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Hill Climbing for (Weak) Roadies

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Hill Climbing for (Weak) Roadies

Old 03-19-16, 03:49 PM
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Hill Climbing for (Weak) Roadies

I've been riding for about 2 years, and the thing that I really struggle with is hills. I can ride the flats endlessly; but there are quite a few hills near me that I simply cannot bike up. Since a number of the local rides are on the hilly roads of N. Cali and Oregon, I cannot participate without improving my climbing. It is also very disheartening to have to turn around or walk up a hill because my legs cannot push the pedals the whole way.

To be clear, I'm talking about times when in low gear (36Tf - 32Tr) that I simply cannot keep going fast enough to stay balanced because I'm beginning to cramp up. An example is a 1400 foot climb in 5 miles -- basically a 5% grade. This is a hill that is in a local century and is ridden by at least 25 people per year based on a look at strava's info.

I'm big: 6'3"/191cm and ~215lbs/98kg. I lost a lot of weight the first year, down from maybe 240lbs; but have been stable as I continued to improve slowly. Short of "doping", what can I do to break through my climbing limitations.

--

Should I switch from a double to a triple with a tiny granny so that I can stay somewhere near my normal 75-85rpms?
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Old 03-19-16, 04:15 PM
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I'm a fan of road triples, so that is certainly an option if you really need lower gears. However, if you're struggling to climb 5% hills on a 36/32 I think the problem is not the gearing, it's the rider.

You're not much heavier than me. I'm 192cm and currently well overweight at about 94 kg. I'm also over 60 years old, and don't have any problem with 5% gradients in a 36/25. So I can only conclude that despite being able to ride "endlessly" on flat ground you're actually not very fit. And the fact that you're cramping supports this conclusion, cramping is usually a consequence of subjecting the muscles to stresses beyond what they're trained for.

In general, climbing is much more about aerobic fitness than leg strength. So I'd suggest you work on that. Ideally the way to train for hills is by climbing hills, but you can do it on the flat. For example (it's only one of many possible approaches) by selecting a gear that's a bit higher than you'd usually push and then sustaining a cadence of >70 in that gear for extended periods.
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Old 03-19-16, 04:27 PM
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You need to spend more time riding hills. I think the best way to become a strong climber is to practice climbing hills regularly.
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Old 03-19-16, 04:56 PM
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This is totally normal.

You say, "my legs cannot push the pedals the whole way." What is your breathing doing when that happens? Are you panting? Do your legs hurt before you cramp up? What kind of bike? What kind of pedals and shoes? How many miles or hours are you riding per week? How far is it from your house to the nearest hill that's more than 100' high? Do you have a bike computer that shows cadence (pedal rpm)? If so, what's your cadence usually on the flat and how fast are you going?
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Old 03-19-16, 05:14 PM
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Originally Posted by chasm54 View Post
I'm a fan of road triples, so that is certainly an option if you really need lower gears. However, if you're struggling to climb 5% hills on a 36/32 I think the problem is not the gearing, it's the rider.
I was pretty certain that that was the case.

Riding up a hill in a 36Tf-24Tr mountain gear seems ridiculous. Though slightly less ridiculous than not training at all and walking a lot!
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Old 03-19-16, 06:02 PM
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Originally Posted by justinzane View Post
I've been riding for about 2 years, and the thing that I really struggle with is hills. I can ride the flats endlessly; but there are quite a few hills near me that I simply cannot bike up. Since a number of the local rides are on the hilly roads of N. Cali and Oregon, I cannot participate without improving my climbing. It is also very disheartening to have to turn around or walk up a hill because my legs cannot push the pedals the whole way.

To be clear, I'm talking about times when in low gear (36Tf - 32Tr) that I simply cannot keep going fast enough to stay balanced because I'm beginning to cramp up. An example is a 1400 foot climb in 5 miles -- basically a 5% grade. This is a hill that is in a local century and is ridden by at least 25 people per year based on a look at strava's info.

I'm big: 6'3"/191cm and ~215lbs/98kg. I lost a lot of weight the first year, down from maybe 240lbs; but have been stable as I continued to improve slowly. Short of "doping", what can I do to break through my climbing limitations.

