I signed up for a couple of the Hincapie fondos this year, Chattanooga and Greenville. It’s not the Rockies but I’ve never ridden a bike on a mountain. I’m 6’2”, not a climber’s build, and have been riding in the pancake flat Midwest for 4 years. My wife is convinced I’m going to die, I’ll be happy to not embarrass myself too badly.
Beyond the training structure, what are some technical, pacing, survival type tips I should know about climbing and descending for the first time as a larger rider that I won’t get from the typical “how to climb” GCN videos?
I live in NC and have ridden in the Smokies quite a bit. My build is close to yours so some of this might be of value:
Gearing. Make peace with a 28 or 32 tooth cassette and get some practice using these gears in training. The climbs in that area are long enough that you can’t just slog it out. You need to practice sustained efforts 15-20 minutes in a low gear, high resistance, and lower cadence.
Explore the route. You should be able to find the route on the fondo website or on RidewithGPS. Download it and then examine each of the climbs. You can see where the steeps are and where there are recovery opportunities. You can also see how long they are so you can count down the meters if you need to.
Mental trickery. A climb is just a high power interval. If you know that you have a 2 mile climb, then you have a general idea about how long it will take. Thats the length of the interval. Just forget that you are going uphill and focus on finishing the interval.
Hills are better than wind. You can’t get to the top of the wind and then ride down.
Pedal down the other side even if you aren’t putting pressure on the pedals. I find my legs stiffen, making the next climb much worse.
Look around! That is some beautiful country and it would be a shame to have no memories other than your bottom bracket, stem, and head unit.
I did a 5 hour fondo a few months ago. To save myself I tried to limit my HR to 150bpm (my max is 177) on the early climbs. My goal was just to have fun and not bonk. It worked. Basically, try not to burn too many matches early on.
The challenge with fondos is that they are mass start events. Cat 1 types are racing it for podium positions. If you try to sit on their wheels for the first 30+ minutes and you are over your threshold then you’ll just burn yourself out early and then not have a fun day.
I live in Chattanooga, and what other people said about low gearing and low cadence work is true. I don’t think anyone ever regretted having too low of gearing on their bike. You’ll have to spend 15-30 min at least twice at a low cadence (up Raccoon and Sequatchie mountains), and I tend to cramp up if I don’t make a conscious effort to train at that cadence inside.
Drive to the closest hills and do a few test rides to confirm your gearing and get some direct experience with pacing. Also can get some practice descending. If the hills are only a couple of hundred feet high, do laps, or find a loop.
Even if it’s a couple of hrs drive away, it’s worth it. Don’t need to do it much, just a few times before your grand fondo so you at least have ridden hills a few times before your event.
I’ll second the recommendation to get the right gearing. Ideally, you’ll opt for a compact crank (50/34) and an 11-32 cassette in the rear. Compared to 53:11, you lose a little less than one gear at the top end, which is only relevant if you insist on putting power down in excess of 60 km/h (50:11 at 100 rpm on 28 mm tires means you are doing 59 km/h). But you will never, ever be sorry that you have an extra bailout gear with you, especially if you can’t or don’t want to go uphill pedal to the metal.
Also, depending on the altitude you live at and the altitude of the events, your FTP may diminish as you reach higher and higher altitudes. I had this happen when I visited Chile last fall: I live at sea level, and I could really tell that my red line was decreasing with altitude. What was relatively easy in the beginning, was at my redline later on. So listen to your body and don’t just stare at power numbers. You don’t even need a power meter or a heart rate monitor for that, you will just know
Lastly, longer climbs are all about stead-state efforts. So you have to go at your own pace and drafting is not as important. Moreover, your body will know what preferred power level you want to climb at. I prefer to do even longer climbs at around FTP, because I know I will have some rest on the way down and I like longer, hard efforts. But YMMV. Again, listen to your body.
With regards to desending, switch on and stay lose. Don’t death grip the bars and I’d recommend you cover the brakes.
Look ahead. Sounds daft but it’s easy to end up looking just in front of your wheel. Be aware of others around you. Don’t get sucked into following lines that you aren’t comfortable with if you have a rider ahead.
Desending is great fun and it’s the reward for all your hard work
As said above, going up is all about having enough gears and pacing yourself. Long SS intervals are perfect preparation. Resist the temptation to chase wheels on the early part of the climbs.
Harder part might be going down. Depending on the weather you can get really quite cold on long descents - lots of wind chill from the speed, you’re not doing any work to keep you warm, and the top of mountains tend to be both colder and windier than the bottom. If it’s at all cold then having a good windproof gilet that you can unzip for the climb and then zip back up as you approach the summit can be invaluable. There’s also the technical aspect. Make sure your brakes are in good working order, try not to sit on the brakes continuously, and if you need to scrub off speed do it on the straights not the corners. Also need to try and keep your upper body relaxed (another important reason to stay warm, much harder to stay loose when you’re shivering with cold!), much easier to descend smoothly when you’re not tensed up. You also want to be cramming in calories if possible before the descent so that you can absorb them before the next climb. I find mountain days really burn through the calories, much more so than you might expect and more than the Garmin shows - I guess on the descents if I’m not applying power then it doesn’t think I’m doing any work, but my HR is still pretty elevated from the climb and my body is burning a lot more energy than it would be resting.
Do you have a power meter? The best thing for climbing is pacing yourself. Know your power. Know what you can sustain for certain periods of time. If you think the climb is going to take an hour, figure out what you can hold for that hour (as well as complete the rest of the ride) and then pace yourself from the start. It’s very easy to go too hard and blow up both on climbs and long fondo’s.
One thing I made a mistake with my first season on TR was training just on the turbo, then sucking on the climbs. This isn’t necessarily a turbo related problem, but may be a position/cadence problem.
Therefore I’d recommend elevating the front wheel, and doing some longer intervals at 75-85 cadence. I haven’t had the issue since (but now you’ve reminded me, I must start doing similar as I’ve been training solely on rollers the last 2 months!)
Going down is not that difficult if the roads are good and you stay within descending skill comfort zone. Make sure you have good brakes. If you have carbon wheels and rim brakes that is something to consider. Crosswinds and mid to deep aero front wheels, say anything deeper than 40s, at higher speeds, maybe around 30-35mph depending on the wheel, can make for a nervous descent. I’ve been on a pothole landmine short half mile descent where 25mph was ejecting water bottles from bikes around me. And taken a 10 mile descent at 35+mph average speed on a newly paved highway closed to traffic and it was mind blowing experience. The most nerve wracking was a tire bead blowout (tubeless) at 25mph on an 18 mile descent in the middle of nowhere with no cell coverage, stopped safely, and that made me rethink using tubeless in the mountains.
Good counsel above. Two more discussions I’ve found helpful below.
FYI, I live at 867’ in WI and in my youth (age 30) rode the Assault on Mt. Mitchell with no real riding in real mountains before and survived. thirty years and 40 lbs later, five years ago rode Tour de Steamboat and had a grand time. If I recall, the first was with 39x28 as my lowest gear; remember almost doing the Artie Johnson tipover (for those of you who remember Laugh-In) on the 33% Haines Eyebrow ramp. Now I’m in 34x32 and sometimes wishing I had a 36 or bigger on the rear:).
I have more issues with confidence on steep/long descents at speed that with suffering going up – and I do suffer!