What’s more satisfying than getting to the top of a really challenging climb—be it in the Alps or in your backyard? Not much. For many cyclists, climbing big mountain passes offers the ultimate challenge.
The most iconic battles in cycling history have played out on the grandest mountain roads of Europe. And many of us like to imagine ourselves in the thick of the action when we climb.
So why is so little known about what it takes to be a great climber?
There are significant gaps in our understanding of the biomechanics and science that comprise this important component of cycling. The physiological rules that govern climbing remain somewhat of a mystery, in part because it’s very hard to study the activity in a laboratory—stationary trainers cannot measure gravitational pull.
Coach Connor and I have studied climbing from a scientific perspective, and we’ve worked with some of the best climbers in the world, including American sensation Sepp Kuss. In that time, we have come to understand some of the peculiarities of pure climbers, studied the biomechanics of efficiency, and analyzed performances to diagnose what it takes to excel at climbing. [1–3]
Power and weight at play
The concept of power-to-weight ratios is well understood in cycling circles. There are even online tools that can “predict” your time on a given climb—just plug in a few data points about yourself and the terrain, and out comes your finishing time.
We could go into the minutia of the appropriate gear for climbing, or when to give that little extra push on a pitch. However, in large part it comes down to power-to-weight ratios. And because power-to-weight determines performance, it would seem the only way to substantially improve your climbing performance is to, 1) improve power or, 2) lose weight. [4,5]
Okay. But does your physiological threshold (think FTP) determine your power-to-weight on a climb? Based on what we’ve seen, our answer is, “not exactly.” (For the sake of this discussion, we are ignoring gear or aerodynamics. If we considered rolling resistance, position, muscle-firing patterns and the like, it would take far more time and words to fully discuss.)
Time trialists versus pure climbers
It’s simple: Improving your time up a climb has a lot to do with the power you can generate and your ability to stay as lean as possible.
So, is there anything else we can do to overcome what physics seems to dictate? Put another way, if you went to a lab to determine your lactate threshold, would the resulting number determine what you could average up a climb?
The answer is a little less pre-determined than you might think. That is because there are different types of riders—unique physiological engines. Research has shown that there are four primary “morphotypes”: time trialist, climber, flat-lander, and all-rounder. Each type has a clearly defined role during the distinct phases of a race.
The scientist who led some of the initial research in this area, Dr. Sabino Padilla, was attempting to answer the question of which type of rider has the advantage in a grand tour. Complex formulas were used to study 24 of the best cyclists in the world, and it was found that the outcome was heavily influenced by something called allometric scaling. [6–9]
The scales of mass
In allometry, every one of our physiological attributes—height, surface area, VO2max, and so on—has a scaling factor relative to mass. Some scale more, some less, and some equally.
In cycling, where weight is paramount, that’s important. When you drop even five pounds, you scale a whole slew of variables—not all of them for the better.
Dr. David Swain developed some of the original allometric scales for cyclists and found there were a few key components, including aerodynamics, the energy cost of climbing, and VO2max. Here is how they approximately scale relative to mass:
- Power: scales evenly with mass*
- Aerodynamics: scales by 0.33 with mass
- Energy cost: scales by about 0.79 with mass
- VO2max: scales by 0.75 with mass
(*functional mass such as muscle, and not your spare tire—there’s no cost to losing that weight)
What do those numbers mean? Power-to-weight is critical to climbing, but if we’re only considering muscle mass, and power scales evenly with mass, then it doesn’t give lighter riders any real advantage.
Keep in mind, however, that at a certain weight (around 180 to 190 pounds), the allometric scale between power and weight falls apart. Factors like oxygen consumption and the biomechanics of the pedal stroke put an upper limit on the absolute power a human can aerobically generate, regardless of size.
The typical climber physique is also significantly less aerodynamic since frontal area—the key factor in aerodynamics—is two-dimensional and doesn’t scale 1:1 with mass. This is why climbers struggle on the flat stages of the Tour, for example.
Surprisingly, smaller riders also incur a greater energy cost going uphill because, while power scales with body weight, bikes do not get proportionally lighter. Likewise, air resistance still affects them as it would a larger rider’s bike. In other words, a smaller rider must put out a proportionally larger effort to climb at the same speed.
