article by Taylor Thomas
Pro tour riders all have specific strengths that make them an asset to their team. Whether they’re known for being sprinters, time trialist, general classification riders (GC) or climbers, they all have areas where they shine. While all of these phenotypes come with their own unique skill sets, it’s often the classic HC climbs of the Tour de France that capture the audience’s attention and imagination. Let’s look more closely at what classifies a climber on the Tour, and how mere mortals might train to be stronger when things tilt skyward.
What makes a climber?
What’s the difference between a rider built for climbing, and those who focus on other disciplines? First and foremost the great climbers have a high strength to weight ratio (W/Kg). They’re often able to hold 5-6 W/Kg on climbs lasting several kilometers at very steep grades. They accomplish this by maintaining a lean and light body type, while still being able to put out high power for longer durations. This gives them an advantage over sprinters and time trialist who may be bigger riders, or not able to maintain power for as long as it’s needed in the mountains. Typically these climbing specialists also have a very high VO2 Max. These genetically gifted riders produce VO2’s in the 70-90 ml/min/Kg range determining their high aerobic capacity, and ability to produce energy aerobically. High W/Kg, genetically gifted VO2 Max and the right body type make these athletes ideal for the high mountains of the Tour.
How to Train for Climbing
Just like the pro riders, the focus should be on watts per kilogram. When the terrain begins to go upward, W/Kg is what matters most. The two most productive things an athlete can do to be prepared for climbing is to find their ideal body weight, and increase their power. This will yield a maximum strength to weight ratio. In the quest for climbing preparedness the key areas should be developing your body’s lactate clearing potential, aerobic and anaerobic capacity, muscular strength and threshold. This can be accomplished by executing workouts that prepare the body for the rigors of climbing. Integrate increasingly longer efforts at, or just below FTP to encourage aerobic and muscular gains. Also include shorter efforts above threshold to train the body to efficiently use anaerobic sources of energy. Climbing, like any other bike skill, can be learned and developed over time with consistent and proper focus.
The massive climbs of Europe are what help make the Tour de France what it is. They push riders to their physical and mental limits by asking the absolute most from each athlete. Climbing specialists in the pro peloton have developed the power necessary, along with the ideal body type and natural ability, to conquer these climbs. While most athletes aren’t pro Tour riders, there are ways to focus on being a more confident and proficient climber regardless of genetic predisposition.
*Taylor Thomas is the founder and head coach of TEC. He’s a dedicated endurance athlete with over a decade of experience as a competitive cyclist. He’s been involved in all facets of the sport, from working professionally with top brands like Trek and Specialized, founding race teams, organizing events, and personally competing at all levels. His racing background includes road, cyclocross, triathlon and ultra endurance events that push both the mind and body to the limit.
As a USAC certified and Training Peaks level 2 coach he enjoys sharing what he’s learned with his athletes to help them achieve their goals. As a professional mountain biker and coach he’s intimately aquatinted with what it takes to be successful at any level. He knows what it’s like to balance family, work, life, and training. Taylor works closely with all of his athletes to ensure that the training they receive is designed to fit into their life.
Data is very powerful! Whether it’s TrainingPeaks, WKO4, or others, he uses a variety of tools to analyze each athlete’s progress individually. By understanding the data, and knowing how to apply it, every athlete receives a truly individualized approach to their training. These insights are also applied to writing customized workouts, training blocks and developing comprehensive race strategies for every athlete. Coach Taylor believes that understanding the science of coaching is vital in helping athletes of all levels achieve their goals.
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