Tour de France coach Jesse Moore gives insight on how to make cycling uphill feel effortless.
by Jordan Blanco
Watching the Tour de France last month I found myself watching in awe as riders ascended mountain pass after mountain pass with seemingly minimal effort. Of course it takes talent, hundreds of thousands of miles of training, as well as excellent technique to earn a slot on a pro team. And while I don't aspire to reach that level of cycling, the Tour leaves me longing to be a better climber on the bike so that there's more enjoyment (and less pain) on the next ascent of my local col, Mt. Tam—and maybe even a top ten Strava QOM placing. It made me wonder if there were specific things I should be doing, besides accumulating miles, to help me become a better climber on the bike?
Bay Area native Jesse Moore is a cycling coach who has helped American Andrew Talansky to a top ten GC placing at the Tour de France. He's also coached other athletes to meet goals ranging from selection to Olympic teams, national championship titles and cycling world championship qualifications. He also raced bikes as a Cat 1 cyclist in the U.S. so he's climbed a few hills in his own career. Below you'll find Moore's tips to get you climbing like a beast…or at least feeling more comfortable going uphill.
Gear up… and down
Knowing what gears are on your bike and using them appropriately is a great place to start when thinking about your climbing capabilities. "The gears on the bike are the great equalizer between athletes with different physical abilities," says Moore.
Gears allow a strength-driven athlete to travel at the same speed as an athlete with a strong cardiovascular engine by selecting the gear and cadence that maximizes their respective physiologies. Moore says that just like a car engine, we all have an optimal rpm where we are getting the most power output with the least amount of stress on the total system. The strong cardiovascular athlete may prefer a compact crank set with lighter gear options. This keeps the load on the cardiovascular system, riding at a higher cadence, rather than the athlete getting bogged down on a climb and stuck in a lower cadence than is comfortable.
Moore also reminds athletes to use all their gears: "There should be a lot of shifting as the terrain and conditions change. It's not a place to get lazy, especially if you have electronic shifting!"
TIP → Get your local bike shop can help you select the appropriate crank size, chain rings, and rear cassette to suit your cycling ability and the terrain you plan to ride.
Seated or standing?
Moore thinks of standing as a "super charger" to your base seated climbing pace to overcome harder portions of the climb. The idea is to apply your highest effort to the parts of the course where you are travelling most slowly. When your speed is lower, aerodynamics and drag are less important than fighting gravity, so standing and adding your body weight to the pedals to gain more power and maintain speed can yield significant gains.
According to Moore, the standing option also offers an opportunity to rest muscles that are becoming fatigued in the seated position: "Where people get in trouble standing," he says, "is that they almost always punch up the watts when they stand—standing and spiking the power on every roller across the course isn't realistic." He suggests that riders focus on holding the watts steady using the extra load of the upper body on the pedals. This gives the legs muscles a break and allows for a faster overall seated pace when the rider sits back down.
TIP → Pay attention to the wind and other aerodynamic considerations when choosing to get out of the saddle as standing on a headwind climb is never going to be a great option no matter your power output.
Keep it light
While a super light and aerodynamic new bike may not be in your budget this season, there are things you can do to minimize weight. A simple thing such as considering how many bottles to carry on your bike for your chosen ride, or more tactical, whether you need a full water bottle or two at the base of a steep climb. All of these choices add up over time.
TIP → Bring powdered refills of your favorite hydration to mix with you and use aid station water to save you from having to carry your own liquids.
Get out and ride hills
Getting outside and riding hills may seem a no-brainer, but with the proliferation and gamification of indoor training options, you might be tempted to ride the trainer more frequently. Moore says it's "absolutely critical" to practice on a variety of hills and gradients to get better at climbing. "Getting a feel for what is too low or high an rpm for you to feel strong late in the day comes through practice," explains Moore. It's only through practice that a cyclist can learn the rhythm of moving in and out of the saddle to see what combination is making the most impact on overall speed.
TIP → Get out and ride a variety of gradients and notice your preferred gearing option for the given terrain. As you gain experience, gear choice will become more and more intuitive.