Look Pro, Part VII: Sur la Plaque, Part Deux

Always attack from the bottom

Our last Look Pro edition discussed moving Sur la Plaque as you approach the top of the climb, thereby reducing your riding companions to withering leaves of wet lettuce. But the article ignored the other component of climbing like a Pro, which is commonly referred to as going Steady Up with More Speed.  Right from the bottom.

Many riders make the mistake of assuming that going less hard is an easier way to get up a hill than by drilling it. In fact this is a myth. Scaling a climb at speed is in many ways easier than ascending slowly.  At low speeds, we stretch the duration of the climb, we feel every change in gradient, our minds dwell on nuances that might indicated how we’re feeling or how well our machine is adhering to the Principle of Silence. None of these help you climb better.

But, assuming you can sustain the effort, going faster up a climb accomplishes several things. First, rhythm is everything. You body is completely dominated by rhythm, and cycling is no exception. The beating of your heart, the rate of your breathing, the cadence being tapped out by the guns; all these things work together. Settling into your natural cadence in a higher gear means you’ll go faster. Your body wants to maintain the rhythm it’s in, so it will assist you in keeping the speed higher.  As you feel your cadence lift and body start to groan, flick your chain into a cog less. Your body will again seek out the cadence it was in – at a faster speed.

Second, momentum is everything, and carries you over the changes in gradient with little effort. Hitting a steep ramp at low speed will dramatically change your rhythm and velocity. Hitting it at high speed means that lifting out of the saddle and adding just a bit more power will let you dance over the ramp with hardly a change to your effort.

Third, the duration of the effort is much shorter. This seems obvious, but consider my climb up Haleakala. It took me four and a half hours, while Ryder Hesjedal motored up that brute in two and a half. That means that at any given time, he was going a little less than twice as fast as I was. That’s a lot more speed, but the complexities of maintaing an effort and keeping the body topped up on fluids and foods are disproportionately greater for a four and half hour effort than they are for a two and a half hour effort. The simple fact is that Ryder could do it and I would have been collectedin a dustbin, but his shorter effort is easier to gauge and monitor, given that it can be sustained.

The mistake most riders make when beginning a climb is to reserve strength or recover from a previous effort by easing off prior to the accent and on the lower slopes. Worse yet is the impulse to downshift at the base into the gear you expect to do the climb in. Counter-intuitive as it may be, increase your speed as you approach the climb.  Hit the base as fast as possible, and only downshift as the gradient increases in order to avoid going into the red. A trained cyclist can sustain an effort just below the red zone for quite a while; so long as you don’t go red, you should be able to sustain a high pace.

Breathing also plays a major factor. Many riders will ignore their breathing entirely and slip into short, shallow breaths that start to fall into rhythm with your cadence. Other riders will only start to control their breathing as the effort takes its toll. This is the kiss of death for your climbing.  Control your breathing in long deep breaths from the base of the climb and don’t slip into short shallow ones despite the considerable temptation to do so.

In summary, take it from a guy who can’t climb for shit and keep these pointers in mind:

  1. Attack from the bottom and only shift as necessary. If your cadence lifts, drop the chain into a cog less, and your body will either gravitate towards lifting the tempo in order to stay in it’s rhythm, or you’ll crack entirely.
  2. Don’t downshift to ride over the steep bits; raise out of the saddle to power over changes in gradient.
  3. Breathe deep from the bottom, loading your blood up with oxygen. Don’t let your competition see or hear your breathing, though, so do this stealthily.
  4. An unzipped jersey flapping in the wind not only looks Pro, but helps free up your abdomen for better breathing. Be careful on this one, though – unzipping for a short climb just makes you look like a tryhard wanker. Also make sure to zip back up in full casually deliberate style at the top.
  5. Cracking completely and pedaling squares after a failed effort looks very Pro, surprisingly enough. Don’t be afraid to overshoot your limit and crack; you might just make it before blowing up.

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59 Replies to “Look Pro, Part VII: Sur la Plaque, Part Deux”

  1. frank, brilliant advice but I might as well say it before one of the many other esteemed pedants of our community does: in the headline it’s “deux” not “duex.”

  2. Part Duex?

    Yes on the breathing. Also often overlooked is the importance of breathing out even harder than you inhale. Getting rid of the bad air is essential and frequently forgotten as we try to gulp in the next wasp.

  3. Nice one, big fellow Frank! Really great piece. The entire thing is gold, but I like this part the best:

    First, rhythm is everything. You body is completely dominated by rhythm, and cycling is no exception. The beating of your heart, the rate of your breathing, the cadence being tapped out by the guns; all these things work together.

