The Steeper The Climb, The Easier The Race?

With the Giro d’Italia and Tour of California approaching the mountains, a moment to look at the subject of climbing.

There are names that stand out. Zoncolan. Angliru. Perhaps after the summer the Grand Colombier could join the club after the Tour de France climbs it for the first time. These are all steep climbs that are considered so hard that they are used sparingly in the big races, appearing only once every few years.

Of course there are other climbs that appear from time to time too. For example Mont Ventoux in France or the unpaved Colle delle Finestre in Italy but the climbs I’m talking about are famed for their pitch, with double-digit gradients. A ramp to the heavens, a “spaceship for the poor man” as Italian journalist Gianni Brera once wrote.

The names of these are used in whispered tones, as if some are fearful of upsetting the mountain gods. Certainly there is plenty for the riders to get angry about with relentless gradients, often well into double-digit percentages meaning these climbs are the place where three weeks of racing can be decided. They can be so steep cars are not used, instead race officials and mechanics hop onto motorbikes.

But if they are steep they are not hard. Their vertiginous gradients can be tamed by low gearing. Indeed the steepest of climbs can be the most predictable. Here’s a look at why the steepest climbs are not always the best.

Let’s use the Zoncolan as the example. Monte Zoncolan in the Friuli region of Italy has a reputation as one of Europe’s hardest paved climbs. From Ovaro the road is 10km long and rises at 12% with some sections hovering around 20%. First included in the 2003 Giro d’Italia it so infamous that it is the benchmark for all comparisons. “Is it as hard as the Zoncolan?” some will ask when a new climb is added to the Giro. Can a new climb be labelled “the new Zoncolan”.

We talk of climbing but this is not the technical ascension of a cliff face where each foothold must be assured, where falling rocks and crashing ice endanger lives. As tough as the climbs might be, they are merely roads. Gearing solves everything.

Shimano’s entry level mountain bike groupset has a triple chainset where the inner chainring has 22 teeth and a cassette for the rear wheel with 32 teeth. Equipped with I’d suggest any club cyclist can winch their way up the Zoncolan. It will take time, it won’t be easy if it’s hot, but the whole point of low gearing is to turn the legs in rotary frenzy and winch your way to the top.

For elite racers the test of such a climb becomes very reductive. Aerodynamic advantage drops because of the slow speed so it is every rider for themselves, being on a wheel offers little help. Above all the performance on the climb boils down to the rider’s power-to-weight ratio. The power a rider produces is divided by their weight and the ratio is the greatest determinant of climbing speed. A fearsome mountain is reduced to these two numbers, a simple case of arithmetic and who, pound for pound, is the strongest.

You can measure a rider’s power output in a lab with on an indoor bike and if you take their bodyweight and the weight of their bike and clothing then you should be able to get the precise power/weight ratio. Put all of the Giro’s riders through this lab test and you could rank their ratios. The result on a very steep slope should be the same. In other words, the most fearsome climb is a replica of sterile laboratory.

Even the moto blows up

But luckily it’s not a lab and humans are prone to error. On the steepest climb, riders rarely need to attack as the strongest will just find the others fade away, unless someone tries to follow another rider and goes into the red, in which case they’ll blow. It’s here that the steep climb can open up big gaps because if a rider gets into trouble there is no moment to recover, they might force themselves to hold a wheel but this risk can backfire if they crack. To avoid this a rider needs only to look at their power meter display on their handlebars and ride to the numbers, using gearing to keep the legs turning like a metronome to a pre-set rhythm.

Of course there is more than riding like a robot. Riders must take the right line through a corner, they must respond to attacks and they must choose their gearing correctly. Over the long term they have to manage the pressures of three weeks of racing. Shorter term they need to get the approach to the climb right.

But these technical factors become more important a longer Alpine pass with variations on gradients and where the slope is reduced. On a more traditional pass, an “easier” climb, there can be more variables to control. No longer a mere test of power to weight, a rider must pick the right wheel, they must change gear at the right time and there are other factors like crosswinds, tactics and for the highest passes, cold temperatures and the need to keep eating during a long ascension.

The hardest climbs are a tough challenge. The Zoncolan can take an age to winch up but it is still a road designed for traffic rather than the vertical face of a mountain. With the wrong gearing it can be impossible but with the right equipment a cyclist is not reduced to “pedalling squares”.

