Tour de France: Robert Millar on form, feeling and the fundamentals of climbing

Climbing: nature, nurture or numbers? It’s an appropriate question to ask in these modern times.

When technology allows you to measure, record and play back analysis of every pedal stroke a rider produces, you might be tempted to think that’s as much as there is to it: numbers to aim for and reproduce when called for, no thinking required. All the climbs have been mapped, the boffins have worked out the steepness, the optimum pedal speed and probably the best place to sneak a drink.

The world might be digitally mastered, but like the refusal of vinyl to disappear under the emergence of CDs and downloads, I believe there is still a place in bike riding for a bit of romance, understanding sensations and the interpretation of feeling. Step forward the climber and all those who worship at the altar of lightness.

For example, the other day I read on the worldwide authority that one of the secrets to successfully climbing hills is to remain seated; we are told the other option, which climbers have used since time immemorial – namely standing up on the pedals – is uneconomic.


Alberto Contador: climbing ‘en danseuse’.

In reality, climbing mountains has always been more about feeling and sensations than doing as you are told by an electronic device or a know-it-all at the side of the road. No, it’s not stubbornness: don’t be fooled into believing that refusal to conform means the climber hasn’t done his homework. In the pro peloton, you won’t survive five minutes if you haven’t taken your natural talent and developed it, honed it and perfected its many facets. As a climber, there are a number of subjects you have to understand before you pit yourself against nature.

Is your initial sprinting acceleration good enough? If it is, then do you slow too much when you have to sit down compared to your sprinting speed. Can you improve that or will you just stand on the pedals again? Is your long sprint as good as your short sprint? You might prefer an explosive effort over the last 200 metres, but then the others – who you always get the better of that way – will have you flat out from the last kilometre instead.


Marco Pantani exhibiting his idiosyncratic climbing style – on the drops and out of the saddle.

Have you got a good transition between sitting and standing? Do you find that your bike goes back a wheel length when you stand up? Because if you are, then that’s costing you a metre every time you stand up. When you think how many times you’ll be in and out of the saddle during a long climb, you can’t afford to lose a metre with each change, so that’s a technique you have to work on until the transition is second nature. It’ll feel seamless when you get it right, and that’s the sensation you have to keep.

Is your climbing in the big chain ring as strong as the inner ring stuff? How do you cope with a fast pace at the bottom of a climb? Is your ability to change pace good enough? Have you simulated attacking over the top of climbs? These are all aspects you’ll need to be comfortable with. Of course, you won’t really find out until the first races, but initial training ought to give you a decent base. Then you can fine-tune things.

Christian Prudhomme on Ventoux, Tommy Simpson and the intricacies of Tour de France route planning: listen to the the Rouleur podcast here

Those first races of the season are unique, and climbing at the Classics versus climbing at stage races has totally different demands. Liège-Bastogne-Liège needs a different approach to tackling something like Alpe d’Huez, but they are both reputedly climbers’ domains. For the Classics, you need to be on excellent form and ready to fight for most of the day with pesky Belgians. If you are really lucky, you’ll probably learn a few new swear words.


Alejandro Valverde – one of the this era’s most dominant Classics riders –  wins La Fleche Wallone for the fifth time

However, at a stage race two months later, a day’s racing in the Pyrenees isn’t something many Belgians will be relishing. The same guy who would have cut your throat to be in front of you at the bottom of the Mur de Huy is now quite happy for you to pass before him.

Stage races are a bit more structured than the Classics, in a “I’m the climber, you’re the sprinter and you go in the breaks” kind of way. The climber’s role can be one of three things: climber pure and simple – doing the KoM sprints and nothing much else; climber as support for the team leader; or team leader itself.

Each role requires a different climbing technique, depending on what rider or team has decided is required, so the training and the racing changes for each situation. KoM sprinting is subtly different again to riding for individual or stage wins. The requirements are similar, except the way to use your energy changes, so the type of rider preparation can be the same. You have to be prepared to be in the red zone for a long time after a mountain-top sprint, sometimes for the rest of the day if it’s a long way to the finish.


Tour de France 1984: Robert Millar in the polka dot jersey, alongside the maillot jaune Laurent Fignon.

You’ll have to cover attacks at the bottom of climbs if you need points and your rivals are trying to sneak away, or if you aren’t too confident about where you stand with regards to your hilltop sprint then you can do what a lot of KoM winners have been doing over the last few years and go on a long break, hoovering up the points then getting blasted in the final. It sounds easy, but prepare for a few bad moments in the following days having chosen that option.

Climbing as support for the team leader means you have to take way more wind than you would as the mountain sprinter. You have to be able to set a fast tempo, but not so fast that you put your man in trouble as well as everyone else. Be smooth and consider your team leader is the order of the day. You’ll have to adapt to sitting down for most of the climb and slowing down when gradients steepen instead of just standing up for the harder sections. You still need to be able to produce a change of pace to cover attacks and put others in trouble, but the pressures are more physical than mental.


2012 Tour de France. Chris Froome in his previous incarnation of mountain domestique deluxe, leading Bradley Wiggins.

Climbing as team leader is probably the most stressful. Physically, you have to be strong, and mentally you have to be confident. The way you approach climbing for GC is a drawn-out affair, a process that starts with how you look at the course and how you use you team’s energy and, ultimately, your own.

You’ll need to know where the important parts of the course are and have an idea of what is likely to happen. Although you can rely on radio messages from the team car for decisions, you still have to pay a lot more attention to who is where and what’s going on. You need to place yourself more conservatively and only make efforts when it’s important. In the mountains you have to be aware of wind direction, especially for the valley sections, as quite often the wind changes from cold air coming down the mountain to hot air going upwards when the temperatures rise enough to reverse the flow. That kind of detail can have a major influence on how the race develops and maybe even on choice of gearing.

You have to take into account that when you ride the route in training it’ll look very different to when you arrive there in a race, with crowds on the side or in the middle of the road: quite often the plan you had to avoid the inside of a certain hairpin will be scuppered by a lack of crowd control. Every mountain has its own little things that you have to learn or be aware of, and once you’ve ridden them a few times you can use certain elements to your advantage.


Robert Millar goes up the road during the 1989 Dauphine Libere.

For the climber at the top level, the climbing of the mountain itself isn’t going to hurt. What makes the decisions is the pace you climb them at. That adaptability is really what differentiates the climber from the non-specialist. You have to know how many accelerations you can produce, and you have to learn when to use them and where they will be the most effective. You need to watch how the other riders are coping. Do they look comfortable? Are they struggling with the steeper sections or maybe the exit of the corners? If they are, it might be worth a change of pace to make things more difficult for them: put them on the inside of the hairpin where it is steepest, or on a rougher part of the road surface, for example.

This is when the climber has to ride on his feelings, when he has to make judgements based on the sensations in his legs, because even though it might be hurting, it’s more than likely it’ll be hurting everyone else a little bit more. One brutal acceleration might be enough, or it might take five or six, but when the elastic snaps and no one can follow any longer you’ll be on your own – and believe me, there’s nothing more a climber can ask for than dancing away at the head of the race alone. Alone against nature, no numbers involved.

This article is an extract from Rouleur #18, first published in May 2010.


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