    This couldn’t be more true. When I’m in rhythm my entire life seems to flow, nice and easy. When I break that rhythm, with sleeping changes, diet changes, cycling changes, I’m into the dustbin.

    In my very green days as a road cyclist, even before I was a nascent Velominati, I used to fear that frequent shifting would diminish the lifespan of my drivetrain. I used to big ring it all the time, standing up when I needed more power, rarely shifting. I’ve learned since then, thankfully. But what my early naivete left me with was the ability to climb pretty well in big gears. Not bad.

    Cool piece. TGIFriday the 13th, lads!

  4. “Don’t be afraid to overshoot your limit and crack; you might just make it before blowing up.”

    Frank, I like a WHOLE lot of things in this article but I’ll start here, at the end, since I’m that kind of person.

    This is EXACTLY what eventually became my overall philosophy (it’s always about MEMEME, you know…), with some tempering. And I would encourage anybody to try it and see how it works, especially if you are feeling stuck in a rut at some point in training/racing; and particularly as a neo-competitor.

    If anybody doesn’t know, in the USA in sanctioned (USCF) racing, even at large races they almost always throw ALL categories (cats) of women together… still (I’ve been on a hiatus from competition – which I’m hoping will end. The hiatus. – but I’ve been asking around to double check if this is still the case; sadly – because it’s done due to the low number of women usually present – it is; anybody correct me if they know otherwise). Including Pros. So you can be a cat 4 in with a field of Pro-1-2-3’s depending on who’s there; and no, you aren’t racing only against your cats, you are all racing against everybody for one prize list.

    Needless to say, this can be a little demoralizing for the less hardened, less experienced racer. It got me down, after I started hitting bigger races (early races, small ponds, I just ate everybody up heeheehee). Plus I’m genetically a sprinter, so no matter what, the story would be “please please please let me hang on until the end!!”

    Can’t remember when or why, but at some moment, epiphany: This sucks. I’m trying to save myself for the end — and if you aren’t moving up, you are moving back — and it ain’t working. I get worked over anyway, and don’t have any fun. Not to mention it’s friggin dangerous back there. SCREW IT! From now on I’m going to start every race like I’m a favorite, be aggressive, ACT like I’m a bad ass, and if I blow up half way (or less!) through at least I’ll have seen a different part of the pack.

    It worked. I blew up a WHOLE lot (but ALWAYS FINISH. Unless they physically come and drag you out… no, no, leave if the officials tell you to, I jest). But I a) had a lot more fun even while I was blowing up and b) got a lot stronger, and learned waaaaaaaaaaaay more than I learned just sitting on the back, hoping I could make it to the final sprint. And magically, being a bad ass stopped being something I pretended, and became something I believed. And, possibly, even was. Am.

    Thanks, Frank!

  5. It is worth noting that Casual Deliberance only comes after years of hard, isolated practice.

    Falling over while zipping up or removing jacket… not casual. Not PRO.

  6. Nice selection on the photo, by the way. Wasn’t it Il Pirata who when asked why he liked climbing so much who replied that in fact he hated it and went so fast out of a desire to be over the top faster?

  7. Point 2, about powering over the hills is one of those little things that I’m so glad I’ve learned.
    It looks and feels great when you can just stand on the pedals, still in the big ring as you hit a short incline and go powering up it, leaving all the downshifters trailing.

    Merckx forgive me but I ride with a lot of triathletes and they inevitably ride in far too high a gear on the flat, then when they see a hill – even just an overpass (we don’t have a lot of actual hills in Abu Dhabi) – they have shifted down before they even reach it, when 30 strokes would take them most of the way up.

  8. I fully attest to the truth of this. As a ride last week showed, if you attack first, everyone else then has to work to get up to, by which time you’ve recovered and attack again.

    Sadly, I didn’t get to try it out in the race I rode on sunday, after my bike and I decided to practice for the national gymnastics championships by somersaulting into a bush on a decent. Needless to say, I got back on and turned the V on in the chasing groups.

    Remember, no matter how steep it is, the big ring is still functional.

  9. Must admit that most of my attempts at attacking the lower slopes end up with the inevitable meeting with the man with the hammer. Then having to flail around like a half strung marionette while I grind out the rest.

    Speaking of which did anyone see Ventoso’s rather spectacular post stage win celebrations the other day?

  10. Brilliant stuff. Part One – Attack the top. Part Deux – Attack at the bottom. I can’t wait for Part Trois!

    Let me guess…get in the big ring and apply power and Attack in the middle of the climb!

  11. frank, excafuckinglent piece sir.

