Ultimate climbing guide – part 3 – weight and training

In 1952, Alpe d’Huez was included for the first time in the Tour de France and it was also the Tour’s first mountain-top finish of its kind. Its inclusion was somewhat of a novelty, and it would seem that few predicted at the time that the climb would become one of the most famous in the race.

Fittingly, then, it was a legend of cycling that christened the later-to-be legendary climb with its first victor: Fausto Coppi. The climb came at the end of stage 10, 266 kilometres (kms) from Lausanne in Switzerland and with no other major climbs along the way. French rider Jean Robic took off at the base of the Alpe, at Bourg d’Oisans, but Coppi was soon on his wheel. The Italian quickly took over the pace making, often in his big chainring (probably a 52). “Coppi didn’t seem to exert any extra effort at all,” according to Miroir-Sprint. With 6 kms to go, Coppi was gone. Robic would finish the stage 1’20” down.

Official timing of the climb started in 1990. Since then, the actual distances used to compare the fastest times have become shorter, making comparisons difficult. This blog has looked at the evolution of the times for the climb. There has been some comparative timing of the 13.8-km section and the 14.5-km distance. In 1995, it was Marco Pantani’s 36’50” for the 13.8 kms that is generally considered the fastest (he was 38’04” for 14.5 kms); in 1997 he was faster overall with 37’35” over the longer distance, which is often compared to Lance Armstrong’s time in 2004 of 37’36” for the same distance.

According to Jean-Paul Vespini, Tour director Jacques Goddet timed Coppi up the climb (assumed to be the 13.8-km stretch) with a time of 45’22”. Riders in the late 1970s (the Tour did not return to the Alpe until 1976, as summit finishes were then less popular) and the 1980s chipped away at this time and pulled it down into the low 40 minute range. Lucho Herrera probably did sub-41′ in 1987. It was not until the 1990s that times went below 40′ and not just by Pantani. Not coincidentally, this was the great era of EPO. Times above 39’30” (Carlos Sastre in 2008), like Sammy Sanchez’s 42’21” as the fastest ascent in 2011, which are now the norm, are cited as evidence of cleaner cycling without blood doping.

Whatever the specific times in minutes and seconds (and the question marks over who doped with what and when), let us take a broad brush to the issue at hand. The difference between 45′ and 40′ – Coppi to today – represents an 11% time improvement. That’s quite substantial. Or, to put it another way, around 21 seconds per kilometre of the climb, or (roughly) 19 kph versus 21 kph. As an Italian journalist once said: Coppi was the greatest; Merckx was the best. So, something changed between 1952 and today – other than doping – and it is difficult not to conclude that a substantially significant factor was weight.

Weight and climbing

Gravity is a constant force, no matter how fast you go up a climb (unlike air resistance, which increases); it changes only with the gradient. The most significant improvement that you can make for climbing faster is to reduce the weight that you have to carry up the climb – the weight that gravity will be acting upon. (And the best thing is that you don’t have to practice an aero tuck and hold it – although reducing your frontal area can have benefits on climbs, too – you always get the benefit of weighing less.) Let’s crunch some numbers. Your author’s index climb is Mount Seymour, which is somewhere around 12.5 kms (distances seem to vary but we’re not going to be too specific here), with 900 metres of gain at 7% average with the steepest section at 16%. Using some calculations thanks to Analytic Cycling, a 1 lb weight reduction will save around 15 seconds in time over the course of the climb.

So let’s make that a rule of thumb for this discussion: 1 lb = 15 seconds. This is very helpful for considering where weight savings are best made. Take for example the 1,550 gram wheelset mentioned in previously as being reviewed in Peloton magazine as not a “dedicated climbing wheel”. What might we use instead? Campagnolo’s Hyperon Ultra tubular comes in at 1,231 grams per pair (wow!), a saving of 319 grams. On Mount Seymour, that would get you nearly 10 seconds off a time of <45 minutes (o.4% faster). If you are interested in saving seconds, you might agree with the magazine reviewer. Or you might note that 319 grams is equivalent to a Tacx pro team water bottle half full (around 300 mls or 10 oz). So, you could have a set of dedicated climbing wheels, or you could save the same amount of weight by ditching a half-full water bottle and achieve the same effect.

Your author is not against lighter equipment. But there is no such thing as a ‘climbing wheel’; there are just wheelsets and weights. The weight of a wheelset needs to be seen in the overall context of total bike and rider weight. It is all just subjective opinion as to what constitutes a climbing wheel. Given that total bike and rider weight will in most cases for amateur riders be north of 160 lbs, the difference in wheel weights is a tiny percentage.

