Thursday, June 23, 2011

Hill riding strategies for road races

While racing over 600km in 5 days in the beautiful, and really, really hilly Beauce region of Quebec, I had plenty of time to think about how to ride hills. The area is so hilly, that pretty soon we weren't even calling anything shorter than a kilometre, or less than 10% grade, a hill! But now back in the normal world, they were hills. Pretty serious hills.

The second KOM of the second stage was paricularly brutal, 2.8km of 5.2% with
sections over 20%, even though it was a "sprinter's stage".
Photo: Rob Jones, Cycling News

I had a number of strategies for handling the hills, depending on whether I knew it was coming and whether I had a choice in the matter, and I thought I would share my thoughts on how to ride hills in road races with everyone.

Don't pull to the bottom of a hill

The first one is easy: avoid doing all the work in the lead-up to a hill! It seems obvious, but when I'm hurting in a race, sometimes I lose focus and mess up tactically. Even if it feels like you're not going hard, the guys behind you still have far more energy to hit it (or attack) when the hill arrives, and might leave you in the dust. I certainly didn't need to worry about this one at Beauce! but I did go off the front of the pelton on stage 1 primarily because the pace-makers on the front of the peleton behind me just didn't want to step it up a notch on a hill.

Sag Climbing

The principle is easy...start closer to the front, ride slower and put out fewer watts than most, and end near the back. Use lower-effort times in the race, like lulls between attacks and the start of hills, as I mention below, to move back to a better position closer to the front of the pack.

Climbing like this requires that you know how long the climb is, so that you can lose ground to the leaders at the correct rate, leaving you near the back as you crest. It also helps to have a good idea of what will happen as the leaders crest. Will they attack? If so, trying to stay with an accelerating peleton by sprinting the last part of the hill, while the leaders are on the flats, certainly wont save any energy. If there is a selection, and you find yourself in the second (or third, or fourth) group at the top, you may also use more energy working hard to catch back. But if you're fairly sure the pace wont change too much, it can definitely be worthwhile.

I plan to use sag climbing when it's either early in the race, when I don't expect people to burn matches hitting it on or after the hill, or when there is a break off the front, again decreasing the chance people will attack at the top. Also, if I'm running out of gas later in a race, I will drift back on the climb (assuming I can get to the front before the hill starts) just to avoid blowing up.


Have you noticed that when you're in the middle or back of the pack, you have to brake just before you start the hill? This is because the front of the pack has already arrived at the hill, while you're still on the flat or downhill. Sling-shotting allows you to use the momentum from the downhill or flats preceding the hill to save energy and/or move up in the pack. Generally, you need to be on the edge of the peleton, so that you can choose when to pull out from behind the riders slowing in front of you and pass them. I find this best if you can see the hill coming, and there is enough space on the road to pass people.

Allow me to give an example. Picture a 90-rider peleton riding three-abreast, going slightly downhill at 45km/h, and approaching a fairly long hill of 10% grade. The people behind the leaders might be pedaling very lightly, or not at all. As soon as the leaders hit the hill and slow down, riders behind them will often brake to match the speed of the leaders ahead and maintain their position in the pack. However, if you are at back of the pack (unlikely where you want to be), you are roughly 60 meters behind the front riders. In 60 meters, they have slowed to their hill-climbing speed (perhaps around 20km/h), while you are just hitting the hill and still doing 45km/h. At this point sometimes the peleton will fan out across the road as riders, consciously or unconsciously, sling-shot up beside the racers at the front, to avoid braking and save energy.

Ideally, I start just far back enough that by the time I run out of momentum, I'm very close to the front. This of course depends on how much faster you expect to be going than the front of the pack. For example, if the road slowly gets steeper, you may not have any extra speed to sling-shot past other riders. However if you are on rolling terrain, for example the back leg of the Stampede Road Race course in Madden, there is a good opportunity to gain a few places as the peleton's speed ebbs and flows over each roller. The Stampede course isn't the ideal situation, because the road is narrow enough that the peleton may already fill the entire lane, leaving no space to move past people. Regardless of the road you are on, you should always use caution when swinging out around the riders ahead, both to respect the center-line rule if it is in effect, and to watch out for other riders who are doing the same or not expecting you to come along-side/past them.

Spin it to win it

Not as much of a climbing tactic as a strategy for saving your guns: try to get into a smaller gear than necessary, but one which still allows you to still apply pressure at a reasonable cadence, so that you don't need to down-shift once the pressure is on. Mountain-bikers will be familiar with this. You don't want to have to change from your big to your small ring after you get bogged down and need to keep applying pressure. If possible, switch to your small ring before the hill and cross-chain a bit (maybe 39-13), so that you can shift up on the cassette as your speed drops off and don't have to big-ring the whole hill. The same applies when accelerating out of a corner - I often see people not down-shift as they enter the corner, and end up having to push a giant gear, like a 53-12, as they accelerate from low speed. This leads to poor acceleration and trashing your fast-twitch muscles for later in the race.

Rolling off the top

This strategy is almost the opposite of sag-climbing. It actually makes those try to sag-climb, or those dangling near the back, work harder or get dropped. If you are able to finish the hill at the front of the pack, you will likely be tired and want to slow down to recover. However, try to keep the same effort, or even surge a little, to get back up to speed - around 40km/h is a common race speed on a flat road. You are forcing those at the back to match your speed when they are still on the hill, perhaps doing 20km/h, or they will lose contact with the wheel ahead. And because you are now going fast enough for drafting to be more effective, they lose out on that all-important draft at the higher speed.

I remember this being done very effectively at Banff Bikefest in 2010. The Lenovo team was working hard on the front, keeping the break's lead in check to protect their team leader's GC lead. This meant that they were tired in the latter part of the race, falling to the back of the peleton on the hill. Other teams on the front ramped the pace as they crested the first main hill on Tunnel Mountain Drive, and each lap it seemed one of the Lenovo team would get dropped. In the end, the Lenovo team's efforts kept their team leader fresh for the end of the race, and he was able to keep the pace high and finish in the pack, to win the overall GC for the race, but them being dropped certainly made the outcome much less certain!

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