    The breathing is oh so important. The advice re: the abdomen is absolutely spot on. One breathes/inhales a shitton more air when using the abdomen rather than just the lungs. I learnt a breathing technique several years ago (some Tibetan yoga thing) which taught you to push the abdomen out as far as possible whilst inhaling. Try it; you’ll be amazed at how much more air your lungs can take in. Then compare by just inhaling as you probably normally would. You’ll be sucking your tummy in and holding less air, guaranteed.
    Now to do that while on your bike takes a bit of practice, but it does work!

    Excellent photo of Pantani to use as well. He just looks so focused and thinking “where’s that fucking 20% gradient?”. The quintessential climber.

  12. Great write up Frank

    someone asked Pantani ‘why are you such a strong climber’ and he said ‘To shorten my pain’. I never really got it until years in the saddle taught me we all suffer, just some longer than others.

    To climb well, you must balance a few things
    -you must KNOW yourself, this takes hours of deliberation in self inflicted V zone
    -you must blow your legs on occasion and there will be days you pedal squares
    -when repeated, you find that 2% zone just above ‘I’m OK’ and just short of ‘I’m dying’…and can hold it for duration
    -you must have days that you hate everything and everyone…even yourself

    then you can enjoy those days that you can smash that climb down to nothing, suffering less than others, or just for a shorter time

  13. So inspiring was this piece that I headed out to my local training climb after work. I wanted to apply these principles while they were fresh in the head. Unfortunately, this turned out to be one of the most demoralizing rides I’ve had in some time.

    The TOC is in town, and the second stage happens to be my favorite climb in town. A few of the Liquigas riders were doing recon and past me like I was communing with butterflies. Very humbling, especially as I was applying the principles outlined here by Frank. Three riders joking amongst themselves while doing roughly twice my speed, obviously I am two months away from peaking.

  14. @pakrat – as long as you were observing the primacy of sufferage, neigh bother…I’m ALWAYS 2 months away from peaking….;)

  15. I had the pleasure of employing Parts I and II this morning… heading home from the club ride, a couple guys from a rival club were on the route ahead of me… as I rolled by, at a proper cadence and moderate pace, looking oh so Casually Deliberate, one of them had the audacity to say, ” Don’t mind me if I’m not shaking…”. WHAAAATTTT? It was on!

    We were just coming up on a nice little 1k at about 5-7% incline, so I employed Part II first… settling into a nice peppy stroke for the bottom of the ramp… they were about 5 meters back at the bottom. About halfway up, I heard one of them go up the cassette. I promptly dropped one gear and maintained cadence. Without looking back I could hear them falling off. Part II complete, now for the coup de grace. About 100m from the top I went “sur la plaque”. As I accelerated over the crest, a quick glance showed them well off the back. I kept the pace high for the next little roller (about 300m at 4-5%), went over in the big ring and never saw them again (BTW, there were no turnoffs for another 1km).

    The smile on my face lasted through lunch.

  16. That’s classic!

    My mum used to claim that the guy who came last in the marathon was fitter than the guy who won because he was running at his limit for twenty minutes longer than the winner. Love a bit of backasswards logic re: how much harder it is to climb a berg in 4+ hours compared to 2+ hours! I fully agree!!

    Gold.

  17. @frank, great article and useful tips… I’m going to ignore 1 – 3 though, as they seem too ‘hard’ (as in i) belong with hardmen, and ii) too difficult to actually execute successfully) but will purloin 4 and 5 and add to my climbing repetoire… who knew? easy to implement, make me look pro. Awesome.

  18. @frank thank you for this article, tried these out on the club ride today and it was quite safe to say that Rule #5 was dished in some copious amounts, 30kmph wind and rain added to the awesomeness of the ride

  19. @sgt
    Nicely done, mate! Nothing I hate more than passing a rider on a training ride and having them try to turn it into a race. Train Properly, ferchrisakes. But if it happens, this type of execution is most satisfying. Strong work.

  20. @joe

    Must admit that most of my attempts at attacking the lower slopes end up with the inevitable meeting with the man with the hammer. Then having to flail around like a half strung marionette while I grind out the rest.

    Well, attack the bottom, but not so much that you blow midway…A Mans Gotta Know His Limitations.

  21. @il ciclista medio

    The breathing is oh so important. The advice re: the abdomen is absolutely spot on. One breathes/inhales a shitton more air when using the abdomen rather than just the lungs. I learnt a breathing technique several years ago (some Tibetan yoga thing) which taught you to push the abdomen out as far as possible whilst inhaling. Try it; you’ll be amazed at how much more air your lungs can take in. Then compare by just inhaling as you probably normally would. You’ll be sucking your tummy in and holding less air, guaranteed.

