Look Pro, Part VI: Move Sur la Plaque

GilBEAR takes it onto the big ring

There’s something not quite the same about how the Pros climb and how we climb. They go faster, I suppose. There’s that. They’re skinnier, too, and climb better for their weight to boot. And they’re stronger, that probably helps although I can’t speak from personal experience. I’ve also noticed that while under pressure, theirs is still a Magnificent Stroke, while ours typically start tracing the lines of the Hurt Box. Their cadence exudes Fluidly Harmonic Articulation and hardly seems to notice changes in gradient; whereas the slightest change in pitch brings us to erratically dissonant chaos.

We can go slower and with a less Magnificent Stroke, and still look pretty cool doing it. Speed is relative, and so long as no one else is around, we can look like we’re going fast, too. And we can rock our shoulders and grimace and do it all like the Pros. And then we can practice and practice and practice but there will still be a fundamental element missing, a certain je ne c’est quoi.

And that brings us to Part VI in our Look Pro series.

You know that part of the climb near the top?  That part where it gets less steep?  That part where you ease back and bask in the pain of a job well done? That’s the part where the Pros move Sur la Plaque. In case you don’t speak the language of the peloton, that’s French for, “Put that thing in the big ring, fucktard.”

Aside from a willingness to suffer more than anyone else in the most painful discipline in cycling, the key to being a good climber is to continue to pile coals on the fire as you approach the top of the climb and power over the crest. Per Richard Virenque, 7-times (give or take, its not worth looking up) winner of the competition in the Tour where some sadistic asshole puts a sprint at every hill they can measure:

You have to be able to move sur la plaque as soon as you’re at the top. I generally change gear 300m from the top.

That makes it almost the same as a fact, so take it from Tricky Dicky and think about these points next time you’re shopping at the Five and Dime:

  1. Getting air back in your lungs can wait until the way down. Power over the top and you’ll shed 3/4 of the riders you’re with.
  2. Your body is governed by ancillary concerns like “stopping the intolerable pain” and “not dying”. Those types of concerns have no place in cycling. Like training a dog, the only solution is to teach your body to stop fussing so much by going harder.
  3. Your body gets used to the rhythm of your cadence and will send signals discouraging you from lifting it as the gradient eases. This is what the shifters are for.  Use them to fool your body, assuming your body is as much of a dumbass as mine.
  4. Two cogs roughly equals the big ring.  If you’re going to shift twice, forget the right shifter and go for the left.
  5. As you approach the top of the hill, casually exaggerate the motion of your left hand as you cram it into the big ring and rise out of the saddle to power through. The riders who managed to stay with you will wimper right before the elastic snaps.

Come to think of it, it’s no wonder Maillot a Pois competition is dominated by dopers.

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60 Replies to “Look Pro, Part VI: Move Sur la Plaque”

  1. This has me itching to get out on the road. Nicely done! Is it poor form, though, to ask one of these whimpering followers to collect the lung I lost and return it to me on the way down? Or is it just a casualty of war, and I should try to find it the next day as I taper (and look for that bidon I dropped, too)?

    Gilbert looked good in FdJ colors.

  2. In my last race frank, i missed the mark on some of this…the souplesse of a Left-handed shift at top, the subtle toss of the bike to and fro, the shining V in the back of my calf as I crest the top alone in pure splendor…it was a pipe dream because I knew I could shed 3/4 of the suckers, but we were all evenly matched and all sucking air, dragging our chins on the pave’, in the big ring and it just wasn’t quite so perfect.

    but i will keep trying

    something that goes with my territory is, as a nurse practitioner, i take care of alot of sick people. Some of them wear more V in a day w/pain than i will see in a year. truth be known, we grow together, i take care of them, and i hate it but sometimes end up losing a few to the grave. Something that takes my pain away nearly immediately at the top of the 20% gradient is when i post their names on my stem, when i hurt, i look down and remember but for a moment, slam that bastard in a bigger gear and apply Rule V aptly and bite my lower lip.

  3. Excellent piece Frank. When I lived in hillier terrain where I grew up in Ct., I used to seek out the climbs: short and brutally steep or long and grinding. As I approach the climb, I also like to open up the lungs and get as much oxygen into the blood as I can going in then attack the climb. These days I still seek the uphill terrain where ever I can find it. I’m about 6’2″ and usually carry about 175 lbs. on my frame, but the climbs are always the focal point of any ride I do.

  4. Souleur:
    something that goes with my territory is, as a nurse practitioner, i take care of alot of sick people. Some of them wear more V in a day w/pain than i will see in a year. truth be known, we grow together, i take care of them, and i hate it but sometimes end up losing a few to the grave. Something that takes my pain away nearly immediately at the top of the 20% gradient is when i post their names on my stem, when i hurt, i look down and remember but for a moment, slam that bastard in a bigger gear and apply Rule V aptly and bite my lower lip.

