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How to Improve Your Climbing (for Etape, France and the Mountains)

How to Improve Your Climbing

Plenty of TDF Tips readers are heading over to France for one, or both, of the Etapes du Tour 2011.

I know many of you view this as something that is a “bucket list” item – a dream ride, and something that you just have to do.

For many of you, finishing will be a great source of contentment.

Then there are those like me who view it as more of a race, something that you want to hit out of the ball park. If that’s you, and you want to maximise your result in Etape, and you aren’t a super experienced climber, then today I have something for you: How to Improve Your Climbing.

First Up, Get The Right Gearing

First up, for those of you who aren’t absolute beasts like the pros, first up, for something like Etape du Tour, you need appropriate gearing. If you have 53/39 or 52/36 rings on the front (or even if you don’t), I highly recommend getting a cassette like the SRAM Force 11-28. It’s what I run in races and on my travels.

If you run compact rings on the front, you can run a cassette with a tighter range like 12-27 or 12-25. Of course, you can run the same gearing in Campag or Shimano, I am just a SRAM man. I’ve included three links below for the SRAM Force cassette. In case you’re wondering why I recommended Force instead of the top-of-the-line Red cassette, well, the answer is simple: the Red cassette is about 3-4 times the price for marginal benefit. Yes, the Red cassette is slightly lighter, but at this level, the price doesn’t justify it.

Now, for those who are wondering why on earth I recommend something like a 39×28/27 or 36×28/27, the answer is simple. There’s no honour in grinding up the Galibier like Ullrich. You’re MUCH BETTER off spinning away at high cadence and keeping your legs fresh.

Get the SRAM Force cassettes with the links below:

Owning the Mental Process

Climbing is, in very large parts, about dominating your body with your mind.

Many a time I’ve been on a climb and grabbed a wheel of someone much stronger and focussed ALL my mental energy on just holding that wheel, and managed to ride way outside my comfort zone.

Sometimes, having some banging tunes in your ears helps.

Personally, I like to look for road posts (with the reflectors), snow markers, ANYTHING that gives me something just up the road to focus on. Each target can be crossed off and the next one targeted.

This is a great way to smash up a hill, but requires intense focus and mental discipline.

Remain Relaxed

Nothing worse for your body than tensing up, gritting your teeth, sucking your stomach in.

No, no, no.

You need to create a frame with your arms, lats, and lower half of your body to “carry” your innards, like a big Sikorsky SkyCrane chopper. The frame provides a compartment that should be relaxed, so your lungs and diaphragm can operate without restriction.

Again, this takes practice.

Lose Weight

This is the Number 1 most effective means for getting better at climbing, until at least you’re down to 6-9% body fat and have not much more weight to lose.

I touched upon this topic here.

I know losing weight is hard – trust me, I know. I’ve lost 25kg over a few years, and it’s damn, damn hard. But dropping even 5kg makes a massive difference.

So, it all depends on priorities. Want that chocolate bar? Sure, have it. But don’t blame me as you’re wheezing your way up the Alpe D’Huez.


Wait, I shouldn’t even have to say this.

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by Tim Marsh

Tim is an ex Melbournite now living near Byron Bay on 10 acres, happily growing mangos, avocados and lots of other stuff, with his wife Kate, son Arthur and adorable Golden Retriever, Whiskey (RIP our 1YO G/R Poppins :( ).

2 comments… add one

  1. Hey Tim

    Good advice on conquering the mountains but I think once I’ve got the right gearing, lost weight and fitted in whatever training I can do in my busy life, PATIENCE has got to be high up there as the best bit of equipment to take for the ride.
    If I take off like Pantani I know I’m doomed to failure. Best for me will be to remember all these mountains are long and steep (I’m trying Ventoux, Col du/Glandon/Croix de la Fer, Col du Galibier and Alpe d’Huez) and just ride within myself
    and don’t get duped into thinking I can hold on to that young turks wheel in front.
    For me it’s going to be slow and steady finishes the race (particularly when you are as undercooked as I am).

  2. Hi Will, that is equally true! Patience and pacing yourself are also key.


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