The Difference Between How the Pros Climb in the Tour de France and How Amateurs Should Tackle Long Climbs

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It’s July, and that means one thing: the Tour de France. Millions of viewers will gather around to watch some of the world’s best battle through the flats and hills of France. Watching cycling’s best ride day in and out for 21 stages can incite enthusiasm in even the most novice riders. Some of the most intense and enthralling stages to watch are the climbing stages. Seeing riders dance on their pedals into the Pyrenees is one of the most beautiful displays of endurance we will see. While many of us are aware of the amount of training and ability level it takes to conquer these mountains, it is not always just raw pure power that allows these professionals to climb at the speeds they do. What separates the professionals climbing from your own climbing boils down to a bit more than watts/kilogram. 

“Of course, they climb faster, they have a higher power-to-weight ratio!” – Said almost every amateur rider about professional cyclists. While this is true, on average professional cyclists do have a higher power production and weigh less, there are other factors that they work with. When we watch these tour stages, make note that they are riding on a closed course. This means no cars and no need to worry about staying on one side of the road. As normal everyday riders, we do not have this luxury and we must obey traffic laws. Take this as your PSA to not go out and attempt what you see on your TVs. Aside from power, weight, and their closed courses, professionals also work with: speed.  

Aerodynamics

Aero is everything. The cycling industry has loved to use this phrase through the development of components, bikes, gear, you name it! Aerodynamics becomes a factor when speeds are at or above 20 kilometers/hour, or 12 miles/hour. When watching the pros, many are climbing at a speed of 25 km/hr or over, depending upon the climb. How? Many utilize this speed through the use of team tactics. Team tactics are a major factor in the large discrepancy between professional climbing and your own. When using a team tactic this increases their speed and wind resistance becomes more of a significant component of their riding, making aerodynamics matter a lot when it comes to riding a climb. Many of us probably never think much about our own aerodynamics when climbing, and are simply trying to reach the top. 

Team Tactics

For many of us, when we head out for a ride that involves a climb, we are not surrounded by 5 domestiques. If you’re a professional rider who is gunning for the overall jersey though, you are surrounded by a team ready to implement any tactic to help give you an advantage over your competitors. Team tactics depend upon what your goal is for your leader (or team), and the riders who make up your team. If your team has enough riders strong enough to form a line in front of your leader, these riders will keep on the gas the entire way up to the top of the climb breaking the wind for their leader. These domestiques in line will ride until they can no longer pedal, they will then pull off and the next guy in line takes over pulling duties. What are the advantages of this tactic? It allows the lead team to dictate the pace. This means they can ride at what they are comfortable with and eliminates (or reduces) the ability for competitors to attack. If they do attack, they’re in the wind-fighting solo, and your teammates can help pull you back up to your competitor. 

How the team rides will be dependent upon how their team leader rides. Are they a diesel engine? Or are they sharp and light on the pedals? A diesel engine will be able to maintain a high steady pace for 40 minutes or so, while others will be better at punchy power, more like an on/off effort type rider. 

Tactics also work by trying to use another rider’s disadvantage to another team’s advantage. If your closest competitor suffers a flat prior to a climb and your team is on the front, they will push the pace to require your competitor to not only match but increase their pace to even have a chance at catching on. This especially works to their disadvantage if they are riding solo, or only have 1-2 teammates there to help them bridge. This tactic helps when entering a climb and gaps within the field form. If the competitor is using other riders to break wind and discovers that a gap has formed in front of their group, the rider will need to bridge this gap solo in order to make it to the next group. This requires them to expend more energy on their part, all while the other team leader is in the draft zone of his (or her) teammates. 

Another climbing tactic teams use is to send a rider from their team out ahead of a climb in order to help the leader at the final stages of a climb. For example, say a stage has two large climbs to tackle prior to the finish. If there is a rider on the team who is strong, but not strong enough to stay with the leader for the entirety of the two climbs; the team can use this rider to breakaway prior to the first climb. This breakaway rider will first attack, create a gap, and then ride steadily in order to ease up in the latter part of the stage. They will then recover and once the leader catches, use their remaining energy to pull their leader to the finish. Why does this work? Though the initial breakaway does use energy to create, most often breakaway groups tend to have steadier pacing. 

In pro racing, what often occurs is that prior to the start of a climb, the pace of the group will quicken as teams and riders jockey for position in the climb. Why? When there are 176 riders entering a climb, the road narrows and at times it can allow for only 3 abreast. This means that if you’re 50th wheel entering the climb, you are already meters behind. These few meters already amount to a few seconds down from the leaders. You would need to ride several seconds faster than the leaders in order to even catch them. Going back to the second tactic of sending a teammate out ahead: if using this tactic, this teammate will not need to expend additional energy riding at a hot pace entering the climb, they will be able to enter the climb at a steady pace and continue on. 

As you can see, these races are quite like a game of chess, just on wheels. 

How to Optimize Your Own Climbing

Heading out on our own Saturday ride, you don’t have 5 riders flanking your side ready to implement tactics. What can you do? Implement your own strategy: pacing. 

  1. Have you done this climb before?

Having an understanding of the climb: how steep it is, where it is steep, and where it levels out, can all help you dictate how you can ride the climb. Is it a 20-minute climb or a 90-minute climb? The difference between these two timelines are crucial in understanding the pace you can set out. If going out too hot too soon, you more than likely are facing an impending blowup down the road. If you’re looking to set a PR on a climb, having a pacing strategy is important. Learning how to push the steeper sections, and then easing off on less steep sections will help bring the average time down for a similar power-based effort. 

  1. Is this a climb you don’t know? 

Using technology such as Strava or Ride With GPS can allow you to access road data and public files of other riders who have done the climb. Here you can see the gradient, pitches in the climb, and descents. This can help you map out a plan of attack when you get to the climb. If you find yourself in Europe and you’re tackling a famous climb the professionals do, you can do some simple math to get an understanding of how long the climb may take you. For example, many professional cyclists climb at an average of 6 watts/kilogram. If you climb at 2 watts/kilogram then you can assume it will take you 3 times as long as the pros to complete the climb. This can help you better gauge your pacing strategy.

While we may never be in the hunt for the polka dot jersey in the pro peloton ourselves, we can learn a thing or two from these professionals about helping our own climbing skills. Just remember that it is not all power that separates them from ourselves; but a slew of tactics, aerodynamics, and okay maybe just a little bit of power too! 

With over 25 years of experience coaching endurance athletes, Neal is head of The Wahoo Sports Science Division and oversees all of the coaches who create our customized training plans. He has worked with hundreds of athletes from amateur to top professional in his prior roles as Olympic Team Coach (2012, 2016, 2020) founder of APEX Coaching, and Director of Sports Science at Boulder Center for Sports Medicine. Those experiences helped him to develop cutting-edge sports science-driven testing and training methods used to help athletes of all levels perform better. Neal is an Elite USA Triathlon and USA Cycling certified coach with numerous awards to his name, including the 2007 USA Cycling Developmental Coach of the Year, 2009 USA National Cycling Coach of the Year, and the 2011 Doc Counsilman Coach of the Year—awarded by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) for the use of science in coaching. In 2017 he was named USA Triathlon Coach of Year. Neal has coached some of the biggest names in endurance sports and is the only coach in history to have trained an elite male and female athlete (Rohan Dennis and Evelyn Stevens) to the World Hour Record. Under his guidance, Neal’s athletes have won multiple Grand Tour stages and leader’s jerseys, Olympic Medals, and over 50 world championship titles in various cycling and triathlon disciplines - most recently Rohan Dennis’ 2018 & 2019 ITT World Champs.
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