Not long ago I received an email from a magazine asking if I wouldn’t mind providing an expert opinion on a question one of their readers had asked.
The question: “Should you apologise if you get dropped on a climb during your bunch ride?”
Being a sprinter and not a climber, I thought it both hilarious and fitting that I classified as an ‘expert’ on this particular topic. But, come to think of it, I kind of am. This past week as I’ve been dragging my sprinters legs up and over the Pyrenees during a mid-season altitude camp, I have had plenty of time to reflect and contemplate on this specific issue.
As such, I’ve come up with some hill climbing tips for those who may not be as gifted when the road tilts upwards. And no, they don’t involve saying sorry:
1. Work on your descending
When I was younger, I was told there was a perception about me that I was lazy because when I got a puncture, I would simply take a wheel off my Dad’s bike and get around Canberra on that. I thought it more resourceful than lazy, but this first tip may fall into the same category.
Improving your hill climbing is hard. It involves eating lettuce and saying no to dessert among other things, so my first tip for you is to work on your descending.
Last year in the third stage of the Tour of Ardeche –a tour held in France and known for it’s brutally long climbs– I decided to pace myself up the climb with the knowledge that we had a technical and long descent afterwards. As I dropped back through the peloton, I saw girls rocking on their bikes and heard breathing that sounded more like pugs than humans. Meanwhile I kept my heart rate low but made sure I stayed in the convoy.
I crested the climb at my own pace and started descending. In mere minutes, I was catching up with the back of the peloton; with girls who had struggled and succeeded to stay in contact with the group but now, lacked the technical skills to keep up on the tricky descent. By the end of the descent I was at the front of the peloton.
While I didn’t stay with the front group for the rest of the race, I did stay at the front of the race for a lot longer than anyone had expected. My parents who were there watching came to me after the race gushing, “We saw you! You were right at the front, all these girls who are better than you were behind you!” Thanks Mum and Dad.
My point is: if your descending skills are good enough you can easily make up the 30 seconds or a minute you lost to your more gifted hill climbing buddies.
2. Shed some weight
Improving your hill climbing may indeed involve eating lettuce and saying no to dessert. But for many people, riding bikes means they can say no to lettuce and yes to dessert, and not marveling at the road as they’re eating handle-bar stem behind their mountain goat friends. As such, this tip is not a dietary one.
Instead, start with your equipment: invest in the lightest carbon fibre frame on the market and low profile wheels. The legal limit for racing bikes is 6.8 kilograms but unless your riding buddies are packing scales, your secret is safe with me.
If the latest advances in bike technology are unrealistic, don’t worry. Shedding your water bottles and extra layers of clothing at the bottom of the climb can save you kilograms, too. If your riding group is planning on coming back down the same climb, hidding your jacket, vest, arm warmers, leg warmers, pump, saddle bag, ride food and bottles could give you the advantage you need. I hear your reservations already, but I employ this tactic regularly and in my 12 years of riding I’ve only once had something go missing.
If it’s an up-and-over climb, it’s not unreasonable to load the best hill climber up with everything you’ve deemed unnecessary. Think of it as handicapping.
3. Suck wheels
Try to stay with your friends for as long as possible before you call out the standard, “I’ll meet you at the top.” By sucking their wheel until your legs burn and you’re zig-zagging across the road, you will improve over time. Setting your own tempo on a climb can be hard but if you have someone to follow, it always helps.
Around this year last time, I took myself on a boot camp to Italy to train with Elisa Longo Borghini, this year’s Ronde van Vlaanderen winner. On one training ride, she had to do some climbing efforts and I told her I would just try to hang onto her wheel. I stayed there and in the red for 20 minutes and felt immensely proud of myself…until I discovered the climb continued to go up for another hour.
Halfway up, after Elisa had turned around to find me, she took pity on me and suggested we switch wheels, giving me her wheel with a 27 cog and taking my 25. A few weeks later I raced the Giro Rosa and only got somewhat dropped as opposed to super dropped on the climbs.
4. Get a head start
If your friends are planning on filling up their water bottles or taking a nature stop before commencing the climb, you should, under no circumstances, stop with them. Keep going. Throw your bottles at your friends, find your preferred hill climbing gear and go!
Then, when your friends finally catch up to you on the flat, sprint them for the first street sign you see. When you beat them and are waiting for them to catch their breath after their surprise intermediate sprint ask them if they’re sorry.
Probably, the most sensible tip is to talk to your riding buddies before you start and make sure everyone agrees to regroup at the top of the climb. While bunch rides can at times feel like the World Championships, the reality is most of us just want to go for a nice ride with our girlfriends. We don’t want to feel like we’re in the middle of the Hunger Games, fearing that the last one to top will eliminated, or worse, left behind.
In every group there will inevitably be varying degrees of skill and fitness levels but we ride together for the social aspect. If you are one of those mythical creatures who are in fact gifted when it comes to riding your bike uphill and you want to try to hit the same power numbers that Chris Froome does up L’Alpe d’Huez, maybe you should just ride alone that day.
*Climbing: People think it’s this magical thing that only lucky or skinny people can do. This is a misnomer. Anyone can climb. Alison Powers teaches you how to climb in last month’s #AskALP column.
Chloe Hosking is a professional cyclist riding for Wiggle Honda. The Australian found cycling as a pre-teen and spent her early years on the bike riding around Canberra with her dad. Chloe took an untraditional path to Europe, self-funding trips to ride with composite teams and club teams at international races. Results on these self-funded trips were enough to land Chloe contracts on the biggest teams in the world.
She represented Australia at the World Championships, Commonwealth Games and the Olympic Games. Chloe hopes that her success inspires other Australian women to recognise the multiple pathways to European racing.