    A’Merckx!

  5. When it come to overcoming pain, I always remind myself that I endured 5 years of working in a factory. That usually helps me get back to business.

  6. There’s not really a ‘proper’ place to post this, so here will have to do: to all Velominati who are, or who have friends and family who are, affected by those brutal tornados, thoughts are with you.

  7. @G’phant
    Thanks G! Been busy cleaning debris out of my dad’s yard and neighbors. Lucky us, we didn’t get any more than rain, but there has been a healthy serving of pain handed out here in central NC.

  8. That photo is awesomeness!

    Now, I must go. I must watch the hat trick Phil Gil pulled off this spring. They were so awesome I sometimes get confused when & where he told the rest to HTFU and get off his wheel, then won the race.

    G’phant – thanks. tons of storms, wind, and rain, but the house is still here. Was doing bike work at a friend’s house two weeks ago and the city distress siren went off. Crazy. On Weds. the dog freaked out and jumped in bed with me and I had to get the cats in at 3:00. Full house bed that night. Nothing here in my part of NC, but tons of damage nearby.

  9. Holy fuck, I had only looked at the photo when I first replied.

    Now I read the entire thing…Frank! awesomeness! It has me eager to get out on the road as well.

    Interesting ride for tomorrow, as it’ll be my first in Rule #33 compliance. Just this one change might shed 3/4 of my competitors.

    Very, very cool article.

  10. Lying down the V is an art. Slam that thing under your left glove, stand up and up the cadence. Do not look down. Feel the taste of blood in your throat as your cardio system screams “hey, I saw this part of The Temple of Doom too. Thanks for volunteering us to be sacrifice, shit for brains. Now sit your ass down while I call 911 and have them check your donor card.” or something like that.

  11. Eightzero:
    as your cardio system screams “hey, I saw this part of The Temple of Doom too. Thanks for volunteering us to be sacrifice, shit for brains. Now sit your ass down while I call 911 and have them check your donor card.” or something like that.

    Hehehehehehehehe. Sweet.

  12. Nicely articulated frank.

    I love climbing. I know I’m nowhere near the level of the Pro’s as you so eloquently wrote of frank, but there is something about pulling my fat arse over a crest that is deeply satisfying as a cyclist. Trying to garner enough energy for that last big effort, while reaching into the depths of the V cabinet, finding it (sometimes) and then being able to surge forward, up and over that last part of the peak, gives me a climbone, which I enjoy while coasting back down.

  13. @il ciclista medio
    Yeah, climbing seems to be the holy grail. Don’t get me wrong, I love me a nice ride through rolling countryside – the rhythm, the flow, the smell of cowshit – but the challenge of both mental and physical toughness presented by a climb is the biggest one presented in cycling. I am bad at it, but sometimes I climb well for my weight, and there’s rarely stronger sense of accomplishment than after tough climb. Loves me that shit.

    @Eightzero
    A+1

  14. Very nice work, all. My legs are twitching to lay it down sur la plaque over a crest or two later this afternoon. Favorite variation is to come up a super steep (>12%) climb, feel about to die at the top of the steep, continue the effort onto the false flat, and start flying.

  15. Climbing is the essence of the bike. Climbing separates a cyclist from a “bike rider”. Ann Arbor is considered “hilly”, where “hill” means at most 100ft of gain. My friends commute around on their bikes, but don’t when it snows, and they complain about the “hills”. They think enjoying going *up* hill is madness.

    Blowing past someone on a climb like they’re standing still — or even just slowly dropping them — is one of the great thrills of riding. Anyone on this site probably drops 75% of the people on a climb simply because they want to lock themselves into a dark place, the Hurt Box.

  16. I was describing the climb up Mt. Baldy, featuring in ToC this year, to my friend I was riding with. It went like this:

    “You gain over 600m in about 6km. There are switchbacks of 12+% and the turns are far steeper. The last 400m is 17+%. You start the climb and have your heart spike to 180bpm and you want to die for the next 40 minutes. The final pitch is humiliating as you’re out of the saddle and having your body explode. Your whole body goes numb and you can’t really think. Then you’re at the top. Then on the descent you hit 50mph, all the turns are unbanked hairpins. You grab the brakes and pray.”

    What a fucking glorious thing that climb is.

  17. So the literal translation of the title of this post is “Look Pro Part VI: Move with that thing in the big ring, fucktard”? :-)

    I have a mate who climbs well (it helps that his nickname was ‘skeletor’ because, well, he looked like an evil cartoon character from the He Man series), who used to piss people off when climbing. Just before he’d catch people, he shift to an easier gear, so that, as he passed them, they could see him shift up and ride away. It would mentally destroy the poor bloke he just passed, who in reality wasn’t going much slower than him. A nasty trick, especially when doing it to mates (ie, me!). Very handy in race situations to make it look like you’re stronger than you are.

