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Why do hills seperate riders so well?(48 posts)

Why do hills seperate riders so well?Chris Zeller
Oct 4, 2001 8:23 AM
The group rides discussion below got me wondering why hills are so good at seperating the strong from the weak riders. My understanding of cycling racing supports this especially the Tour where the time difference between riders really grows in the mountain stages. I also know from experience that when I ride with strong riders, I have no problem keeping up (even feel like pulling ahead but know better) on the flats but get dropped instantly on the hills. Why is is this?

I would think that experienced riders would aim at putting out a relatively constant power output wether they are on flats or on hills (this is what I try to do) by changing gearing and maybe even cadence if necessary to maintain this constant. If so, wouldn't they all just ride faster on the flats if they had the energy?

Or do they usually surge in energy as they approach hills just trying to bully their way up the hill. Is this a function of corncob cassettes that have a maximum of 23 cogs on their lowest gear and force riders to maintain 80-100rpm while mashing their gears? Could they maintain this for long periods?

What Gives?
No place to hide.grzy
Oct 4, 2001 8:27 AM
When the terrain pitches up all the drafting in the world doesn't help much. The bar has been raised and no one can really help you clear it. It places total emphasis on your power to weight ratio. Not enough of the first or too much of the second and you're toasted.
So grzy, tell us about the dynamics of pacing up climbs..Cima Coppi
Oct 4, 2001 8:56 AM
Its very understandable why drafting does not work on climbs (or any riding done under 15mph). So what makes pacing up climbs work. In the coverage of the big tours, we always hear Phil and Paul talking about climbing domestiques pacing their leaders. How does this really help the rider being paced?

I do know it works, because I have been paced up climbs, and I have paced others up climbs.

Thanks for your insight.

Several factorsBipedZed
Oct 4, 2001 9:08 AM
Drafting still comes into play at slower speeds, definitely at 15mph. That being said, most elite pros can climb in excess of 20mph so staying on a wheel definitely helps.

Probably just as important (if not more), mentally it is much easier to go hard to hold a wheel than it is to go all out by yourself. It's the nature of competition - you get pushed beyond your own perceived limits.
Several factorsazdave
Oct 4, 2001 11:30 AM
While watching the vuelta, it looked like Sevilla and Peras often wouldn't suck wheel on their pace men (Gomez and Rubiera). In fact, it often looked like they were riding side by side. Is that just to cover attacks or is it a mental thing?
Oct 4, 2001 11:45 AM
I'd say it was to cover attacks and support the leader. Dropping back for food and water wouldn't be wise for the team's leader. Having a bike to give the leader is a nice comfort as well. Pacing doesn't have to be a following/leading thing. Just being next to someone helps.
Oct 4, 2001 9:11 AM
Yeah, all that pacing really paid off for the people trying to keep up with Lance in the mountains. In fact Lance was pacing himself which is what makes him so fast. He's considered the best "self pacer" in the world. ;-)

So what's your angle? You don't disagree with me yet you want to goad me into something I didn't even bring up. Sounds like you're the expert - why don't you enlighten us. I'm all ears.

Of course I could be misunderstanding your tone.
Oct 4, 2001 9:16 AM
Hey Grzy! Too much capuccino this morning? No "tone" here, I don't think. Peace and calmness!
Oct 4, 2001 10:47 AM
Actually not enough! Didn't get my java until just now - talk about edgy...
I'm not an expert, just looking for more facts/opinions. (nm)Cima Coppi
Oct 4, 2001 10:35 AM
Drafting can still applymr_spin
Oct 4, 2001 9:29 AM
In the high mountains, you can get some pretty strong winds, and you don't want to be alone out there. You see pacelines all the way up Carson Pass in the Death Ride.

In the absence of wind, pacing up climbs is largely a mental thing. Primarily, it gives your teammates something to focus on. At the rate pros climb mountains (which is unimaginably fast), focus on the task at hand is crucial.

Pacing is also a kind of slow speed attack. The object is to wind up the pace to what you know your leader can hold, in order to shake loose any pretenders hanging off the back. Pacing also says "my team is in control."
Oh Yeah!grzy
Oct 4, 2001 10:54 AM
Last nasty uphill w/headwind expereince was climbing Kingsbury grade over Daggett pass from the Nevada side. End of a 100 mile group ride that included Ebbetts (for fun). Howling 30 mph gusts were nailing us as we climbed. A couple of us were taking turns trying to provide cover for some others that were starting to fade. The blasts would almost stop the leader in his tracks - hellacious! Speeds were way down, but the relative wind wasn't. A forrest fire broke out and we had tanker aircraft constantly flying overhead as the wind fanned the flames.

