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.)

Ultimate climbing guide – part 2 – aerodynamics

If there is one non-cycling book worth reading this year, it should probably be Thinking, Fast and Slow by the Nobel Prize-winning behavioural psychologist Daniel Kahneman. To paraphrase the product description from the publisher: “Two systems drive the way we think and make choices, Kahneman explains: System One is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System Two is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. Examining how both systems function within the mind, Kahneman exposes the extraordinary capabilities as well as the biases of fast thinking and the pervasive influence of intuitive impressions on our thoughts and our choices.” Why this is interesting in the context of this blog post will be returned to below.

Talking of books, VeloPress is publishing in North America the fantastic Slaying the Badger by Richard Moore, who argues, eloquently if not entirely convincingly, that 1986 was the “greatest Tour de France”. The obvious rival Tour to this claim is 1989. As we know, Greg LeMond beat Laurent Fignon at this edition because of aerodynamics. In an article in issue 10 of Peloton magazine, John Wilcockson goes into this in some detail. Interestingly, wind tunnel tests after LeMond’s win revealed that his aero bars were only worth an 8 second gain as LeMond’s position on the bike (which he had spent much time perfecting) was already highly aerodynamic. But the bars were not the reason for his narrow win, as his helmet was actually acting like a “sort of parachute” and cost him 12 seconds. Therefore, it was more LeMond himself, not his bike and gear, who beat the ailing Fignon. This is worth keeping in mind as this discussion progresses.

Retarding forces

Going faster on a bicycle involves overcoming resistance: wind resistance, rolling resistance from the tyres, bearing friction, and gravity. At speeds below 13 kph, the dominant forces are rolling resistance and bearing friction. But once these are overcome, they increase only slightly with speed – once you’ve gotten rolling there’s not much to hold you back. Gravity is a constant and only changes depending on the gradient of the climb; you can out sprint gravity. Wind resistance, however, increases as the square of speed over 13 kph – it gets harder to go faster (refer to Ed Burke, High-Tech Cycling, for much of the technical information here). The higher your speed, therefore, the greater importance of increasing aerodynamics but the less absolute benefit you will gain.

Weight, so important in climbing, is much less of a factor on flat roads (although it does have some role in acceleration). For example, reducing the drag of a bike by having its cables inside the handlebars and frame (reducing drag by about 10 grams) is equivalent to dropping over 2 lbs in weight over a 40 km time trial, but even then it is only a handful of seconds. For climbing, the key point is that aerodynamics can play a role, but it is going to be a minor one because of the relatively low speeds. On a 10 km climb, the best you might hope for is around 1 minute in time gain in theory: if you can reach speeds of 20-24 kph in some sections and you can maintain an aero position (and still get the same power output) for the duration. Aero equipment, such as wheels, will give you a time advantage somewhere south of this figure. If these are not the conditions then the gains from aerodynamics are going to be much less. But still, because air resistance is lower at lower speeds, there are decent absolute gains to be made relative to your speed. Any time a long climb levels off a little for a decent distance and you can kick it over 20 kph, ‘getting aero’ will be a handful of seconds of advantage (for more on this, see part 3).

Pantani getting aero in the drops while climbing.

One example of the important of aerodynamics in cycling in general is the hour record. In one study, the researchers charted the power outputs of the hour record holders, based in some cases on power meter readings where available but on calculation in others. They were equalized for comparison, which was a difficult process given the difficulty in calculating wind resistance for different shaped riders (the outsize Miguel Indurain, for example, was a problem). When Eddy Merckx posted 49.431 kms, his corrected power was 429 watts on average for the duration. Moser, Obree and Boardman all bested this record but they did so by producing less power – aerodynamics was their advantage. It was not until Indurain that power levels were higher than Merckx; Indurain recorded 436 watts in 1994. Tony Rominger (infamously coached by Michel Ferrari, whatever that might mean) produced 460 watts when he pushed the record over 55 kms, with a standard bike but aero wheels and an aero bar. Chris Boardman’s record of 56.375 km was achieved with less watts than Rominger (but more than Merckx) using an aero bike and the ‘superman’ position.

