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Riding mountains vs flat lands

Road Cycling “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.” -- Ernest Hemingway

Riding mountains vs flat lands

Old 12-26-12, 07:16 PM
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mike12
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Riding mountains vs flat lands

Just for a little background, I'm new to road cycling (riding about 2 months) and have been using this forum as a resource.

We live where there are small hills but no real mountains - we are about 2 hours away from the NC mountains. There's a century ride in the mountains in June that has roughly 9,000 ft of cumulative climbing elevation. There's also a half century that has about 4,000 ft climbing elevation. I want to participate in one of these rides this summer. Is there any general rule of thumb where "x" number of flat miles equate to "x" number of mountainous miles???

I know it would be best to ride the mountains some, but I don't want to waste 4 hours (2 hrs each way) driving just to get to the mountains. I'm thinking it'd be best to use those 4 hours on the bike.
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Old 12-26-12, 07:32 PM
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Hi Mike, if you're talking about the Blood Sweat & Gears, you should definately start out with the 50 mile ride. There's also one in Ashe County called the Blue Ridge Brutal. It's pretty tough as well. There are several other century rides here, and a good one in Brevard, the Assault on the Carolinas.


as far as how much riding on flat land equals how many feet of climbing, I have no idea. My only recommendation would be ride ever hill in your area. Do hill repeats on them if you can. spend a weekend in the mountains riding the hills. On the flats, do sprints. Lots of sprints.

Oh, and the BSG 50 miler has 7500 ft. of climbing and the century has 13000 ft of climbing. That's a ton of climbing even if you've done it before.
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Old 12-26-12, 07:43 PM
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Originally Posted by mike12 View Post
Just for a little background, I'm new to road cycling (riding about 2 months) and have been using this forum as a resource.

We live where there are small hills but no real mountains - we are about 2 hours away from the NC mountains. There's a century ride in the mountains in June that has roughly 9,000 ft of cumulative climbing elevation. There's also a half century that has about 4,000 ft climbing elevation. I want to participate in one of these rides this summer. Is there any general rule of thumb where "x" number of flat miles equate to "x" number of mountainous miles???

I know it would be best to ride the mountains some, but I don't want to waste 4 hours (2 hrs each way) driving just to get to the mountains. I'm thinking it'd be best to use those 4 hours on the bike.
I would say that an hour in the mountains = an hour on the flat road. The difference is that you end up going a bit slower on average in the mountains. You might end up travelling 15 miles in the mountains in the same amount of time that would take you to travel 20 miles on a flat road without traffic lights.

Mountains mainly get to you because you can't coast. On a flat road, you are easily tempted to spin some, then coast, then spin some more, then take it easy for a minute or two. Going up the mountain, you have to keep grinding or stop, there's no third option. You prepare yourself for it, it's just a matter of mental discipline during flat rides.

The second way they get to you is when you don't have a low enough gear for your weight and power output. A moderately-fit cyclist with, say, a 53-39/12-25 geared bike might feel fine on flats and small hills, but he would be in for a nasty surprise if he tries to ride up a long 8% hill on that setup.
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Old 12-26-12, 07:47 PM
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Mike: I had a similar question going in to this past summer. I also live where there are hills. Though some are steep, they are definitely not miles and miles long.

I too came across several events that take place in Chattanooga (3-State Challenge or something), NC and TN. One is called the Cherohala Challenge. I'd been wanting to try these but had no idea how my body would react on true climbs of 10+ miles. I've ridden 112 miles in one day but it was mostly flat. I can also climb short, steep hills due to the area in which I ride. I rode Foothills Parkway on a whim and was surprised at how easily I got to the top. I figured I'd have to stop a couple of times. I found the two climbs of 6 and 5 miles with an average grade of 5-6% doable. (Going from memory so my numbers may be a tad off.)

