This article is sponsored by TIME Triathlon Alpe d’Huez
From TIME Triathlon Alpe d’Huez to the Brutal and Helvellyn, many of triathlon’s most memorable events involve hills. Lots and lots of hills. So why should you race an event full of vertical gain?
Because taking on a hilly triathlon is a surefire way to push your triathlon performances to new levels come the race season. You’ll improve your bike handling, endurance capabilities and discover mental reserves you never knew existed. And experience some of multisport’s greatest scenery to boot.
The TIME Triathlon Alpe d’Huez Long Distance event alone features over 3,200m of vertical ascent on its 118km bike course, including the iconic 21 switchbacks of Alpe d’Huez, a climb etched in Tour de France history.
Top British triathlete and hilly tri convert Fran Bungay, who’s raced the TIME Triathlon Alpe d’Huez Triathlon five times, calls the race “a bucket list event that everyone has to do,” and she’s not alone, with Chrissie Wellington, Tim Don and Nicola Spirig just three world-beating triathletes to face the French event since its bow in 2006.
But how should you race – and train for – a hilly triathlon such as Alpe d’Huez? “Pacing is everything and it’s energy-sapping work climbing those mountains, so gain experience before the race,” says Bungay.
Time then for our ultimate guide for improving your climbing and descending on the bike, starting with ascending…
MASTER HILL CLIMBING WITH MAT BRETT
1. Riding hills is essentially an interval session, whether or not you do it in a structured fashion.
You can add hill training in many different ways. For example, rather than choosing a flat route, you can make sure your long weekend ride includes plenty of hills to mix up the intensity.
You could try riding some of this session in a bigger than normal gear at a low cadence (50-60rpm) to increase your leg strength, but introduce this gradually. Alternate 1min in your normal gear/1min in a large gear to start with.
2. As race season gets closer, you’ll want to increase the intensity. Find a hill that takes, say, 3mins to climb and ride it so you’re breathing very hard by the top. Then recover for 3mins on the way down before repeating four more times. Try 1min hills too, hitting them hard and repeat five times with 3mins recovery between each.
3. To improve your power just before racing, include full-on hill sprints in your training programme. Sprint uphill as fast as you can for 12secs, before recovering completely over, say, 3mins. Repeat this six times.
4. While racing, you want to do most of your climbing while seated – riding out of the saddle takes more energy and is less aerodynamically efficient (although it sometimes makes sense for short periods). For those reasons, prepare by staying in the saddle as much as possible while climbing in training.
5. If you live in a flat area, you can simulate hills by riding on a turbo using resistances/gears that force you to increase your level of effort.
NIK COOK’S DOWNHILL MASTERCLASS
The only way to improve your downhill confidence and skills is to practice so, rather than treating descents just as a chance for recovery, focus on riding them as fast and safely as you can.
Follow all of the cornering advice for downhill bends but, at greater speeds, you need to think, look and act further ahead than on the flat.
1. Looking down the road is key to fast and safe descending, giving you more time to react and choose your best line. As with cornering, look where you want to go, not at things, such as a pothole, that you want to avoid. Apart from very non-technical descents where you can see a long way down the road, you’re probably not want to be on your aerobars.
2. On a road bike, you want to be on your drops when descending and getting your body as low as possible. There’s no need for any sitting-on-your-top-tube-type antics but staying low is both stable and aero. On straight downhills, if you’re not pedalling, keep your pedals level and, for added stability, especially when braking, drop your heels. As you brake and, as the gradient increases, move your weight further back on your saddle.
3. Braking should be done positively and when necessary. Avoid continuously dragging your brakes on long descents. This is a bad habit that not only reduces your overall descending speed but can cause excessive rim wear, overheating and brake fade. If you think you might be dragging your brakes, consciously point your fingers so you know you’re not. When you do need to scrub some speed, apply front and rear brakes at roughly the same time. Your front brake provides the bulk of your stopping power but don’t forget you’ll need to shift your weight further backwards the more you’re using it.
4. Pulse your braking, rather than just grabbing and holding, as this makes locking up a wheel less likely. You can also adjust your speed by sitting up slightly and using your body as an ‘air-brake’. Favour your rear brake slightly more and, if you sense your wheels locking up, let the brakes go and then reapply.
5. If it’s wet, the clichéd advice is to stay relaxed but obviously that’s easier said than done. But if you keep in mind that everything should take at least two or three times the distance that it would in the dry and ride within your comfort zone, then you won’t feel as panicked to get down as quickly as humanly possible.
The best way to improve your descending is to follow riders who you know are confident downhill. Follow their lines, watch how they shift their body weight and try to copy them.
KEY HILL SESSION 1
Use this workout to increase short-term power on your hill climbing. The focus is on increasing the gears, getting out of the saddle and keeping the cadence high.
Start with 20sec bursts followed by 2mins easy spin recovery and gradually build up to doing 10 x 1min climbs; 2mins recovery.
KEY HILL SESSION 2
“There’s one key workout that will help get you ready for that hilly course without actually having to train on hills,” says Ironman legend Dave Scott. “It’s a VO2 bike workout, which you should complete once a week.”
• 30secs in a bigger gear, seated
• 1min in a lower gear, so increasing RPMs and spinning the legs faster
• 2mins in your intended climbing gear
• 30secs in a higher gear, this time standing.