--

Should I switch from a double to a triple with a tiny granny so that I can stay somewhere near my normal 75-85rpms?
yes
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Old 03-19-16, 06:05 PM
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I think that your gearing is fine but climbing is about fitness, breathing and technique all rolled into one...... you want to get better, practice and ride with good climbers.
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Old 03-19-16, 06:17 PM
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Originally Posted by Carbonfiberboy View Post
This is totally normal. You say, "my legs cannot push the pedals the whole way." What is your breathing doing when that happens? Are you panting?

On some of the steepest, it feels like I'm not breathing as hard as when I pushing a high cadence to go fast downhill or on the flat. Though my perception may be off, it feels as if I were stronger, my legs could keep up with my lungs more effectively.
Originally Posted by Carbonfiberboy View Post
Do your legs hurt before you cramp up?[/QUOTE]
No, not really hurt. More like the feeling of trying to lift something that is just at the limit of your ability to raise.
Originally Posted by Carbonfiberboy View Post
What kind of bike?

older alloy Fuji Aloha 2008(?) with custom blend of Syntace, Suntour, SRAM, Shimano, Tektro and Campy bits. Stem slammed and 15mm forward seatpost with 10mm forward saddle

I ride with a Tri setup because I find it far more comfortable on anything longer than 15-20mi than a typical road bike. Riding a typical road setup it always felt like I was wasting a boatload of energy in my arms and back. In the aerobars, I can keep my upper body relaxed and never have sore hands or wrists or back.

Once I manage to be able to ride most courses fully I'd love to try to learn to run and actually see I can to a triathlon.
Need to do hills first, though.
Originally Posted by Carbonfiberboy View Post
Originally Posted by Carbonfiberboy View Post
What kind of pedals and shoes?

Pearl Izumi's with SPDs because I like to walk.
Originally Posted by Carbonfiberboy View Post
How many miles or hours are you riding per week?

El Nino is making that very variable: between 50mi and 350mi per week. Rollers on "wish list".

I just tried the route of an upcoming local ride. I ended up doing about 50mi, but could not complete the intended route because of the hills. I was not sore or tired afterwards; just disappointed with myself.

Originally Posted by Carbonfiberboy View Post
How far is it from your house to the nearest hill that's more than 100' high?
1200ft.
Originally Posted by Carbonfiberboy View Post
Do you have a bike computer that shows cadence (pedal rpm)? If so, what's your cadence usually on the flat and how fast are you going?

I seem to kill cadence sensors more often than most people get flats; so I haven't got consistent data. My average cadence is somewhere between 78-83 up from around 70-75 my first year. My average pace for a 25mi loop is about 16 mph up from 13.5 last year.

As an aside, though I've been without a cadence sensor that works while using it, I feel like I've noticeably improved my cadence and know that I've gotten at least 1mph quicker with a BioPace ring.
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Old 03-19-16, 06:19 PM
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Originally Posted by kzin View Post
yes

No f_cking around with ambiguity or doubt! Excellent!
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Old 03-19-16, 06:22 PM
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Originally Posted by NYMXer View Post
...ride with good climbers.
Of the ~3500 miles since I got a bike, I've done less than 200 with other people. And most of those were the kinda events I want to train to be able to do.

And when I ride myself I'm more likely to see a bald eagle on a phone pole than I am to see anyone on a road bike.
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Old 03-19-16, 06:29 PM
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Originally Posted by justinzane View Post
Of the ~3500 miles since I got a bike, I've done less than 200 with other people. And most of those were the kinda events I want to train to be able to do.

And when I ride myself I'm more likely to see a bald eagle on a phone pole than I am to see anyone on a road bike.
I hear that and have similar situations BUT.... you can learn a lot from riding with others and talking to them. I would make it a point and ask your group who is going for a ride and then be there and learn with an open mind and EARS!
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Old 03-19-16, 06:36 PM
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You're right. If you were stronger, you could load your lungs up better. I can almost hit max HR down around 55 cadence. I don't have big legs, I've just trained for many years. I'd go ahead and put the saddle back to where you can do the "hands off bars" test without sliding forward on the saddle. You'd be stronger if you could use more of your leg muscles and get your hams and glutes more involved. You do that by pushing the saddle back and by pushing back in the saddle. You're overusing your quads. You need to strengthen your core.
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Old 03-19-16, 06:56 PM
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Originally Posted by NYMXer View Post
I hear that and have similar situations BUT.... you can learn a lot from riding with others and talking to them. I would make it a point and ask your group who is going for a ride and then be there and learn with an open mind and EARS!
I'm an East Coast vegetarian with a Honda and a road bike in a place where the "Tea Party" rally for the Malheur Refuge hijacker Levoy Finicum who committed suicide by SWAT team attracted far more people than a visit by the SF Opera Company. I've had rednecks in pickups throw crap at me, try to run me off the shoulder and other friendly gestures because I was wearing a Canadian national jersey my wife brought home for me when she was there. Americans so stupid that they seem to think Canadians are the enemy.

