I’ve been climbing better this year than at any time since, well, a long time ago. A good friend asked me why. “Sobriety?” he wondered.
Keep in mind that “climbing better” doesn’t mean much in the big picture. I’m still an aged, hairy legged flailer who’s easily dispatched by the real climbers. Still, finishing with the leaders over and over on the Donut Ride’s big climb is an improvement by orders of magnitude, especially when it has occasionally involved whipping people 25 years my junior who I’ve never out-climbed before.
So I thought about it and here’s what I’ve concluded.
- Sobriety. Basically, the outcome of not drinking has been non-drastic weight reduction and, what’s even more important, weight maintenance. In the past I always found that losing weight was fairly easy, but maintaining it was impossible. I’ve averaged 150 lbs. per month since March, down from 167-170 in November when I had my last drink. Training and racing at the new weight has made it the “new normal,” and sobriety makes it easier to get back on track after a couple of extra trips down the buffet line. Sobriety also excises out all of the gratuitous eating that goes along with being slobber drunk. I no longer have to diet or count calories, I eat three solid meals a day, and I quit when I’m full.
- Climbing on the drops. I’ve been developing this technique a-la Pantani and Leibert for two years. It has increased my power significantly on the climbs, perhaps 10%? Maybe more? And since I’m on the drops I don’t get much in the way of an air drag penalty, which you do when you climb on the hoods. Drop climbing allows me to use my arms, shoulders, and back to supplement my legs and give them a bit of a break. Drop climbing also gives me acceleration uphill when trying to catch attacks. If you have a power meter, which I don’t, it would be interesting to see what your power output looks like drop climbing vs. seated climbing vs. climbing out of the saddle on the hoods. I can now climb on the drops for up to 30 minutes without sitting.
- Following wheels and sitting in. I’ve spent 30 years dragging my butt to the front and thrashing around with lots of riders on my wheel only to fall off the pace early. I watched a certain shirking wheelsucker this morning in San Diego and was impressed with how he’s always on a wheel, never in the wind, and seems to always be with the leaders. I’m trying to ride more like him, especially on climbs when the difference between getting shelled and making the split last year in Punchbowl and Castaic was only a handful of pedal strokes.
- Showing up for climbing rides fully rested. I ride better fresh than stale and have finally made rest an integral slice of the performance pie. It’s as important as intervals, and given my age, probably even more so. The biggest part of rest has meant riding less. A lot less. I probably did 5,000 miles last year, maybe not even that much. In previous years, 10k was on the low side. I’m no longer compelled to do hundred-milers, or to ride endlessly for hours to improve my “base,” whatever that is. After 33 years of cycling, if I don’t have enough of a base to do a couple dozen races a year, riding all day on PCH isn’t going to do the trick.
- Picking a target. Instead of trying to be first, which I’ll never be, I pick someone who’s marginally better than I am and make it my goal to beat that person. Trying to be No. 1 is too defeating when I’m up against Stathis and Derek and Julien B. every Saturday. Better to pick someone who’s always in the split but who sometimes gets dropped than the guys who can ride me off their wheel at will.
- Not going for every summit or sprint point. This fall, with one or two exceptions, I’ve gone full gas to the Domes and soft pedaled the rest of the ride. Better to have one super effort with a satisfying result than a bunch of mediocre ones. More importantly, those full gas efforts followed by slowness keep me out of the dreaded “middle” zone, which I define as too fast to rest but not fast enough to improve.
- Golf course intervals. Although it’s not climbing a-la Donut, the Thursday Flog Ride has 5-6 minutes of undulating uphill, repeated six times, and there are not really any races in SoCal with climbs that require more than one or two 6-minute, 100% efforts. I guess I don’t need a Latigo or Deer Creek to improve my climbing capacity. In fact, I’ve concluded that those long, killer climbs actually hurt me since at age 51 it takes days to recover from that type of effort.
- Purchasing speed. In 2007 I was still wearing a wool jersey, riding a steel frame, and riding 36-spoke aluminum rims. I now ride a frame that is full carbon and is 100% carbon, with all-carbon 404 Fast Forwards for training, ceramic BB, and super light 100% carbon FFWD climbing wheels for racing that are made of full carbon. Also re: aero: Losing weight has shed a bit of wind resistance. Not a lot, but when I’m clinging to the good climbers it doesn’t take more than a few pedal strokes either way to kick me out the back or keep me attached. Every bit helps.
- Not going hard out of the chute. A very good racer told me that most riders aren’t patient because they get too anxious. As a general rule, the longer you wait to hit it hard on a climb–up to a point–the better you’ll do. I practice waiting on the Donut now, except on occasions like last Saturday when, well, I didn’t.
- Let the quarry move first. My usual M.O. has always been to attack, then attack again, then attack again. Then attack again. This always sets up other riders to easily drop me because my attacks are too feeble to drop anyone, but intense enough to tire me out. Now on a climb I pick my quarry and wait until he tries to shed me. If he fails, I wait to see if he’ll try again. If he does and can’t, I can usually shed him, and then out of the diminished group choose another “beatable” foe.
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