    Of course, PG doesn’t need that sort of trick – he really is just going to blow the doors off everybody else! Oh how I wish I could climb well for my weight.

  18. I hate it to get passed on the hills in my area. It’s not that I’m such a bad climber, but both my brother and my girlfriend are 15 kilograms lighter than me with the same length and that shows. I can go full-speed to the top of the low hills, but they are just faster without ending up as crushed as I.

  19. Souleur:
    Something that takes my pain away nearly immediately at the top of the 20% gradient is when i post their names on my stem, when i hurt, i look down and remember but for a moment, slam that bastard in a bigger gear and apply Rule V aptly and bite my lower lip.

    Not long after my father passed on I was doing a 24hr MTB race, body was hurting badly as the course got rougher and more rutted, it was freezing, 3am and I started to think of Dad in the last weeks and my pain became irrelevant. Im not sure if it is really Rule V but it works. when the sun came up on course that morning it was an amazing feeling, grief counselors should prescribe less couch time and more long hours in the saddle at max V.

  20. I’m stuck in Florida most of the time and oh how I long for a big mountain. Ain’t nothing but big ring riding around here, which is doubly difficult for me because I’m built to ride well when the rode turns upward. But summer arrives soon and North Carolina awaits…

    Great article and commentary.

  21. Just got back from my local 104k circuit – pretty hilly with one glorious motherfucker (Wiseman’s Ferry anyone?). I applied this lesson throughout, regularly saying to myself –
    “Put that thing in the big ring, fucktard.”
    Net result? I totally bonked at 90k. I was communing with butterflies.
    But before that I totally looked pro.

  22. I love climbs. I don’t think I do them very well. But I love ’em. When we were in Tuscany last year my wife would often catch me gazing wistfully out the car window. She assuemd I was admiring the countryside. I foolishly owned up that I was, in fact, imagining myself climbing the hill. Apparently that’s “not what most people come to Tuscany for”. Fancy that.

    I timed myself up Makara Hill (from the Makra side) a couple of weeks ago. Have been doing no intervals at all, so wasn’t expecting anything flash. So was quite happy when I managed 9:45. Until, that is, I asked my mate Dave what time he does. “Oh, about 7 minutes”. I obviously looked a little crushed. I told him my time. I think in an effort to make me feel better he said “Yeah, but how hard were you pushing it?” “Er, quite a lot, actually”. Sigh. Bring on the intervals …

  23. @G’phant
    Top to bottom, this sounds about right. Flying into the Phoenix a few weeks ago, I was imagining what must have been spectacular (if desperately hot) rides through the local mountains along the little strips of road visible from the plane. Every hill is an opportunity to imagine myself light as a feather and hopping out of the saddle for several minutes on end. In practice, it never seems to work that way…

  24. The 1 in 20 has to be the sweetest hill climb in Melbourne (outer suburbs), in Aus. A perfect gradient (constant 5%, who’d have thunk it by the name), and a usually fairly quiet treed road of a weekend morning. Just 15-20 mins of climbingriding always hits the spot, either a kick up to the next level when fit, or a good kick in the arse when unfit.
    Just don’t check out things like the cycle2max website, the top times posted there by some of those kids are hard to read…

  25. That’s a beautiful image.
    Sure the photo of Gilbert, but also the image of us climbing our hills.

  26. @g’Phant… I hear you brother… My wife has ceased to believe the best of me when she sees me looking wistfully out of the people-mover windows, and has now learnt to ask… “At this point of the climb, do you see yourself seated, or standing?… If the latter, you’d better be in the big ring, you Fucktard (even though you ride a compact, you pussy)”. ..

  27. This is standard operating procedure. I’ve been doing this since 1973, and yes, kicking it in a bigger gear near the top and pushing over it will make you a hated man in the peloton… that’s the idea. Train that way, every day. And while you’re at it, lose twenty pounds. And while you’re doing that, while training on the climbs, practice accelerating on the steeper parts. Not as an out and out attack, although that’s useful too. But rather, just speed up to put the hurt on. If you can do it in training, it won’t seem so hard in a race, when it matters.

  28. @Roadslave
    Along similar lines, SWMBO has learnt to relax when we’re out and about, and my head gets turned every couple of minutes – she’s realized I’m not perving on every pretty young thing that walks by, but I’m checking out the bikes. Of course, when it’s a pretty young thing on a bike, what am I supposed to do? For consistency’s sake, f course.

  29. Superb post Frank. I’m learning to love the hills for a large frame rider. I found a great way to improve the climbing skills. Move to a house on top of a long climb. Gives no options if you want to get home!

  30. @Marcus
    Awww isn’t it beautiful? Note onlookers keeping their distance for fear of having their heads cut off.

