This question and answer session first appeared in Cycling Plus in 2017.
How to win on a punchy climbWhat are the key components of the best technique to attack on a climb?
Key components to attacking on a climb are explosive power, positioning, and ability to preserve energy. Depending on how long the climb is, there are finishing climbs where sprinters can win. There is a big difference to attacking, settling into a rhythm, and soloing to the finish or with a small group. Good out of the saddle power, where the rider flows with bike, at the same time as transferring all power to pedals is not unlike a sprint. This skill cannot be utilised from the back of the bunch, or when the rider is fatigued.
Who would you say is a 'master' at this – what do they bring to the game that makes them especially strong in this area?
Sagan is good at everything. He can follow accelerations in the saddle or out. He is a master of positioning himself in the right place with the least energy expenditure. If you have the right physical attributes, you also need bunch positioning skill, as well as knowledge of the run into the climb.
What are the key physical attributes they have that contribute to their mastery?
Strong out of saddle, explosive, exceptional anaerobic athlete. These days we are seeing the riders who excel at punchy climbs being a bit more muscular than years ago. They definitely spend time in the gym to make sure they are a more complete rider, capable of high shorter duration power (less than 5mins), as well as having a high threshold power (1 hour power).
What technical elements do they outdo others at?
As with all the top racers, they are able to position themselves well, and possibly have reliable team mates to aid them here. Good bike handling skills, understanding the flow of the bunch, especially leading into the climb, and able to pedal in any conditions. These riders know when to attack and how hard, in a way that will give them the best advantage over the rest of the bunch. They have trained this skill repeatedly, knowing exactly what the outcomes will be.
Are there other factors – eg. homework, mental approach – that makes them master these kinds of climbs?
Absolutely, they will have done their homework on the final kilometres before key sections of the race (hills, cobbles, narrow roads). For example, in the classics a lot of the time you will have done a 5 min z4/5 (max) effort to make the first 15 riders, then you have to attack at maximum, and settle back into z4/5 until it all settles down. Knowing they have done the hard work and their body is capable of this will definitely make life a lot easier.
Is there anything they do away from the saddle that contributes to their skill on these climbs? Eg; work around physique/fitness?
Some athletes just have it. I always give core workouts to my athletes because the body needs to be solid and stable, and all power goes down to the road (not lost on its way to the pedals). You don't want to be shaky, wobbling and losing power. Every pedal stroke counts when you might only be doing 100 revolutions in an all out attack. After a few bad crashes and injuries, reestablishing core is paramount. These days a lot of riders are also doing a bit of weight training.
Where do others often get it wrong? Any pointers our readers can take away either from the examples you provide or your experience and advice?
A lot of riders are too focused on their ftp and don't train the higher power, shorter duration efforts. A strong core is vital. Reading a race is pivotal if you expect to get a good result. Train the right areas and zones. If you are not good at punchy climbs, it can be trained and improved. Practice, practice, practice. If you don't work on your weaknesses, you will never improve them.