In 1984, when Oldspeak was still the normal means of communication, the danger theoretically existed that in using Newspeak words one might remember their original meanings.
In practice it was not difficult for any person well grounded in doublethink to avoid doing this, but within a couple of generations even the possibility of such a lapse would have vanished.
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
A mountain is not an obstacle, it is an opportunity
IngSoc, the totalitarian ideology in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, would probably have a different opinion. It may have called the unflat section of the route a doubleplushill and you would have been re-educated at a joycamp for merely thinking of anything other than following the greater collective.
But somehow we’ve survived the fifth year of the 1980s without all having to wear grey suits, and apparently we can still figure it all out for ourselves, or at least you can pretend to.
Onwards and upwards, then, from the Oceanian province of Airstrip One to something that might interest you more, and one of the great debates of New Age cycling.
Climbing: nature, nurture or numbers? It’s an appropriate question to ask in these modern times. When technology allows you to measure, record and play back analysis of every pedal stroke a rider produces, you might be tempted to think that’s as much as there is to it: numbers to aim for and reproduce when called for, no thinking required.
All the climbs have been mapped and Street Viewed, the boffins have worked out the steepness, the optimum pedal speed and probably the best place to sneak a drink. You can even program all that information into your static training device and enjoy the experience of something like the Col du Tourmalet from the comfort of your front room, complete with cups of tea and Planet Rock to keep to the tempo.
The world might be digitally mastered, but like the refusal of vinyl to disappear under the emergence of CDs and downloads, I believe there is still a place in bike riding for a bit of romance, understanding sensations and the interpretation of feeling. Step forward the climber and all those who worship at the altar of lightness.
For example, the other day I read on the worldwide authority that one of the secrets to successfully climbing hills is to remain seated; we are told the other option, which climbers have used since time immemorial – namely standing up on the pedals – is uneconomic. Really?
An explanation of temporary relief was offered to excuse the non-seated behaviour, and if it wasn’t this weakness of character then it had to be the consequences of wrong gear selection or an inadequate saddle position that you’ve mistakenly imposed on your body. Now I’ll know how to explain why I wasn’t always good enough.
So if you are fortunate enough to be a mountain stage spectator at the Tour de France this year, then you can safely shout to Alberto Contador and co, with the authority of someone who has done their research, that they ought to sit down and save their energy while they pedal past, because that en danseuse style is doing them no favours. You may as well remind them that celebrities have a moral obligation to be aware of green issues whilst you’re at it.
In reality, climbing mountains has always been more about feeling and sensations than doing as you are told by an electronic device or a know-it-all at the side of the road. No, it’s not stubbornness: I put that down to the artistic interpretation the climber is allowed as an entertainer because, let’s face it, the climber on any team is usually a little bit quirky and it’s no good trying to rein in a talent that looks so awesome when performed at the top level.
But don’t be fooled into believing that quirkiness means the climber hasn’t done his homework. In the pro peloton, you won’t survive five minutes if you haven’t taken your natural talent and developed it, honed it and perfected its many facets.
As a climber, there are a number of subjects you have to understand before you pit yourself against nature, and these can be split into two simple parts: before the race situation and the race situation. See, I told you it was easy.
For the climber, and all other riders for that matter, the pre-season period is the time you have to look at what you do well and what isn’t quite working. It’s the time to try out different shoes, saddles, handlebars, crank lengths, pedals and the other variables that make up your riding position.
So, for example, if you were struggling with getting to the climb in decent shape due to poor flat terrain performance, then the pre-season is your chance to try improving that aspect. A longer crank length might be more comfortable or you can try a flatter pedal position that lets you pull that big gear more easily; more set back on the frame; a different saddle.
If your riding position isn’t aero enough, then it’s time to play with bar widths, heights and shapes. Do ergo bars feel better than a traditional shape? Longer stem length or maybe shorter but with deeper bars? Team suppliers might be changing and you’ll have to establish what suits your style and what doesn’t.
Of course, you have to work out if the improvement you are seeking is impacting on your natural talent, and then you have to judge if you can compromise one aspect against the other.
It’s also the time to work on your core strength, not a phrase you would associate with most slightly-built climbers, but it’s very important if you are going to cope with racing stresses. You need that inner strength to deal with the temperature changes you get in the mountains, to soak up any rough roads and be able to survive hitting a pothole without it knocking the stuffing out of you.