All that being said, I doubt I could do a true century in the mountains at this point even though I'm in pretty good shape now. It puts quite a bit of strain on you even if you're taking it somewhat easy and not hitting your threshold. Personally, I'm pretty sure my back would give out before I got to mile 50.

Another thing to consider is your weight. If you're 5'8" and weigh 150 pounds, you will have a much easier time than someone 6'1" 215 lbs even if the latter is in really good shape.

Some of the more experienced riders can probably give you a better answer but as for myself, no amount of flat riding would prepare me for 100 miles of climbing - different muscles and different stresses on the body.
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Old 12-26-12, 08:26 PM
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as for myself, no amount of flat riding would prepare me for 100 miles of climbing - different muscles and different stresses on the body.
That is not true. Spinning is spinning, the differences are in your head. It is instinctive, and it is also wrong, to pedal uphill at a lower cadence than what you'd use at the same power on a flat road. You can treat each hill like a challenge and charge up that hill at 60 rpm. That would indeed put different stresses on your body and you'll fall off the bike before you get to mile 50. Alternatively, you can shift into the lowest gear you have, you'll feel silly spinning but not moving much, but you'll get to the end of the route.
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Old 12-26-12, 08:29 PM
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Originally Posted by hamster View Post
I would say that an hour in the mountains = an hour on the flat road. The difference is that you end up going a bit slower on average in the mountains. You might end up travelling 15 miles in the mountains in the same amount of time that would take you to travel 20 miles on a flat road without traffic lights.

Mountains mainly get to you because you can't coast. On a flat road, you are easily tempted to spin some, then coast, then spin some more, then take it easy for a minute or two. Going up the mountain, you have to keep grinding or stop, there's no third option. You prepare yourself for it, it's just a matter of mental discipline during flat rides.

The second way they get to you is when you don't have a low enough gear for your weight and power output. A moderately-fit cyclist with, say, a 53-39/12-25 geared bike might feel fine on flats and small hills, but he would be in for a nasty surprise if he tries to ride up a long 8% hill on that setup.

this.

welcome to road cycling! take a few exploration trips next year to the mountains, ride a few of the big ones. figure out the gearing you can get away with (or not) and how slow you go.

also: +1 to the idea that, on a loooong climb, low gearing that helps you maintain a good spin, really helps.
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Old 12-26-12, 08:36 PM
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There is no equivalence. The most important difference is that on flats you can ease up if you're hurting and extended climbs give you no chance to rest.

The main thing is to pace yourself and not ride too hard. The effort that works for 3K, 7K, 10K, and 15K feet is completely different.
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Old 12-26-12, 08:54 PM
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As said there's no comparison. On flat ground, even with a strong headwind, you can periodically coast. Stop pedaling on a moderately steep grade and it'll feel like you pulled the drag chute. Then you'll fall over.
You can duplicate the effort by spinning at a high cadence in an uncomfortably tall gear. All you need is discipline, concentration and a lot of open road.
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Old 12-26-12, 09:15 PM
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Originally Posted by mike12 View Post
I know it would be best to ride the mountains some, but I don't want to waste 4 hours (2 hrs each way) driving just to get to the mountains. I'm thinking it'd be best to use those 4 hours on the bike.
I'd rather "waste" 4 hours training in the environment that I'd be competeing in than show up the day of the event and DNF for whatever reason (physical, mechanical, etc.)...
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Old 12-26-12, 10:49 PM
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Originally Posted by hamster View Post
I would say that an hour in the mountains = an hour on the flat road.

Mountains mainly get to you because you can't coast.
I'm sorry but I have to disagree with you on both points. The first point might be debateable if you're a fit climbing specialist on mild climbs, but most of us, especially those of us over 200 pounds, have to put out a lot more power to get over a mountain than to cruise flat ground.

Mountains get to me because of the additional power output required. I climb about 300 or 350,000 feet per year and climbing is not the same as flat riding. To be comfortable on long climbing rides I have to prepare by climbing.

