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What makes a great climber?

By Hunter Allen w/images by James Startt & Yuzuru Sunada

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What makes a good climber? Is it just power-to-weight ratio? Does the rider who produces the most power at the lightest weight win every time? Or is there something more to it?

Cyclists who can climb well, especially pro racers, have been revered as some of the world’s most amazing athletes. That’s because they are the ones winning stages on long mountaintop finishes after seemingly effortlessly riding away from their competitors. True climbers have a multitude of characteristics that make them better at going uphill faster than the rest of us, so let’s take a look into some power files to see if we can learn more about becoming better climbers ourselves.

First off, the better your power-to-weight ratio, you will naturally be a better climber. So that part is true. That’s because you are fighting gravity as you climb and the more absolute power you can produce for your total weight (bicycle plus rider), the faster you will go up the mountain. There are also many other factors involved, including rolling resistance and aerodynamics, but having a higher power-to-weight or “watts per kilogram” (w/kg) ratio, the better you’ll be as a climber.

For example, if you weigh 75 kilograms (165 pounds) and have an FTP (functional threshold power) of 300 watts, your power-to-weight ratio will be 4.0 w/kg. If you are competing with someone who weighs 10 kilograms less than you (22 pounds less!) with the same FTP at 300 watts, their power-to-weight ratio will be 4.6 w/kg, which puts them in a whole category faster than you. In a 2-mile climb, this could translate to a nearly two-minute advantage, which, as you know, is a massive time gap.

Looking at an elite pro from the 2013 Tour de France who weighed 145 pounds (65.9 kilograms), he averaged 387 watts up the final climb of Mont Ventoux on stage 15, so his ratio was 5.87 w/kg. One of the riders he was competing against weighed just 125 pounds (56.8 kilograms), but his FTP was 325 watts, or 5.72 w/kg. They were riding side by side for most of the Ventoux climb, yet in the end the rider with 5.87 w/kg rode away to gain a 30-second advantage by the finish. Of course, there were many other factors involved, including nutrition, overall fatigue, heat and elevation, but this comparison shows that just a slight advantage in your power-to-weight ratio can make a big difference. (see figure 1, below)

Mont Ventoux: stage 15 of the 2013 Tour de France (above image by Sunada). This rider averaged 387 watts for the climb. Note: The horizontal blue line represents his FTP at the beginning of the Tour. After 15 stages, he is fatigued, but can still ride just below it and, when pressured, just above it for a short time. His w/kg for this climb was 5.87 and he was riding with another rider who had a w/kg of 5.72 and put 30 seconds on him by the finish.

How light should I go?

Among the most popular questions I have received over the years about climbing and power-to-weight ratio are: “How little should I weigh?” and “What is too light?” This is always tough to answer and it depends on two critical factors. First, how quickly do you lose the weight? If you lose excess weight too quickly, you are losing muscle and your power will drop, which could ultimately reduce your power-to-weight ratio. It’s important that you lose weight over an eight-week period, taking body-fat measurements along the way to ensure that you are losing fat and not muscle. Second, the lightest weight you can achieve is the weight that ensures your immune system is still strong. I have witnessed too many riders losing body fat to the point that their immune system is compromised—and they might easily catch a cold right before their most important race. Unfortunately, this is a tough one to quantify and learn without trial and error. My best advice is, when you believe you are close to achieving your ideal weight be careful losing those last one or two pounds. It can make the difference between healthy and strong, or sick and weak.

A climber can climb the steep stuff!

One of the distinctions between a relative “non-climber” and a pure climber is that the climber can conquer the steeper gradients. Non-climbers or climbers who are good, but not great, do not excel on the steeper pitches no matter how light or low in body fat they might be. If we look at Figure 2, we see one of the best climbers, a professional rider from Japan. He not only can he out-climb all the other Japanese riders, but he also climbs with the best in Europe. Notice that his peak eight minutes is 371 watts and when the climb is between 4 and 8 percent, his best is 330 watts—or an 11-percent loss of power. However, when the climb pitches even steeper, his best eight minutes is 345 watts, for only a 7-percent loss in power. (see figure 2, next page)

Now, let’s contrast that with another pro rider who can at times have “flashes of brilliance” on a climb but is not consistently in the top group—and when it gets steep he’s dropped almost immediately. His peak eight minutes is 350 watts, and when he climbs a 4- to 8-percent grade, he loses 16 percent to 296 watts. However, when the gradient goes to 8 percent or greater, he loses a whopping 39 percent of his power! Reminder: This is a pro racer and he loses a tremendous amount of his power or ability to climb when the road is really steep! (see figure 3, next page)