    It also looks like Cuddles has cut off all the fingers on his left hand. Presumably to get to his ideal weight but possibly to make it more difficult for him to shift out of the big ring?

  31. @Marcus

    Great photo and nice to see him in the Yellow Jersey (Even if it isn’t the right Yellow Jersey) Hopefully a sign of things to come for Cuddles.

  32. I also like to talk up the steep gradients, the ones where everyone you are riding with seems to go quiet and the conversation stops. That, along with an upshift is a good way to put people on notice that your BFGs are working.

    I’m actually pretty good at Sur La Plaque because of how I started riding. I used to shift very rarely, so just pushed the same gear most of the time. I’ve since learned I’ll do better over longer distances & in the long run if I use my range of gears. But, I think my initial style really gave me good strength to climb with.

    Climbing is a beautiful test of your skills as a cyclist, both mental & physical.

  33. I’m making a prediction. I think that Cofidis is going to go after Hushvold in order to regain Pro Tour status.

  34. I have a love-hate relationship with the climb. I look forward to climbing, then my body screams at me to stop during the climb. Afterwords, I feel good and look forward to the next one. A good climb can even ‘wake up the legs’ and make the rest of the ride even better.

    I’m not the best climber ever (it would be more honest to call it ‘piss poor’), but I try and make myself go on at least one good climb per ride, unless I’m absolutely not feeling it, so I can get stronger. It worked out well last summer, and I wound up being able to do decent, if slow, climbs. I’m looking forward to getting that back again as the spring moves along.

    The worst is when I consume a meal then try and ride too soon after… side cramps are the worst and will ruin a climb. Cycling on a nearly empty stomach is really the key for me.

  35. This from the Inner Ring:

    Spare a thought for Taylor Phinney. His father Davis Phinney won the final stage into Geneva in 1988 but this time around, Taylor was on team duty. After working to keep the pace high, Phinney was ejected on a climb and with the race vanishing over the hills, found the riders around him climbing into their team cars. Not wanting to quit, despite injuries from a crash, he kept going only to have the number pulled from his back. He got a map from race officials and kept going. He might be sitting on the fattest contract a neo-pro has ever seen but he’s not the type to sit up. Good for him.

    Class!

  36. @Cyclops
    I hope Cofidis has the budget. Also hope they lose the red shorts. Will be cool if Hushovd comes back to a Look frame. He last rode one on Credit Agricole.

  37. As for climbing, I used to be pretty good 20+ years ago. Here in the PetroMetro, I sometimes have to ride an overpass. Sometimes I jump a curb. I can shoulder my bike and climb some stairs. I have no idea if I climb well for my weight. Buck Rogers and I are due for a Hill Country ride after he relocates to San Antonio. I guess I’ll find out then.

  38. This reminds me of my first European riding experience, which included a comically slow ascent of the Mortirolo, in which I shamelessly weaved, paperboy-style, just to maintain forward progress. (In my defense, it was before you were publishing this site).

    The week I got home I watched Tonkov and the whole group savagely attack on the same climb. I was speechless as a fully recognized stretches that had made me whimper. They were flying where I had groveled. It was inspiring.

  39. Sur La Plaque has now been adopted for my life off the bike as well. Been working on a very long project and with a few more months of hard work, I’ll have it finished.

    I decided that I need to move Sur La Plaque on this project. It’s in the Big Ring from now until I’m done. Awesomeness! This is giving me the motivation even off the bike to just grind it out.

  40. @Cinghiale

    The week I got home I watched Tonkov and the whole group savagely attack on the same climb. I was speechless as a fully recognized stretches that had made me whimper. They were flying where I had groveled. It was inspiring.

    They had some help, unfortunately. I suppose that would have been 1998, eh? Or 2002?

    @Ron
    Per @BigRingRiding, “IT’S NOT JUST A CHAINRING, IT’S A STATE OF MIND.”

  41. As you approach the top of the hill, casually exaggerate the motion of your left hand as you cram it into the big ring and rise out of the saddle to power through. The riders who managed to stay with you will wimper right before the elastic snaps

    Unless you are the best there is in your area, to do this in a race is an occasional occurance*: but when you do it is a beautiful feeling. To look back and see a long (or very short) snake or riders in the gutter scrabbling for your wheel. I usually found I was the one looking up from the back of the snake.

    *can count them on one hand

  42. Gilbert on the Belgian Championships:
    “On this type of flat course, everyone has a chance. Even an average rider. I will not ask the team to ride for me because I’m hoping my teammates, some of whom may have difficulty finding a team next year, can also get a result. A victory, even a podium place, can secure their future for the next two or three seasons.”
    Pure class!

  43. @Steampunk
    Gilbert is just the man. Absolutely my favourite rider in the peloton at the moment.
    On another subject looks like Eddie Boss is gonna have his TdF affected by/stop him going to it, by a bout of shingles. So hope he gets better…

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