Words: David Evans | Date:
“You should be able to play the piano on a steep climb”
– Bernard Hinault (possibly apocryphal)
This year’s Rapha Rising saw participants scale a staggering 157,871,940 metres – and we hope that, during their quest for elevation, the riders of the challenge were able to live up to Hinault’s old maxim, however briefly. The Badger embodied a style of climbing that seemed utterly effortless, much like a pianist taking to his bench at the start of a concerto. To wrap up the Rapha Rising challenge, and to set you on course for the rest of the summer’s riding and climbing, we sought advice from a rider who regularly races with the best of the British peloton.
The problem with advice on climbing is that it often comes from riders already good at climbing – that is, those who are preternaturally skinny and none too challenged by gravity. Their advice, though useful, is based in a natural affinity for the pursuit, not in a constant and conscious fight against adversity. In the hope of offering some truly hard-won advice, we turned to Rhys Howells, elite racer with British team Richardsons-Trek, who stands at 191cm tall and weighs 85kg.
Feel light, go fast
Riders focus on diet. I hear stories of guys who rode on the Continent in the 1990s, and their managers would turn up to their houses with skin-fold calipers for impromptu body-fat tests.
I’ve found the biggest difference comes from watching what I eat the day before a big ride. I used to think that I had to cram in as much food as possible, trying to get as much ‘in the tank’ as I could handle. The problem is that if I eat a giant bowl of porridge, I feel like a giant bowl of porridge – slow and stodgy.
Now I eat less before a ride and just make sure I start eating rice bars around 30 minutes into the ride. If you feel light, you go fast.
The common core
When you’re in the peloton you can see the guys who are going to try to ride away from you on the climb – there’s something in their form and pedal stroke that sets them apart. You can limit your losses but it means spending time doing boring things like sit-ups and ‘the plank’.
When you have core strength, it’s like someone is pushing your hips into the saddle, letting you put all your strength through the pedals. Of course, when you’re really digging deep you end up wrenching on the bars and weaving across the road like a total novice.
The hills in your head
The effort required to climb well isn’t too far removed from the effort required on the flat – I think the main difference is psychological. There’s no escaping a climb, no freewheeling – any momentary pause and you’ll stop, so there’s this pressure to keep on going. The only way to get used to this is to always remind yourself of what climbing feels like, to become well-acquainted with the pain. Keep your head up and keep pedaling – when you start thinking you’re a in a bad way then you’re definitely in a bad way.
A pat on the back
The Lincoln Gran Prix goes over a climb called Michaelgate more times than I care to mention. It’s 20%, and it feels like more. There are always huge crowds, and the peloton will hit a bottleneck, then you have to put your foot down on the cobbles, and it’s a nightmare. It’s carnage – there are riders leaning on each other and balancing off the barriers.
I had to get one of the crowd to hold me up while I clipped in. I spotted a bloke leaning over a barrier and I shouted: “Hold me, hold me.” He looked a bit confused. “Hold me like it’s a time trial!” He got the idea and kept me upright.
I don’t think it’s in the rulebook, necessarily, but don’t be afraid to ask for a helping hand from time to time.