When Boardman beat Merckx’s traditional record (and only just: 49.441 km) in 2000, on a standard track bike following the UCI regulation change, he produced less power so must have had a slightly better position (not that it was easy – he couldn’t walk for four days afterwards). Overall, since the 1960s, the study estimated that the gains in the record were 40% attributable to riders producing more power and 60% due to aerodynamics. The takeaway message is that aerodynamics matters quite a bit, at least in the rarefied world of adding just a few more metres to the hour record, but so does wattage – and the latter is up to the rider to produce.

Position versus equipment

The drag of your bike is around 25-35% of the total. In other words, you the rider are 65-75% of the drag (some studies suggest that it might be slightly higher). A rider’s position on the bike is the key factor in reducing drag, and studies have concluded that gains can be up to 5-6 minutes over a 40 km flat course. The difference made by aero wheels, in contrast, is only around 1.5 minutes, according to one study; this is with all other factors being equal – if you cannot hold an aero position, for example, you might offset any benefit from the wheels. As well, because your body makes up the majority of the drag, even wearing a skinsuit and riding standard wheels can be as much of an advantage as regular kit and aero wheels.

So, the first step to reducing your drag and overcoming wind resistance is going immediately to your LBS and getting them to set you up correctly on your bike so you can get your back as flat as possible on the hoods and comfortably reach the drops to get even more streamlined. You should then watch Fabio Cancellara and spend time working on it until you can mimic his position on the hoods (refer to 2012’s Milano-Sanremo, for example). You may also wish to include his simulated aero bar position where he rests his forearms on the flat of the bar and emulates an aero bar position (it’s harder to do than it looks, while not weaving from side-to-side and thus negating the drag reducing effect; Cancellara is of course not the only pro to use this position – Tom Boonen did pretty well at Paris-Roubaix using it). It all stems from Roger de Vlaeminck, the king of the ‘on the hoods’ aero position. Let the following picture be your guide.

The current focus on aerodynamics means that there are lots of misconceptions about the scope of the gains to be made. For example, in the same issue of Peloton magazine, in a review of the $2,700 Bontrager Aeolus 5 D3 wheels, reviewer Ben Edwards writes: “It’s speed you will feel palpably, on your first ride.” (In the same review, Edwards notes that the 1,550 grams weight of the wheels excludes them from being “a dedicated climbing wheel”, another sort of myth that the next part of this ultimate climbing guide addresses.) There are figures of 10 grams of reduced drag over other aero wheels used in the article, which, as Edwards notes, equates to less than 1 watt of energy at 40 kph (or, as is noted in High-Tech Cycling, the drag produced by holding a pencil up in a 30 mile-per-hour wind). Yet Edwards is apparently able to notice this difference, in particular whilst coming out of corners on a fast ride as “they corner as if on proverbial rails… and you will be rewarded with a gap… you will go farther, faster with less energy.” To be able to notice such a performance difference, just 1 watt, is indeed very impressive. But it is entirely fanciful. The limit of aerodynamic gain in a cornering situation, according to a rough calculation at Analytic Cycling, is at most half a wheel length or about 0.02 seconds. Are we really to believe that someone can discern this difference whilst on their bike and attribute it solely to the wheels?

Perception v reality

Let us then see where Kahneman fits into all of this. Our System One way of thinking is basically our instincts. This system, which is active all the time, is constantly making assessments and judgements about all manner of things in our environment. It is very good at its job, but it is also easily distracted. It is particularly bad at complex problems involving numbers, statistics and probabilities. It is also easily fooled by optical illusions (the famous ‘which line is longer’ test) and prone to biases, particularly when there is ‘anchoring’ or ‘framing’ involved. The vulnerabilities of System One is why we have System Two, our considered mode of analytic thinking where we carefully consider a problem before reaching a conclusion, to balance the impulsiveness of System One. This is why Kahneman’s book references fast and slowing thinking – System One and System Two, respectively.

