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The Art of Climbing
WORDS: Phil Deeker | PHOTOS: Ben Ingham
To climb the mountain cols is to earn one’s stripes as a ‘proper’ cyclist. It’s also the best school to learn the art of climbing.
I’m not a racer. I like riding hard but I tend to ride quite a few mountains in the same day, and for quite a few days in succession. Therefore, I ride up each with the next one in mind. So my tips are possibly more useful to the rider who wants to enjoy the climb and survive it, than to a rider whose sole aim is winning.
Things will, inevitably, get a little messy towards the top of a long, hard climb, and when the battle is one of survival, the initial focus should be on style, on finding one that is both most efficient and comfortable. I love the trance-like state that I slowly ride into on a long mountain climb; steady breathing, smooth pedalling, body swaying during the ‘dancing’ intervals, and always trying to keep arms and shoulders as loose as possible. Of course the sweat will pour and the legs burn – that’s cycling – but by focusing on the beauty of the twisting road, by soaking up the scenery around you and enjoying the silence, you can make the suffering bearable.
On a short, steep ‘mur’, it will take just a few metres to slip into ‘climb mode’. The situation is urgent. The gradient is aggressive, breathing becomes desperate and so the response must be immediate. On an hors catégorie col, the whole process can take longer. I always need a little time to get into any climb, to switch my whole body into climb mode. Once I’m there, I can sort myself out by ticking off a series of mental boxes. Climbing is ultimately a very personal thing but a few pointers can help you find your focus.
- Accept the simple truth: you are alone in this battle. You can hide in a bunch on the flat but on the up, you’re on your own. You can draft a fast wheel downhill but when you ascend, that same wheel will only tempt you to push too much until you snap. You will, eventually, always be on your own. You will feel every part of your body and must fight against the plea for mercy. You will ask yourself some searching questions but most of all you must learn to confine any negative thoughts to a tiny little box and search instead for something positive to help your body pump blood and oxygen to your screaming muscles.
- Assess your legs. Listen to them as they flush out any stiffness from a previous climb and be patient. In the end, they will acquiesce to your determination and respond accordingly. They will collaborate more willingly on some occasions than others but they will collaborate nonetheless.
- Find a rhythm. A regular breathing pattern, as relaxed as possible, is essential. You could be climbing for anything up to two hours, so you need to find the cadence that best suits both your lung power (cardiovascular capacity) and pedal power (muscle capacity).
- Throw some moves. As I climb, I continuously make checks: I check my arms and shoulders; my back; my legs, knees and feet; and my head. My movements must be smooth, measured and effective. I’m looking for the right dose of effort without risk of injury, knowing that my ego will be pushing me to test my limits (again).
- Stick to a strategy. Even if I don’t know every trick a climb has in store, based on distance alone I should be able to think up a plan for how I’m going to ride it. Usually the same one. I prefer to start off well below my climbing threshold for several reasons. These are: a) I need time for my (ageing) body to feel comfortable in climb mode; b) I love to finish a climb, however long, riding harder than when I began it; and c) my secret competitive ego ( be honest, we all have one) prefers to let others head up the road on the lower slopes and then pass them as the top approaches. And if I never catch them? Well, I can just pretend the only battle was against myself and allow my ego to escape intact.
Every climb can transform us. It gives the rider an opportunity to push themselves to, and in some cases beyond, their limits. As long as we take care only to die metaphorically, we will rise again stronger, in both body and mind. We will be wiser, humbler and happier. The glory after the suffering is, in part, a simple feel-good factor that helps you prepare for the next climb.
Phil ‘the Goat’ Deeker is the creator and ride leader of the Cent Cols Challenge. He is currently leading a group of intrepid riders on the Tour de Force, an organised ride following the route of the Tour de France one week ahead of the pro peloton.