I know some people (merlinextraligh) can get ready for big climbs without doing big climbs but it doesn't work for me.

Last edited by big john; 12-26-12 at 10:55 PM.
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Old 12-26-12, 11:25 PM
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Originally Posted by big john View Post
I'm sorry but I have to disagree with you on both points. The first point might be debateable if you're a fit climbing specialist on mild climbs, but most of us, especially those of us over 200 pounds, have to put out a lot more power to get over a mountain than to cruise flat ground.

Mountains get to me because of the additional power output required. I climb about 300 or 350,000 feet per year and climbing is not the same as flat riding. To be comfortable on long climbing rides I have to prepare by climbing.
That gets me back to my third point: there's no such thing as a too-steep mountain (or having to put out too much power just to get over it); it just means that you don't have a low enough gear.

A 34/32 low gear would get most people, including some of those over 200 pounds, up most major climbs in Los Angeles County (maybe except Baldy and Decker) without even having to get into z4. For those for whom 34/32 is not enough, there's 30/32.
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Old 12-27-12, 12:24 AM
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Originally Posted by banerjek View Post
There is no equivalence. The most important difference is that on flats you can ease up if you're hurting and extended climbs give you no chance to rest.

The main thing is to pace yourself and not ride too hard. The effort that works for 3K, 7K, 10K, and 15K feet is completely different.
Well, yes, but it does depend on your output or intensity when climbing, which I suppose you led into with your second paragraph. The intensity can be varied so that at various points along a climb your can ease up the pressure on the pedals and let the heart rate drop a little, and grab a bottle to drink.

Standing also uses a slightly different set of muscles and gives your butt a chance to rest, but there is a routine attached to that as well (shifting down one or two cogs on the rear at the same time as standing). Plus there is that strategy of controlling intensity right the way up the climb, rather than attacking like a madman at the bottom and blowing up 200 yards later.

A lot depends on gearing and the ability to keep working until you get to the top.

When training for climbing, there are two aspects -- the physical and the psychological. Some riders get psyched out before they need to.

The only way to work it out is to climb. That way you can see what gearing works, what intensity works, and how you will go about eating and drinking (drinking is something that many people forget to do while they are concentrating on climbing).

And if you don't want to spend the time going to the mountains, invest in a fixed gear with high gearing. You'll learn to stand when the going gets tough, especially into headwinds, and you can emulate some of the conditions. But it can't really replace climbing practice on hills.
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Old 12-27-12, 10:28 AM
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Hamster is giving you absolutely terrible advice. Everyone else is being helpful. I would do a ton of intervals, and find the biggest hill in your area and and spend a few hour a week just riding up and down it. The way to get better at riding hills is to ride hills!
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Old 12-27-12, 10:51 AM
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Originally Posted by hamster View Post
I would say that an hour in the mountains = an hour on the flat road. The difference is that you end up going a bit slower on average in the mountains. You might end up travelling 15 miles in the mountains in the same amount of time that would take you to travel 20 miles on a flat road without traffic lights.
Going from 20 to 15 mph suggests that you're going up a small hill, not a mountain.

Originally Posted by hamster View Post
A moderately-fit cyclist with, say, a 53-39/12-25 geared bike might feel fine on flats and small hills, but he would be in for a nasty surprise if he tries to ride up a long 8% hill on that setup.
This is a big deal. If you aren't geared for a hill, then it will really change how difficult a hill/mountain is.

The only way that I know of to get used to riding hills (unless you are already in phenomenal shape) is to ride hills.

For the OP, there really is no equivalence that is general. When you are riding flats, air and rolling resistance are what you are fighting against. When climbing hills, it's gravity.

Cheers,
Charles
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Old 12-27-12, 11:00 AM
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Repeating the above, climbing hills is the best way to get better at climbing. You live in a beautiful area to be within 2 hours of the Blue Ridge - I would think that Saturday excursions to the mountains would be worth the drive with a good loop ride and some tourista stuff in the afternoon.

