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,

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