I try to get advice in person by going and spending time a bike shops out of town and listening to the roadies there and trying to participate in public events when I can. And by asking here.
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Old 03-19-16, 07:09 PM
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Originally Posted by justinzane View Post
I'm an East Coast vegetarian with a Honda and a road bike in a place where the "Tea Party" rally for the Malheur Refuge hijacker Levoy Finicum who committed suicide by SWAT team attracted far more people than a visit by the SF Opera Company. I've had rednecks in pickups throw crap at me, try to run me off the shoulder and other friendly gestures because I was wearing a Canadian national jersey my wife brought home for me when she was there. Americans so stupid that they seem to think Canadians are the enemy.

I try to get advice in person by going and spending time a bike shops out of town and listening to the roadies there and trying to participate in public events when I can. And by asking here.


Hey listen, Americans are NOT stupid, no nationality is but that comment was. I would never judge an entire nation based on a select few. Then, why are you trying to prove a point and quoting my post when all I am trying to do is offer you what I think is good advice.
Peace and out, we are done!
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Old 03-19-16, 07:19 PM
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Originally Posted by justinzane View Post
I've been riding for about 2 years, and the thing that I really struggle with is hills. I can ride the flats endlessly; but there are quite a few hills near me that I simply cannot bike up. Since a number of the local rides are on the hilly roads of N. Cali and Oregon, I cannot participate without improving my climbing. It is also very disheartening to have to turn around or walk up a hill because my legs cannot push the pedals the whole way.

To be clear, I'm talking about times when in low gear (36Tf - 32Tr) that I simply cannot keep going fast enough to stay balanced because I'm beginning to cramp up.
First of all, you mention cramping up. There are lots of possible reasons for that, but one that leaps to mind is hydration. Are you drinking enough water prior to the climb?


In another post you indicate that your legs give out before your lungs do. If that is the case, I'd recommend building the strength in your legs.


A little over a year ago, I could not climb hills and that was a problem because I live in Tasmania and it is all hills here. The nearest 14% grade hill is right outside ... the street in front of our house.

Everything hurt when I climbed. My lungs gave out slightly before my legs, but my legs were on the verge of giving out too. I couldn't participate in the Audax events around here because I couldn't complete them within the time limit. Walking everything in sight really slows you down.

Faced with the option of giving up the long distance riding I love or doing something about it, I decided to try to do something about it ... and if that didn't work, then I'd resign myself to plodding along doing short distances.

So 1 year and 1 month ago, I did 2 things ...

1) I took steps to lose weight. Joined MyFitnessPal, started tracking what I was eating ... lost about 25 kg.

I didn't really realise how much 25 kg weighed until we were hauling 15 litre jugs of water around for an event. I could only carry one jug and that was a struggle. Then it dawned on me that I was trying to lug the equivalent weight of that jug + almost another up the hills around here No wonder I was struggling so much! No wonder everything hurt.


2) I started climbing the stairs at work. I worked on the 5th floor of my building, so I started by climbing the 5 flights once a day. I probably looked like I needed medical attention the first few times up!! Then I started doing those 5 flights twice a day ... then three times a day ... and I got so I was quite comfortable doing them 5 times a day. I've moved into a new, taller building, where I can do 11 flights of stairs in one go, and I do that three times a day, plus a few extra to total about 40 flights of stairs a day.

I've got quad muscles now, and what a difference it makes on climbs!

We did a 100 km audax event in early November. It is about as flat as events can be around here (still quite hilly), and it was on one of the longer hills that I got into the same rhythm that I get into when I climb stairs, and next thing I knew I was at the top with no walking!! And it was about the fastest I've ever climbed a hill. We finished that event comfortably within the time limit.