I would strongly recommend riding the mountains as much as you can - the climbs are not constant in NC like some of the monsters out here in the west, but can be very abrupt and can have breathtaking changes in grade within the climb. I would use the riding as an excuse to get to the mountains, or vice versa. YMMV

But ride hills. I took a shot at the Mt Shasta Summit Century last year - my weight and lack of hill riding had me stopping at 100 miles and about 10K of climbing - 40 miles and 6500 feet short. And waaay too many hours in the saddle - just getting to the top on longer climbs can't be the goal, you have to do it fast enough to be able to finish the ride since you can't make up for slow up hill by fast in the flats (time lost is lost).

And have fun getting ready - I overtrained and killed the fun last summer. This season is already much more fun, just based on attitude (surely not the weather!!!!).
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Old 12-27-12, 11:12 AM
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Despite living in Colorado I tend to ride flatter terrain more often than not simply due to where I live.
The intensity in my build and race cycles prepare me more than adequately for riding in the mountains. However, due to not riding the mountains quite as often as say someone in Boulder I really stink in hill climb races. As such, I feel intensity can help prepare one up to a certain point. Past that you simply need to ride in the mountains and train appropriately.
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Old 12-27-12, 11:13 AM
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Compare time, not miles. When I was younger and rode moderately rolling terrain, with only a few hills, I could usually average a little over 20 mph, unless there were strong winds.

When I started riding the Colorado mountains, at age 50, I'd lost about 1 mph of my average speed on moderate terrain. Riding up mountains, It would be far more common to average 11 mph. The ratio of 19/11 is 1.73. To go the same distance, you'll spend about 104 minutes instead of 60 minutes. A mileage equivalent would be about 17 miles of moderate terrain for every 10 miles of climbing.

FWIW, I've ridden the 28 mile route from Idaho Springs to the top of Mt. Evans six times, with a best time of 2:35 minutes, at age 53. This is just under an 11 mph average. While that may seem slow, it would usually put me in the top 10 of my age class on race day. There are always a few riders who ride 10-20 minutes faster in this age group.

http://www.bicyclerace.com/

I should also add a comment about rider weight. I weigh about 135. Anone who's over weight can easily produce decent speeds on the flats, but when the climbing starts, there's a huge disadvantage for anyone carrying extra weight.

Last edited by DaveSSS; 12-27-12 at 06:51 PM.
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Old 12-27-12, 11:18 AM
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Originally Posted by mike12 View Post
We live where there are small hills but no real mountains - we are about 2 hours away from the NC mountains.

...

I know it would be best to ride the mountains some, but I don't want to waste 4 hours (2 hrs each way) driving just to get to the mountains. I'm thinking it'd be best to use those 4 hours on the bike.
Spending four hours to be in the mountains isn't a waste.

I routinely drive two hours each way to ride in the mountains, in the summer. It's the best riding I've done. Get up early, stay out late, and make a day of it.

There's only one way for you to find out, and it's not by reading about it on the internet.
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Old 12-27-12, 11:32 AM
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Nothing amazingly different about climbing IMO. You just go slower for the same power output. For steep grades you may not have low enough gearing to maintain your typical/preferred cadence so you may find yourself working at a lower cadence and perhaps standing to assist with that. Of course you can vary things, for example you might attack a short hill or steep section at much higher than average power and recover when it flattens out or descends. If you can ride a flat century without problem, it's very likely you'll have no problem with a century with 4000' of climbing, IMO. It'll just take you a bit longer to finish. In all, I find hills and climbing make riding much more interesting and enjoyable.
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Old 12-27-12, 11:47 AM
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Originally Posted by david58 View Post
And have fun getting ready - I overtrained and killed the fun last summer.
Word.

If you want to keep doing this, it needs to be fun. Much better to have fun all year and maybe get a DNF after using wrong strategy for than torture yourself for months just for the sake of a good day.

