When I was a (considerably) younger cyclist and bike racer, the only area I could really excel in was going up or down a hill. Perhaps it was the hilly region I grew up in that gave those advantages. I couldn’t leave the parental castle without going up or down a fairly severe grade to get to other escape routes where the hills continued unabated for at least ten miles. The area of sprinting ability was and still is very desolate for me, as is/was hammering into a major head wind….a very non-aero shape I suppose.
I was one of those fortunate souls that could keep it on the big ring whilst rolling up a moderate incline while those more rapid finishers were searching for a lighter load on their pedals. If I could gap them enough, I’d beat them at the end. If I didn’t, they’d go by me so fast in the sprint I’d catch a cold from their draft.
Even though I have no aspirations of being a bike racer anymore, it’s really starting to bug me how gay my climbing has been in the last few years. Granted, one has to ride one’s bike to get better, but my speed uphill is out of sync with my flat land capabilities. I have to blame something.
So my latest theory is the gear ratios. It seems so ironic that in this day of very light, efficient bikes with crazy light wheels, that so many riders have these stupid low gears. 14-16 pound bikes with low gears of 34×25 or 27. Gears that are lower than the old 29 pound Peugeot gas pipe specials of the Seventies. Most of those old 10 speeds were 40×26 or 28. Not only were these bikes heavy, the frames had terrible response and those old Michelin tyres would blow off the steel rims at much more than 70psi.
From the time I was seventeen I, and all my peers, were hammering around on the ubiquitous ‘close ratio’ freewheels of the time. This means one tooth difference between cogs. Start at 13 for a low and end and 18 for a high (6 speed). The olde expression was, “if you couldn’t make it around the course on a close ratio, you had no business being in the race”. Plus, the smallest ring was 42 for a Campagnolo chainset….39 tooth Shimano was just for fringe freaks, not at all manly.
The thing was, we actually went pretty fast. In this soggy town of Vancouver, one of the standards of climbing for several decades has been the (mentioned in previous ramblings) hill up to the Cypress Bowl ski area. While in the scheme of a real Euro incline Cypress is not much beyond a sprinters hill, its what some of the fish in BC’s little pond strive for.
I found some newspaper clippings recently that my brother had put in his scrapbook sometime in the mid-Seventies with some Cypress hillclimb results. We were all 28-29 minute range. 22 pound steel bikes, wool shorts, and CLOSE RATIO cog sets. For myself, I knew that I couldn’t go lower than a 42×17 at any point on the hill if I was to be at the sharp end and I would need a 42x 15 in the flatter turns. This equates to (for those who understand it) a 67″ to 76″ gear.
Fast forwarding to September 2010, I’m having a physio session with BC’s legendary Olav Stana vis-a-vis my buggered pelvis, and we were talking about hills and in particular Cypress. Olav is legendary in most local cyclists books not only for his body fixing prowess (which I found very good) but also his TT and incredible climbing ability. At 55 years old he shattered the Cat 1/2 riders on the Cypress hill last summer. He already had his shirt changed by the time the next rider came in…and Olav was old enough to be his dad.
When we were yakking about the gears he used to do the time required to leave the wheezing kids behind, it turns out that although he uses a compact set (34-50) for hill climbing, he leaves it on the big ring. When combined with his selected 18-21 leaves his range at 65″-75″. His time of 30 minutes makes that right on the gear/time ratio of all those years ago.
People hear about the gears the pros use in the Tour and Giro (even harder hills) and they think they need them for hills like Cypress. Forget it!! Those Euro hills are really hard..and long. I would doubt if anyone in our town would drop our current World Champ Hushovd, on our little ramp to the ski hill…and the mighty Thor being known as a sprinter.
Many cyclists think climbing is all about the ability to be really fit and spin up like a madman. Guess what?…you still need power. Hill climbing power. Its a fine line between staying light enough to be efficient and strong enough to go fast, cranking a gear that will get you to the top quickly. The only way one can gain strength on hills is the same as gaining strength anywhere else…..resistance. Muscles respond to resistance. Train with some resistance. If you have two riders both weighing 150 pounds, both with a max VO2 of 75 but one can squat 225 pounds and the other only 135, guess who’s going to go faster up the hill?
In the last few weeks or so with all this in mind, I’ve been finding a few hills and have left it in a bigger gear and kept it going until I just fail. In spite of being something of an ectomorphic victim, my legs have gained noticeable size already. Yesterday’s bit of riding included a couple of half mile hills and I stayed 1 tooth smaller than I thought I could have. Resistance works, even for a fossilized soul like myself.
Having seen such immediate results, I’ve invested in a thing from my past, something that was part of my (only)semi-decent cycling past…a close ratio freewheel.
I look at this thing and I get scared. Stay home, sell my bike, really get into computers, watch poker on TV, watch Dancing With the Stars, become a Britney Spears fan…..aaggghhh.
Hell’s bell’s, I’m only 8 pounds heavier than when I could use this thing damn near everywhere but, I AM a bunch of years older. What are the chances of actually gaining something for its use….especially as I’ll have to put it on some older and heavier bicycle? Slim to grim? I guess we’ll see. As luck would have it, my lovely female accomplice has abandoned that vintage Bianchi for another winter and it does have a 42 as a small ring. She’ll never be the wiser…too many good sales at the outlet stores of late.
Time for a bit of shorter hill resistance training, with lots of small ring, easy spinning on the flats to keep things loose and supple in this off season time of the year. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.