A look at improving you ability to ride uphill. Especially if you are riding the Taiwan KOM Challenge..!
For professional coaching advice, contact Lee Rodgers, official Taiwan KOM Coaching Provider, at email@example.com.
Maybe you're a natural climber, one of those sub-55kg guys who looks like he's escaped a bird cage somewhere, all ribs and knobbly knees, born to climb like an angel and descend like a helium-filled balloon. I remember riding super flat stages on the UCI Asia Tour into a block headwind, tucked happily behind some hulking 188cm Lithuanian dude, when one of these featherweight guys would try to get between me and my human wind block.
"No way amigo, you can sit on my wheel but do not even think about getting in front of me..."
They'd get their revenge though as soon as the road started to go up, on long steep climbs where the difference in our weight really came into play. No matter how fit I was, I just could not hang with those guys when the race hit their terrain.
If, like me, you are not a natural climber, do not despair too much, for there are ways to improve your climbing that will get you enjoying your time on the mountain slopes a lot more, and will help you get up the Taiwan KOM hill a little faster too.
I know, groundbreaking advice right? Hey, that's what I'm here for. But seriously, there't no better way to become a better climber than identifying your weaknesses and starting to work on them. Eventually, with real hard work and dedication, they may even become strengths.
Have power on short steep climbs but suffer on longer ones? So start riding longer climbs. No long climbs around? Ride with a big gear (53x15 or 13 say) on flats for extended periods, going from 2 to 3 to 4 to 5 hours, really feeling the work in the legs to emulate the kind of effort needed on a longer, shallow climb. Ride into headwinds when you can for extended periods, again to emulate that long climb feel. If there are short steep hills around, ride as described above then finish with steep hill repeats. This is especially useful if you are attempting the Taiwan KOM Challenge this year on October 26th, as the last 8km is vicious.
By the time you arrive there you'll have been riding uphill from anywhere from 2.5 - 5 hours. The lack of oxygen begins to kick in, fatigue wracks your body, and suddenly you have inclines of up to 27% to contend with.
Studying the profile of any climb you are hoping to ride up is essential, because ideally you will need to replicate as best you can the demands that hill, come race day, will put upon your body - and your mind.
As an example of someone who was willing to suffer to prepare for the KOM, I had a coaching client that would ride up and down Singapore's only real hill of note, Mt. Faber, again and again and again to get ready for the distance of the KOM hill. At around 1.4km, he was up and down that hill more times than anyone needs to know.
But, it got him ready and it toughened him up in the process.
Having said all this, unless you live in the shadow of the mighty Hehuan Shan and Taroko Gorge, home to the KOM (luckily I do), you'll never truly be able to replicate it.
But, with a little forethought and a whole lot of effort, you can get close.
Get The Long Rides In
A common misconception for people doing long flatter races where you will be in a peloton most of the day is that in training you need to often ride the race distance in order to prepare. Sure, it's good to know, if you are doing a 170km race, that you can ride 170km, but to do that frequently and in-season makes little sense. Why? Because in training you will be riding either in a small group or alone, and so are much more exposed to the wind than when in the actual race. 170km alone might take you around 6 hours, if you're fit, whereas 170km in a fast moving peloton will be more like 4hrs or even less. So, in this case, in training, it's smarter to train harder (emulating race conditions) for about 4-4.5 hrs than to go slogging around for 6 hours at a slower pace.
But for the Taiwan KOM Challenge, it's a little different. At the start of the hill there is a huge peloton of over 300 people, however, as the climb goes up, spots in that peloton become very exclusive indeed. Last year a select group of about 5 riders hit the last, steep 8km together, with Nibali going on to win in something like 3hrs 15 mins.
For most though, the ride to the peak at 3275m is one long, lonely road. So, if you are turning up in expectation of scraping in under the 6.5hrs cutoff mark, get riding for 6.5 hrs in training. And as stated earlier, try as best you can to replicate that feeling of going uphill for all those hours. So many times in my racing career I saw (and indeed I was guilty of this too sometimes) riders trying to do in the race what they never did in training.
