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Much of the Veneto region is hilly and mountainous, and with few exceptions, the most scenic and engaging routes require some climbing. Climbing is an integral element of cycling, and part of being a complete cyclist. There's nothing like the challenge, adventure, thrill, and satisfaction that comes with reaching high places under one's own power.  Most cyclists who fear cliimbs, but give them a try, not only rise to the occasion but are captivated, though they are often intimidated by descents on roads that zigzag thousands of feet down sheer cliffs.

On this page I will share what I've learned over the years about climbing and descending. Let's start with the essentials--the cyclist and the bike.

THE BIKE

It's a cliché to say "check your bike and make sure it's in the proper condition," but it's essential if you're going to ride in the mountains. Not only does your safety, and maybe your life, depend on it, but knowing that you can trust your bike gives you confidence and lets you concentrate on the task at hand. Every nut and bolt on your bike should be examined: stem, brake levers, brake blocks, brake and derailleur cable anchors, seat post clamp, water bottle cages, even your computer bracket. All bolts should be torqued to spec: I've seen three carbon seatposts crack from overtightening. Disc brakes are not foolproof or immune to problems. Wheels should be true, and spokes should have the proper tension. Check tire treads for wear, cuts, and embedded debris, and avoid using patched tubes. Ensure that tires are mounted/seated properly on the rims. Rim strips are an item most people give little or no thought to, but worn or displaced ones can expose the edges of the nipple holes, which can then cut your tube. (I once had multiple flats caused by a sliver of aluminum embedded in the rim strip; it was so tiny that I could only find it with a jeweler's magnifying lens!) Worn chains or cogs can cause the chain to skip. It's easy to be distracted when working on your bike and forget to complete a task, so double check everything. If you've had a crash you should be extra wary, as your bike may have suffered unseen damage. Don't neglect your cleats either. Some (Look, for one) have wear indicators. Worn cleats can lead to an inadvertent release. This happened to a cyclist I once knew when he stood up on the pedals at the crest of a little climb. He lost his balance and fell, hitting his head on a curb. He wasn't wearing a helmet. He spoke his wife's name, slipped into a coma, and died eight months later. When I visited his wife she showed me his bike, which wasn't damaged at all. It was a tragic and sobering sight. Loose cleat bolts can lead to accidents if the cleat shifts position and causes a loss of balance, or the inability to unclip.

Unfortunately, you can't always detect everything. One of my friend Mario's crashes came when descending the south side of the San Boldo Pass. Without warning, his crank snapped in half, causing him to lose control and crash into a wall (he was lucky there was a wall!). In those days he didn't wear a helmet. With blood streaming from his head, he somehow managed to reach Tovena, the town at the bottom, where he sought help. This was not a wise thing to do: he could have suffered a dizzy spell or lost consciousness (not to mention the difficulty of descending with only one crank!). Mario noted that the crash happened on Tornante 13 where there is a little shrine dedicated to the Madonna, and he is thankful to her that he got off as lightly as he did. That's Mario, always looking on the bright side.

Have low enough gears! I still have a carbon fiber triple crankset on my road bike, but will be switching to the Campagnolo Chorus 12-speed group, which offers a 32-48 crankset that, together with a 34-tooth cog, will provide both a very low gear and a range of ratios that will be adequate for every gradient and situation. The triple on my all-road bike is being replaced by Campy 11-speed, with a Miche Graff 30-36 crankset, and a Miche 15-32 cassette.  

If you're using wheels (especially older models) with non-standard spokes, it's a good idea to carry spares, as a mechanic may not have your particular spoke on hand. I once came across a group of visiting cyclists from another part of Italy as they were going from one bike shop to another, looking for a particular spoke for a wheel that was no longer made. Their rides were on hold and their trip somewhat ruined. I prefer to stick for now with my old-school standard 32-spoke wheels with aluminum rims..

You'll want tires that are durable, offer low rolling resistance, have a supple feel, and provide a pleasant ride sensation, but most important, are grippy and secure on the descents. Descending on worn or improperly inflated tires is asking for trouble.