The final slug up Carson is as much psychological, heat and fatigue - any help is welcomed be it actual or psychological. I swear I've seen God going up that final pitch.
drafting doesn't work on hills .... ????JohnG
Oct 4, 2001 7:24 PM
Oh YES it does. Even at 10 MPH there is some small gain to be had on long climbs. May not be as much as when hammering on the flats on downhills but it's still appreciated and needed sometimes. Shelter against headwinds are probably even more important.

Aerodynamics, weight and power output.JS
Oct 4, 2001 8:39 AM
Two riders with the same basic frontal area (aerodynamics) but one is 185lbs and puts out a constant 350 watts the other guy is 150lbs and puts out 300 watts the guy with the higher power will excell on the flats when the battle is against the wind, but as speeds decrease and the grade increases aerodynamics become less of a factor and power to weight ratio comes into play favoring the lighter rider. Plus the X factor, mental state. Some people believe they can't climb so they can't or the other way around.
Misunderstanding...Chris Zeller
Oct 4, 2001 10:18 AM
The question wasn't about heavier riders vs. lighter riders. I'm assuming a pack of top level riders of varying weights. They all ride very well and nearly the same speed. The heavier guys put out more power than the smaller guys to make up for weight. I think there are probably pleanty of great climbers with big heavy bodies (tall and lean) to support this.

My question isn't about a constant power output between riders (no two riders usually have the same power output), it's about a constant power output for each rider throughout the race. I would assume that riders would try to maintain a constant power output throughout the race except for the final sprint. No? If this is true, then wouldn't the better riders be at the same advantage on flats as on hills? Why do they seem to cruize on the flats and let the hills decide the race?
Power OutputJon
Oct 4, 2001 10:58 AM
No. Power outputs are definitely not constant in races. And that's really part of the point. Power output
rises sharply as riders attack hills. So the riders with highest power at lactate threshold plus the most
favorable power to weight ratios win the battle. Example? Armstrong vs Ullrich on Alpe d'Huez. A
classic case in point.

Last year at the HP Challenge women's stage race in Idaho, power meters were mounted on a
number of the Saturn riders' (I believe) bikes. The resulting data was instructive. Average power
outputs on stages hovered, I recall, just over 220 watts or so, but peak power on hills registered
as high as 800 watts! Clara Hughes was a case in point. BTW, how would you like to go head to
head with some of those Amazons!
Power Output ...I agree. And women can be incredible riders!Tig
Oct 4, 2001 11:41 AM
The only time power output is anything near constant when racing is during a TT. Keeping a steady output and heart rate is important then.

I know how strong those women can be! I watched Julie Furtado stomp us guys when riding up a steep trail in Winter Park. We never saw her for the rest of the ride!

One of my dad's best friends is a cousin of Jeanie Longo's. When she is in the US, she visits him here in Houston. I got to meet her one time and convinced her to ride with the club the next time she was in town. A few months later she came along and wanted to "loosen up her legs" after traveling. She absolutely stomped us guys, including the super fast ones! An incredible woman, on and off the bike.
I think JS answered your question.9WorCP
Oct 4, 2001 11:09 AM
The rider who generates purely more watts gets the edge on the flats but the lighter rider who has a higher watts/weight ratio takes the hills. Apparently the typically smaller size of the climbers doesn't afford enough of an aero advantage on the flats to even out the wattage difference between them and a real rolleur.

And actually, if you think about it, racers often try to maintain a steady output through the race by escaping the peloton and keeping at a maximum sustainable pace for as long as possible. Yes? I mean how does a Laurent Jalabert end up w/ a KOM jersey if this was not true?
Attack on the hillsBipedZed
Oct 4, 2001 8:49 AM
In addition to aerodynamics and power to weight, what it boils down to is that it takes good fitness to climb well. Racers and other competitive-minded cyclists usually attack hills with the express purpose of 1. establishing who's fit and 2. dropping riders.

This summer my club put on a hill climb race and I got to ride a bit with Scott Moninger from Mercury. I was able to stay on his wheel on the flats fairly easily but as soon as the hills came - POW! he was gone like I was in reverse.
Because it's funMick
Oct 4, 2001 9:02 AM
I started a long winded reply and JS said it one paragraph so I leave discussing the mechanics to my betters.

I infer from your question that you think climbers may have an "in-your-face" attitude and want to show off a little bit. In defense of climbers - and I am not one of them - they may also climb hard because climbing hard can be fun.

