Climbing uphill on a bike used to be my idea of hell. I used to watch the Tour de France and think “but why on earth would anyone want to ride up those mountains?”.
For most of us, that never changes. But over the past nine months since we began training for Ironman, hill training has become an addictive torture. The benefits of uphill cycling are massive; I think Mirinda Carfrae is quoted as responding to the question of how beginner triathletes can get faster on their bikes, with the phrase “point your bike up the closest hill”. Riding uphill, despite being torturous, is great for strength and endurance. And that is going to make you a stronger cyclist.
Now, I’m certainly no mountain goat. Climbing doesn’t come naturally, and I struggle to maintain a pace anywhere near the boys when we ride hills (or ever, for that matter). But, I think my cycling has benefited most from our commitment to regular climbing, so I thought I would share my hill training survival tips for beginner triathletes and cyclists:
1) Small chain ring. Small gear. Sit down. Settle In. Unless the situation is extreme, I find it best to stay in the saddle for as long as possible to conserve energy (although this isn’t always true, as sometimes, in desperation, I need to utilise my entire bodyweight, plus gravity, to stamp down on those pedals to get to the top. And this means getting up. But generally, for long, more sympathetic gradients, take a seat and admire the scenery).
2) Find a rhythm and meditate on it. This is kooksville-to-the-extreme, but on some climbs, I count to eight as I pedal. Over and over and over and over and over and over… Like a ticking clock, your legs will get lost in the momentum and you will stop noticing that you’re trying. Although your legs, and your lungs, will still be hurting.
3) Relax. Place your hands lightly on the top of your handlebars. I used to grip on to the hoods for dear life, thinking that this white-knuckle hold was strong, and made climbing easier. But if you relax your upper body (which is somewhat counter-intuitive) and release your grip, it focuses all of your energy to your legs. And it makes the whole thing a bit less painful and more pseudo-relaxing.
4) Don’t go into the red. Ever. I get a bit over-enthusiastic sometimes, and the start of a climb is no different. But if you fly out of the traps to fast, or try to prove yourself by overtaking a 70 year old woman on a 1962 Campagnolo as fast as you can, just to show her how much of a cycling boss you are, you’re going to pay for it later. So stay out of the red. And by red I mean, don’t smash yourself really hard when you still have 10km or 15 switchbacks or 958m to go. I have learnt this one by experience. And the 70 year old soon came flying past me…
5) Prepare to meet yourself. You will come face-to-face with the real you. And the real you is the one that had the extra (five) mini Mars Bars. The real you is the one who skipped cycling training through Christmas and New Year. The real you is the one that snoozed the alarm at 4:30am and stayed in bed instead of training. It’s the real you that has to haul your body and your bike up the hill. And I curse the real me on regular occasions when I’m trying to maintain momentum to stop me from rolling backwards. You are alone, and there is no hiding from the gaps in your training or lack of consistency.
6) Let the iPod shuffle and see what happens. This is my favourite one, and can be applied to all areas of life. I know for a FACT that my iPod knows exactly what mood I’m in. And it always makes the perfectly accurate selection for every passing moment. Like this weekend, when we rode to Kinglake and put ourselves through 3 x repeats of the climb, it had these moments of perfection: this guy Bob, this guy Etta (I realise she isn’t a guy), and out of leftfield this guy Craig popped up from that part of your iPod that you didn’t know existed. Random, but I went with it all the same (I even sang along. Like I said, prepare to meet yourself).
Just to reiterate I’m no mountain goat, and I’m certainly no hardcore climbing cyclist. But I love it. And I wanted to share the things that get me through the suffering and desperation that inevitably accompany cycling uphill.
And don’t panic if you find yourself praying for a puncture just for a legitimate break. This is normal. Now, go point your bike up a hill.