And just a few weekends ago, I accomplished something I didn't think I'd ever do ... I cycled up to the top of Mt Wellington (the large mountain that provides a backdrop to Hobart). Again, I got into the stair climbing rhythm, and up I went. Stopped a few times, but no walking.


It sounds like you've done all/most of Step 1 above with the weight loss. So I'd suggest starting to do Step 2. Climb stairs and build those leg muscles.
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Old 03-19-16, 07:23 PM
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Perhaps you are pushing harder on the big climbs than you can maintain. My heart rate monitor is good for reminding me to dial back the effort to a sustainable pace. I've learned by observation that I can do a rate under 145 for hours, but once it hits 150, I'll have to back off in a few minutes. (And the limits are different for each rider, of course.)

I like to spin if possible. I've used my 34-29 low gear on a 4% grade, spinning in the low 90s. But I usually do moderate hills in the low 80 rpm range.

And on steeper hills, I'll slow my cadence way down into the 40s and try to keep the pedal pressure fairly light, so I can stay seated. My speed might be 3.5 to 4 mph. Once the speed gets under 2.7 or 2.8 mph, I'm starting to have balancing and steering problems, and can't keep a perfectly straight line any more. So over 3.0 mph is easier to deal with.

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Old 03-19-16, 07:27 PM
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Originally Posted by Carbonfiberboy View Post
You're right. If you were stronger, you could load your lungs up better. I can almost hit max HR down around 55 cadence.
I'll try to resuscitate a cadence sensor to try, but I'm pretty sure that if I have to go much lower than 65 rpm because of load for more than maybe 15-20 seconds that I'd be unable to continue.

Originally Posted by Carbonfiberboy View Post
I don't have big legs, I've just trained for many years. I'd go ahead and put the saddle back to where you can do the "hands off bars" test without sliding forward on the saddle.
I'm embarrassed to say I've got no idea what the hands off bar test is.
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Old 03-19-16, 08:20 PM
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Originally Posted by Machka View Post
First of all, you mention cramping up. There are lots of possible reasons for that, but one that leaps to mind is hydration. Are you drinking enough water prior to the climb?
I try to stay hydrated and am pretty sure that water, electrolytes, blood sugar, etc. are not normally the problem. I've run out of water / gatorade accidentally before and could tell when that was a problem. I'm also decent at knowing when to "eat" a gel because I cannot absorb the water quickly enough without solutes on really hot days.

This is more like going to the gym and being able to curl a bare bar all day long or X pounds for 8 reps. Put 50% of X on the bar and you can do hundreds of reps. My legs feel like the hundreds of reps at the end. When I really push the speed on a level/downhill stretch, I get to the point that I simply cannot suck down enough air to keep my heart from exploding.

Originally Posted by Machka View Post
In another post you indicate that your legs give out before your lungs do. If that is the case, I'd recommend building the strength in your legs. A little over a year ago, I could not climb hills and that was a problem because I live in Tasmania and it is all hills here. The nearest 14% grade hill is right outside ... the street in front of our house.

Everything hurt when I climbed. My lungs gave out slightly before my legs, but my legs were on the verge of giving out too. I couldn't participate in the Audax events around here because I couldn't complete them within the time limit. Walking everything in sight really slows you down.

Faced with the option of giving up the long distance riding I love or doing something about it, I decided to try to do something about it ... and if that didn't work, then I'd resign myself to plodding along doing short distances.
I've never been into anything physically demanding since I stopped playing water polo in my 20s. I'd always disliked "exercise" and most sports. But I found that I really love riding. Since one of the best things about it seems to be exploring new rides and roads and many of them have hills, I really want to get to somewhere closer to my point of ideal strength and fitness simply so I can ride more places.

Originally Posted by Machka View Post
So 1 year and 1 month ago, I did 2 things ...

1) I took steps to lose weight. Joined MyFitnessPal, started tracking what I was eating ... lost about 25 kg.