THE RIDER

Being from New Jersey, I know how hard it is to train for miles-long climbs when you live in a place where there are none (steep, we do have, but they are short). I recommend doing time trial training (climbing, like TTing, requires a hard, steady effort) and hill intervals on whatever slope you have at hand; even an overpass or bridge can be hard when ridden all out, repeatedly. Climbing takes raw power as well as aerobic fitness; spinning workouts in the gym are not adequate preparation for really tough climbs. There's no substitute for actually riding on the road, with its variety of surfaces, winds, change of gradients, and so on. Gravel and mountain bike riding are also excellent for developing power, balance, and the ability to handle the bike in unusual and unforeseen conditions. Practice riding out of the saddle whenever you can--it's an important tool to have at your disposal, but it takes upper body and core strength. Transitioning smoothly between sitting and standing is an essential skill. If you suddenly stop pedaling when going from sitting to standing or vice versa, the rider behind you may run into your rear wheel and go down. If you are sitting, keep pedaling as you pull yourself to a standing position. If you are standing and feel your legs starting to go, don't hesitate, but lower yourself smoothly to the saddle as you keep pedaling. Good balance and smooth, round pedaling action are important too--especially if you find yourself advancing at 3 mph!


ESSENTIAL EQUIPMENT

When heading for the mountains, always take a jacket, even on the warmest, sunniest day. A windbreaker that fits in your jersey pocket or seat bag will do. Temperatures at higher elevations can be significantly lower, and mountain weather can change with alarming speed. There's nothing worse than reaching the top of a climb soaking wet from perspiration, then feeling a sudden chill when you stop for a coffee, or start descending...or being chased and caught by black thunderclouds which have suddenly appeared from out of nowhere. Shivering diminishes your concentration and bike handling ability. You could become hypothermic and suffer from impaired coordination, reactions, and judgment, with disastrous consequences. You can always resort to the old-fashioned practice of stuffing newspapers under your jersey (plastic bags would work too).

Protective eyewear is imperative: a speck of dust or a bug smashing into your eye while you're descending at high speed could be calamitous. Descending with your mouth open isn't a good idea either. A few years ago I collided with a bee while descending the Montello. It hit my mouth and stung the inside of my lip, which immediately began to swell. Imagine what would have happened if I hadn't had my mouth closed!

Sunscreen is a given, and insect repellant is recommended: there's nothing worse than laboring up a climb with an annoying gnat buzzing around your face, or having a nasty horsefly bite right through your shorts, leaving an itchy welt on your thigh or behind (so don't neglect those areas when you apply the bug repellant).

Think twice about the items you carry in your jersey pockets. I know of rider who crashed on a descent and had some ribs broken by his mini pump.

You should always carry an ID and medical information, and the name and telephone number of a contact person and/or the lodgings or home where you're staying. Keep these on your person (a dog tag or bracelet), not in your seat bag: in the event you're injured and unconscious, no one would think to look there, or you might find yourself taken to a hospital without your bike. Even keeping a card in your jersey pocket has its drawbacks. It could be destroyed in a crash, or the jersey could be cut off and discarded by medical personnel.  I think it's also a good idea to carry your phone in your jersey pocket (even though it could cause an injury), in the event you need to phone friends or relatives from a hospital.  If you set out alone, tell someone where you're going. I recall the first time I descended from Foza to Valstagna, a really lonely road down a sheer cliff in a canyon, and thinking, 'if I went off the road here, maybe someone would find my bones 20 years from now!'

KEEP IN MIND THAT...

...Rain and wind send sand, pebbles, rocks, branches, and leaves into the road. Descending after a storm can be treacherous: debris can puncture or cut your tires; slippery leaves can cause a loss of traction, hitting objects can make you lose control. I recall being caught in a storm while on a 15% climb. When I stood up to apply more power to the pedals, my rear wheel just spun round and round. Stopping and dismounting wasn't easy, as those plastic cleats are slippery. The descent was one of the scariest I've ever done. The tires seemed to be skimming on ice and I had no feeling of traction or control. (Disc brakes wouldn't have helped).

...Bicycles are silent. You may think you are alone on a climb because you hear no cars above, but there may be a cyclist descending. A few years ago, a climbing and a descending cyclist had a head-on collision and one of them was killed. In granfondo rides, use your periferal vision to check for faster cyclists overtaking you when you're setting up for turns on descents, A handlebar mirror is great for this.