The main conclusion we should be aware of is that our instincts, perceptions and snap judgements can be wrong. They are highly subjective and easily influenced by other factors. It would be very difficult, in an objective sense, to measure the speed difference between two wheel sets on the open road. In a cornering situation, for example, you as the test rider would have to mimic the exact wattage, riding position, and line through the corner on each set of wheels to control the major variables. Given that riding position is the most important aerodynamic factor, it would be nearly impossible to keep it uniform in a meaningful way. But this apparently does not stop reviewers’ instincts from taking over and proclaiming that one set of wheels is noticeably faster than another.

One of the particular biases that influences System One is the so-called anchoring effect, where we place an over reliance on a particular piece of information in making our judgement. In this context, if we are told that a very expensive wheelset is more aerodynamic than another, and that this has been proved by wind tunnel testing, we are – one would argue – more likely to conclude by riding said wheelset that it is faster than a more modest set of wheels. In fact, we might conclude that it is even faster than the tests showed and say that it is worth a bike length in a sprint when the actual objective laws of physics will show that this is not possible (all other factors being equal). This would be a good case of System One (our instincts) versus System Two (the objective application of the laws of nature). The anchoring effect will be stronger if the information comes from an authority source (like a respected bike magazine, for example) or if it confirms strongly-held beliefs or conventional wisdom (aerodynamic wheels make bikes go lots faster, for example).

In all manner of situations, people will often say, “Yes, but what about in the real world” as if there are different rules for how things work in different environments. In the real world, people often pride themselves on their instincts and how good they are at making snap judgements. This is particularly the case if those judgements confirm strongly-held beliefs. In many cases, psychologists in experiments have found that subjects will cling to their beliefs with even more tenacity when they are exposed to contrary evidence. They simply refuse to believe that their judgements are wrong.  Our System Two mode of thinking is a powerful analytical tool, but we are prone to ignoring it, under-utilizing it, or refusing to believe its conclusions.

It is extremely improbable, if not impossible, for anyone to be able to perceive the drag difference between different wheelsets coming out of a single corner. Sure, they may feel different or even faster, but that does not mean they are noticeably faster in an objective sense at a specific point in time. The speed gains will be cumulative over time, but not immediately discernible. But how do you refute someone who claims that they “feel palpably” faster or that they got a gap riding the wheels? (Although you could say, “Wow, you can feel the <0.02 seconds in time difference coming out of the corner – that’s incredible!”) Paying $2,700 is a lot of money to “feel palpably” faster. One could almost guarantee that buying a pair of handmade Rapha shoes and drinking two negronis would make you feel faster, too; still a bit pricey, but you’d have change left over.

What it means

Aerodynamics matters. Reducing the drag of the rider matters a lot more than reducing the drag caused by wheels. At least Bicycling magazine, in a test of aero wheels that included the Aeolus 5, said that “measurable differences are pretty small” and includes a quote from Steve Hed: “Early on, our comparison was to a box-section Mavic rim; we’re not saving anyone a minute over 40 km anymore. Now it’s more like seconds.”

So, according to Hed, the drag gain was 60 seconds over 40 km, or 1.5 seconds per kilometre (0r 0.0015 seconds per metre). That is pretty consistent with the figure cited in the study noted above. They are little gains that add up the longer you ride. If you are a pro cyclist, seconds matter. Just one second might be the difference between first and second in a long race, or small aerodynamic gains add up over time – like on Boonen’s Paris-Roubaix breakaway (although how much was down to aerodynamics, particularly as he is a big rider, and how much was his incredible form is a big question). When it is your livelihood, it matters; you will do anything to get a possible advantage. For amateurs, though, should we be obsessing as much over a handful of seconds? Furthermore, as has been argued previously on this blog, controlling all the variables so that a tiny reduction in wheel drag that is measured under controlled conditions does make a quantifiable difference on the open road is very difficult, if not impossible. Does that make $2,700 for a set of wheels worthwhile?