Sometimes less is more. The greater the gradient, the bigger the headlines and the bolder the previews yet these steep ramps can strip away variable factors meaning a more predictable race. The climb is reduced to a test of power-to-weight ratios. This is still a fine competition as it reveals the best climber but it is a simpler test than we might imagine and one we could replicate in a lab or gym. The steepest climbs can be better explained by scientists in lab coats than winged angels or mountain gods.

These steep climbs can be so reductive that we lose tactics, attacks and the chance for a suffering rider to cling on. But thankfully we keep the woodland, the rough roads and the scenery. The riders pass by so slowly that spectators can see the pain.

46 thoughts on “The Steeper The Climb, The Easier The Race?”

  1. Bradley Wiggins ride the way you just described and it proved almost effective at the Vuelta last year. But even then he blew up on Pena Cabarga where Froome dueled with Cobo. You do make a very valid point but I will be interested to know if the top climbers (other than Wiggo) approach the climbs through numbers.

    • That’s the risk, you ride in to the red and you blow. And it can happen by surprise too, if riders aim to ride at N watts they might be on an off day, they’ve not eaten or drunk enough and quickly find they can’t hold the pace, it is not as simple as staring at the screen.

          • Voeckler is one example, he doesn’t even wear a heart rate monitor, yet alone use it.

            But there are many, sometimes it is not by choice but sponsorship and some teams have the tools but others do not.

          • Don’t think that these riders are baselining off their power meters too much…intuition, packaged as perceived exertion of effort, is highly accurate for riders at this level. I doubt, once the race hots up, that most are using their meters at all….consider the psychological impact alone and riders will doubtless default to intuition in the end anyway rather than trying to replicate some idealised W/Kg number.

        • Sylwester Szmyd riding his best ever TT in Giro dell Trentino told he wanted his SRM to be covered in certain areas…
          At the same time he is very stats-driven I would say

      • @Bundle: I second that:) And I love reading that Voeckler and others ride without. After all, our sport didn’t begin with all of these high-tech gadgets, it began with the bike, the rider, the roads and the elements. “Feeling” one’s way up a climb highlights the innate nature of the best riders, those whose experience dictates shifting almost without thought, maximizing breathing, ignoring pain and staying the course until the finish. These are the purists whom I enjoy the most.

        Of course, every day, every climb brings new variables. Some days you’re in “the zone” where everything comes together perfectly. Other days, as INRNG points out, certain factors will affect the performance: well-hydrated (or not), sufficient “fuel” to burn, body recovered from yesterday, etc. All equal whether one has his legs and performs well, or does he bonk and disappoint himself, his team and his fans.

        And sometimes a great ride doesn’t even have the best foundation: riders winning with fever/illness, winning with injury, winning without the best preparation (not typical). This leaves the other factor which is sometimes the overriding factor, psychological disposition. I’m Italian, it’s the Giro, my family is here and I will succeed! I’m tired of finishing 2nd year-after-year and I will win this race! I just lost my father who was also a cyclist, today I ride for him!

        The mental/emotional side of cycling is indeed a large factor, and on any given day, the dark horse or the rider completely off the radar may surprise:)

  2. Like a laboratory except these guys have 2 weeks of hard racing in their legs and may not be able to produce the power they did on a fresh day in the lab. So, it also becomes a question of strategy over the stages before and after the killer climb.

  3. Agreed to an extent but, as someone who loves hitting the steep stuff (check the blog), I’d say that putting super steep (possibly shorter) climbs in the middle of the parcours is a great way of knocking the race about and introducing new themes to the normal team tactics.

    Look how Purito shot up the final climb to Assisi in the Giro – if that were mid race then it’s a great place to see a few specialist climbers hit out together and then watch the rest of the race unfold as they try to cling on to the finish line

    • Exactly. The problem is not very steep climbs, the problem is finishing the stages on very steep climbs. Put the Zoncolan or the Angliru in the middle of a stage with another, long, not quite so steep climb, before finishing down in the valley, and you have 80 kms. of enjoyment.

      • The 19th stage in the 2010 Giro edition where Basso finally managed to take the pink jersey away from Arroyo was just as you describes! A fantastic stage, and very decisive!

