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Becoming a better climber

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Road Cycling “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.” -- Ernest Hemingway

Becoming a better climber

Old 09-07-19, 04:51 PM
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Robert A
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Becoming a better climber

Last spring, I started riding with local groups. On flats, I can keep pace just fine, but on hills I run out of gas and lose the group. My heart rate spikes too high and I have to slow down.

I ride regularly -- 2-3 times/week. I'm constantly pushing myself by doing local hill climbs.

A typical weekday ride often includes 1,000-2,000 feet of climbing (6% to 8% grades) over 2-5 mile distances. In Santa Monica/Brentwood, I'll ride Mandeville, Kenter Canyon, or Tigertail Road, sometimes twice at a time.

On weekends, I can easily put down 50-70 miles on flats and rolling hils. And on hilly rides, I've climbed Latigo Canyon and Topanga Canyon. I'm also completed two Centuries this year including Solvang.

When climbing, I'm steady and consistent when solo, but I can't keep pace with groups. How can I improve my climbing speed and endurance?

Last edited by Robert A; 09-07-19 at 04:57 PM.
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Old 09-07-19, 05:32 PM
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Ride with a slower group.
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Old 09-07-19, 07:54 PM
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What you weigh? You’re looking at the watts side of the equation but not the kg part so far in your post.

Weight can be a huge deal.
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Old 09-07-19, 09:43 PM
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Robert A
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Originally Posted by burnthesheep View Post
What you weigh? You’re looking at the watts side of the equation but not the kg part so far in your post.

Weight can be a huge deal.
My body weight is 140 lbs. Used to be 148 before I got into cycling.
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Old 09-07-19, 10:28 PM
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My own rule of thumb is to train hard solo to improve climbs and sprints, and ride within my ability on groups. I do intervals indoors, or hill repeats on a nearby challenging 5-mile loop, until I'm gassed and nearly ready to barf. It's helped some but it's never gonna make me an A-group rider.

At age 61, and not even strong in my own age group, that usually means B group pace. I know from experience the local A group routinely rides at an 18-20 mph pace I can handle only on my best day when everything comes together -- and I'll still be about 0.5 mph too slow and the group will get smaller and smaller in the distance.

If I get dropped, I get dropped. But it never does any good to push myself harder than the body is capable of just to hang onto a group that's too strong for me. If my heart rate is 140-150, I know I have more in the tank. If the legs and lungs feel dead, eh, some days are like that. But usually it means I can push a little harder. But I can't sustain 160+ bpm for more than a minute or two, so if that's what it takes to keep up, that group is beyond my ability.

Yeah, drafting can help, but you really need to be able to trust the wheel ahead of you. There aren't many people in these groups I trust that much. The guy I trust enough to follow his wheel all day without worrying tends to lead the B group, so I'll follow him whichever way he goes.

Even then I'm still limited by physical issues -- an old C1/C2 neck issue keeps me from staying tucked for more than a few minutes at a time. As soon as I sit up to relieve neck pain, I'm getting dropped. Just the way it is. I'll hang on as long as I can, then go my own way at my own pace. But staying in the group when my neck spasms start is dangerous to everyone so I'll bail out.
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Old 09-07-19, 11:18 PM
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Originally Posted by canklecat View Post
My own rule of thumb is to train hard solo to improve climbs and sprints, and ride within my ability on groups. I do intervals indoors, or hill repeats on a nearby challenging 5-mile loop, until I'm gassed and nearly ready to barf. It's helped some but it's never gonna make me an A-group rider.

At age 61, and not even strong in my own age group, that usually means B group pace. I know from experience the local A group routinely rides at an 18-20 mph pace I can handle only on my best day when everything comes together -- and I'll still be about 0.5 mph too slow and the group will get smaller and smaller in the distance.

If I get dropped, I get dropped. But it never does any good to push myself harder than the body is capable of just to hang onto a group that's too strong for me. If my heart rate is 140-150, I know I have more in the tank. If the legs and lungs feel dead, eh, some days are like that. But usually it means I can push a little harder. But I can't sustain 160+ bpm for more than a minute or two, so if that's what it takes to keep up, that group is beyond my ability.

