Climbing big mountains is a rite of passage for cyclists. Getting you and your bicycle up that hill in defiance of gravity is one of the most difficult aspects of riding a bicycle, but it is also one of the great attractions to cycling. Overcoming the mountain challenges you—it bares your soul; it asks you to perform beyond what you thought was even possible. Longer climbs of 30, 60, or 90 minutes, or even several hours can change who you are.
Epic climbs like this can define you.
Climbing is both physical and mental. You aren’t likely to succeed if you have only developed one of those. You can be physically strong, but without the mental skills, you will still struggle, and perhaps even fail. Climbing on a bike can be that hard, but it is also overwhelmingly rewarding.
Any avid cyclist will tell you that climbing, especially those epic, long climbs, is “suffering” at its best! That may seem like an oxymoron, but not to a cyclist. If you are a cyclist, you get it, right? Just watch the Tour de France and you’ll see what I mean.
So, what is it that gets a cyclist through the pain and suffering of a long climb?
There are many techniques that cyclists use to help them get up the climbs. With that in mind, I’d like to introduce our next series at ICA called Strategies for Strength. Tom Scotto and I provide you with our own favorite go-to strategies when we need to move beyond our self-perceived limitations, beyond the burning in the legs and the lungs, and get to the top of a climb no matter what.
We will also share the mental skills that elite athletes use to help them win their events that involve big lumps of land that push the road high up into the stratosphere. You can use these strategies when you coach your students through a particularly hard and/or long climb in your indoor cycling and Spinning® classes.
First, a little about my own past experience with climbing big mountains. In sharing this, you’ll see that my cycling past is the impetus for this series and has indeed shaped who I am today.
Admission: I’m dating myself here, but I think you will recognize that I’ve been committed to authentic indoor cycling for a very long time as a result of my past experiences on a bicycle.
In 1988, I needed a break from my own reality. I was living in San Francisco at the time and had recently gone through a breakup and life change. I moved out of my boyfriend’s house, quit my job, sold my car, put my stuff in storage, gave away my cat (I still think of that fluff ball Toulouse!), and took my bike to Europe. I loaded it with panniers, sleeping bag, cook stove, and more, and rode 2,500 miles mostly through France, crossing Switzerland, then into southern Germany, and finally back into France. I literally landed in Paris, put my bike together at the airport, loaded my packs, and said, “Hmmmm, where do I go now?” I actually rode my bicycle to downtown Paris from the airport!
This was pre-Internet and GPS, so there was no checking my phone for the best route. I had roughly planned a route with desired benchmarks, and sort of winged it from there. My general route flowed south from Paris to the Loire Valley, then down to Dordogne, then across the southern border along the sea to Provence. From there I made my way north to the Alps, where I hurried to catch one stage of the 1989 Tour de France, hoping to see Greg Lemond (who unfortunately missed that year due to a hunting accident). After the Tour, I continued through the Alps to Geneva, across Switzerland, into southern Germany, then back into France on the Route du Vin of Alsace. The last leg was across Champagne and back to Paris.
I was on my bike anywhere from 6 to 10 hours a day for a full two months. I rode five weeks completely solo, then met a friend in Switzerland, and we rode another three weeks together. During this trip, I never, ever had any qualms or worries about my safety. Ever! Maybe it was just me being super positive, maybe it was the era, or perhaps a combination of both. And back then, I also left my bike in front of museums or ruins and never worried about things being stolen. I always locked my bike, but I left my panniers and sleeping bag on the bike. Two months and never, ever a worry. Sadly, I would not do today what I did back then.
I had a lot of mountains to get over, and I had 50 lbs of gear to carry with me. The longest climbs of the Alps were about a month into my ride, and by that time I had developed my mental skills to help get me and my heavy bike over just about anything. This sometimes meant climbing for 2 to 3 hours at a time at a very slow pace. I literally had no other choice; I was en route toward a campground and had to continue. I couldn’t change my mind. I rode through tears and cheers of joy. I rode through pounding heat, through rain (though fortunately, I was very lucky and encountered very little), and I even rode through one afternoon of snowflakes in July on a long climb in Switzerland.
I had no other choice (or maybe it’s more correct to say I didn’t ALLOW myself any other choice), so I had to push through any discomfort. In the process, I developed mental strength I had never realized I possessed.
After that experience, two years later (my last hurrah before starting grad school), I went to New Zealand and rode my bike for four weeks, primarily around the South Island with the goal of riding several glacier passes that took up to 3 hours with a fully loaded bike.
Now I live in the Rocky Mountains, where we have many 10- to 18-mile climbs. And if you know anything about me, one of my favorite things to do is to take or send people to Europe to go climb the BIG ones such as Mont Ventoux, Alpe d’Huez, Galibier, and more.
So, all that to say, I’ve got a lot of great strategies that I use to get me over that “hump,” literally and figuratively. Even when I’m not in top cycling shape, I have found I can use my mind-over-body techniques to get me through—and over—just about anything.
Ever since those momentous and mountainous adventures of my younger days, I’ve used these same strategies in coaching long simulated climbs in my indoor cycling classes. I even taught a workshop at CanFitPro back in 2009 called “Strategies for Strength” using many of these same techniques when I was still a master instructor for the Spinning program.
I’ll be sharing these mental and physical strategies with you over the course of the next few weeks. Tom Scotto will be adding his own strategies for pushing through that mental barrier as well.
I’ll start tomorrow with the first one. They will be posted about once a week so you aren’t overwhelmed. I’d suggest you only use a few of them at a time in any given class so you can teach your students to focus on developing them gradually.
Let’s get ready to climb!