Climb like a Classics star: how to train for short, steep hills

Short, thigh-burning climbs take centre stage during the Classics, but how can you learn to ascend like Peter Sagan, Greg van Avermaet and co?

The Classics season sees the world’s best cyclists swap the long, sun-kissed ascents of week-long stage races and Grand Tours for the short but steep climbs of the Tour of Flanders, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and more.

Semi-classics such as E3 Harelbeke and the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad have already packed in the Hellingen, before the Tour of Flanders – with this year’s race taking place on Easter Sunday, April 1, and boasting 18 cobbled climbs in all.

The iconic Muur is on the menu, as is the famous Koppenberg, while Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg must be tackled multiple times.

Peter Sagan powers up the Paterberg on his way to Tour of Flanders victory in 2016, but how can you improve your own power climbing ability? (Pic: Sirotti)

World champion Peter Sagan was victorious in 2016, while Philippe Gilbert – already a legend in the Ardennes Classics – added his name to the roll of honour last time out. Gilbert is a rider who thrives on the short, steep, punchy routes having also won La Fleche Wallonne, the Amstel Gold Race and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, as well as the hilly 2012 UCI World Championships.

Indeed, once the cobbled Classics are over, the Ardennes Classics arrive hot on their heels – all building up to Liege-Bastogne-Liege on Sunday April 22.

Like Belgium, the UK may lack mountain passes but has an abundance of short, sharp steep climbs. So how can you get them up faster? What skills and training are needed to dish out a Fabian Cancellara-esque acceleration to the Sunday morning chain gang when the road goes suddenly skywards?

We asked three coaches, Dan Bennett of Progressive Cycle Coaching, Tom Kirk of Custom Cycle Coaching, and Marc Laithwaite from the Association of British Cycle Coaches, for their tips on becoming a more effective power climber.

Take a seat or remain standing?

Much debate surrounds the relative efficiency of climbing in a seated position at a low cadence, and pedalling out of the saddle to turn a bigger gear. Lance Armstrong was famous for spinning a low gear on the endless climbs of the Tour de France, but how efficient is that for the short, painful bergs of the Classics?

“Although your climbing speed may not be quite as quick, on climbs of less than ten per cent it is more efficient to climb in the saddle using a high cadence rather than to stand and push a higher gear, as your precious muscle strength will not be taxed quite so much,” says Bennett.  “This allows you to stay fresher and ride later climbs with more power.

“If you have a climb that is very short, a quick punchy effort out of the saddle will get you over the climb without a loss in speed. The knack is to know which to use and to ensure you have the right gears on the bike.”

For Kirk, the suitability of either technique rests with the build of the rider and the gradient of the climb.

“The physiology of certain riders allows them to sit but many rely on the extra power created from riding out of the saddle in a higher gear on the short steep climbs that make up the Classics and also many of the climbs we encounter in the UK.

Michal Kwiatkowski climbs out of the saddle during last year’s Amstel Gold Race (Pic: Sirotti)

“The length and gradient of these climbs mean that often a ‘rouleur’ with higher absolute power has an advantage over a pure mountain climber that would excel in the high mountains.”

Laithwaite identifies a lack of ‘force production’ – the ability to produce high power for a short period of time – among riders, which he ascribes to the increasing popularity of triple and compact chainsets, encouraging riders to pedal at too high a cadence.

“As a consequence they have lower leg strength,” he says. “Many people are forced to change into an easier gear as soon as they reach any short, steep hills, thereby losing all speed and momentum. In shorter, hilly time trial events, having enough leg strength to attack shorter hills and maintain speed is very important.

Lighten up or power down?

The physiological differences highlighted by Kirk are most evident in the Ardennes Classics, a series of three one-day races – the Amstel Gold Race, La Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege – at the end of April which attract both power climbers and Grand Tour specialists.

For example, the aforementioned Gilbert, winner of all three Ardennes races in 2011 and a three-time Amstel Gold Race winner in all, has a powerful build that prevents him from contesting the Pyrenean or Alpine climbs on which the now-retired Andy Schleck, a rider who won Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2009 and the Tour de France a year later, used to excel.

Is the most effective way to become faster on Classics-style climbs simply to shed a few pounds or is this an over simplification?

“True natural climbers in the Pantani mould are able to explode out of the saddle to attack using their huge power to weight ratio but on the longer climbs spinning a lower gear in the saddle will be more efficient,” says Kirk.