Yeah, drafting can help, but you really need to be able to trust the wheel ahead of you. There aren't many people in these groups I trust that much. The guy I trust enough to follow his wheel all day without worrying tends to lead the B group, so I'll follow him whichever way he goes.

Even then I'm still limited by physical issues -- an old C1/C2 neck issue keeps me from staying tucked for more than a few minutes at a time. As soon as I sit up to relieve neck pain, I'm getting dropped. Just the way it is. I'll hang on as long as I can, then go my own way at my own pace. But staying in the group when my neck spasms start is dangerous to everyone so I'll bail out.
Are there certain techniques one can employ to train more effectively? Or is it just a matter of hitting one's limits and going no further?

Last edited by Robert A; 09-07-19 at 11:23 PM.
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Old 09-07-19, 11:21 PM
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Originally Posted by Robert A View Post
My body weight is 140 lbs. Used to be 148 before I got into cycling.
How tall are you?
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Old 09-07-19, 11:23 PM
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Originally Posted by colnago62 View Post
how tall are you?
5'6"
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Old 09-07-19, 11:23 PM
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Originally Posted by Robert A View Post
What I'd like to know is whether there is a more efficient way to train. Are there certain techniques one can employ to train more effectively, or is just a matter paying one's dues and gaining more experience?
The fastest way to better climbing is to lose a lot of weight. 140 lbs. isn’t bad if you are about 5’7” or so.
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Old 09-08-19, 12:57 AM
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Plenty of fast guys in SoCal and unless you’ve ridden at a high level, 2-3 times/wk isn’t going to be enough to keep up with guys who are riding 10-15+ hrs/wk. Either ride more or improve the quality of your sessions. Instead of climbing all the way on Latigo, go hard for 10-20 min and the go back down and repeat a few times. Follow a decent structured training plan and don’t just ride at a steady comfortable pace.
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Old 09-08-19, 01:34 AM
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Originally Posted by Robert A View Post
Are there certain techniques one can employ to train more effectively? Or is it just a matter of hitting one's limits and going no further?
I can only say what worked for me. For me, intervals didn't make me "faster". It just significantly improved my recovery time. Instead of needing 5 minutes after a hard effort to recocer, I can get it back in 30 seconds just by pedaling a little easier. That's the difference between being dropped and slogging to the next regroup point, or being able to close a gap and regain the draft off the first good wheel I can find.

Over distance I'm "faster" than I used to be, but only because I can recover quicker after climbs and sprints (our short, steep climbs are mostly sprints). I'm not setting many new PRs on Strava segments of .2 to 2 miles. But over the course of 20-30 mile routes that I ride often, my overall average has improved from 14 mph to 18 mph on a good day. Usually closer to 16 mph.

To get consistently faster over distance, I'd need to train differently... which I'm working on this year. That's easier on a club ride since the strongest riders determine the pace. No way to kid myself about how well I'm doing when the group is getting tinier and I'm gasping for breath.

Keep in mind our baselines may be different, so effective training may be different too. I'm 61, coming off a rough year in 2018 with injuries and illness. And my baseline fitness wasn't great before then. I was pretty badly injured in a 2001 wreck that broke my neck and back in six places so I was mostly inactive for more than a decade with a very slow recovery. I was still walking with a cane in 2014, and resumed cycling in 2015 with a 35 lb comfort hybrid (which I still have and use for errands and some casual group rides).

It took me a couple of years just to regain some baseline fitness. When I first resumed cycling in 2015 I couldn't ride 400 yards without stopping and gasping for air and huffing my asthma inhaler. It took me several weeks just to ride 3 miles without stopping. Another two months to ride 10 miles without stopping. A year before I could tackle 50 miles spread out over the course of 12 hours with lots of rest breaks. Anyone who's starting with decent baseline fitness can easily improve on my efforts.

