All winter and spring the men who will fight for victory in the three-week-long Giro dItalia, Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana stage races have focused their training to be ready for the long, steep climbs in the French Alps, Spanish Pyrenees and Italian Dolomites.
Fitness, or endurance, is the basic ingredient for effective climbing, followed by the key measurement in how fast riders professional, amateur or recreational can summit climbs: the power-to-weight ratio.
The power part of climbing is just what it sounds like: how hard and fast a rider can push the pedals. Bigger riders with bigger muscles can exert more force, which is measured in watts.
On a flat time trial course where gravity and weight dont factor very much, the fastest riders are usually big and strong. However, a true indicator of how much power those big riders have is if they can climb hills.
A good time trialist should also be a pretty good climber but the opposite isn't always true, because if the person is lighter they will probably have problems in windy conditions, said Michael Porter, Health & Fitness director at Seattle Athletic Club and a cycling coach.
Greg LeMond is a good example of an excellent time-trial rider who could also climb very well two of his three Tour de France wins were due to his final time trial.
Although not as light as the top climbers of his day, LeMonds power and aerobic capacity was such that he could go up any hill with the leaders, proving that climbing is really just time trialing, albeit uphill.
Ubiquitous heart rate monitors measure aerobic capacity, indicating the fitness end of training, but they dont measure power output.
Measuring a riders power first began with the SRM Power Crank, but its heavy weight was a drawback. More recently, Power Tune has developed a rear hub system, similar to a standard bicycle wheel, to measure watts. The end goal of measuring watts, of course, is increasing your power output.
Equipment and body weight make up the other half of the climbing speed ratio.
Slimming down bicycle equipment weight is easy, if money isnt an object. Italian Francesco Casagrande, who led most of this years Giro dItalia, rode a 16-pound U2 aluminum alloy bike. Lance Armstrong won the Tour last year on a mostly stock 18-pound Trek carbon fiber bike, available for purchase at your local bike shop.
Generally, most professionals bikes weigh about the same, negating advantage from one rider to another.
In addition to the frame and components, lightweight, aerodynamic wheels make a big difference in climbing speed because they reduce rolling weight.
Spanish company UMA-Ibrica builds one of the most high-tech wheels, a carbon and resin composite molded in a foam support to look like a wing, which cuts the wind and behaves well on crosswinds. US Postal and Telekom will use the wheels, which weigh 775 and 825 grams for front and rear respectively, at this years Tour.
Slimming down body weight takes more effort than dropping pounds from a bike, but makes a huge difference for climbing speed. Every single pound matters, and a cyclist can lose a lot more pounds off their frame than their bike.
Marco Pantani and Miguel Indurain are great examples of dramatically different sized riders that are/were fantastic climbers. Indurain is acknowledged as one of the best time trial riders of all time, but his power output was so high that it offset his 180 pounds on climbs and allowed him to ride at the front.
Pantani, nearly 12 inches shorter and 50 pounds lighter, has a much lower power output than Indurain, but his power-to-weight ratio is on a par, allowing him to climb at the same speed. (It goes without saying that every great climber has an incredible aerobic capacity.)
Before cancer, Lance Armstrong was a stocky 175 pounds. In the 1999 Tour a very lean Armstrong reportedly weighed as low as 138 pounds. Carrying less weight meant Armstrong could ride with the best climbers, and in fact dropped all of them on his winning ride to the Italian ski resort of Sestriere.
Armstrong won three time trials in the race, proving that he could put out as much power as anyone. (He also put 10 pounds right back on after the Tour, due to celebrating with French fries and beer.)
Sit or stand?
While you dont use different muscles to climb hills, you do use them in a slightly different position, which strains them in different ways.
Climbing in the seat allows a consistent, steady tempo on long climbs while the standing position is meant for high-intensity, short-duration attacks and jumps or accelerations. Usually, bigger riders do better sitting, while lightweight riders can stand for longer periods of time.
Seated climbing enables you to use more muscles in the leg group, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus, calf muscles and the anterior tibialis (as you "ankle" through the pedal stroke), according to Porter.
Biomechanically, standing is much less efficient, Porter said. This can only be maintained for a little while before you need to rest/recover and get back into a rhythm before you resume your pursuit.
The best option is a modification of the two where you accelerate while standing for short periods and then sit to recover and keep from blowing up.
Television doesnt do justice to the steep grades of the grand tours the screen just cant capture the 25 percent angle or the endless road climbing to a distant ski station. Big or small, sitting or standing, steady or attacking, the riders power-to-weight ratio is there for everyone to see on the long climbs.
Remember that as you watch your agony on the local climb is factored exactly the same way.