The broader point is this. The biggest time gains are to be made from making the biggest reductions – and those are going to come from the rider. Right now, you, dear reader, are at least 5 lbs over weight. You may think you’re in pretty good shape but there is plenty to trim. And that 5 lbs might even be more than the difference between Andy Schleck’s bike and the bikes that most of us are riding. Yes, you can take over a minute off your favourite long climb simply by dropping the pounds – and you can do it for way less money than trying to gram shave you bike. Even dropping just one pound is the difference between a high-end set of wheels and an average pair.

What is your ideal weight? According to Joe Friel (in Bicycling magazine, May 2012), top male riders are 2.1-2.4 lbs per inch of height. Yup, crunch those numbers and you may get a surprise; if you’re going to be a dedicated grimpeur you will want to be at 2.1 or under. As Bicycling notes, “For many cyclists, these numbers may be aggressively low… not be realistic… or even healthy to maintain long-term.” Yikes! Published numbers suggest that Cadel Evans is at 2.2, along with Pierre Rolland (who is taller and heavier), with Sammy Sanchez at 2.1 (a little taller than Evans and the same weight); at the extreme, John Gadret posts 1.9 – five feet seven tall and just 130 lbs.

Training (and talent)

Fausto Coppi may have been hauling what in today’s terms was a lead sled up Alpe d’Huez in 1952, but he still did it faster than any of us could ever hope for. This was possible because of his training and – let’s be honest – his enormous talent (and possibly a few tablets, but let us not dwell on that). The whole point of this discussion is that the rider matters. The rider matters a lot. Equipment and wheels and gram shaving matters, too, but just not as much (someone with more access to the numbers should do an analysis of Coppi’s climb and the benefit he would have had from a lighter bike; his bike was probably at least 7-8 lbs heavier than today). The biggest gains you will get in climbing will come from trimming down (as noted above) and training smarter.

According to Joe Friel, the minimum amount of training for a cat.4 or masters racer annually is 7 hours per week or 364 hours per year. Even if you average just 25 kph, that is 8,750 kms. If you want to be competitive at cat.3, you had better put in at least 500 hours or somewhere north of 12,500 kms. If, like your author, 6,000 kms annually is a good year for riding, then you might be wondering just how you can be competitive.

Chris Carmichael has a training book for the ‘time-crunched’ cyclist, based on a minimum of six hours per week. That number should probably be regarded as the absolute minimum for any training plan. Less than six hours and you are not training, you are just riding. But this is no bad thing. As numerous coaches have pointed out, you need only make your ‘training’ rides as long as your longest event. If your biggest goal for the year is a <45 minute maximum hill climb or crit race, you only need rides of that duration as preparation.

What is important, though, is intensity. As Chris Carmichael noted in a recent column, the problem with the traditional ‘base building’ approach of long, slow rides is that for amateurs with not enough time to dedicate to a proper base (15 hours per week), the body soon adapts to the infrequent schedule and gains are limited. But a big base is not needed for shorter events. What is needed is intensity. If you want to be able to ride hard, you need to practice riding hard. On a limited training schedule, recovery is not usually a problem, so you can afford to push things a little more. Want to be able to stand up and attack on the hills? Practice doing just that.

If you want to get really serious, you will probably need a training plan of some sort. But if you are just ‘riding’, there are gains to be made just from variation – throw in some hills, a few sprints against your riding buddies, some long periods in the drops in the big ring (also good for developing a more aerodynamic position). In addition, if you are a masters rider, Friel recommends strength training as well to offset the effects of the aging process. Finally, if you are serious about dropping the weight, a diet is like training while not training and you still get the benefits on the bike. Overall, even with a limited riding schedule you can still make performance gains – and race competitively in shorter events if that is one of your goals. If climbing faster is part of that, remember: lower weight + intensity = climbing faster.

Final thoughts

As has been stressed throughout this series, equipment matters. Aerodynamics and lighter weights all make a difference in certain contexts. What matters more, though, is the rider. We all know this to be true. There is no reason not to invest in better equipment if you are serious about racing or personal performance goals. At some point, though, we all start to think, “If only I had X, I would be going faster.” It is probably true, you would. But there is so much untapped personal potential that us amateurs have, that we must not forget that the biggest gains will come from our own self improvement. That is the great thing about cycling, it is the great leveler. Despite our bike weight, we will never be faster than Coppi up Alpe d’Huez. Training – and ultimately talent (and there is nothing that can be done to improve that) – is the primary determinant of performance.

Ultimately, though, what is riding all about? This three-part series has looked at the tools for climbing faster. But to what end? It is all too easy to become enslaved by a training regime whose purpose over time becomes nebulous. It can become like a strait jacket, particularly if time is short. There are many other rewards from riding than the relentless pursuit of personal bests. Sometimes the simple pleasure of simply riding should be enough.

Wait – isn’t this supposed to be fun? (Glotman Simpson pic)
(Originally posted on April 17, 2012.)