When reading bike and component reviews, we usually have our System Two modes of thinking in full function. We understand that reviewers have to write something about their riding experience and that a simple account of facts and figures would be extremely boring. We ignore highly subjective performance claims and we know that if Freddy Maertens circa 1976 on his bike of that day was transported forward in time to our local crit, he would easily out ride each and every other competitor on their 13.6-pound bikes with aero wheels. We know that it is the rider that matters most. We know that phrases like “cornering on rails” have no objective meaning because there is nothing that can be quantified and compared. We also know from our own experience that cornering has more to do with a rider’s line and ability than equipment – although upgrades can give us more confidence in our our abilities.

So why does it matter what gets written? Because our System Two is lazy, we might fall into the thrall of System One thinking and trust our instincts, particularly if it confirms our biases, especially if that bias is a mantra in the bike industry: that spending a lot more money will make you go a lot faster. We might start thinking that the gains from equipment are more than they actually are. And this is a sloppy way to approach a sport and a pastime. An alternative review, therefore, could read like this:

In controlled conditions these wheels will save you 1 minute in a 40 km time trial over a standard set of wheels. In most cases on the road, you would only save this amount of time if you kept all other drag factors constant, something that is difficult but not impossible to achieve. These wheels may not feel immediately faster when you ride them as their initial speed advantage is small and only accumulates over time. You might find they give you, all other factors being equal, a bike length or so of advantage at your mid-week crit, but the young gun on a borrowed cross bike will still beat you to the line. Conversely, however, you may feel quite a bit faster on these wheels – even if the speed difference is tiny – simply because they are superbly made and presented and appear to be really fast. The thrill of new wheels may prompt you to push yourself a bit harder. If a potential gain of 1 minute over 40 km is important enough to you to spend $2,700 (if you are not a pro rider already, in which case your sponsor has given you these wheels) and replace the $500 wheels you already have, then go for it. However, you may wish to first attend to a number of other factors – such as your ability to ride in the drops or an even more aerodynamic position for long periods of time. In fact, you should do this right now – and throw in some intervals – instead of reading this review and obsessing over carbon wheels. Your abilities as a rider will have more of an impact than your equipment.

The review in Peloton magazine, an otherwise fine and excellent publication well worth reading, has been singled out in this blog post but it is not the exception in the supposedly objective product reviews that we get in bicycling publications. We should be mindful as to how biases influence subjective judgements. We should understand that objective comparisons are not possible outside of controlled situations. And it matters because the cost of bicycles and components are – at the top end – skyrocketing, even while we enjoy the great benefits of trickle-down to the lower end. It matters because at some point we might start believing that $2,700 aero wheels are essential for going faster. And to go faster is what everyone wants, right?

There are a number of good reasons to buy high-end bikes and components. Performance is one of them, and the potential benefits are (mostly) very real. But they are not as much as you will be led to believe by reading magazine reviews. It is not honesty that is needed but rigour (or rigor, for US readers) in review writing. The facts and figures are all there for anyone to access, and a little System Two thinking will go a long way to confirming or disproving what our System One instincts might be telling us. So, get into your drops more, or do some intervals, or buy a cross bike from your LBS for extra training and give the change to support junior cycling or donate a kids bike to a worthy cause. Do all these things. Think more. Think harder. Ride more. Ride harder. (This series concludes with part 3.)

Freddy Maertens won 13 stages at the Vuelta a Espana in 1977 (AFP photo).
(Originally published on April 9, 2012 and modified from the original for clarity.)

Ultimate climbing guide – part 1 – gearing

Andy Hampsten’s ride over the Gavia at the 1988 Giro d’Italia is the stuff of legend (read an analysis here and an account from Andy himself here). Once he’d claimed the maglia rosa, however, there were still eight days of racing to go and Erik Breukink – the winner of the Gavia stage – was just 15 seconds behind. Urs Zimmerman, later to ride for 7-Eleven, was also snapping at his heels.

One of the key tests before Milan was the 18-kilometre hill climb time trial from Levico Terme to Vetriolo. But Hampsten was ready and had already inspected the course. Based on his observations, he swapped out his 39 chainring for a 42 and fitted an 8-speed cassette starting from a 21 and dropping 19-18-17 [etc] rather than the usual 23-21-19-17 [etc] to make his gearing higher again and to also keep the ratios closer together.