My sports background was mostly amateur boxing in the 1970s-'80s so I still tend to train the same way. I did a few crits and time trials but I was never particularly fast. I did it for fun and because I hated running. I jogged a little and skipped rope for leg work, but didn't run much. I bike commuted about 20 miles a day, 3-5 days a week, plus more on weekends, and some casual pace club rides of 75-250 miles on weekends.

Most boxing training is the original interval training -- 2 or 3 minutes on, 1 minute off, lather, rinse, repeat. But we never did anything approaching Tabata style HIIT intensity. That's good for a certain type of conditioning -- relatively short bursts of hard effort, with a minute's rest. Not so great for stamina over time/distance or maximum effort sprints. Back then most boxing trainers were suspicious of certain types of training, including weight lifting, swimming, wind sprints or hardcore interval training. They didn't see any point in a maximum effort for 10-30 seconds that would leave you gassed out when there was still another minute or two left in the round. They probably didn't see the advantage to HIIT -- shorter, quicker recovery after maximum effort. But boxing is a game, a sport, not a "fight," and it's often the superior tactics that win fights.

Our terrain in North Central Texas is mostly roller coasters. We don't have any serious climbs by world standards, or Rocky Mountain standards. Those rollers are closer to some high intensity interval training techniques, with near-maximum effort for maybe 30-60 seconds, then another 30-60 seconds of relatively flat terrain or downhills, then another short, steep climb. There are a couple of good nearby loops of 2.5 and 5 miles where I can get a reasonable interval session -- same two circuits used by the local pro team. And, yup, they make me look very slow.

I do maximum effort intervals only indoors, once a week at most. Pushing until I'm dizzy and nearly ready to barf can be dangerous outdoors, especially in summer heat. I use a Cycleops trainer for that. Usually I'll do several sets of 30 seconds max effort, 30 seconds easy effort, repeated for up to 5 minutes. Then I'll stand to pedal for 2-5 minutes, followed by the same amount of seated easy pedaling.

During intervals I try to hit 165 bpm or higher, although that's often limited by prescription meds I take including BP meds that I occasionally take for severe headaches. The day of, and after, I take metoprolol and/or lisinopril it's hard to get my heart rate above 140. That makes it tough to use HR as a guide to appropriate effort, so I just go by how I feel during a ride. On good days when my HR is normal, I try to keep my average around 140-145 bpm for a "tempo" ride. I get audible updates every few minutes from Wahoo Fitness or other apps, so if it tells me my HR has averaged over 150 bpm for the past five minutes, I need to be careful if I expect to get home from a 50 mile ride.

You'll need to check your own heart rate to get useful values. For me, the 220 minus my age is pretty close. Doesn't work that well for everyone.

Most trainers say high intensity interval sessions should be fairly short, no more than 30 minutes, and not combined with other workouts that day -- no 20-60 minute FTP sessions on the same day. Some younger guys might do both but at my age I have to be realistic about rest as well as workouts.

After an interval session I'll take a full day off, maybe just doing some stretching and range of motion, light calasthenics like pushups, etc. Then I'll do one or two 40-60 mile rides a week for stamina, usually combined with a club ride. And a couple of 20-30 solo miles on a familiar route to check my overall conditioning. Neck pain from those old injuries usually limit me beyond 30 miles, so longer rides are mostly a grueling test of patience more than a workout. Occasionally, like on Thursday's 70+ mile ride, I feel pretty good and the neck seems to be improving.

I've also been modifying my pedaling style. Usually I spin 90 rpm like clockwork. But the past few weeks I'm using harder gears and consciously staying around 60-70 rpm, using a cadence sensor because it feels unnatural to me. To my surprise, after a couple of weeks of that I improved my times on a couple of familiar 20-30 mile routes by nearly 2 mph. The tricky bit will be seeing if I can repeat that speed increase, or if it was just an unusually good day.