...When you are rounding a curve, cars approaching from either the front or the rear may not be able to see you (or may be concentrating on taking their own line in the curve), so keep to the right unless you have a clear view way up or down the road (which is possible when the road doubles back on itself, and you can see vehicles above and below you). If you see a large truck approaching a switchback that you're heading for, it's best to stop and give it the right of way.

CLIMBING TIPS for the UNINITIATED

Don't be in a hurry. When starting a long climb, settle down and realize that you're going to be doing this for a good long while! So relax, breathe deeply, get into a rhythm. Do not try to keep up with--nor wait for--other riders. Each cyclist has his/her own climbing pace, and should stick to it. Don't be looking way up ahead and thinking "yikes!" and "aargh!" Getting flustered or panicky is counterproductive: it wastes energy and induces negative physiological reactions. Stay in the moment. Look around and enjoy the view. Smile. You will get up there and beyond, one pedal stroke at a time. You will find that as the minutes pass, you will feel better and stronger, as your system adapts to the effort.

Don't spin madly in a tiny gear and go nowhere fast--you'll just tire yourself out in short order. Use a ratio that gives some resistance.

Don't tense your upper body; keep your shoulders down, elbows bent (but not sticking out like Chris Froome's). Your upper body should be straight and quiet; only your legs should be moving: rocking your body from side to side, or bobbing your head, doesn't contribute to your forward motion, wastes energy, and looks ghastly. Don't mash the pedals. Once while climbing the Pordoi Pass to see a stage finish of the Giro Donne, I came upon a group of cyclists in a club. When I got alongside them they struck up a conversation...and subtly upped their pace a little, just enough so that I couldn't pass them. The rider next to me was a terrible climber. He was doing everything that I just said not to do, and as he would push down hard on the pedals, his tensed body with locked elbows would jerk the bike to and fro, causing it to weave back and forth in the road. I was afraid he was going to knock me down. I didn't want to ride in back of him either as he looked none too capable (I've seen riders reach their limits and just fall over). I was trapped. The only thing I could do was keep as far away as possible from the inept fellow.                                                       

Place your butt far back on the saddle and push forward; you get more leverage that way. Climbing out of the saddle takes more energy, but of course the weight of your body helps deliver more power to the pedals. It's good to alternate styles. With experience, you'll know the right situation to utilize each. There's no right or wrong--it's a matter of one's strength, fitness, and physique, the slope angle, climb length, and even how you are feeling at the moment.

Small light climbers like the late Marco Pantani often stand. It's also a matter of one's own personal style. I do it as much as I can, as it gives me a "proactive" attacking feeling, rather than the more passive feeling I get when just sitting down and spinning along.

When you get to a switchback, avoid the temptation to cut the corner, because you'll only have to climb out of the apex, which is a steeper line, due to the banking. Keep to the outside and look for the relatively level spot. When you get to it, stop pedaling for a couple of seconds. You'll find that this micro-rest will allow you to recover and give your legs a burst of energy. (You can also take advantage of pull-overs, parking areas, and driveways to do this). This trick has kept me going when others have blown up, dismounted, and started walking. On a switchback you can then shoot down the banking and use your momentum to zip effortlessly up the climb for a few meters.

Do not eat (including carbo gels and liquids) while climbing.  Digestion diverts blood flow and energy from the muscles and can lead to weakness and all sorts of distress.


DESCENDING BASICS

The bad news is, great descenders are born, not made. Two-time Giro winner Paolo Savoldelli said this, and he should know--they didn't call him il Falco (the Falcon) for nothing. Watching him scream down a mountain road, exiting turns just inches from the edge of a cliff, was hair-raising. But that doesn't mean that we mortals can't improve our descending skills. Another legendary descender (and Giro winner), Fiorenzo Magni gave this advice to a rider whose feeble descending ability cost him a possible Giro stage win: "Take risks! So you break a shoulder here or an ankle there. It will heal and in the end you'll learn to be a better, faster descender." I am not recommending that you do this! Instead, I offer the following tips and techniques, which should make you feel more at ease when the road goes downhill.