Hampsten won the stage and pushed Breukink out of contention. “I hurt so bad it was like a meditation,” Hampsten said, according to journalist John Wilcockson. “I knew I was winning… but I wasn’t conscious of the fact.” He survived a scare from Zimmerman in the last mountain stage in the Dolomites, saved by exemplary team tactics, and after the final time trial in Milan the Giro was his.


Hampsten’s story is interesting because of the attention he paid to his gearing for the uphill time trial. To climb faster, a rider has two choices: spin the pedals faster; or push a harder gear – or the correct combination of the two. Finding the optimal gear and spin can be a detailed business.

Your author is fascinated with the process of gear choice, given his interest in climbing and his particular enjoyment of the hill climb race (for which, it must be noted, his performances are decidedly modest). At present his preferred lowest gear is a 36×25. This gives a metres development of 3.1 (the distance moved with one crank turn, a different measurement to the usual gear inches), which is slightly easier than a 39×26 (or equivalent to a 34×23 for a compact crank) but noticeably tougher than a 34×25 (and a full kilometre per hour (kph) faster at 80 rpm).  Also, having a 25-23-21 [etc] ratio on the cassette instead of, say, 26-23-21 [etc] means that there is not a big jump between the lowest gear and the next cog on the cassette – keeping the ratios not too far apart.

A compact crankset, or nearly so, makes a lot of sense for a lot of serious climbing but it can be limiting to have a 34 for flatter riding instead of a 39 (hence why your author swapped out the 34 for a 36). SRAM compact cranks have a variety of after-market chainrings and a 38 (paired with a 52) is an option. To get a 3.1 metres development ratio would require a 26 cog but the 13% change in ratio from a 26 to a 23, instead of 9% between the 25 and the 23, can be disconcerting when riding – it feels too wide. At 3.3 metres development, a 38×25 – or 3.4 metres for a 39×25 – might be too tough to spin effectively. Each 0.1 metre change is about a 3% difference, so switching to a 39 would be nearly a 10% harder gear to push.

According to many experts, the optimal cadence is around 80 rpm, although for climbing some argue that it is closer to 70 rpm. This balances both efficiency and fatigue, apparently. So, ideally, you want a gear that you can spin at this rate for the climb that you want to go fastest on (the rest of the time, we make do with the gears we have and adapt). This is an interesting exercise to do if you have a cadence monitor and don’t mind staring at your screen during a hill climb. Simply sit at 75 rpm and shift gears to keep your cadence constant. It is a particularly methodical way to approach the problem of how to gauge your efforts but can yield useful results.

Over time, you will want to be able to push a larger gear at the same cadence on the same part of the climb. For example, being able to spin the 36×23 at 75 rpm instead of the 36×25 gives a speed increase of 1.3 kph – a noticeable increase on a long, steep climb.

Keeping your cadence constant is one approach. The other, of course, is to fit a harder gear and just tough it out. Fight to find your spin and force yourself to ride faster. Forget about the cadence monitor. If your legs are burning, choose an easier gear; if your lungs are crying out for relief, choose a harder gear. If both are at their limit, and you’ve run out of gearing options, there’s not much you can do…

Ratios versus cadence

Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France in 2001 provides an interesting study in the issue of gear ratios versus cadence. As is well known, Armstrong developed a high cadence climbing style, spinning at 90 rpm and over. “It takes better aerobic conditioning to pedal at a higher cadence,” according to his coach Chris Carmichael. “And you have to train a lot at high cadence to develop efficiency. Most people are more efficient at 80 rpm than they are at 90 rpm.”

Armstrong’s spin was easy to see in action, but it was certainly not the case that he was using ridiculously lower gears. His cassettes in 2001 typically ran 23-21-19 [etc] like most other riders. So it was a case of spinning a slightly easier gear slightly faster. For example, if Jan Ullrich, known for his ‘big gear’ style was in his 39×19 at 75 rpm he would be at nearly 20 kph. If Armstrong was spinning at 90 rpm in a 39×25 he would be at about the same speed; to drop Ullrich he would need to spin up to 95 rpm (21 kph) or drop into his 23 (21.5 kph). Better still, spin the 21 at 95 rpm for 23 kph, which is what he did for part of the climb of Alpe d’Huez in 2001 (he averaged 22.1 kph for the 14 kilometres) when he won the stage by two minutes from Ullrich, famously giving him ‘The Look’ as he left him behind.