Anaerobic ability

The next factor that determines success in climbing is your anaerobic ability—that is the ability to attack or accelerate hard for 30 seconds to two minutes and then recover quickly. Many riders are excellent at long, sustained and steady climbing efforts, but cannot respond to repeated accelerations or attacks. If two riders are equal with their power-to-weight ratios, but one rider has a stronger anaerobic ability, he or she will be able to create a gap on the pure steady-state rider. Think about it this way: Both riders are riding at 300 watts up a climb, have the same bodyweight, but Andy Anaerobic can do a one-minute effort at 400 watts and then recover back to 300 watts without blowing up, whereas Steve Steadystate can only exceed his FTP by 10 watts, to 310 watts, for the same minute without blowing up. Andy Anaerobic attacks and in the one minute he effectively puts a 20- to 30-second gap on Steve Steadystate and then maintains that gap all the way to the finish line.

FIGURE 2 (ABOVE, TOP)

A peak 8 minutes of 371 watts, but when the grade is between 4 and 8%, an 11% loss of power. However, when the grade is greater than 8%, he only loses 7%. This is a key factor in determining a great climber from a good climber.

FIGURE 3 (ABOVE, BOTTOM)

A peak 8 minutes of 350 watts, but when the grade is between 4 and 8%, a 16% loss of power. However, when the grade is greater than 8%, he loses a massive 39%!

Again, both of their w/kg ratios are the same on paper, but one rider has a stronger anaerobic ability, which allows him or her to create a winning margin. This ability crosses all fitness levels, and both the beginning riders with a w/kg of 3.0 and the best pros in the Tour at 6.4 w/kg need to practice and improve this ability. Okay, some of it’s genetic and if you did not pick the right parents you might not be able to make a big difference with training, but you should still try to improve it. Do this workout on a regular basis to improve your ability to ride right at your FTP and do attacks or bursts above it and recover more quickly.

In conclusion, there are many factors that make a great climber and it’s not just power to weight—we have not even discussed the proper mental outlook needed to climb at the highest level—but the physical traits and abilities needed are critical to excel as a climber. One rider whom I coached had an incredible desire to turn professional and he had a great power-to-weight ratio, but he “hated” climbing. My advice to him was to go up his local 25-minute climb every day for 21 days in a row and during the entire climb tell himself: “I love climbing. I am a great climber. I crush other riders when I climb.” He did this and it changed his outlook on climbing. Not only did he become a pro but he also became one of the best climbers in the U.S.

FTP Anaerobic Attacks

Warm-up: 15 minutes with watts at L2 Endurance (Power Z2, HR Z2, RPE 2-3).
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Main set 1: Ride with a cadence over 90 rpm for 20 minutes with watts at L4 Threshold (100% of FTP, Power Z4, HR Z4, RPE 4-5), and do a burst every two minutes to push watts to L7 Neuromuscular Power (200% of FTP+) and hold for 15 seconds, then reduce watts back to L4 Threshold (100% of FTP) again. Continue these bursts for the entire 20 minutes. Then ride five minutes easy at Endurance (Power Z2, HR Z2, RPE 2-3).
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Main set 2: Do 1×20 minutes with watts at L4 (100% of FTP, Power Z4, HR Z4, RPE 4-5) and make sure to hold cadence at 90 rpm and this time, every two minutes, increase cadence for one minute to 110 rpm, while holding
110 percent of FTP and then bring it back to 90 rpm and 100 percent of FTP. Repeat these cadence bursts every two minutes for the entire 20 minutes. Recover with a five-minute rest at Endurance (Power Z2, HR Z2, RPE 2-3).
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Main set 3: Finish with a solid steady-state effort for 20 minutes with watts at L4 Threshold (100% of FTP,
Power Z4, HR Z). Cool-down: 15 minutes with watts at L1 Active Recovery (Power Z1, HR Z21, RPE <2).

This workout is not easy—riding at your FTP and above never is—but it’s a perfect simulation of what you might need to win a race. If 20 minutes is too long for you when you start doing these workouts, shorten the interval to
10 minutes and then increase it to 12, 15 and 18 minutes until you can do the full 20 minutes.

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