    Excellent point. It really is amazing even just to start breathing properly midway up. But if you do it from the bottom, it’s incredible how much stronger you feel at the top.

  22. Frank – Great advice. I also can’t climb for shit, so enjoyed your take on things.

    The attack at the bottom routine works for me, though only for shorter climbs. Then I can “look pro” pedaling in squares for the (hopefully) short distance to the top. On familiar shorter climbs, I sometimes see how long I can remain in the big ring (50 for me) keeping the (alleged) speed up, before I bail into the small ring (34 for me). Yes, I run the modern old man triple – a compact crank.

    On longer climbs I do better taking it easy at the bottom, then ramping it up depending how I feel – which is usual “in pain”.

  23. @frank
    Yep, me too. I was just heading home… so what if I passed them? Getting passed should not be such a touchy subject.

    @pakrat
    Club kit… That’s probably what got them feeling slighted. Either way, I simply finished what they started, in style. Next time this happens I’ll probably get my ass handed to me, that’s how these things work.

  24. Great post Frank. Excellent suggestions for a non climber like myself who is sick of
    his mates / opponents dropping him on longer climbs in rides / races. Keep up the good work!

  25. You are a sinister bastard Frank. I know that it is not a coincidence that Rule #5 is HTFU and Tip #5 above is Cracking completely and pedaling squares after a failed effort looks very Pro, surprisingly enough.

  26. @sgt @frank

    Yeah, the passing/passing thing is interesting – people get their feelings almost “hurt” by being passed, or on the other side of the coin you have people who want to pass you to “prove” that they can go fast.

    I see the latter quite often, as I’ll pace myself for specific sections of rides, or based on how far I’m going to be going. Hipsters on their fixes LOVE to pedal super fast and pass me on my fancy bike in my lycra. I always feel like asking if they’d like to join me for the rest of my 50 km ride.

    Back to the climbing. I’m trying to apply these principles when climbing, especially moving into a lower gear right before the top of the hill. On short climbs I’ve already got the “build up speed and power over them in the big ring” thing down, as long as it’s not too long of a climb.

    For longer climbs that take 10 – 30 minutes to complete, I’m certainly still trying to find my comfort zone where I can suffer but still keep on going. I’m making it all the way to the top of my regular climbs without cracking now, which is nice. I’m still a bit slow and I still suffer all the way up, but it’s better than blowing up half-way through!

  27. Hipsters on their fixes LOVE to pedal super fast and pass me on my fancy bike in my lycra. I always feel like asking if they’d like to join me for the rest of my 50 km ride.

    And that’s the thing – they have no idea how far you’ve come, and how far you’ve been. And you them. Of course, when they’re hipsters you’ve got a pretty good idea it’s no distance at all, or the hair product’d run.
    But racing strangers for an ephemeral distance is a futile pursuit (so to speak). It serves no purpose, really. But like cats with a piece of string, we’re powerless to resist playing.

  28. @mcsqueak
    The other thing on longer climbs is that each climb is different. How even is the gradient? What is the max gradient? Are there long ubersteep sections? Each of these can make a huge difference.

  29. @Blah

    Yeah, you never can tell just by looking. For all I know, the kid on the fixie could be in the middle of a long ride, but based on the usual outfits I don’t see how that would be possible without some quality chafing.

  30. 5. Cracking completely and pedaling squares after a failed effort looks very Pro, surprisingly enough. Don’t be afraid to overshoot your limit and crack; you might just make it before blowing chunks.

    FTFU

    Jerry

  31. Nate:
    @mcsqueak
    The other thing on longer climbs is that each climb is different. How even is the gradient? What is the max gradient? Are there long ubersteep sections? Each of these can make a huge difference.

    Oh yeah, for sure. My usual climbs have gradients all over the place, and thankfully have sections that are “less steep” where I can catch my breath for a few seconds before the next incline starts. They max in very short sections is 10-12%, but the “average” according to my data on Strava for the two climbs I hit the most frequently is around 5%-6%, averaged out over a distance that is exactly 1 mile for one of them, and 1.4 miles for the other. When the road tips up past 7% or so is when I start to really feel the hurt it seems.

    @frank

    Yes, very true – however I feel that for folks who are still getting their form tuned and fitness up, there is an initial period of time where climbing will hurt less the more they do it, and the more fitness they gain. I do agree with the main point that you’ll always suffer, but the amount of suffering can be lowered a bit, and the amount of TIME exposed to that suffering is also lessened as you get up and over the hill more quickly.