Interestingly, the next day, in the hill climb time trial to Chamrousse, Armstrong adjusted his gearing to suit the conditions, like Hampsten did in the example at the start of this post. According to John Wilcockson, Armstrong felt that the 23 on Alpe d’Huez had been too low (oh to have that feeling!) but the 21 a bit high. So for the time trial he fitted a 12-22 cassette so that his lowest gears were 22-21-20-19, thus keeping the ratio difference at around 5% between each gear. Whether it was this gear change, his high cadence style, or the familiarity he had with the course after scouting it out before the Tour, he won the stage and took another minute out of Ullrich. He would, of course, go on to win his third Tour in a row that year.

Part 2…

Climbing faster is not just about the gear you can push and how fast you can spin it (and the methods you use to achieve that), but it is in practical terms the primary route. As you develop more strength, endurance, power, conditioning or whatever, you need a practical way to translate that into performance. And taking on a harder gear, or a faster spin, or a combination of the two is how you put it into practice. For most of us, developing a high-cadence style much more than 80-85 rpm is not a possibility, so keeping a constant spin at around this level but graduating to bigger gears is the route to more speed.

Other than our own mediocrity, the principal impediment to more speed is gravity, which is the subject of part 2 to this ultimate climbing guide.

Ullrich concedes to the superior climbing of Armstrong

This post was modified from the original following reference to sources. It was originally published on February 23, 2012.

An epistemology of speed

In Karl Popper’s magisterial book The Poverty of Historicism, the philosopher warns about extrapolating the future from the present; given that we are unable to adequately describe the present, even the future will be elusive to us. “It is not possible for us to observe or to describe a whole piece of the world, or a whole piece of nature,” he wrote. “In fact, not even the smallest whole piece may be so described, since all description is necessarily selective.”

Popper was talking about the great sweep of human history and criticizing the idea that there are laws of development in history and that these laws are evolving towards some sort of ideal end point. But even on a smaller scale, Popper was wary about relying on certain ‘truths’. In his epistemology, we accumulate knowledge of the world through the process of deduction. We put forward hypotheses and test these with appropriate observations. The rules or laws that we discover are at all times subject to falsification through further testing. Some laws withstand a substantial amount of testing, and are therefore more robust than others, but are – in a philosophical sense at least – still falsifiable. Overall, we must always be critical. “For if we are uncritical, we shall always find what we want,” Popper said. “We shall look for, and find, confirmations, and we shall look away from, and not see, whatever might be dangerous to our pet theories.”

This post will look at the question of speed on a bicycle, and how we achieve it, with these two approaches in mind: the difficulty of accurately describing the present situation, and hence the difficulty of predicting the future; and a critical approach to established theories of going faster. As such, I argue for a much less obvious epistemology of speed.

Continue reading “An epistemology of speed”

Climb like a badger

In the bucolic British children’s fable, ‘Wind in the Willows’, the character of Mr. Badger is a rather gruff fellow, a no-nonsense practical type, rather solitary in the winter off-season and sticks close to home, but generous – if not somewhat paternal – to his friends, but sometimes prone to outburst. “Now the very next time this happens,” he scolds. “I shall be exceedingly angry.”

In the somewhat more recent French version the Badger, le blaireau, is not an entirely different character.

“I’ll be the badger forever,” Bernard Hinault wrote after his retirement. “It doesn’t bother me.” Hinault was at a loss to explain the nickname and suggested that it was a commonly-used nickname that seemed to suit him and stuck to him somewhere around 1977.

“Very little is known about badgers,” he said. “And that suits me.”

What people did seem to know about badgers, however, was their ferocity. “As long as I live and breathe, I attack” was Hinault’s most famous quote.

Hinault 1
Le blaireau proved to be an apt nickname

Continue reading “Climb like a badger”