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Workout Wednesday: Jasper Blake’s keys to climbing on the bike

When climbing on the bike during a triathlon, it’s important to pay attention to both technical and tactical considerations. From a technical perspective, body position, body tension and gear selection can all contribute to more effective climbing. Strategically speaking, the type of race, the length of the race and whether to sit or stand should all be evaluated.

Climbing generally requires more power, especially on shorter, steeper ascents or in shorter, higher-intensity races. Athletes will typically generate more power when they come out of the aerobars and assume a more upright position. Sitting upright opens the hip angle, tilts the pelvis back slightly and should allow the generation of more power (although this is not the case with everyone). Hand placement on either the elbow pads or the handlebars opens up the chest and can allow easier air intake to the lungs. Depending on the grade or length of a climb, however, being upright may not always be the best choice. On very short climbs or false flat sections it may be more advantageous to stay down in the aerobars and utilize a more aerodynamic position.

Gear selection is important. Many entrylevel triathletes will make too dramatic a jump from a hard gear into an easier gear when approaching a hill and, consequently, lose all their momentum or speed. It’s important to shift in small increments, especially when moving from the big ring to the small ring. Often you will need to move into a slightly harder gear on the rear cassette first and then move from the big ring to the small ring on the front to smooth out this transition. On rolling terrain, frequent gear changes are essential. Start with a consistent effort and rpm (revolutions per minute) range that you want to maintain and then shift gears accordingly to maintain that effort and cadence range.

The ability to stay relaxed can help conserve energy. A typical physical response when climbing is to tighten up the hands, arms and shoulders. Tension uses energy. Tension in the arms and hands can also result in “twitchiness” at the handlebars and cause the bike to swerve on the road. Learn to observe where you’re holding tension when climbing so you can relax areas of the body that do not require tension at that time.

From a strategic standpoint, climbs can often separate athletes in draft legal competitions. Staying with the group may require significant spikes in effort, but in the long run it will likely serve you better to stay with the group rather than lose precious time because you paced yourself and got dropped. Training for draft legal racing should point towards this strategy. It’s important to develop the ability to respond to effort surges and recover during the race.

In non-drafting events, it is generally faster, in the long run, to maintain a more consistent effort. Extreme effort spikes on climbs provide little, if any, real benefit because there is no group to stay with and no opportunity to recover within the efficient environment of a pack.

Race length is also an important consideration. The longer the race, the more consistent your effort should be. A long race filled with extremes in effort will usually result in an overall decline in pace from start to finish. Extremely high efforts also limit your ability to take in and absorb nutrition, which is essential during longer races. With the exception of very steep climbs that require higher efforts by default, climbing in longer races should be approached with a tempered effort. It is OK to increase effort enough to maintain momentum, but it should not be in extremes.

Finally, it’s important to know when you should sit or stand on a climb. The length of a hill will usually help you make this decision. It is harder to stand for longer periods of time. However, standing will give you more immediate power to stay with a group (in draft legal situations). Standing will usually increase your aerobic stress load (increased heart rate and breathing), but temporarily relieve muscular effort because shifting your body weight from pedal to pedal can help you generate power. On longer climbs, staying seated is the best strategy but don’t be afraid to add in standing sections to give your legs and lower back a break and help maintain momentum on steeper sections.
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Hills are a great way to develop fitness because they provide constant resistance. Incorporating hill repeats is also great for groups because they keep athletes together even when there is a large discrepancy in levels. Everyone ends up back in the same place after each interval.

Jasper Blake is an Ironman champion and the head coach B78 Coaching. Visit b78.is