The Giro d’Italia’s iconic climbs are long, steep, daunting and legendary for the punishment they dish out. This year the riders face the mighty Monte Zoncolan, regarded as the hardest climb in Europe; Monte Jafferau with its double-digit slopes; and Colle delle Finestre, famous for beauty, brutality and drama. Here’s how to match the pros and ride to a rising challenge…
Ride and repeat
The only way to truly replicate the sensation of climbing is to climb, so seek out your local hills and ride them over and over again, even if they’re short. As the road tilts up, your body starts to undergo a series of physiological reactions which may well leave you regretting ever heading outside, but in the long term it’s what you need. Compared to riding on the flat, seated climbing recruits your glutes, quads and calves more than when you’re spinning along on a level. And as you climb against a gradient gravity tries to pull you back, so you have to use more muscles to keep moving forwards. Over time this builds strength and endurance, which is exactly what climbers need. And the more you climb, the better you’ll become.
Aim for altitude
At heights greater than 1,000m the air starts to become less compressed, or less dense. This means there are fewer molecules of oxygen available to breathe in. So, when the riders point their bike skywards for the summit of the Colle delle Finestre, at a cool 2,178 metres (7,145ft) above sea level, they’ll be battling the steep slopes and a lack of oxygen too, especially once they climb above 1,500m (4,920ft). The best way to train for riding at altitude is to go to the mountains and ride. Over time your body gets used to the lower level of available oxygen and adapts to become more efficient. One of the major adaptations to altitude is an increase in red blood cells, which means more oxygen can be carried in your blood. But for those without access to the Alps from their door, training in an altitude chamber helps get your body used to the demands of the high mountains.
Have a pacing strategy
The smart way to climb a mountain is to pace yourself; we’ve all made the rookie mistake of setting off like a rocket only to come to a standstill half way up. Control is the key. Ease yourself into a climb by starting with your heart rate low. Avoid the temptation to push down hard on the pedals and instead try and spin your legs; pedalling at a higher cadence lessens the tension and load on the leg muscles which in turn reduces the fatigue and that early hit of lactic acid that can kick in when you start to climb. Find your own pace and gradually increase the pressure on the pedals. Use the distance markers at the side of the road (you’ll find them on most European climbs) to judge when to up your speed and finish faster than you started.
Learn how to descend
Many a race has been won with a skilful and daring descent and many of the peloton’s best climbers are the one who crest the summit and then drop down the other side like a stone – take Nibali, Sagan, or Irish legend Sean Kelly. The key to becoming a good descender is progression – don’t think you need to start by launching yourself down Monte Etna. First, master the art of corning on the flat by noticing how you approach the bend, finessing when to brake (before not during and with both brakes) and how to ride out of the corner. Then try to incorporate this on a short hill, of say 5km, with steep sections. Gradually move slightly out of your comfort zone on a steeper, longer hill and build up the distance; the Giro’s descents can be upwards of 25km-long. If you’re nervous, the natural instinct is to hold your breath so try to stay relaxed and don’t tense up.
Extend your gears
En route to the summit of Monte Zoncolan, the riders will have to grapple with gradients in excess of 20%. Ahead of the stage, team mechanics will set to work mounting smaller gears so their riders can make it to the top. If you find yourself running out of gears when you’re climbing, consider adjusting or changing your drivetrain. A compact chainset (such as 50/34t), mid chainset (52/36t) even a super compact chainset (48/32t) offers lower gears than a traditional standard chainset. A wide-range cassette is also a good bet, even if you’re riding hilly sportive and not a Giro climb.
And if you really can’t get outside, the Atom’s innovative climb mode with its with automated resistance is the next best thing. You can warm up on Box Hill and end your session at the summit of Colle delle Finestre.