’m not a good climber but… I love putting in hard (hard!) accelerations in the middle of a climb just to see what happens.

    I’m 172cm, 71kg. Even though I hate them, I’m decent on the short, steep stuff where I go over my threshold and then try to hold on until I collapse (I used to run 400m/800m at school – basically the same thing).

    I like the longer, steady climbs where I can settle in (and throw in a couple of those accelerations).

    I just need to be 10 kg lighter, but I can’t imagine how I could do that! 2kg I could lose, but I’m built more like a track sprinter than Chris Froome, and I just can’t see how to change that.

    Fair points!  To all those I leave behind me on the climbs I’m sure I’m a great climber in their eyes.  But to all those who I watch pull away from me in a race, I lack the power to weight for me to use words words of praise to describe myself.  I’m very much a tweener…. can do a bit of climbing, and a bit of sprinting, but I’m rarely the best in my race fields at either.  So I instead rely on brains, positioning, tactics and patience to make up for my physical short comings.

  20. @VeloSix What power meter do you use? I’ve thought about purchasing one.

  21. @VeloSix

    @The Grande Fondue

    I love how everyone says “I’m not a good climber, but…”

    It’s true. Unless your name is Quintana there will always be someone faster than you.

    @VeloSix

    I have been using a power meter now for a little over a month. Wow, what a difference it makes to my climbing. I’m the 72 kg, 183 cm type (almost the same stature as Sagan, minus the guns); so not a pure climber, but decent enough to stay close to the little billy goats. Simply being able to pace properly, has made such a difference to getting over a hill. I have not raced with it yet, and don’t really have a plan for that. However, I think it will have great benefits for TT efforts as well.

    My problem is in a road race, the climbers always seem to hammer the bottom of a climb, where I immediately want to go to my rhythm. (Those in the 5 km length and beyond)

    I’m not a good climber but… I love putting in hard (hard!) accelerations in the middle of a climb just to see what happens.

    I’m 172cm, 71kg. Even though I hate them, I’m decent on the short, steep stuff where I go over my threshold and then try to hold on until I collapse (I used to run 400m/800m at school – basically the same thing).

    I like the longer, steady climbs where I can settle in (and throw in a couple of those accelerations).

    I just need to be 10 kg lighter, but I can’t imagine how I could do that! 2kg I could lose, but I’m built more like a track sprinter than Chris Froome, and I just can’t see how to change that.

    Fair points! To all those I leave behind me on the climbs I’m sure I’m a great climber in their eyes. But to all those who I watch pull away from me in a race, I lack the power to weight for me to use words words of praise to describe myself. I’m very much a tweener…. can do a bit of climbing, and a bit of sprinting, but I’m rarely the best in my race fields at either. So I instead rely on brains, positioning, tactics and patience to make up for my physical short comings.

    It’s interesting to see what people’s tactics are in approaching KOM’s in races. I have a pretty good success rate being more of a goat myself. We use Old Willunga and nearby Wickhams hill in these races. They are 10 minute 3km climbs that both have the steepest part at the bottom My tactic tends to be out of the saddle very hard tempo for the first k or so, gets rid of the non climbers. Settle into just under threshold tempo, recover slightly, then attack hard at about the halfway mark for 300 or so metres, hope to get a gap then sit on threshold to the top to keep the gap.

    The main thing for me is to try to dictate terms so I work to my strengths not others. On the shorter , 1-3 mins, climbs the high power guys can turn the tables.

  22. @Daccordi Rider

    @VeloSix

    @The Grande Fondue

    I love how everyone says “I’m not a good climber, but…”

    It’s true. Unless your name is Quintana there will always be someone faster than you.

    @VeloSix

    I have been using a power meter now for a little over a month. Wow, what a difference it makes to my climbing. I’m the 72 kg, 183 cm type (almost the same stature as Sagan, minus the guns); so not a pure climber, but decent enough to stay close to the little billy goats. Simply being able to pace properly, has made such a difference to getting over a hill. I have not raced with it yet, and don’t really have a plan for that. However, I think it will have great benefits for TT efforts as well.

    My problem is in a road race, the climbers always seem to hammer the bottom of a climb, where I immediately want to go to my rhythm. (Those in the 5 km length and beyond)

    I’m not a good climber but… I love putting in hard (hard!) accelerations in the middle of a climb just to see what happens.

    I’m 172cm, 71kg. Even though I hate them, I’m decent on the short, steep stuff where I go over my threshold and then try to hold on until I collapse (I used to run 400m/800m at school – basically the same thing).

    I like the longer, steady climbs where I can settle in (and throw in a couple of those accelerations).

    I just need to be 10 kg lighter, but I can’t imagine how I could do that! 2kg I could lose, but I’m built more like a track sprinter than Chris Froome, and I just can’t see how to change that.

    Fair points! To all those I leave behind me on the climbs I’m sure I’m a great climber in their eyes. But to all those who I watch pull away from me in a race, I lack the power to weight for me to use words words of praise to describe myself. I’m very much a tweener…. can do a bit of climbing, and a bit of sprinting, but I’m rarely the best in my race fields at either. So I instead rely on brains, positioning, tactics and patience to make up for my physical short comings.

    It’s interesting to see what people’s tactics are in approaching KOM’s in races. I have a pretty good success rate being more of a goat myself. We use Old Willunga and nearby Wickhams hill in these races. They are 10 minute 3km climbs that both have the steepest part at the bottom My tactic tends to be out of the saddle very hard tempo for the first k or so, gets rid of the non climbers. Settle into just under threshold tempo, recover slightly, then attack hard at about the halfway mark for 300 or so metres, hope to get a gap then sit on threshold to the top to keep the gap.

    The main thing for me is to try to dictate terms so I work to my strengths not others. On the shorter , 1-3 mins, climbs the high power guys can turn the tables.

    I have a lot of trouble judging steady state efforts on climbs. On something like Norton Summit I always push myself too hard at the bottom, and then have to go too easy on the middle part. I did a 15 second PB last weekend simply by following some people up and letting them judge the pace (aka shameless wheelsucking).

    Add yes, I know a power meter would help.

  23. @The Grande Fondue

    @Mikael Liddy

    @The Grande Fondue

    I’m decent on the short, steep stuff where I go over my threshold and then try to hold on until I collapse.

    The lunch time training sessions you keep doing up Kensi probably don’t hurt in this regard!

    They fucking do hurt. But that’s kinda the point isn’t it?

    assumed that would be the response as soon as I wrote it…and yes it is.

  24. This reminds me of my early swim coach’s advice on how to swim a 400m freestyle race perfectly. His research showed that the slowest 100m in a 400m was nearly always the 3rd as the initial enthusiasm burnt off and the last push was still too distant to imagine. So the middle part of the climb, to transfer his excellent swim advice to the road, is the place to focus your maximum effort on your efficient cycling technique, reduce wasted effort to a nanowatt and retire into a mental zone of peace and tranquility, embedded in the fluffy embrace of pain and smooth pedaling. Then cane the last section with all that energy that you still have available.

  25. Getting dropped again on one of my local climbs – all about w/w – weight and watts? doubt it, way over weight more like it – those slimy m/f$%kers are fast!

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