The best Classics riders tend to carry a little more ‘timber’ than the Grand Tour’s climbing specialists (Pic: Sirotti)

Riders like former cobbles king Cancellara and Ardennes master Gilbert strike a balance between absolute power and weight. They carry more ‘timber’ than the likes of Schleck but use that explosive power to incredible effect on short, steep climbs where weight is less important than in the mountains. However, there’s still a sweetspot for riders to find and weight, ultimately, has a significant impact when the road heads uphill.

“In general the lighter you are the better you’re going to climb,” says Bennett. “More specifically, a good efficient climber has a higher power output with a lighter body. So if you have some extra layers of insulation around your torso, losing some of it while maintaining or increasing your power will make you climb faster.”

Laithwaite agrees: “Lighter riders are more efficient whether in or out of the saddle, power-to-weight ratio is absolutely critical for successful climbing. Riders we test are often able to produce a high amount of power but their heavy weight places them at a real disadvantage when riding hilly courses.”

However, unless you have significant weight to lose, the most efficient and sustainable way to increase your power-to-weight ratio is to focus on the former, ultimately working on boosting your Functional Threshold Power. You can learn how to do that here.

A mountain to climb

Practice makes perfect is a time honoured mantra, but cycle training has become increasingly sophisticated and an emphasis on miles and more miles is increasingly replaced by specific training.

Is regular hill riding essential to becoming a better climber or can riders in East Anglia develop similar abilities to those living in hillier regions?

Improving your power-to-weight ratio is key to improving your climbing… and that can be done even if you don’t live near any climbs (Pic: Sirotti)

Laithwaite argues that, while it helps to train on hills, riders who follow programmes that make them lighter and able to produce more power than their rivals will always go uphill faster. “During groups rides, some people will always be better climbers than others, irrelevant of whether they train on hills or not. They are generally the ones who have the best combination of fitness and weight,” he says.

Bennett believes that, while training on hills is a bonus, it isn’t essential to becoming a better climber. “Those of us living in flatter parts of the country can prepare on the turbo (raising the front wheel a few inches to mimic the climbing position) or out on the road riding into the wind,” he says, “but if you do have hills around you it is best to use them.”

– How to improve your climbing… if you don’t live near any hills –

Kirk concurs. “Unfortunately, the terrain in the UK makes it harder for riders targeting events like the Etape du Tour and La Marmotte to train with specificity,” he says.

“I recommend manipulating your gearing and cadence to allow long, high paced efforts in a bigger gear and lower cadence than you would normally ride on the flats to simulate the efforts you will encounter. If you can’t find the shorter, steeper climbs nearby, focussed work on the turbo and lower-body weight training over the winter can improve your strength to allow you to sprint over the climbs at a higher power.”

Waiting to explode

Perhaps the key difference between riders who do well on the short, steep climbs of the Classics – riders in the mould of Cancellara and Gilbert – and the ‘angels of the mountains’ who soar into the distance on the endless inclines of the Grand Tours, is the ability to deliver a sudden, explosive burst of power. So, finally, how can such explosive power be developed?

For Kirk, the tried and trusted method of hill reps pays dividends in efforts to emulate the hardmen of the WorldTour peloton who relish the bergs of northern Europe.

“Explosive climbing relies on strength and power and hill reps on a short, steep climbs from a slow start are great for this,” he says.

– How to improve your climbing: hill reps –

“Try riding up a short steep hill at maximum effort from a standing or slow rolling start for great on-bike strength training.  An important thing to remember for racing is that attacks will often go over the top of a climb where most riders ease up as they crest the hill.

“Training yourself to keep going and sprint over the false flat can really help in key moments of a race, so add in some longer climbs where you ride the majority of the climb at 80 to 90 per cent effort then attack over the last 100 metres.”

Explosive power is key to climbing short, steep climbs and hill reps are the tried-and-tested way to improve that (Pic: Sirotti)

Bennett suggests finding a local hill about two minutes long. “Do repeats up that hill taking around five to 10 minutes in between each effort.”

He adds: “Another way is when you’re out on a longer ride, power up each short climb or rise in the road you come across, really working yourself up the climb as fast and a quickly as you can.”

Laithwaite suggests ‘stomps’ – a straight-forward, four-step drill that can be completed on a quiet road as part of a regular training ride.

  • Change into big gear
  • Slow the bike to a crawl
  • Sit absolutely still on the bike with no movement from the pelvis upwards
  • Stamp on the pedals as hard as possible, with ten pedal strokes in total

“You should find it really hard to get the bike moving and it’s likely that you will not have built up a great deal of speed by the time you’ve completed ten pedal strokes,” he says, “but that’s fine.”

‘Stomps’ should be completed in sets of five, with rests of one minute between each. One to two sets should be completed in an hour, separated by 30 or 60 minutes.

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