Do not try to keep up with other riders, who may have more experience and skill. (Ignoring this advice often leads to crashes and broken bones). Relax. Singing or whistling a tune helps. Don't tense your body; keep your shoulders down, elbows bent. A rigid body transmits jolts instead of enabling you to absorb and react to them. Keep your butt back on the saddle and your torso low, to counteract the force of gravity pulling you downward (which on an incline means forward), as well as for even weight distribution, and to lower your center of gravity.

Your cranks should be parallel to the road. This distributes your weight better, keeps you more balanced, and enables you to use your legs as shock absorbers by raising your butt ever so slightly from the saddle. Doing that also takes your weight off the saddle and puts it on the pedals instead, lowering your center of gravity and increasing your stability. On long descents, it's good to rotate the pedals now and then, to keep blood flowing and to keep the muscles from stiffening. Hands should be on the drops, with your fingers on the brake levers. (I installed a set of Lizard Skins neoprene MTB brake lever sleeves, which eliminate slipperiness caused by perspiration or rain). DO NOT take your hand(s) off the bars. If you follow pro racing, you will know that even pros have come to grief because they ignored this rule (e.g. Alberto Contador and Chris Froome).

Keep your head up and look down the road, scanning for potential troubles, and visualizing your line through the next curve. REMEMBER: YOU GO WHERE YOU LOOK!  It's known as target fixation. If you focus on a spot where you don't want to go, like the edge of the road or on an object you must avoid hitting, you will probably wind up going off the road or hitting that object.

To control your speed, alternately feather the brakes. Don't apply them constantly, as this will heat up the rims (or hydraulic fluid), which could cause a blowout, disc brake fade, or (in the case of tubulars), melted glue and a loose tire. You'd be amazed how hot rims can get. I once had a flat on a very steep descent and had to wait awhile before removing the tire because the rim burned my fingers. On another occasion, as I was waiting for a friend at the base of Monte Grappa, some riders who had  just descended stopped to remove their jackets, and one of them was horrified to see that his tubular was about to roll off the rim! The recommended technique is to brake hard before the curve, then release the brakes as you enter it--this way, your bike will be accelerating as you exit the curve. If you slow down too much, you will creep around the apex and then have to pedal to accelerate. It takes a lot of practice and experience to know at what point and how much to brake, when to release the brakes, and how much speed you can carry through the curve. There are many determining factors and no magic formula. If you are new to the game, just try to do most of your braking before the curve, then continue to apply some pressure as you go into it. Do not suddenly apply your brakes hard in a curve, as this will lock up your wheels and cause a skid or fishtail. If you must brake in a curve, straighten the bike and apply pressure gently and evenly. The correct line is to drift to the outside of the curve, cut across the apex, and exit wide on the other side. Oncoming automobiles may make this impossible, however, as do some roads, which have steep, tight little hairpins that offer no room. Keep your inside pedal up, and transfer your weight decisively onto your outside pedal, just as in downhill skiing. Lean your bike into the curve.











But in the end, just knowing the techniques isn't enough to make you a fearless descender. It goes back to what Il Falco said--you have to be born with that innate fearlessness, not to mention extraordinary reactions. I would probably be more inclined to go all out if I could see around curves. How do I know I won't encounter a cow in the road, or a pile of slippery cow manure!, or a deer or feral hog, a fallen cyclist, a branch or boulder, a rivulet of water, or a lumbering tractor? How do I know I won't run over something that will cause my tire to blow out?

Flavio Vanzella, a yellow jersey wearer in the Tour de France, once gave me this advice: concentrate so much on the descent, be so into what you're doing, that you can't think of anything else. (This is known as a flow state). Racers can allow themselves to do this because they know that  the roads are clear...and in fact, they often know the roads, having ridden them in previous races or recon rides. They are experienced, highly skilled, experts, riding with others who are the same, and...they are getting paid to take risks!  None of these these factors applies to us, so in the end, being a fearless descender is not something that we should even aspire to.

CRASHING

It's not pleasant to think about this but it's always a possibility, although crashing on a descent is almost always the result of imprudence, misjudgement, lapse of concentration, overestimating one's abilities, or exceeding one's limits. If you realize you aren't going to make a turn and are heading towards a wall or guardrail, it's probably better to lay the bike down and slide than hit the obstacle head on and risk cracking your head or doing an endo into thin air. When falling (in any situation), hold onto your handlebars and do not put out your hand to break the fall. It won't keep you upright and you'll probably break your wrist, as happened to an inexperienced person on a ride I led once. Note how the pros unclip and extend one leg instead. If that's impossible, then let your shoulder and hip take the impact, keeping your head up (broken collarbones are a common cycling injury). Rest assured that people will stop to help you and summon first aid if necessary.

