Strategies for Strength: A Sprinter’s Take on Climbing Strategies

Before I contribute a few of my favorite climbing strategies, I want to share my perspective on climbing. Because I’m mostly a sprinter, one might wonder what climbing strategies I have to offer. Well, if anyone has strategies for climbing, it would be a person who knows suffering is always involved. I’ve never had the luxury of “dancing” up the climbs like those 120-pound mountain goat–looking riders. Although my body can generate some power on the flats, carrying 175+ pounds up a mountain is not my idea of an ideal climbing scenario.

However, those who know me know that I love to climb. I’m not particularly fast, but I live for the rhythm and tempo of settling in on a long uphill journey.

When Jennifer and I shared our climbing strategies with each other, it was of no surprise that our approaches were different. This is a wonderful thing, as we will be able to offer a greater scope of reference when we present various topics. Jennifer has vast experience from personally tackling the big European climbs, living in Colorado, and years as a master instructor. My experience stems from competitive events but mostly coaching.

One assumption I want to correct is that I do not only coach high-performance athletes. I work far more with those looking to conquer their first charity ride, century, or cycling vacation. Many of the riders I coach simply want to enjoy their bike more on the weekends. In many ways I prefer coaching the cycling enthusiasts because they are often like sponges and get so excited when they learn something new and experience the results.

So with that said, my approach to climbing strategies will be weighted toward coaching and training one’s strength and fitness, and pushing the body beyond its current conditioning. What a big surprise.

My Experience: Breaking The Legs

There is a time in the early season where one needs that incredible challenge to catapult into the next realm of fitness. This is not a one-time event but an annual ritual. It can take many forms and can be experienced in different ways. For the outdoor cyclists (and guys like me), only an epic climb will do. It is interesting how many people don’t realize this is what happens to them each year. They would tell me how on this one day, the intensity and relentless nature of a particular climb nearly destroyed them. Then miraculously, as if they forgot the story they just told, spoke of how their fitness changed and everything after that was different.

Yes, this is what some of us cyclists call “breaking the legs.” Something happens when we are driven to the breaking point and survive to tell the tale. I’ve had a leg-breaking experience each year. Knowing how it transforms my riding, I also look for this unique opportunity each year as well.

Those of us that have taken a cycling vacation, tour, or spring training camp know of this phenomenon. My first cognitive experience breaking my legs was back in 2003 in Turkey. The owner of our local shop and team, Quad Cycles, took a few of us to his home country. At first it seemed risky, but as soon as we landed we immediately fell in love with the country and its people. The riding was amazing. Our somewhat flat rides would be along the Mediterranean and when we wanted some climbing, we would turn inland.

One of my favorite and most painful climbing days was our ride to Elmali. The first climb was 4,600 feet from sea level, which was followed by four mountain passes totaling 10,518 feet. It was a six-hour day in the saddle and included approximately 72 switchbacks. One goes through a transformation of mind, body, and spirit on a day like this. Our old website called CycleTurkey is still up if you want to take a look. Maybe I can talk Jennifer into joining us for a Turkey reunion someday!

Another was Haleakalā in Maui. We were filming a virtual ride series with Cycling Fusion and this 10,023-foot climb needed to be included. When you are traveling, plans can change without warning. Our goal was to film the climb starting at 3,000 feet to avoid the busy city at the coast.

Everything went as planned until we entered the park at about 6,000 feet. The park officials would not allow us to film using our van in the park. So we mounted a GoPro camera to my helmet and it was my job to “stage a storyline.” I had the perfect plan. One of our riders, Anne-Marie Alderson, had decided that she was going to take it easy up the climb while Michelle Simons was out for blood. Since they were going to start together in the park, I would ride behind them and film it as if Michelle had attacked. I would let her get a sizable lead, and then get behind Michelle and follow her to the summit for the epic finale.

As always, my creativity got the best of me. As Michelle started to pull away, I faded back with Anne-Marie to catch the action. Then I decided to ride back up to Michelle to get a camera angle from her perspective. Maybe the altitude was getting to me, but I decided to fade back again and ride with Anne-Marie to capture her “suffering” on the climb. I didn’t realize how far back Anne-Marie was. It should not have surprised me because Anne-Marie said she was going to take it easy.

By the time I found myself next to Anne-Marie, Michelle was nowhere to be seen ahead of us. This started to make me very nervous because I was now uncertain I would be able to ride back up to Michelle before the top. So at 8,000 feet I left Anne-Marie and went in pursuit of Michelle. Switchback after switchback and there was no sign of Michelle. I had to fight not to give up. I had been in Zone 5 since I left Anne-Marie and was not sure how much longer I could hold the pace.

Finally, at 9,000 feet I saw her and then I had a visual carrot to chase. I was able to catch her with two turns to go and finished behind her to catch her glorious summit. Yes, that climb and effort broke my legs. I will share some of my climbing strategies in upcoming posts and share with you how I sustained my mental and physical effort, and how these experiences can be adapted to motivate our indoor cycling classes.

Be sure to check out our other strategies:

Strategies for Strength: Counting Pedal Strokes

Strategies for Strength: Benchmarks and Rewards, Pt. 1

Strategies for Strength: Benchmarks and Rewards, Pt. 2

Strategies for Strength: Climbing at Tempo

Strategies for Strength: What’s Your Mantra?

Strategies for Strength: The Cheek to Cheek Technique

Strategies for Strength: The Wisdom of Yoda

Strategies for Strength: Activate Those Hip Flexors

Strategies for Strength: Projection into the Future

Strategies for Strength: Synchronized Breathing

3 Responses to “Strategies for Strength: A Sprinter’s Take on Climbing Strategies”

  1. My first big climb every year breaks my legs! I have a huge goal for June of 2017…so my training this winter will include so many of these strategies to get me up some seriously big climbs. And almost all my training will be indoors! Until late April…

  2. Alice Heffner says:

    Such a great insight, Tom. While my outdoor climbs never reach epic proportions, I’ve had the experience of just not having the juice on a ride (particularly in the flat) and needing that one challenging climb to get the lead out. Once that climb is mastered, my legs are energized and the ride is transformed. It’s a great lesson for our students.

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