Maybe a physiologist could answer my question. At the top of a hard climb I feel tired but euphoric. Is it possible for endorphins to kick in a half-mile 9% climb?
Depending on your fitness level, yes. (nm)Jon
Oct 4, 2001 9:11 AM
I feel the same way.Chris Zeller
Oct 4, 2001 10:22 AM
I don't claim to be good climber but I like it. I love climbing much more than riding on flats primarially for the way it makes me feel after reaching the roll over point on a big hill. I feel a great sense of acomplishment and I'm sure some endorphins too. I hate long rides on flats. Good thing I live in Colorado and not Illinois.
I feel the same way.JohnG
Oct 4, 2001 7:32 PM
The other thing is that smaller guys (like myself) get battered on the flats and descents by the big guys so the hills help us parcel out some pain to them. ;)

The ideal body size seems to be right in-between. Not too big and not too small.

Another possible reason........Len J
Oct 4, 2001 9:13 AM
is that everyone climbs hills at a different pace. I for one want to get the hill over as quick as possible, so I tend to attack hills. I have a friend who doesn't like pain at all, so he immediatly drops into his granny gear & spins up any hill at around 7.5 mph.

Beacuse of the differences in power to weight & pain thresholds, hills do tend to exaggerate these differences and the pack seperates.

gravity, what a conceptDog
Oct 4, 2001 10:29 AM
I love and hate hills. I love them when by myself or when riding with people slower than I am. I hate them when watching a group steadily pull away from me, I'm already suffering to the max, and I know there is no earthly way I can catch up.

Power to weight is everything in the hills (well, add a dose of pain tolerance).

As others noted, on the flats you can suck wheel and go the same speed as the guy in the lead, but for 30% less output. No such luck in the hills. It's every rider battling gravity all alone.

It's hard to drop people on flat ground. It's easy on the hills, if you have the power/weight over the next guy. I've been in road races where everyone redlines, nearly to the point of puking, up a hill, and then slows, yes, slows, on the next flat, regrouping and talking like it's a slow Sunday ride (while the group may be a bit smaller than at the bottom of the hill). Go figure.

gravity, what a conceptaet
Oct 4, 2001 11:07 AM
are there pro riders that specialize in escaping on flats?
Jacky Durand comes to mind. nmLazy
Oct 4, 2001 11:10 AM
Fred Rodriguez and many others nmnestorl
Oct 4, 2001 11:10 AM
Another piece: Max output is nonlinear.mk_42
Oct 4, 2001 11:59 AM
I'll throw in another piece of the anser. This is kind of hard to explain but I'll try it anyway.
Each additional mile per hour takes more power than the MPH before it. If the increase from 20 to 25 uses an X amount of power, the increase from 30 to 35 will use much more than X. The curve is not linear.
What this means is that on the flats, if you double your power output temporarily you'll only go, say, 5MPH faster. On the hills, with everyone going much slower, if you double your power output you may go 10MPH faster. And it's not just aerodynamics. I used to be a cross country runner and the same rule (roughly) applied and we always went too slow for aero to mean anything.

This not instead of but in addition to what everyone else has already said.

Another piece: Max output is nonlinear.Jon
Oct 4, 2001 3:02 PM
You're right, since wind drag increases according to the square of the speed.
OK, so the answer is drafting and no constant power output.Chris Zeller
Oct 4, 2001 12:25 PM
I'll buy that. I guess I expected that everyone puts out a constant power because I thought that would be the most efficient way to pace yourself. So maybe the guys I ride with really are murduring themselves to drop me on the hills and I just don't realize it. I'll try harder to keep up from now on.

And of course drafting is a big deal. I never really notice how MUCH it helps. I guess I'm usually just so impressed to be keeping up that I don't really ponder why. Thanks
FINAL ANSWER. ANother way to say it.Bobke
Oct 4, 2001 3:16 PM
Its much harder to drop someone on the flats due to wind. You have to be so much stronger because the droppee can draft you.

To drop someone on a hill, all you have to do is have a slightly better power/weight ratio. Wind resistance is a much much smaller factor.

Plus road bike gearing forces high efforts up hills. You almost have to stand on any substantial climb.

Lance used a 12-23 up Alp d Huez, what does the average rider use that puts out half the power of Lance? A 12-23!

Look how effortlessly Lance danced up those climbs. We should all have 27s atleast to spin like that up our climbs.

