Saturday, October 14, 2006

You can't make up for slow climbing

I live at the base of the Cascade Mountains in Washington state and I like riding my bicycle in the mountains. I'm a fairly light guy so I don't suffer as much on the climbs as some of my heavier companions. Some of those folks are much faster descenders than I am and you might think that at the end of the day it all evens out. It doesn't. Climbing slows us all down but if you want to be faster in the hills, you have to get faster on the climbs. You burn up your time by going slow, so the key is to spend less time going slow.

Here's a simplified example. Let's say you can ride 24 kph on flat ground. In an hour, you cover 24 kilometers. Now let's put a big mountain in your path. The mountain is symmetrical with 12 kilometers of climbing to the summit followed by 12 kilometers of descent. Let's say that it's steep enough that it knocks your speed in half on the climb and your speed is doubled on the descent. So you climb 12 kilometers at 12 kilometers per hour and descend 12 kilometers at 48 kilometers per hour. That works out to a total of 1 hour 15 minutes to go 24 kilometers so your average speed is 19.2 kph.

But let's say you can put some more effort in somewhere, you can descend even faster or put some more effort into climbing. You get much more payoff by climbing faster. Let's say you can get your climbing speed up to 16 kph and keep your descending speed at the same 48 kph. In this case you'll spend 45 minutes climbing and 15 minutes descending and your overall average is 24 kilometers per hour.

But let's say you tried putting your effort into descending faster. You get a nifty recumbent bike that doesn't climb any faster but it can descend like a rocket at 90 kph. So now you climb 12 kilometers at 12 kilometers per hour and then zip through the 12 kilometer descent in 8 minutes. Your average speed is 21.18 kph. Your super fast descent might be really fun (or really scary!) but it doesn't buy you nearly as much overall speed as what you gain by climbing faster.

The way to get faster at climbing is to work on climbing. Weight does matter somewhat but Eddy Merckx said it best when he advised: "don't buy upgrades; ride up grades."

By the way, I think this relates to something I've noticed about myself. If I'm riding a fixed gear, or a single speed, or a three speed or a bike with a whole bunch of Disraeli gears, it doesn't seem to matter much in terms of my overall speed. With more gears I can maybe go faster on the descents, but the lower gears seem to make me a little lazy and I gear down and go slow on the climbs. With fewer gears, I'm more likely to grind it out. The simpler bikes might not be real fast but they spend less time going slow.

Keep 'em rolling,



Anonymous said...

What I've been meaning to ask you Kent - and it's tangential to your post - is how you'd compare efficiency of the Powergrips on fixed and non-fixed with your Sturmey. Are you tempted by clipless on non-fixed. Keep writing!

Anonymous said...

Kent ... I agree, I strictly ride single speed and I seem to pass more geared rigs on climbs than anywhere else. And ... On my 42/16 Redline 925, I don't lag too far behind on flat roads either. Some kind of critical balance I suppose ...

Best regards,

Chris Autterson / Novi, MI

Kent Peterson said...

I actually have ridden clipless pedals in the past and I don't feel I'm loosing anything by riding with Power Grips. What I do gain however is the ability to wiggle my foot a bit (both fore and aft and side to side) and that helps me avoid repetative stress injuries on the long rides. And I never unclip inadvertantly. Firm attachment to the pedals is more of an issue on the fixed gear since you can use back pressure on the pedals to slow down. -- Kent

patrick said...

Did Merckx really say that? What a great quote.

I tried Power Grips on my fixed gear for a while but found that my toes got numb from twisting my feet tightly into the grips to provide the kind of attachment I wanted. I am going to try them on my disraeli bike once it is built, though. Back to Crank Brs on the fixie for now.

Thanks Ken

-- patrick

Al Maviva said...

I don't know if it's mental, or if the fixie carries momentum better (flinging the feet through dead spots in the pedal stroke) but I definitely climb better on shorter hills, up to 5-10 minutes in length when rolling fixed. The fixie does require a much greater degree of mental commitment: start up the hill, and there is no way to go other than hard, and up. Sure, you can attempt to back off, but that turns a ride into a squat workout, and that's no fun. So it's almost easier to spin hard and keep the cadence up, although it does cause the muscles to burn quite prettily. In contrast, the geared bike always offers a bunch of slower (and mentally easier) options. It is never as fast, even though it (with its carbon finery) is seven pounds lighter than my piggish Surly.

Of course on a ride involving multiple heavy climbs, the fixie seems a bit slower for this clydesdale: the legs blow up much faster when there is no way to ease off into an easy spin. It's nice to have a comfy 39:23 to occasionally drop into to rest the legs on the Blueridge or in the Catoctins. Even so, climbing on the fixie improves the seated spinning form considerably, strengthening the hip flexors...

And on the tangential note, I run walkable Shimano shoes with 540 (mountain, SPD) pedals. Although I had a problem once with a lower end pair of Shimano SPD style pedals I've never clipped out of these mid/high range pedals, even spinning at insane RPMs - I should think keeping good foot alignment while clipped in probably helps here, and yes, I regularly skip stop with them.