Scott Fliegelman— Whether or not you consider yourself a king of the mountains, your bike doesn’t care if you are riding on a pancake-flat road or a monstrous climb. It merely responds to a combination of how hard you push on the pedals (torque) and how fast you spin the cranks (angular velocity). The product of those two things is power (measured in watts).
Picture this: Your bike trainer is attached to a floor lamp with a 100-watt bulb. You can illuminate the lamp by pedaling the bike—either by shifting into a really hard gear and pedaling slowly or by spinning at a high cadence in an easy gear to reach your 100-watt goal. Either approach will get the job done, but an optimal middle ground is likely more sustainable.
So now I hear you saying, “Yep, I get all that, but I still suck at climbing!” Let’s make the assumption that you do not suck at riding on flat roads and, as mentioned previously, the bike doesn’t know the difference. Now, let’s apply the same skills that help make you a solid rider on flattish roads and put them into play on the hilly sections. Note that while these tips will make you a better all-around climber, they are specifically geared toward triathlon racing.
Whether you are using perceived effort, a heart rate monitor, a power meter, or all three to help guide you toward an optimal bike split, you probably don’t make a habit of dramatically increasing your effort or speed while riding along on a flat stretch of road, do you? Then why do so when going uphill? Most triathlon coaches agree that the fastest bike split is achieved by dosing your effort as evenly as possible from T1 to T2, with no more than a 10 percent increase on uphill and upwind sections.
Gearing and cadence
“10 percent—that’s impossible!” you say? I’ve watched hundreds of triathletes struggle needlessly up hills of assorted lengths and pitches, and many do so with a few easier gears still available on their cassette, a sluggish cadence and a very high level of effort. Instead, use both front and rear shifters generously with the goal of maintaining a similar effort and cadence (85–95 RPM) as you transition from flat roads to climbing sections and back down, and your bike won’t even know the difference.
Choosing the right cassette
“But I’m in my granny gear as soon as the road tilts upward!” Sound familiar? Count the number of teeth on the largest cog on your cassette (the cluster of gears attached to your rear wheel). If you count 25 or less, then head right to your bike shop and ask them to replace your cassette with one with 28 or more teeth (a Shimano 105 11-28t runs about $60).
If you still run out of gears and your effort continues to go through the roof, then it’s time to back off on your cadence until your effort (power and heart rate) come down to within 10 percent of what they were on the flats. Further, you may start to doubt yourself as others blow by at near their max heart rate, but trust that you will indeed reel them back in and leave them in your dust when the course flattens out, and definitely when it comes time to run.
The standing climb
The biggest mistake triathletes make when they choose to stand for climbing sections is selecting too easy a gear. The resulting high cadence causes the heart rate to skyrocket with little, if any increase in speed. Instead, enjoy a change of position and some relief to your low back and rear end by standing and shifting to a slightly harder gear—one that allows you to pedal a cadence no greater than 50–60 RPM as you use body weight to help.