On a good day I can crack the top ten on a tough Strava segment, alongside some of the strongest local men and women. But I couldn't hang with them over distance. If I put in a hard enough effort on a 2-5 mile segment to put up a decent time, I'm gonna be cooked and will need another few minutes to recover, while the genuinely fast riders are chugging along steadily. That's why I don't pay much attention to short Strava segments. Anyone can do that on a good day. Sustaining it over distance is the tough part. And I'm pretty sure some of the local pros aren't publicly logging their best times to Strava -- I've seen them out training here but I never see their names on Strava, although I do see the names of the non-pro club guys and trainers who ride with the younger guys. If they did log their best times to Strava the rest of us mere mortals wouldn't be anywhere near the top ten.

I also use a lot of supplements. Who knows if they're actually doing any good, or if I'm just making expensive urine. I feel like some of them are helping, notably creatine and l-arginine. I'm not really sure about the DHEA, pregnenolone and others but I take 'em anyway on workout days. And prescription thyroid supplement after thyroid cancer last year. I can definitely feel the thyroid med -- if I skip a day I can hardly get out of bed. If I mistakenly take two doses in a day I'm jittery and my heart rate and blood pressure spike. There's a narrow optimal range for that stuff and I get checked often by my GP and endocrinologist, since doses that are too high can lead to osteoporosis and other problems. It's not like a PED where more is better.

Anyway, 'scuse the rambling reply. Check the GCN channel on YouTube for training tips and variations on interval training. GCN videos are well done, entertaining, well edited and no longer than necessary.
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Old 09-08-19, 02:49 AM
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Originally Posted by gregf83 View Post
Plenty of fast guys in SoCal and unless you’ve ridden at a high level, 2-3 times/wk isn’t going to be enough to keep up with guys who are riding 10-15+ hrs/wk. Either ride more or improve the quality of your sessions. Instead of climbing all the way on Latigo, go hard for 10-20 min and the go back down and repeat a few times. Follow a decent structured training plan and don’t just ride at a steady comfortable pace.
^^ This.
There is no magic answer. You will need to ramp up the volume and intensity, or find a slower group.
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Old 09-08-19, 03:51 AM
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To get better at climbing, climb more. Your climbing that you related in your first post is quite minimal. Go do 40 to 60 mile rides with 100 to 120 feet per mile on average. Do them frequently. You'll be a better climber.
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Old 09-08-19, 07:24 AM
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I'm asthmatic but even I have very good days where I'm doing 18 mph. On one ride on a very good day, the fast group caught up to me while I was riding a shorter distance. While they were still in my sight, they came to a short hill but never slowed down that I could see. Some of those people also race and or have been riding a loong time and put in many miles weekly. If you keep at it and push yourself on those hills, you too will get stronger. Another aspect is technique. Take a look at the linked video and see if any of the techniques apply to you. I'm especially taken by how relaxed the cyclist appears.
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Old 09-08-19, 07:38 AM
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I would say a minimum of 10 hours per week of training. Do some long climbing rides like Hwy 39, Angeles crest, or Mullholland hwy.
Latigo is a good climb but can be linked to plenty of other climbs in the area.
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Old 09-08-19, 08:31 AM
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Fist, Being lighter does not mean better for hills. Quite the contrary, A heavier person with a reasonable % of body fat might very well be faster if he has stronger legs. Its mostly about power to weight ratio on hills, The steeper the hill, The less wind resistance plays a role. A V8 engine in a Chevrolet Camaro SS is heavier then the 4 cylinder version and will fly up the hill without overheating much faster then the 4 banger.

The other part of the equation is of course the cardio aspect. When you say "I run out of gas" that appears to be your weak point. This is where technique plays a role. Generally speaking we are more energy/cardio efficient in the lower end of our optimal cadence range. If we are out of breath before our legs give out, Then we might try using a slightly higher gear. Ideally we should balance our cardio capacity with our leg muscle endurance. This might be where some heavier riders are able to out run lighter ones. With that weight comes more strength, And they can use that strength to keep a lower cadence, Thus improving energy/cardio efficiency.

I ride for fun. If that's what you want too, Perhaps there are group rides closer to your level of ability. This way when part of that fun is competing with other cyclists, You will get much more satisfaction and better be able to gauge your performance.