Riding in mountains is fun. I recommend going for the 9,000 ride. Even if you've never done a hilly ride, it is accessible. I don't think you really need to train for it. But to complete 9K, your legs need to feel fresh at 4K. So it would be helpful to go to the mountains at least once and preferably twice or more if you can to work out your pacing.

But again, just ride what's fun. Worst case scenario is a DNF. And 9K feet is a lot, but it's not as bad as it sounds.
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Old 12-27-12, 12:03 PM
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Originally Posted by Seattle Forrest View Post
Spending four hours to be in the mountains isn't a waste.

I routinely drive two hours each way to ride in the mountains, in the summer. It's the best riding I've done. Get up early, stay out late, and make a day of it.

There's only one way for you to find out, and it's not by reading about it on the internet.
Wisdom... And this, from a guy who has a 1300ft steep climb within riding distance of home. I love riding around Seattle where we have countless 200-500ft climbs and a couple over 1000 inside the envelope of a day's ride, but there is just nothing like getting out and riding some of the much bigger climbs in the region. A riding trip to the mountains is absolutely worth it, even if you aren't 'training' for a goal.
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Old 12-27-12, 12:15 PM
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It's possible to do a long climbing ride with no experience doing long climbs or lots of climbing in a day. But it's going to suck and you are greatly increasing your chances of failure.

Doing some big climbing days in preparation will tell you if you need lower gearing and will get you used to what it's like to have to pedal without coasting for a long time.

I've done more big climbing rides and races than I can count. I prepare by doing climbing. I'm fortunate in that there's some good 1500-2500' climbs near by but I'll drive an hour each way to get to the local 3200-3600' climbs, and then do repeats. I suggest doing hill repeats on your local hills and getting out to the mountains a few times before the event. Doing so will make the climbs seem much smaller.

Speaking of gearing, its better to have low gears and not need them than to need low gears and not have them. I'm a reasonably good climber but I run a 50/34 compact, and for some races I'll have a 30t cog on the back.
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Old 12-27-12, 12:48 PM
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Originally Posted by Looigi View Post
Nothing amazingly different about climbing IMO.
Maybe, but mountains can be pretty different than hill repeats around town for several reasons. Like thin air at altitude. It affects some people more than others. There can be bigger temperature differences between the valley and the pass, which could mean needing extra layers. Not much opportunity to rest on the way up, and a long, screaming descent where you may need to be aware of the brakes' temperature. Plus, mountains are gorgeous, and for me, that's so rewarding I don't even notice the work I'm doing (once I get up above timberline).
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Old 12-27-12, 01:15 PM
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Climbing is all mental... and gearing. if the revised estimates are correct, 13000 feet of climbing in a century is a TON. Heck, 7500 in a century is a lot so you have two issues.

1) can you sit in your saddle for the length of time it will take you to finish a century that hilly?
2) do you have the appropriate gears to get you up and over those hills?

If you don't routinely ride hills/mountains, you really owe it to yourself to drive out to one of the big climbs on that ride and try it out. If you don't already have a compact crank, get one of those first.

The mental part of climbing might be the toughest... if you don't know how much farther you have to go it can really mess with your head. If you've already ridden the climb even once you will know what's going on and what to expect and that makes a huge difference.

Good luck out there and welcome to the forums.
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Old 12-27-12, 01:25 PM
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If you really want to do this, first make sure you can sit that long on a bike. So on the flats you have available, start building up to a century and maybe even go a bit longer as the century in the mountains will take a bit longer. Next step is to look at the steepness you will encounter for long periods of time and bring the proper gears. So estimating your FTP, plug in your weight in a calculator, with the grade you are looking at and see what speed comes out. The lowest gear should give you at least 60-70 rpm at that speed. And finally you should know how to pace yourself, e.g. using a hr meter and by knowing what hr you can maintain for longer periods of time you can make sure you don't blow up.
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