In summary: When heading for the mountains it is wise to keep in mind this Zen dictum: "Expect nothing; be prepared for everything."

CLIMBING & DESCENDING

Image from Apple Maps

RIDE YOUR OWN RIDE

Aside from training, and physical limitations resulting from injuries or conditions, there are also genetically-determined physiological factors that influence one's climbing ability. (Otherwise, everyone would theoretically be capable of winning a climbing stage in a grand tour). We are not all created equal, but we all do have an equal right to cycling fulfillment. Just because someone else climbs faster or with larger gears, it does not diminish what we do, or mean that we shouldn't feel satisfaction and pride in our climbing accomplishments. (There is always going to be someone faster!) We should always try to push ourselves, better our performances, and redefine our limits, but at the same time, realize that we do have them, and accept ourselves for what we are. An inability to do this only can only lead to unhappiness, self-destructive emotions, and in some cases, doping. And for what?

If anyone makes a derisive comment about my triple or slow speed, who cares?  I'm the one riding the bike, not them. If someone enjoys feeling superior, let them.  So they are stronger and faster than I.  So what? What do I have to prove? My self-image is based on more than the sizes of my chainrings and the number of teeth on my cogs!     

There doesn't exist a cyclist who doesn't enjoy passing another rider on a climb. But before feeling smug or superior, one should consider: maybe that person doesn't have as much time to train as you do. Or is recovering from illness or injury. Is new to the sport. Is having a jour sans (a day without...legs). A recovery day. A pain. A cramp. A crisi di fame (bonk), mechanical problem, or a crummy bike. Maybe he/she had a triple bypass! (Or maybe, just maybe, she wants to ride slowly, observe, enjoy the scenery and savor the sensations). So unless you have won a race against your peers (an actual race, not a Strava segment), feeling good about your climbing accomplishment should not be based solely on feeling superior to others. (And even then, just who are those peers you beat?)  Of course we are all allowed to feel scornful of those who ride up on e-bikes!

The opposite is also true: you shouldn't feel bad about a climbing experience based on feelings of inferiority to others. A satisfying climb should mean: You felt good!  Every muscle of your body and all of your systems worked perfectly together, like a well-tuned machine. You climbed with good style. Practiced good roadcraft. Used your gears with precision and maximum efficiency.  Stood on the pedals at the right moments, felt the bike respond, enjoyed feeling that little surge of power. Felt in harmony with the mountain. Thought how lucky you were to be healthy, strong, skillful, and able to be in that place at that time.  

Euphoria, satisfaction, and pride are our rewards as climbers, and we all have a right to enjoy them (with the exception of e-bikers), regardless of how fast we climb or what gears we use.


CONCLUSION

Mountains are never conquered. One who boasts of such "conquests" is arrogant and self-centered, or simply ignorant, insensitive, and naive. Summits are earned, with effort, will, and determination. Climbing is a spiritual experience, a communion, not an occasion for exalting one's ego. Mountains can teach us much about our own strength, character, and inner resources, if they are approached with humility, reverence, and respect, rather than a desire for self-glorification. If nothing else, being in the mountains should make us realize how small and insignificant we are, yet at the same time, that we are part of something grand and divine...both infinitesimal and infinite. Mountains have the power to reach deep into our souls and illuminate our being, if we will only let them.

The most important descending technique to master is counter steer, which literally means steering the bike in the direction opposite that of the curve. By steering I mean actually putting pressure on the handlebar. Think of it this way: in normal riding, without even thinking about it, you put slight pressure on your right handlebar to move to the left, and vice versa. But when you're in a right-hand curve, pushing forward on the right handlebar will put the bike in a steeper lean to the right, tightening the arc of your trajectory. In a left-hand curve, pushing on the left bar will make you lean more to the left and cut a tighter left hand arc. The  greater the pressure, the greater the lean, and the tighter the arc. This phenomenon is determined by laws of physics, which you can use to your advantage.

Copyright: (c)Tim De Waele, VeloNews