At the same time, a good core will help with being able to climb out of the saddle for long periods. Keep a stable seated position and your body will be more balanced. The stronger you can get your core, the less injuries you’ll pick up, too.
The pre-season is the time to sort out your head as well. If you haven’t had a psychological profile done before, it can be a shock to have your weaknesses and strengths examined so closely, but it needs to be done and it’s easier to find the time to work on the mental aspects outside of the competition arena.
You can practice the various techniques at home or while riding before you have to use them in race situations. Again, it’s all about building a feeling for what you’re doing and being confident in your decisions. As you come out of the winter break, it’s back into more cycling and the chance to work on what you want to be good at more closely.
You’ll have thought about what you are happy with in your climbing abilities and decide either to improve that part or, if it’s already good, bring the other parts up to a better level.
Is your initial sprinting acceleration good enough? If it is, then do you slow too much when you have to sit down compared to your sprinting speed? Can you improve that or will you just stand on the pedals again? Is your long sprint as good as your short sprint? You might prefer an explosive effort over the last 200 metres, but then the others – who you always get the better of that way – will have you flat out from the last kilometre instead.
Have you got a good transition between sitting and standing? Do you find that your bike goes back a wheel length when you stand up? Because if you are, then that’s costing you a metre every time you stand up.
When you think how many times you’ll be in and out of the saddle during a long climb, you can’t afford to lose a metre with each change, so that’s a technique you have to work on until the transition is second nature. It’ll feel seamless when you get it right, and that’s the sensation you have to keep.
Is your climbing in the big chain ring as strong as the inner ring stuff? How do you cope with a fast pace at the bottom of a climb? Is your ability to change pace good enough? Have you simulated attacking over the top of climbs? These are all aspects you’ll need to be comfortable with. Of course, you won’t really find out until the first races, but initial training ought to give you a decent base. Then you can fine-tune things.
Those first races of the season are unique, and climbing at the Classics versus climbing at stage races has totally different demands. Liège-Bastogne-Liège needs a different approach to tackling something like Alpe d’Huez, but they are both reputedly climbers’ domains.
For the Classics, you need an intricate knowledge of the route and a more explosive power, so the training leading up to the race will need tweaking. You need to know where to place yourself, but it’s likely you’ll get muscled out in the big fight for position beforehand, so then you are looking at the first few climbs to establish yourself in the front rather than provoking any selections.
More often than not, the decisive attacks are made just over the top of the climbs rather than on the steepest sections, and if you are able to get in one of those moves, you might just be the only real climber in the front.
On the really steep hills, you have to know where and where not to ride: things like knowing where that trickle of water or gravel patch will be to avoid wheel spin, or where the drunken crowd from a beer tent will be spilled onto the road, are essentials of the Classics experience. Most importantly, you need to be on excellent form and ready to fight for most of the day with pesky Belgians. If you are really lucky, you’ll probably learn a few new swear words.
However, at a stage race two months later, a day’s racing in the Pyrenees isn’t something many Belgians will be relishing. Thankfully, all that desperado pushing and shoving into corners doesn’t really happen – in fact, the same guy who would have cut your throat to be in front of you at the bottom of the Mur de Huy is now quite happy for you to pass before him.
He’s even happier when you leave him to his own pace. Choice of pace becomes important whatever group you are in when there are three cols to negotiate; sure, the climber doesn’t mind blasting up all three, but they won’t be popular with the other riders if the gruppetto gets eliminated on time difference because chances are they’ll have teammates in that group as well. That’s never a good thing to be responsible for, and the discussion at the hotel dinner table can be a bit stunted when there are empty places where your friends once sat.
If your form is good, then you will have a chance to try out your hill sprinting under proper mountain conditions and refresh the levels of skill needed to get up and down a mountain at speed.
Stage races are a bit more structured than the Classics, in a “I’m the climber, you’re the sprinter and you go in the breaks” kind of way. There’s a bit less mental pressure to deal with, so with that spare brain space you can check out how your climbing feels and how your climber rivals are looking.
If you are riding for GC, then you’ll have to forget the King of the Mountains sprints and pay attention most of the day. On the flat days, instead of hanging out with the sprinters at the back of the bunch and having a laugh, you’ll be praying your time-trialing is up to scratch and keeping out of the wind. It still beats Belgium, though.