Where small climbers have an allometric advantage is in their VO2max. Much of that advantage is offset by the greater energy cost of climbing, but not all of it. The greater energy costs mean their threshold power-to-weight will prevent them from beating a time trialist to the top by going steady. That is why they must use their better VO2max to attack. [1,5–9]
Riding to your “morphotype”
The research that looked at allometric scaling and its effects on rider types concluded that flat-landers had the best outright power, making them a danger on the flats and in a sprint finish where absolute power is more important than power-to-weight.
Relative to their weight, the light climbers had the best top-end power and VO2max. They also had a better ability to tolerate high lactate levels and generate more power anaerobically. However, they were less aerodynamic and, surprisingly, had a slightly lower power-to-weight ratio than the time trialists at threshold.
In race situations, that means climbers generally have a higher capacity to attack on a hill, while time trialists can ride steady and match or beat them to the top. To add to the time trialists’ advantage, they had the best absolute power and power-to-weight at threshold of all four types.
The researchers were surprised to find that the mid-weight time trialist, and not the skinny climber, had the advantage in a grand tour. To prove that point, they demonstrated that, with only a few exceptions, Tour de France winners in the several decades before the study all weighed near 70 kilograms.
None of this may be all that surprising: Relatively speaking, climbers perform better on steeper and more variable terrain while time trialists prefer less steep and steadier climbs.
The more interesting question is why. Our experiences over time have exposed a hypothesis: Climbers may be better able to maintain homeostasis when they can vary their pace. In other words, to climb at their best, they need to attack.
Other research has found that climbers have a better tolerance for momentary lactate accumulation. Thus, climbers may need a variable pace to take advantage of their lactate tolerance, but still need moments when they back off to clear lactate.
During times of steady pacing, climbers can struggle. Physiologically, it would seem, climbers can’t manage lactate as well as a time trialist when they lack opportunities to vary their pace. [6,9]
In the end, different types of riders can take advantage of various physiological strengths.
Here are our tips for becoming a better climber, based on the type of rider you are:
If you’re a time trialist
- Ride very steady and close to threshold: You tend to have the highest physiological threshold and steadiest power-to-weight of all rider types. Yet, you pay a price if you go too far over that threshold. Ignore the attacks and go your own pace.
- Stay seated: Standing is less efficient at lower intensities because of the extra energy required by the arms and core. [3,10]As a general rule, climb seated. In fact, all riders tend to have better biomechanics when seated.
- Ride to your strengths: If it’s a long and steady climb, you may be able to hurt the climbers who prefer variable gradients. Drive a hard tempo. On steep, variable climbs, responding to attacks will take a heavy toll. Ride your own race.
If you’re a climber
- Vary your pace: Physiologically, climbers seem to struggle with steady power output. Look for opportunities to surge and recover.
- Don’t stare at your power: While time trialists are limited by their threshold, climbers are less so. Vary your pacing and don’t worry too much if your average power seems high compared to your last FTP test.
- Stand for hard efforts: Everyone can produce more power when standing, but smaller riders pay less of an energy cost. Look for opportunities to stand more, especially on steep grades or when attacking.
- Ride to your strengths: Take advantage of steep pitches and variable grades to hurt time trialists. On steady climbs, don’t let them dictate the pace. Instead, attack and break their spirit.
- Have a pacing strategy: Don’t go out too hard and find an overall pace that’s at your limit but not over it. How do you find that pace? Practice.
- Keep a steady cadence and learn to spin: Climbing at lower cadences may feel natural but our biomechanics suffer and our muscles fatigue faster. Improve your fatigability by working on climbing cadence. 
- Learn how to grind: Sometimes a climb is just too steep to spin up. Prepare for these pitches. Do torque work riding at a sustained 45 to 50 RPM.
- Attack over the tops of climbs: We naturally tend to hold a steady velocity on steep pitches and then accelerate as the grade decreases. So, if you want to put out a big burst of power, use it where you get the biggest advantage—over the top of steep stretches and not on the steep pitch itself.
- Core power: A strong core is essential for staying stable while climbing, especially when out of the saddle. Without a strong core, your form and economy will break down.
- Pass on the cake: If you want to climb with the best, dropping some of that non-functional mass (i.e., your “spare tire”) is the simplest way to boost your power-to-weight. Just do it in a healthy manner, and target nine percent body fat for men and 11 percent for women.
- Sustained but not steady training: Even time trialists can benefit from training their ability to respond and recover. Try doing “over-unders,” alternating between efforts just above and below threshold.
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