    Several months ago these same climbs were making my heart feel like it was going to pound out of my chest, as well as experiencing awful lower-back and side cramps. That is mostly in the past now, so climbing feels better than it once did, despite the suffering that is still done. I’m just suffering a bit less, and in shorter intervals.

  32. @mcsqueak
    +1
    I’ve been at it not quite as long as you, and it’s one of the few plus factors to picking cycling up a bit later is experiencing marked improvements almost every week. I know it won’t last forever, but I take an almost maniacal glee in constantly showing myself up.
    I’d add to your point about the time/suffering nexus that it’s a lot more bearable to be in the box if you’re happy or proud with how you’re doing, rather than hating yourself for a lack of fitness or dedication.

  33. @mcsqueak, @CJ
    For sure, there’s a difference in suffering when you’re completely hammered into the 9 months from peaking hurt box versus the high speed, nail-to-the-wall suffering when you’re peaking. Both are awful, but once you get the fitness you need to feel as though you have some kind of control over the pain, that’s when it gets to be downright fun, no matter how fast you’re actually going.

    Another thing I notice is that I am 99.9% convinced that I can ride at the same speed/intensity/amount of suffering with the group I’m riding with behind me vs. in front of me and I’ll hurt the same amount except when I’m in front I’ll feel “great” and when I’m in back I’ll feel “awful”.

    It’s amazing the influence that morale has on the whole bit.

  34. @CJ

    Indeed! I was just a skinny dork in high school and college and I didn’t play any sports, so actually getting into shape feels freakin’ fantastic. I read somewhere that after taking up the sport, a dedicated cyclist will gain fitness for around 10 years before leveling off, which was interesting to hear.

    Once you break the glass ceiling on something, say a climb that has been making you crack, it gets much easier mentally to handle it because you know that despite the hurt, you have made it up before, and there is no reason you can’t this time.

    Just this past Saturday I did an 80 km ride, the longest solo ride I’ve done. It started out as any other ride, but since I had the whole afternoon free from other obligations, I just kept going and going because I felt GOOD. What started as plans for my normal 2 hr/50 km ride quickly stretched out.

    It’s amazing, because I can still remember my first ride on a bike in a LONG time, about 3 years ago when I purchased a used Peugeot and decided to ride 5 miles to the river. It was such a hard ride. And that bike had all sort of mechanical issues, so I wound up not riding much until I received my dad’s old Schwinn a year later. Now that same route is an easy warmup spin for me, and that short of a distance is not even worth mentioning.

    Regardless, at the end of my ride this past Saturday I wound up missing my personal time record for a specific flat, 3 mile section that I keep track of by a mere .3 MPH (I rode it at an average pace of 18 MPH, and my fastest was 18.3 MPH from late last September), and I wasn’t even trying. By that time in my ride, my legs were tired, my ass was starting to hurt, and I was hungry – but I was easily cruising along at a speed that it took me cycling for 5 months last summer to reach. And that feels fucking awesome.

  35. Oh, I haven’t picked up a Mokka pot yet, but just before my ride on Saturday I grabbed up a straight double espresso from the coffee shop down the street and slugged it down.

    There were no stroopwafels within sight, but can it be coincidence that one of my best rides in some time was preceded directly beforehand by pure espresso? I think not.

  36. @Karolinka
    Nice!

    Wife and I were doing a crit on Canada Day a few years back and she explodes off teh front right from the start! I am like, “holy crap she is going to pop.” ANd she did. But she lead the race for a while, and yes it was full of pros and elites 15 years younger than her. I sandbagged and rode with the age-groupers and ended up near the ass end of a lapped group…and explaining my general lack of testicles and my pink purse. Lesson learned.

  37. frank:
    @mcsqueak, @CJ
    Another thing I notice is that I am 99.9% convinced that I can ride at the same speed/intensity/amount of suffering with the group I’m riding with behind me vs. in front of me and I’ll hurt the same amount except when I’m in front I’ll feel “great” and when I’m in back I’ll feel “awful”.
    It’s amazing the influence that morale has on the whole bit.

    True dat. Another good reason to fight for the front. My problem is that every other twatwaffle is fighting for the front, too, and a lot of them (especially the young ones) have a.) bad bike handling skills and b.) a lot less to live for than I, apparently. So I find myself drifting to the rear rather than bumping elbows on fast training rides, then bam! off the back I go.

  38. Also, having someone in front of you can give you some motivation to speed it up a bit, so you don’t get left way back in the dust. One of my fastest times up a local hill recently when I saw a guy with a local race club kit on and decided he would be my rabbit (not that I could have held a candle to him normally, but he made a good target to race up the hill after).

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