The climber’s role can be one of three things: climber pure and simple – doing the KoM sprints and nothing much else; climber as support for the team leader; or team leader itself. Each role requires a different climbing technique, depending on what rider or team has decided is required, so the training and the racing changes for each situation.
You only really get a feeling for KoM sprints by doing them – that’s how you’ll learn how to place yourself, which gear you are going to need, how to use the terrain to your advantage, which sprints are worth doing and the ones you’ll never win – in those cases you learn to limit your losses by following a good wheel.
KoM sprinting is subtly different again to riding for individual or stage wins. The requirements are similar, except the way to use your energy changes, so the type of rider preparation can be the same.
You have to be prepared to be in the red zone for a long time after a mountain-top sprint, sometimes for the rest of the day if it’s a long way to the finish, but the satisfaction of winning sprints is immense and compensates for the suffering during and after the sprint.
You’ll have to cover attacks at the bottom of climbs if you need points and your rivals are trying to sneak away, or if you aren’t too confident about where you stand with regards to your hilltop sprint then you can do what a lot of KoM winners have been doing over the last few years and go on a long break, hoovering up the points then getting blasted in the final.
Then you just have to recover enough to control the lead you’ve built up. It sounds easy, but prepare for a few bad moments in the following days having chosen that option.
Climbing as support for the team leader means you have to take way more wind than you would as the mountain sprinter. You have to be able to set a fast tempo, but not so fast that you put your man in trouble as well as everyone else. Be smooth and consider your team leader is the order of the day. You’ll have to adapt to sitting down for most of the climb and slowing down when gradients steepen instead of just standing up for the harder sections. You still need to be able to produce a change of pace to cover attacks and put others in trouble, but the pressures are more physical than mental.
Some climbers deal with this type of role better than others, and generally, as you get older, you lose a bit of explosive acceleration and develop more resistance and strength, so it can be a natural progression to this role.
Climbing as team leader is probably the most stressful. Physically, you have to be strong, and mentally you have to be confident. The way you approach climbing for GC or a one-day race is a more drawn-out affair, a process that starts with how you look at the course and how you use you team’s energy and, ultimately, your own.
You’ll need to know where the important parts of the course are and have an idea of what is likely to happen. Although you can rely on radio messages from the team car for decisions, you still have to pay a lot more attention to who is where and what’s going on. You need to place yourself more conservatively and only make efforts when it’s important.
In the mountains you have to be aware of wind direction, especially for the valley sections, as quite often the wind changes from cold air coming down the mountain to hot air going upwards when the temperatures rise enough to reverse the flow.
That kind of detail can have a major influence on how the race develops and maybe even on choice of gearing. You need to learn a few key landmarks for each climb and remember why they are important: can you relax a bit or is there a harder section coming up soon?
You have to take into account that when you ride the route in training it’ll look very different to when you arrive there in a race, with crowds on the side or in the middle of the road: quite often the plan you had to avoid the inside of a certain hairpin will be scuppered by a lack of crowd control.
Every mountain has its own little things that you have to learn or be aware of, and once you’ve ridden them a few times you can use certain elements to your advantage.
For the climber at the top level, the climbing of the mountain itself isn’t going to hurt. What makes the decisions is the pace you climb them at. That’s where you need a certain margin to play with so that when there’s a big attack or change of rhythm it is something you can absorb.
That adaptability is really what differentiates the climber from the non-specialist. You have to know how many accelerations you can produce, and you have to learn when to use them and where they will be the most effective.
You need to watch how the other riders are coping. Do they look comfortable? Are they struggling with the steeper sections or maybe the exit of the corners? If they are, it might be worth a change of pace to make things more difficult for them: put them on the inside of the hairpin where it is steepest, or on a rougher part of the road surface, for example.
This is when the climber has to ride on his feelings, when he has to make judgements based on the sensations in his legs, because even though it might be hurting, it’s more than likely it’ll be hurting everyone else a little bit more.
One brutal acceleration might be enough, or it might take five or six, but when the elastic snaps and no one can follow any longer you’ll be on your own – and believe me, there’s nothing more a climber can ask for than dancing away at the head of the race alone.
Alone against nature, no numbers involved.