  4. As a relative Newby to the sport this is another great article that will help me appreciate the”lesser” climbs next time I watch. Cheers

  5. I think the people who prefer watching the steeper climbs do so for exactly the reasons you state. Plus they are far more relevant in a GC context.

    They want to see the best rise to the top as often as possible, they want to see riders battling alone (even if they are actually following a wheel). You can only ensure this by making the stage very hard leading up to the final mountain or make the final climb steep enough that the best few riders in the bunch will create a gap on the rest by default (in the extreme case).

    The tactics of riding in a group of 10-15 up a slope of 6.5% are hardly riveting. All you end up with is one of the second or third tier contenders being left alone up the road whilst the serious contenders ramp up the pace with one or two km to go. This scenario is often made worse when headwinds are present.

    One very clear example would be the Dauphine last year, Collet d’Allevard (11.2km @ 8.4%) we had top climbers attacking off the front, and another battle behind between those on top after the TT. The next day at La Toussuire (14.8km @ 5.8%) there was a group sprint. Look at the Vuelta last year, many gradual finishes, but few selections between the form contenders until Angliru.

    The harder climbs create chaos, and are not at the mercy of conservative team or individual “tactics”.

    There should be gradual climbs in the mix, but there should be no illusions about what the most likely outcome is on them. If you want an evolving GC battle, then you do need a couple of steeper climbs spread across a race. You’d probably find that the “lesser” days also become more uncertain as a result.



  6. I think Wiggins demise in the Vuelta last year (and Froome’s too for that matter) was that he got one thing wrong on those supr steep climbs… gearing. If he wants to use those Osymetric rings (and I say why not), they should have gotten creative with MTB rear derailleurs and an 32t or 34t cassette.

  7. Personally, I like the ridiculously hard mountain stages. Yeah, it pretty much takes racing tactics and drafting dynamics completely out of it, but there’s something to be said about fighting mano-a-mano up a torturous climb. Power to weight ratio is the single most important quality in cycling and it is nice to see how it manifests in these stages. For sure, a rider can have a high power:weight on day 1 of a Grand Tour but that can be quite different after 2 weeks of racing.

    • That hard mountains take racing tactics and drafting dynamics out of the equation are exactly why they are so great. Yes its “mano-a-mano” but it can also be mental test. It can become a psychological warfare between two or three (or more) riders. It can be the ultimate poker game. That doesn’t happen in a sprint or a TT. Only on a climb do you see who is not only physically strongest, but also mentally–the mark of a true champion.
      Sadly radio’s have taken some of that away over the years.

  8. As a mass participation sport, the really steep climbs give the weekend warrior a chance to relish a) the apparent superhuman power of the top climbers (’20kph up THAT??’), but also b) the humbling of even the most solid pro (‘look, he’s going backwards!’).

  9. Good article. Very relevant points. Still, there are so few attacks nowadays, there’s so much conservatism and fear, that sometimes it seems that only a 20% slope can set riders apart from one another and from their teammates.
    When the Hourquette d’Ancizan followed by the Tourmalet still leaves 40 guys together in the peloton… what can riders expect from organizers?

  10. Your physics seems right, it should just be a matter of power to weight. Why, then, do we so often see top riders playing cat-and-mouse on the big slopes? One accelerates, his rival matches, and they keep up the game most of the way. There must be something else going on, otherwise they’d all pick their pace and slog on separately.

    • @Ken: The cat-and-mouse game, the little accelerations, the rival matches, as you say…why?
      By this point all are tired and riders must “test” their rivals to see who really has the “bite” to go with the “bark.” Who is really spent and can only match little accelerations and who DOES have their legs still and can attack and ride away or follow the little accelerations (saving energy) and then ride away for the win at the right moment.

      I prefer the confidence of the rider who knows he has good legs today, picks the right moment for his attack and does so, without looking back. Sometimes, though, riders overestimate and attack too soon, and we all know what happens then. Bluffing, like in card games, is indeed at play here.

      Figuring out where Contador was (physically) in the TdF last year wasn’t easy — was he too tired from the Giro, was his knee injury serious? Levi Leipheimer in yesterday’s ITT in ToC — was his still-healing fibular fracture really going to slow him down or had he ridden back into form? Many thought he was bluffing, but he wasn’t.

