The Art Of Climbing – Part I

Written by: Josh Horowitz (Wonderful Pistachios Pro Cycling)

With the Tour of Spain mountain stage upon us I figured this would be a good time to go over some tips for climbing.

Unlike other aspects of cycling, climbing success is considered by most to be almost 100% dependent on fitness and natural ability. After teaching a race clinic a few weeks ago it occurred to me that there is actually much more to it. Over the years, I’ve picked up numerous tricks and techniques that have allowed me to occasionally put one over on a stronger competitor. At the grass roots level, it is possible to just out ride your opponents, but as you get into the higher categories and the gap in ability narrows, strategy becomes increasingly important.

Here are 10 tips to help you out, broken down into three categories; training, technique and psychology. If you find one or two that help you out then my job is done!

TRAINING: tips 1-4

1. Cadence – Due in part to the influence of Lance Armstrong, it is generally accepted that keeping a higher cadence on the climbs is more efficient and more effective than pushing a big gear at a low cadence. A low cadence emphasizes the muscular system which tires quickly and takes several days to recover. A higher cadence places emphasis on the cardio and pulmonary systems which tend to have greater endurance and faster recovery.

It is not enough to just click into your 25 and attempt to spin up the next climb you encounter. Your body needs time to adapt. One of the most important and effective workouts I have my riders do to improve their climbing is the High Spin Interval. There are other variations of leg speed drills such as rev-ups but I’ve found the no nonsense high spin interval to be the safest and most effective.

Here’s how you do it. Find a flat road and attempt to pedal at 120 rpm for 10 minutes. Try to do it all at once with no breaks. There should be very little resistance on the pedals. Do this once or twice per week adding 5 to 10 minutes each week, over time, building up to a full hour. At first you will find yourself bouncing around in the saddle and you may even experience cramping and saddle irritations, however, as muscle memory develops you will become smoother and more efficient.

2. Base Training – Contrary to popular belief, doing thousands and thousands of feet of climbing is not necessarily the best or fastest way to achieve climbing fitness. Whether you are training for a 10,000 foot death ride or a pursuit on the track, base training is where it all begins. Aside from dreary zone 2 or moderate riding, I also have my riders do a cycle of tempo, or zone 3, intervals which includes 2 long intervals per week ranging from 30 to 90 minutes. These are done below threshold but help to improve endurance speed as well as threshold power to a smaller extent. Strength building is also very important in the off-season and much of it can be done right on the bike. After the tempo cycle, my riders do a 3- week cycle of Muscle Tension intervals. These are also done just below threshold but at a very slow cadence. Throw it into your big chain ring and do 10 minutes at a time at 50 rpm. Do this two to three days per week with 2 to 3 intervals on each day.

3. Threshold Training – After a strong base has been established, improving threshold power is the next step toward bringing you into climbing shape. I’ve found the most effective and efficient way to do this is with simple 15 minute Zone 4 or time trial effort intervals. These should be done right at anaerobic threshold or the point where your lungs start to burn and your legs start to ache. They can be done in sets of 2 or 3, 3 to 4 times per week.

Instead of seeking out the steepest climbs around, it is much better to do these on a 2 to 3 percent grade. You will want to spend 5 to 6 hours over the course of a 3 week cycle in this zone, so if you are training on 8% climbs with a cadence of 70 rpm, your muscles will exhaust before the cycle is complete and you won’t be able to put out the effort needed for adaptation. By keeping the cadence above 90 you will be able to do back to back interval days with plenty of recovery in between.

4. Anaerobic Training – The last part that many climbers ignore is anaerobic training. Many athletes, especially touring cyclists and triathletes, ignore the need for training above threshold because their events don’t necessarily require it. By training above threshold not only will you improve V02 max and anaerobic endurance, you will also improve threshold power. In addition, it will prepare you to follow accelerations and adjust to grade variations.


5. Positioning – Start the climb near the front. If you start near the back, not only will you have to keep the pace of the lead riders, you will have to make the additional effort of accelerating around dropped riders. A strong climber might be able to bridge one or two gaps, but if it is a long climb and a big pack, eventually they will burn their last match and go off the back, even if their power to weight ratio is higher than that of the leaders.

As an example of how important positioning on the climbs can be, in races such as the Vuelta a Sonora I’ve had to fight for wheels at the base of the climbs, the same way the sprinters do at the end of a criterium. We were smashing shoulders, pushing each other out of the way, riding each other off the road. It’s quite amusing seeing these skinny little guys, normally considered somewhat docile, getting so aggressive.

6. Pay Attention – Don’t just look at the move in front of you, try to see two or three moves ahead. Pay attention to everything. Listen to the breathing of the riders around you. Notice what gear they are in and if they discretely shift into a bigger one. Watch out for a rider who seems fresh and is looking around sizing up his competition. Look up the road for switchbacks or changes in pitch that may spark an attack. If you are not paying attention, by the time you shift, get out of the saddle and accelerate, the attacking rider may have opened up a gap that will take considerable effort to close.

