Thoughts on Climbing: high cadence versus slow grind

I’ve been paying particular attention lately to climbing technique, and specifically fast cadence+low gear versus slow cadence+slightly higher gear.

It stems in some ways from my Pain Cave training videos. During these work outs the instructor often alternates intervals between slow “over-gear” efforts at 50-60, or 60-70 RPM in the hardest gear, and then transitions after a recovery period into fast cadence, 100+ RPM.

They make plain the fact that slower cadence efforts activate and utilize muscle, while fast cadence work targets the heart and cardiovascular strength. Paying attention to heart rate during these exercises, I can vouch for that.

In fact, my work outs are clear: 50-60 RPM in my hardest gear produces approximately 210 watts and an average speed of 30-32 km/hr. By contrast, 100 RPM at a similar effort (6-7/10) produces nearly the same numbers.

If this comparison is accurate, I’ve found that my muscles are stronger than my cardio since I have an easier time producing sustained work at lower cadence than I do at higher cadence. Anecdotally, I’ve heard that taller people (I’m 6’2″) are generally more suited to low cadence work thanks to longer limbs/levers.

I often thought that the best way to conquer a long climb was to find a rhythm at as high a cadence as possible without red-zoning my heart rate, and at a lower/lowest gear. I found inspiration in my first attentive viewings of the 2013 Tour de France and in particular champion Christopher Froome as he scaled Mont Ventoux. “That’s how you do it,” I said, as he attacked the slopes with legs firing at ridiculously high cadence like pistons of an engine (right around the time the French commentators started calling him a doper).

But it was a revelatory moment during my ascent up to Waimea earlier this month that I questioned this learned wisdom. Half way up the 17 kilometre hill I was passed (not that uncommon, sadly) by two men, one of whom was having little difficulty, and pedalling at what appeared to be 50-60 RPM. He was not breathing very hard and was in a higher gear, still pushing 15-17 km/hr on a 5% grade.

I noticed later on that they were supported by a van whose driver was retrieving discarded water bottles, filling them up, leap-frogging the riders and handing them back. Also, the second man was in quite a bit more distress than the first rider, and less of great shape, but a far flashier bicycle, so my immediate guess was he was a wealthy person who’d paid a coach or retired pro for a supported ride.

Could this purported coach or retired pro be exhibiting a valid technique of chugging out low reps to climb a hill rather than my presumed requisite low gear/fast cadence? I immediately thought of my Pain Cave videos – was “over-gear” a valid way to climb hills and not just a training technique?

I immediately upped a couple of gears, dropped my cadence by 20 and started to grind, activating my muscles and relieving my heart. I don’t know if it was because the terrain flattened out a bit, or because this technique was helpful, or because I had a new hare to chase in these two men, but for some reason the climb became easier and I was able to up my speed 2 km/hr.

I will continue to experiment with both techniques in forthcoming climbs, but at least for me – still in the newbie phase of road cycling strategy – this was a light-bulb moment. Perhaps alternating mid-climb is appropriate to shake things up from time to time.

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