      Gotta love this sport:)

  11. It may be easier to predict, but even then sometimes predictions come out wrong. Very steep climbs, not so steep climbs both have their pros and cons. I’ve seen stages ending in a very steep climb where there were attacks and counter-attacks and I’ve seen climbs were they all go in their pace and then one rider’s pace is stronger than the others and he goes away to win. Same thing about “normal” climbs. In the end, cyclists make the climbs.

  12. The comments are spot on about the differences between a one-day race with a brutal climb and the 14th or so stage of a grand tour. To see the top riders whirl away between 16 and 20 mph up steep sections two weeks into a stage race is not only impressive, but revealing. I have to imagine that some strategic thinking goes into how each GC contender and even those merely trying to survive approach the steepest sections.

  13. Here is a thought experiment. Equalize Contador’s and Cancellara’s power/weight ratio by adding weights to Contador. Let’s say Contador weighs 62 kg and Cancellara 82 (the exact numbers do not matter; I am just making a point; also assume their bikes, etc. weigh the same). Using arbitrary power units, lets say Contador is 10 and Cancellara 12. Their ratios are, respectively, 0.161 and 0.146, so Contador climbs better. Attach a 6.3 kg weight to Contador to give them the same ratio, and who between them would win on the Zoncolon? Would it be a dead heat? How about the Tourmalet? My guess is that Contador would still win on either.

    • No, in your thought experiment, Contador would lose because he’s not used to it, his cycling style would be affected. Especially since he’s very often out of the saddle, so the dynamics of weight distribution and neurological adaptation are in play.

      Moreover any wind at all and Cancellara has the advantage as a bigger guy, they don’t get blown around as much.

  14. Is anyone else disappointed in the tour of California and their “mountains” this year? All this talk of steep mountains also brings up the point of where to place these mountains during the stage. What is the point of a big mountain that is summitted half way through the stage? No one attacks, its an easy ride, its just pointless. Look at Mt. Diablo and the Grand Colombier.. they are both put too early in the stage to have any importance, its a joke. Then there are the “mountain stages” that have two big mountains at the very beginning and then its flat… umm boring. Personally I think watching the longer, not as steep climbs are more entertaining if riders attack and if they are at the end of the stage. The tour of California is showing this to a great degree, all these mountains yet none of them have created a single selection, what a waste and what a boring tour. So, in conclusion, have the mountains but lets make them meaningful

    • @Zac: I hear ya…had the organizers done what they said they were gonna do last year, which was to again try to have the Tour begin at Lake Tahoe in the Sierras (lightning doesn’t usually strike twice), then we would have had “real” mountains right from the get-go. The routes for Stages 1 and 2 last year (which were canceled due to blizzard conditions) were epic, climbing through some of the most beautiful parts of the high Sierras. They promised to use those routes this year but they did not. Mistake #1.

      Stage 2 had some descent climbing (and a downright dangerous descent of Jamison Creek Rd in Boulder Creek) and a Cat 1 climb up Empire Grade, but the rest, until today (not counting the ITT) has been rather boring. Today’s stage to Big Bear Lake was really good. Ag2r’s Sylvain Georges rode 184km solo and won the stage (in case you missed it), with a too-late chase by the peloton to reel him in; this made for a truly exciting race for many kms. There was Georges and two chase groups and the chasing peloton. Ag2r got 2 wins today, CA and France…long time coming!,33399756&yr=2012

      With about 1 km to go Jens Voigt jumped and Sagan, too, driving really hard for 2nd place and so forth. Sagan won the 1st 3 stages and took 2nd today (+ :28 behind Georges) with another awesome sprint past Peter Velits like he was standing still! Sagan’s sprinting prowess is starting to look like Cav’s, smokin’ everyone!

      How ’bout Jens taking 2nd in the ITT yesterday!! Zabriskie smoked everyone as expected, but Jens beat Tejay VG, R. Gesink, A. Talansky, etc. That was cool.