If you can predict which rider is about to pounce, stay right on his wheel and then match his acceleration. In this case, all you have to do is keep his pace rather than sprint to catch up with him and then attempt to stay on his wheel. Similarly, keep your eye out for a rider who is about to be dropped. If you see him start to struggle, shift gears or rock his body back and forth, don’t sit around waiting to see if he’ll hang on. Immediately accelerate and take his wheel. Closing one bike length might not be that difficult, but if you wait till he has dropped, you might be required to close three or four.

7. Follow Through – Whatever you do, do not sit up as you crest the hill. It’s tempting to think, great, we made it to the top, I’m safe. I’ve seen riders do just that. They lose three bike lengths to the rider in front just as they begin the descent or they get gapped by the rider in front of them and they never catch back on. You’ve done the hard part. Don’t do all that work just to get dropped on the descent.

MENTAL: Tips 8-10

8. I am a Strong Climber and I Love to Climb! – I couldn’t write an article on climbing without mentioning the mental aspect. For most riders, the climb is won or lost the moment the looming inclinine comes into view. I cringe when I hear riders declare, “I’m not a climber”, or even, “I’m a sprinter.” Unless you are a world class or professional cyclist, there is just no reason to limit yourself with statements such as these. The rider who thinks to himself, I am not a climber, will never be a great climber no matter how hard they train. Mentally, they defeat themselves before they even reach the base. These negative self believes are powerful and deeply ingrained into the subconscious, but they can be overcome.

Next time you have one of these thoughts, write it down and then write down a positive thought that directly counteracts the negative one. For instance if you find yourself thinking, I hate to climb and I’m terrible at it, you may want to write, I am a strong climber and I love to climb! Notice that the statement is 100% positive. Using the word love in your statement has also been proven to improve the power of your mantra. Find 20 minutes on each ride to repeat this statement or affirmation to yourself. Say it out loud and with conviction. Think of the brain as having a type of muscle memory that can be re-shaped with training and repetition. If you do this consistently, you will be amazed at the results.

9. Relax – Negative thinking can cause a physical reaction. Riders who get nervous whenever the road ascends tend to tense up. They waste energy by clenching their shoulders and their arms. They lose their breathing rhythm and some (as ridiculous as this might sound) actually unconsciously hold their breath. Another result of this physically tension is a breakdown in efficiency. Their otherwise smooth pedal stroke becomes choppy and broken. As a result of all this, their heart rate rises much faster than a rider with a similar power to weight ratio and they end up going off the back.

Try these two tricks. At night, when you are relaxed and lying in bed, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Imagine yourself on a challenging climb. Visualize yourself feeling relaxed and pedaling smoothly. Conjure up emotions and feelings you’ve had while doing something cycling related where your confidence soars, such as riding in a pace line or sprinting, and translate that into this climbing scenario. See yourself spinning effortlessly and summiting in record time with very little difficulty. Do this every night before you fall asleep. Make your visualization as realistic as possible incorporating, sights, sounds, smells and sensations. If possible, imagine a particular climb that you want to conquer. You punish yourself on the bike week after week. Why not add a few minutes of training each day which won’t even require you to break a sweat?

10. Take the Pain – This may seem obvious, but be ready to suffer. I don’t mean normal suffering, I mean be prepared to push yourself past the point of pain. Often an entire ride or race comes down to one moment on the slopes. How you respond at that moment will define you as a rider. Depending on the situation, don’t worry about conserving energy and DON’T look at your power meter or heart rate monitor. The heart rate and power you put out in a competitive situation will be much higher than what you can handle in training. In many situations, if you ease off on the climb, your day is over anyway, so what are you saving it for? If you are suffering, chances are so is everyone else. Holding on for that additional 10 seconds could be the difference between heart break and a personal best. Then if you do get dropped at least you’ll know you gave it your all.


I went back and forth about this, but I decided to toss in some climbing secrets that I’ve picked up over the years. Use these when you need that extra half a watt to make it over with the group and for heavens sake, don’t tell anyone about them!

11. Don’t Look Up – When you look up to see the top, you get a distorted perspective of the steepness of the climb. Instead, distort your view in the opposite direction. Look straight down at the pavement in front of you. From this angle, it will appear to your brain that you are riding on a flat road and riding on a flat road isn’t so bad is it?

12. Smile – Often I catch myself making an exaggerated pain face as if to express my suffering to the world. Instead, try a smile. The brain associates a smile with pleasure and happiness. Smiling while you are climbing can trick your brain into thinking that you are not in as much pain as you think you are.

Part II Will Run Next Saturday

For More Info On Josh Horowitz and his Wonderful Pistachios Pro Cycling Team – CLICK HERE