Unlike other aspects of cycling, climbing success is considered by most to be almost 100 percent dependent on fitness and natural ability. But in reality, climbing is a much more subtle and complicated skill that encompasses not just fitness, but strategy and psychology.
Over the years, I’ve picked up numerous tricks and techniques that have allowed me to occasionally put one over on a stronger competitor. At the grass-roots level, it is possible to just outride your opponents, but as you get into the higher categories and the gap in ability narrows, strategy becomes increasingly important.
1. Cadence — Due in part to the influence of Lance Armstrong, it is generally accepted that keeping a higher cadence on the climbs is more efficient and more effective than pushing a big gear at a low cadence. A low cadence emphasizes the muscular system which tires quickly and takes several days to recover. A higher cadence places emphasis on the cardio and pulmonary systems which tend to have greater endurance and faster recovery.
It is not enough to just click into your smallest gear and attempt to spin up the next climb you encounter. Your body needs time to adapt. One of the most important and effective workouts I have my riders do to improve their climbing is the high-spin interval. There are other variations of leg-speed drills—such as rev-ups—but I’ve found the no-nonsense high-spin interval to be the safest and most effective.
Here's how you do it: Find a flat road and attempt to pedal at 120 rpm for 10 minutes. Try to do it all at once with no breaks. There should be very little resistance on the pedals. Do this once or twice per week, adding five to 10 minutes each week. Over time, build up to a full hour.
At first you will find yourself bouncing around in the saddle and you may even experience cramping and saddle irritations. However, as muscle memory develops, you will become smoother and more efficient.
2. Base Training — Contrary to popular belief, doing thousands and thousands of feet of climbing is not necessarily the best or fastest way to achieve climbing fitness. Whether you are training for a 10,000-foot death ride or a pursuit on the track, base training is where it all begins.
Aside from dreary, moderate (zone 2) riding, I also have my riders do a cycle of tempo (zone 3) intervals which include two long intervals per week ranging from 30 to 90 minutes. These are done below threshold level but help to improve endurance speed as well as threshold power to a smaller extent. Strength building is also very important in the off-season, and much of it can be done right on the bike.
After the tempo cycle, my riders do a three-week cycle of muscle-tension intervals. These are also done just below threshold level but at a very slow cadence. Throw it into your big chain ring and do 10 minutes at a time at 50 rpm. Do this two to three days per week with two to three intervals each day.
3. Threshold Training — After a strong base has been established, improving threshold power is the next step toward bringing you into climbing shape. I’ve found the most effective and efficient way to do this is with simple, 15-minute time-trial (zone 4) intervals. These should be done right at anaerobic threshold level, or the point where your lungs start to burn and your legs start to ache. They can be done in sets of two or three, three to four times per week.
Instead of seeking out the steepest climbs around, it is much better to do these on a two- to three-percent grade. You will want to spend five to six hours over the course of a three-week cycle in this zone, so if you are training on eight-percent climbs with a cadence of 70 rpm, your muscles will exhaust before the cycle is complete and you won't be able to put out the effort needed for adaptation. By keeping the cadence above 90 you will be able to do back-to-back interval days with plenty of recovery in between.