      Tomorrow’s climb is epic. Mt. Baldy is steep and there will be big gaps and attrition…the GC will be much clearer after tomorrow’s stage. So not all bad, but I do agree that the course design could have been better with the climbs being longer. CA’s full of regions that have epic climbing, but the stages need accessibility and mucho dinero, etc… the race is still young, give it time:)

      • I don’t disagree that yesterday’s stage was more exciting. But it wasn’t exciting for the GC guys who took it easy again. Seeing breakaway’s succeed is awesome but I also wanna see the big names fight it out and they haven’t yet and there is only 1 stage in this week long race where they will (not including the TT). My point is more that the mountains have been too far away for the GC guys to really go at it. Though there has been a problem lately in the peloton of the GC’s guys waiting til late on a mountain to do something which is frustrating as well and the combination of this and the mountains being too far from the finish line has lead to a boring tour as far as the GC goes. Hopefully Baldy today will change that

        • @Zac: You make good points. In a week-long stage race, everyday matters much, but most especially the climbing stages and the ITT. GC riders have waited too long, in many races, to attack. Pieter Weening (OGE) and W. Kelderman (Rab) (and Rast for a bit) chased, but it was too late. Additionally, Georges’ DS was going nuts in the team car rooting him on and his cadence never really dropped much. That was what was so impressive to me. I kept expecting him to slow down and for at least the 2 chasers to catch him, but they never did.

          Yesterday’s stage to Big Bear should have left the GC looking differently than it did; it was just the same as after the ITT, except Velits leapfrogged Talansky. That says a lot about a lack of attacking. What is wrong and what are these riders waiting for?

          Maybe it takes time for course designers to design a course that provides better action (?)
          Place the mountains closer to the finish, as you say, with the hopes that GC riders will attack more and not just sit back and let the domestiques work all day. How about Tim Duggan’s (Liq) work yesterday? The guy is a major work horse.

          No question, today is the day. Baldy will shed those who don’t have their legs.
          I expect attacks from:

          – Tejay VG (BMC): only 34″ down and can win this race.
          – R. Gesink (Rab): 39″ down and just chomping at the bit!
          – P. Velits (OPQ): 45″ down and Levi probably won’t be there.
          – T. Danielson (Grm): + 1:07, will likely attack if Zabriskie doesn’t have his legs today.
          – V. Nibali (Liq): + 1:52, it’s now or never for Vincenzo! I expect a huge attack from him today.
          – P. Weening (OGE): + 2:05, will likely attack, though he’s got 2 teammates ahead of him on GC
          – H. Haussler (Grm): + 2:35, will attack if Z or Danielson don’t have their legs; Haussler wants to win this race, but duties will be dictated on Baldy.
          – C. Horner (RNT): + 2:50, will attack, but don’t think he’s got it in him this year — a lot of time
          to make up.

          Should be lots of attacking, Baldy should not disappoint!

  15. as a big chap I agree. all racing should be conducted entirely on the flat. these fun sized colombians with their ridiculous power-to-weight ratios are ruining the sport.

    in fact I think the UCI should rule on it

  16. Variety is the spice of life, and I’d hate to see every stage race decided by a queen stage finishing on some badly-sealed near-vertical goat track.

    But the really steep climbs do have their place.

    As a finishing climb, they have the same “race of truth” element to them as a TT; and, as others have noted, there is a certain satisfaction about a race of truth.

    Secondly, they advantage the very lightest climbers compared to the heavier watt monsters like, say, Bradley Wiggins, or perhaps a sprint-climber like Rodriguez if they can’t produce the power-to-weight over a sustained period to hang on. Over a stage race, this can create additional drama if you’ve got riders who are strong on different stages.

    Putting ultra-steep climbs in the middle of stages also opens up interesting tactical possibilities.

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  18. All the reasons you state are what make the steep climbs awesome. Its cool watching the best duking it out on an insanely steep gradient. Yes, it may be just a measure of power to weight, but what about flat ITTs? Those are just power over aerodynamic efficiency, so just as reductive. You can’t argue to get rid of super-steep climbs if you want to keep flat ITTs. If the big guys who can crank out monster watts have a stage which suits them, why can’t the mountain goats? And putting the super steep climbs in the middle of a stage would make it interesting for the stage win, but not from a GC perspective, because, as we’ve seen, they will never attack until the final 5 kilometers of a summit finish. And even then, it still doesnt split the race up that much sometimes, so you need the super steep climbs to let the best rise to the top.

    • I don’t want to get rid of these climbs! Never. It’s more they are promoted as massive battles and contests but today’s gearing means it’s really power to weight. And the harder the climb, the more so. But it’s still superior to a time trial as we see the visual battle between the riders.

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