The art of the climb

Understanding your threshold is critical to biking uphill

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— Just before that place where mountain bike racers blow up on a hill climb lies the zone they aspire to. It's a different place for each cyclist, but in order to maximize their potential, they need to locate it and hone their ability to return there.

"Really good climbers have the ability to know their threshold almost to the point of exploding their heart, but not quite," Brock Webster said.

Webster is a former elite racer who operates Orange Peel Bicycle Service in Steamboat Springs.

Hill climbers in Wednesday's Thunderhead Hill Climb or this weekend's Rio 24 Hours of Steamboat might have felt like their chest was about to blow up. However, Webster said the cyclists who excel at pedaling hills have used training sessions to pay attention to their bodies. They've learned to stay just below that threshold where they lose themselves to an anaerobic state that makes recovery unlikely within the race. Winning hill climbers settle into an accelerated pace that allows them to take long, deep breaths as they strive to maintain a consistent ratio of breaths to pedal cycles, Webster said.

"For me, it's one breath to four pedal strokes," he said.

Cyclists who are in tune with their own breathing, particularly athletes who practice yoga breathing, are often more apt to get into the zone sooner, he added.

Liz Rostermundt, who won the women's division of last week's Thunderhead Hill Climb, agrees.

"You have to ride your own pace and you have to get into a consistent pace," she said.

David High placed fifth overall and fourth in the men's expert 35 to 39 age group in the Thunderhead Hill Climb. He recommends using training sessions to learn how to deal with the inevitability that at some point in a summer full of races, a rider will misgauge the threshold and go beyond it.

"During a race, you're always going to go harder than you do when you're training. Force yourself (during interval training, for example) to go beyond your threshold and then try to recover," High suggested. By doing so, you learn where your recovery zone is and how to save your race when you do miscalculate, he said.

Although it's advantageous in some ways to latch onto the rear wheel of a rider who is pushing the pace, Rostermundt said, that strategy can also make it difficult to settle into the right pace for your body. Her winning strategy often involves dropping to the back of the pack off the start, so that she doesn't feel pressured out of her ideal pace.

Jumping off too fast at the start causes some riders to produce so many endorphins they almost get nauseous, she said.

High echoed Rostermundt's observation about being patient at the starting line. He said he knew going into Wednesday's hill climb that he wasn't at his best -- perhaps 3 to 5 percent off in terms of how good he felt at the start.

"If you know you're not at 100 percent, start at the back. Other people who blow up -- I pick them off," he said.

Webster said elite hill climbers have learned to relax their upper body muscles and put all of their energy into their lower back and legs. His former coach, 1984 Olympian Pat McDonough used to tell him, "You should be able to play a piano," while hill climbing.

The lesson McDonough was trying to convey is that cyclists who tense their shoulders and clench the handlebars are wasting energy that doesn't propel them up the hill.

When you watch elite road cyclists climb the Alps during the Tour de France, Webster said, you might notice they appear almost chubby even though they have virtually no body fat. That's because their torsos are completely relaxed, allowing their diaphragms to expand and fill their lungs completely.

Another part of a hill climb Rostermundt believes is often overlooked is represented by the important few pedal strokes a racer takes at the moment he or she crests a hill. There's a natural tendency to relax and let up, she said.

"A friend of mine who is a road racer told me that when you're getting over the crest, the next three to four pedal strokes are critical to carrying your power and momentum onto a flat section.

Rostermundt, who is widely regarded as one of the dominant women mountain bikers in the valley, said other competitors don't perceive how anxious she is at every race. "I always get nervous," she said. "I get scared every time."

Rostermundt's fear is a motivating factor -- what scares her most is entering a race and failing to give her best. Once the race begins, that fear goes away.

"I realize, 'Oh, that's right I really enjoy this,'" she said. "It's fun to push yourself."

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