If you never attack on hills in training with 60km to go til you get home, why try it in a race? Sure, you might gain some experience and it can make you stronger, but if the goal is to finish, ride the way you know how to ride.
For the KOM in particular, with all the star riders around and the cameras, not to mention the stunning scenery, it is very easy to let the adrenalin take over and for your game plan to go out the window. Fight those urges! Stay calm and ride to your limits, not over them.
Sort Out Your On-Bike Nutrition
If you're entering the KOM Challenge you should know by now what pre-race foods to eat to get you ready, so we can skip that section. But what to eat on-bike, in the race?
The vast majority of you will be active racers or Gran Fondo riders, and you'll know that as a rule of thumb, you almost never eat on a climb. With the blood raging, the muscles aching and the lungs burning, eating on an incline is never fun. However, with only 4km of the 85km mountain not uphill, you'll have no choice but to refuel on the way up.
I won't go into the various foods you can bring - we all know about gels and jellies, and there are vast quantities of bananas at the service stations on the way up - but I will say that nibbling a little every 15 minutes is one pretty failsafe way to be sure that you have enough energy for the climb. As important, however, is to test out your nutrition for the actual race beforehand in training. I see so many riders turn up every year with 15 gels taped to their top tube and I will bet you every last banana on the climb that they have never ridden for 5 or 6 hours before and consumed 15 packs of that sticky, sickly space food.
If they have, and it works, great. However bear in mind that it is exactly this kind of forethought - nailing your in-race nutrition (liquids included) in the months and weeks beforehand - that can provide you with that extra boost to ensure you go home with a finisher's medal.
Utilise The Indoor Trainer
I know, I hate mine too, but these devices of despair are a great way to get you fit. This is especially true if you live in the flatlands. These days with stuff like Zwift and The Sufferfest - where you can replicate hills all over the world and get in 30-40 minute climbs (Trainer Road apparently even has a KOM Challenge simulator), there's ample opportunity to simulate the sensation (and pain) or riding long hard climbs.
Isolate Your Climbing Muscles
What do I mean? Well, have you ever seen someone in the gym doing bicep curls whose upper body is all over the place, swaying like a buoy in a raging ocean as he struggles with the weight? Rather than isolating his bicep muscles - by holding his upper body perfectly still and only using his arms - instead he's hardly engaging the biceps at all but rather is in serious risk of a hernia.
Well, same thing happens on the bike. Too many riders climb with a white-knuckle grip that leads to unnecessary tension in the forearms and shoulders, neck and upper back. All that is energy lost. Sure, on steep inclines you need to hold on tight but on the calmer, gentler lower slopes of the Taiwan KOM mountain, a smoother more relaxed upper body is desirable.
Let the legs be the pistons. Everything else should be as motionless as possible.
To train for this, get out to a relatively mellow hill (say 3-5%), and try riding up it with a very loose grip on the bars. Let the tension go from the neck, moving the shoulders down from the ears. Aim to hold the head as still as possible. Ride smooth, imagining a glass of champagne or Espresso is balanced on your stem. What you'll find by doing this is that your leg muscles will be more naturally engaged - isolating the muscles and working the tendons better - as rather than your grip holding your bottom on the saddle, you will need to work your legs to do that.
You'll notice that the first few times you try this, your times up the hill will be slower than usual. But, stick with it and before long you'll see an increased muscularity in your legs, firmer and thicker tendons, and, finally, you'll be riding faster up that hill.
Work On Your Head
Last but not least. They say cycling is 30% fitness and 70% mental. Well, at the Taiwan KOM Challenge I'd say this is 99% true. Nothing I have ever attempted on a bike had me begging for the finish line more than this event. There's nowhere to hide on this hill, no place to root out an excuse, no one else to blame. It's you versus the mountain and it's also, even more so, you vs. you.
Dedicated training will help for sure. Knowing you are on that start line in the best possible shape will help too.
But you'll need that little bit of madness, that drop of craziness, to get up this beast of a climb!
That part is up to you.
So, best of luck folks! We look forward to seeing you in October! Not far off now...