Thats my two cents.
Oct 4, 2001 3:50 PM
Been running a 12-27 for a while now - kinda fun to pass the macho men when their 23 finaly does them in. One of my buds finally made the switch and was amazed at the difference - now he's a factor again.
Agree wholeheartedly!look271
Oct 4, 2001 4:45 PM
Love my 12-27. I'll never go back to a 23 or even a 25. Don't use the 27 as much now as at the beginning of the season, but it's still nice to have it. My personal fave on the cassette is the 24.
Hey nowmr_spin
Oct 4, 2001 4:13 PM
Ullrich seemed to do pretty well without spinning up the climbs, probably in a 39x21. Sure, he didn't win, but he sure beat everyone else! Lance actually wanted a 22, but didn't have it. They put one on for him the next day.

Your body type plays a large role in what kind of gearing is best for you. Telling everyone they should have a 12-27 is the same as telling them they should ride on steel. It's a personal preference.

That's my two cents. Now we have four cents.
great response!JohnG
Oct 4, 2001 7:29 PM
Everyone IS different.

I'm probably in-between on this issue myself. I use a custom 12-26 C10 cassette when I do a lot of climbing. I hate giving up my 18 when I use this cassette though. I'm dreaming of the day I build a C11 system. :)

Hey, Johnmickey-mac
Oct 4, 2001 7:35 PM
Let's hit the hills one day soon before I get too out of shape. A few more Belgian ales and I'll be looking to replace my 11-23 with a 13-29. ;-0
you want hills ???JohnG
Oct 4, 2001 7:54 PM
Join me this Sat for the 5 county century. 100 miles and 8000 ft of climbing. :)

I'll be using my 12-26 and probably wishing it was a 29 before the ride is over. ;0) My 16# Giant will help a little though.

I'm working on itmickey-mac
Oct 4, 2001 8:22 PM
I'm trying to get my parents to come up on Saturday and watch the kids. If I can, I'll be there. I've let you know tomorrow when I have my answer. If I don't see you, have fun.
Cinco condadosmickey-mac
Oct 4, 2001 8:41 PM
My folks just called back and they can come up on Saturday. I had your e-mail address but somehow deleted it. Can you drop me a message and we can try to coordinate for Saturday?
Oct 4, 2001 9:26 PM
You can reach me at

That's cool. I think you'll enjoy this ride and the folks that are on it. My buds are animals but I will probably just "cruise" this one. We'll see.

I'm planning on leaving Granada Hills about 6:00a so that I can start riding at 7:00a. I "want" to do the "last" 15 miles first as I just don't want to ride past my car at mile 85. We'll see. My other riding buds won't do it that way so I may just blow the early part off and ride the course the "normal" way.

This is a SUPER ride.... the LAW feed you like you just wouldn't believe. :)

I'll check my email in the morning
Dont forget the power output differential.Bobke
Oct 5, 2001 7:36 AM
So, you prefer a climbing cadence of 10-15 strokes less than Lance, OK fine, so you would need slightly higher gears.

Now, with that, most likely, you put out less than half his power. Now what gears do you need??
Another angle Mr spin.Bobke
Oct 5, 2001 7:40 AM
So you like to mash like Ulrich? OK, he used a 21.

Would you carry the same speed as him up a mountain?

Answer is most definitely no.

So, now what gears do you need?

12-23? no. 12-25? no. 12-27? maybe.
All I'm saying is...mr_spin
Oct 5, 2001 7:52 AM
...stop telling people what they should have. Tell them what you have and why, and leave it at that.

As for me, I was spinning (yes, spinning) a 39x23 up a 5-mile 7% avg grade last weekend. At times when it went steeper, I got out of the saddle. Very little mashing was involved. Can everyone do this? I have no idea. I don't really care. Do I preach that everyone should have a 12-23? NO! Do your own thing. Be happy about it.

I think we're up to six cents now.
Oct 5, 2001 8:16 AM
A little testy?

Just wanted you to understand my point. In reading your earlier response I didnt know if you got it. Use what you want. If 7% is all you encounter in your area, a 23 is probably fine.

Geographical location also plays a role in your required gearing.

Or some of us even use a 30x34....Chris Zeller
Oct 5, 2001 7:36 AM
No I don't really go THAT low but I keep it in my back pocket. I know there's a hill somewhere where I'll need it.
They don'tcyclequip
Oct 5, 2001 4:11 AM
If hills separated riders so well, Casero would never have won the Vuelta, Leipheimer would never have seen the podium. Hills help in the selecton, but no more than ITT's. What about track riders? Ever seen a good sprinter under 200lbs? Bet they can't sprint, but then neither can Lance.
They don'tcyclequip
Oct 5, 2001 4:15 AM
If hills separated riders so well, Casero would never have won the Vuelta, Leipheimer would never have seen the podium. Hills help in the selection, but no more than ITT's. What about track riders? Ever seen a good sprinter under 200lbs? Bet they can't climb, but then neither can Lance.