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Up, Up, and Away (Part 2): Conquering the Hills of the Gran Fondo and Elsewhere

May 24, 2012

One of the best things about the Menomonie Gran Fondo is the chance to ride the same course that the pros ride later that day, but this is also the biggest challenge as well.

Here is the second part of USA Cycling coach Fiona Lockhart’s tips to help you conquer the hills that will break up the race later in the day.

by Fiona Lockhart, USA Cycling Coach

www.FionaLockhart.com

If You’ve Got the Gears, Use Them

Once you do have an appropriate gear setup on your bike, make sure you use them!  One of things that makes me want to weep as a coach is when I see someone struggling up a hill, mashing a huge gear at a cadence of about 40, and I look at their gears and see that they have at least one, if not two or three, easier gear options to choose.  Sometimes people will tell me “I want to save them in case I need them.”  Sister or brother, I’m telling you:  you need them.

Once your cadence starts to drop below about 70 rpms, your leg muscles will start to fatigue pretty rapidly, and it’s the kind of fatigue that is hard to recover from.   So it’s in your interest to try to keep that cadence above 70 as much as we can (and 80 or 90 might even be better, depending on the grade of the hill).  This has the additional benefit of taking some pressure off your knee joints, because there’s an awful lot of torque that occurs at the knee when we’re applying a lot of force at a low cadence.  That means using all the gears you have, and practicing shifting in and out of different gears when you are working hard to increase your ability to do it smoothly and prevent the chain from jamming.  Of course, if you don’t have any easier gears to use, then you just have to work with what you have.  But if you find that you are always riding below 70 rpms on hills and you’re always out of gears, then by all means re-read the paragraphs above about cranksets and cassettes and think about making a change.

Pace Yourself

You’re always going to be breathing a little bit harder on the hills (or a lot harder), but that doesn’t mean you can’t try to control the effort somewhat.   I will sometimes see people accelerate at the bottom of the hill, which might be a useful strategy if the hill is very short and you’ll just be able to pop over it quickly, but for most hills that take more than 30 seconds to climb, you’re better off trying to settle into a steady pace and maintain it for the duration of the climb.  If you exert too much energy in the first half of the hill and blow up, you’ll suffer more over that last half than if you had held back a little bit early on.

Once again, use your gears appropriately.  Practice shifting smoothly into the gears you need at the base of the hill.  You will want to have an easy enough gear that you can climb with, but you also don’t want to shift into too easy of a gear too early and lose a bunch of momentum.  Remember, you can always shift during a climb.  It’s a little harder on a hill to make the shift with your front derailleur (as the jumps between gears are bigger), so you usually will want to make sure you are out of your biggest chainring in the front when you start the climb, but then you can use your gears in the back to fine-tune your shifting as you move up the hill.  And plan ahead – thinking in advance about what gear you’d like to be in as you start the climb will help you avoid the mistake of shifting into too big of a gear and using too much energy early, or shifting into too easy of a gear and losing all momentum.

Be Happy

I used to race against a girl who was always smiling when we were climbing big hills.  It would alternatively amaze and infuriate me – “Really, this is making you happy?  COME ON, THIS HURTS A LOT.”  But in retrospect, I think it was a great thing – either she was, indeed, just happy to be hammering up a hill, or it was a very effective psych-out strategy for her competition.  Either way, she wins, figuratively.

But honestly, attitude does matter.  As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post, hills are hard for everyone, but the way you approach the climbing of that hill can make all the difference between having it be a good or a bad experience.  Try putting some positive spin on the next hill you climb:  “These hills are making me strong”.  “The view from the top is going to be awesome.”  “I bet the downhill will be fun!”  Usually, this will make not only the hill but the whole ride a lot more enjoyable than if you are cursing (inside or outside) the whole way up the climb.

Increase Your Fitness

Well, duh.  But it does need to be said.  I started out this blog post by saying that the laws of physics tell us that it takes more energy to move a mass up a hill.  The more fit we are, the more we can comfortably meet those energy demands.  Apart from the things I’ve mentioned above, there isn’t anything magical about training to become faster on hills – the stronger we are, the less energy we’ll need to get up the hills (or the same amount of energy but we’ll go faster).  And how to increase that fitness?  Well, first and foremost, ride as much as you can (within reason).  And get out and train on hills, because they’ll make you work hard, and that hard work will make you strong.  I’ll talk in a later blog post about how to structure that training so that you have a good balance of hard work and rest and recovery.

So yeah, gravity is a law.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t bend the rules a bit.

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