When you ride solo, Again ride for the fun of it, Don't waste energy worrying about numbers. When you feel like challenging yourself, Great, Go for it, But don't feel obliged to reach higher numbers every time out.

Last edited by xroadcharlie; 09-08-19 at 11:29 AM.
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Old 09-08-19, 04:37 PM
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Originally Posted by xroadcharlie View Post
Fist, Being lighter does not mean better for hills. Quite the contrary, A heavier person with a reasonable % of body fat might very well be faster if he has stronger legs. .
Being lighter is better if all else is equal. If a given rider loses weight he will climb faster until he starts losing strength. A person can be a great climber at a very low fat %. The only issue then is some with very low % may not have long term endurance.

With recreational cyclists there are so many variables you can't just look at fat% or even weight, within reason, as you noted. As an over 200 pound rider I suck at climbs but I sometimes drop younger, smaller riders.
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Old 09-09-19, 01:20 AM
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The rule of thumb about lighter weight favoring riders who have good power to weight tends to apply to mountains, not hills or rolling terrain. In our area with mostly rolling terrain the short, steep hills favor the sprinters and punchy riders.

At 5'11" and 150 I'm fairly light relative to height, but that doesn't help much until the hills extend into continuous grades of at least 2% for more than half a mile -- and we don't have many of those. On short, steep hills I'm often passed by bigger guys, even obviously overweight guys who have strong legs. But when those hills get just a little longer, even if not as steep, I'll catch up and pass them.

We just don't have enough of those here for my weight alone to be much advantage even over longer rides up to 50-60 miles. Every time I pass the hefty guys on a long-ish climb, they'll re-pass me on the down slope. As long as they aren't built like refrigerators or wearing flappy clothing they're still aero enough to take advantage of their weight and strength.

And elevation gain over distance can be misleading. If there are enough spots with flattish terrain or slight downhils, that's often enough to enable the stronger but heavier guys time to recover and tackle the next climb at a sprint level effort. Just depends on their recuperative abilities. Interval training can help with that.

Check the terrain elevation graphs for your rides and compare how other riders are doing on rolling climbs. You'll probably find that some riders are chugging along steadily regardless of elevation changes, while others show lots of speed variation. Different strategies for different body types and abilities. Phil Gaimon talks about these pacing strategies a lot on his KOM attempts (Worst Retirement Ever videos on YouTube).

It's also tricky to compare your results with others on Strava if you're riding mostly solo. In my area virtually all of the KOMs and top tens are wind assisted or well organized pacelines. There are only a tiny handful of local cyclists, men and women, strong enough to routinely set top ten level performances on most segments, regardless of wind conditions. And most of those stronger cyclists are riding solo. So I pay more attention to their efforts than the folks I know are mostly riding in well organized pacelines, or the tailwind mooches like me. All of my best times are heavily tailwind assisted. If you're curious enough you can check the weather archives online to compare conditions on the days/times when the Strava KOMs and top tens were set.

When I compare Strava times locally, often I'll see top ten times on some segments set by guys who average around 16 mph over 20-40 miles riding solo. That's pretty much how I ride. And that means we're loafing comfortably most of the ride, then sprinting for a cherry picked segment, then loafing again to recover. We're sandbagging and taking advantage of any tailwind.

The next group are averaging 18 mph and they're riding with at least one partner, usually 3 or more. They aren't particularly fast individually, but work well together. Anytime I can equal their times on the same segments and on the same days in the same wind conditions, I know the guy is riding solo that day. And usually I can't manage the same pace over distance like they do. Big difference between being a fit 40something year old and any 60something year old.

The really impressive riders are solo riders, basically time trialists, averaging 20+ mph over the same distance and routinely cracking top tens and pretty much own the KOMs. One of those is a friend and I'll never be in his league. His pedaling style is unlike anything I've seen, other perhaps than Jacques Anquetil. On the few occasions we've ridden together he's just patiently loafing along and chattering while I'm huffing and puffing to keep up at 16 mph. That's genetics as much as talent and hard work. No point even worrying about that.
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Old 09-09-19, 04:13 AM
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There's a lot of overthinking it in this thread. O.P. - go out and find the types of hills you want to improve on and ride the heck out of those hills. Some days you can do interval training up them, and on others just push the entire hill slightly past your comfort zone. Alternate those with "normal" climbing pace for recovery. You'll get faster up the hills.
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Old 09-09-19, 06:48 AM
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I have not seen anyone mention gearing, but I would suggest having a 1:1 gear for recovery and super-steep stuff. That means if you have a 34 chainring up front, you also have a 34 in the back. A 1:1 gear will allow you to go approximately walking speed up a very steep climb. Very handy for catching your breath. If you need a gear lower than that, you'd probably be better off walking. It might seem like overkill, but if you do any climbs over 10% it will come in very handy.

Another thing I have learned is how to recover on a climb. It does no good to keep struggling to keep up with a group that's climbing too fast, if you keep trying, you'll just explode and maybe have to quit for the day. That which is unsustainable must eventually stop. It's better to back off your effort to a level that's sustainable and catch your breath. Then try to catch up on the descent.

For getting stronger, there's nothing like "just" an hour a week of high intensity, gasping-for-breath effort (combined with good food and rest). Just ask Race Across America champ Lon Haldeman:

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Old 09-09-19, 05:16 PM
  #21  
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Get better genes. You're welcome for the sage advice
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Old 09-09-19, 05:17 PM
  #22  
Robert A
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Originally Posted by cthenn View Post
Get better genes. You're welcome for the sage advice
Just bought some at The GAP, but it didn't help.
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Old 09-09-19, 05:40 PM
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One factor that influences my climbing solo or in groups is pace. When solo I can "attack" a hill at my pace. When in a group I end up riding at the group pace and that often works to my detriment. Example: Solo I might roll hard into the start of the hill and then pace myself up. In a group, I am with people who like to stop pedaling and coast to the base and then pedal up. My choice is to stay stuck in the group and climb in a way that doesn't suit me or go off the front hard and try to get to the right to allow stronger riders to pass. However, doing that often leads people to think that I'm being a jerk attacking at the base. So, rather than trying to explain that to our typical recreational riders, I tend to ride solo more these days. FWIW, my climbing has improved significantly since I'm riding alone more.
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Old 09-09-19, 09:40 PM
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Originally Posted by Lemond1985 View Post
I have not seen anyone mention gearing, but I would suggest having a 1:1 gear for recovery and super-steep stuff. That means if you have a 34 chainring up front, you also have a 34 in the back. A 1:1 gear will allow you to go approximately walking speed up a very steep climb. Very handy for catching your breath. If you need a gear lower than that, you'd probably be better off walking. It might seem like overkill, but if you do any climbs over 10% it will come in very handy.

Another thing I have learned is how to recover on a climb. It does no good to keep struggling to keep up with a group that's climbing too fast, if you keep trying, you'll just explode and maybe have to quit for the day. That which is unsustainable must eventually stop. It's better to back off your effort to a level that's sustainable and catch your breath. Then try to catch up on the descent.

For getting stronger, there's nothing like "just" an hour a week of high intensity, gasping-for-breath effort (combined with good food and rest). Just ask Race Across America champ Lon Haldeman:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9FfA6VM7iT4
Okay, 90% of max HR, 60 minutes over the course of the week, broken into 5 minute sections.

#1 - So, how does anyone truly know their max HR? The highest I've ever achieved on a bike is 172, which leaves me highly winded and unable to talk. Is that my max or 90% of my max?
#2 - What exactly does this technique accomplish: the ability to climb a hill faster, or the ability to maintain long-distance endurance after climbing faster (my priority).
#3 - For a normal, healthy cyclist, is pushing to 90% safe?
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Old 09-10-19, 12:17 AM
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If you climb at high tide you'll enjoy a gravitational assist from the moon.
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