I didn't really realise how much 25 kg weighed until we were hauling 15 litre jugs of water around for an event. I could only carry one jug and that was a struggle. Then it dawned on me that I was trying to lug the equivalent weight of that jug + almost another up the hills around here No wonder I was struggling so much! No wonder everything hurt.
I've only lost half that so far, but even so, I really notice how much more comfortable daily life is without the extra mass. I'm glad you reminded me how much of a difference it makes. I've got at least another 15kg to lose which probably is a couple of grade % in itself.
Originally Posted by Machka View Post
2) I started climbing the stairs at work. I worked on the 5th floor of my building, so I started by climbing the 5 flights once a day. I probably looked like I needed medical attention the first few times up!! Then I started doing those 5 flights twice a day ... then three times a day ... and I got so I was quite comfortable doing them 5 times a day. I've moved into a new, taller building, where I can do 11 flights of stairs in one go, and I do that three times a day, plus a few extra to total about 40 flights of stairs a day.
I've got quad muscles now, and what a difference it makes on climbs!

We did a 100 km audax event in early November. It is about as flat as events can be around here (still quite hilly), and it was on one of the longer hills that I got into the same rhythm that I get into when I climb stairs, and next thing I knew I was at the top with no walking!! And it was about the fastest I've ever climbed a hill. We finished that event comfortably within the time limit.

And just a few weekends ago, I accomplished something I didn't think I'd ever do ... I cycled up to the top of Mt Wellington (the large mountain that provides a backdrop to Hobart). Again, I got into the stair climbing rhythm, and up I went. Stopped a few times, but no walking.


It sounds like you've done all/most of Step 1 above with the weight loss. So I'd suggest starting to do Step 2. Climb stairs and build those leg muscles.
WOW, that was one of the most inspirational responses I've gotten.

I've tried and continue to try to do some squats with various supports and machines, but they stress an old knee injury. I had not realized what a good alternative stairs were until your story make me visualize the geometry of it. While I'd have to drive over 50 miles to find a 5 story building and over 100 to find a 10 story one; they do have stair machines at the gym.

The note you made of finding the same climbing frequency on stairs and pedals is really interesting. Have you ever checked what your climbing cadence is in steps per minute? How does that compare to the bike numerically? Like 50 step/min and 75 rpm? 75:75? 120:75? I'm wondering if, learning from your experience and trying to hit the same ratio of cadences would make stair climbing easier/more effective than whatever my untraining pace would be.

Thanks.
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Old 03-19-16, 08:25 PM
  #19  
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I regularly ride both a TT bike (similar to a tri set up) and a road bike. I do lots of climbing. It's way harder on the TT bike, that's normal. The TT/Tri position is not optimized for climbing.

If you want to get stronger on hills, consider changing to a road bike set-up. It would also help a lot if you lost weight and improved your aerobic fitness.
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Old 03-19-16, 08:38 PM
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If only: `cd /dev/terrain/hills/; rm -rf*`. Strip mining to the rescue!

Originally Posted by rm -rf View Post
Perhaps you are pushing harder on the big climbs than you can maintain. My heart rate monitor is good for reminding me to dial back the effort to a sustainable pace. I've learned by observation that I can do a rate under 145 for hours, but once it hits 150, I'll have to back off in a few minutes. (And the limits are different for each rider, of course.)

I like to spin if possible. I've used my 34-29 low gear on a 4% grade, spinning in the low 90s. But I usually do moderate hills in the low 80 rpm range. And on steeper hills, I'll slow my cadence way down into the 40s and try to keep the pedal pressure fairly light, so I can stay seated. My speed might be 3.5 to 4 mph. Once the speed gets under 2.7 or 2.8 mph, I'm starting to have balancing and steering problems, and can't keep a perfectly straight line any more. So over 3.0 mph is easier to deal with.
What I don't quite know how to do is to get from the point of "not mashing the pedals" on 3.5% 36-28 closer to the point of being able to keep a normal cadence at 6% on reasonable gears. I cannot determine how much improvement I need to make in basic muscle strength and whether that is more effectively achieved by cycling up hills of ever increasing grade or gear or by doing strength exercises like stair climbing or gym training.
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Old 03-19-16, 08:50 PM
  #21  
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Originally Posted by justinzane View Post
If only: `cd /dev/terrain/hills/; rm -rf*`. Strip mining to the rescue!



What I don't quite know how to do is to get from the point of "not mashing the pedals" on 3.5% 36-28 closer to the point of being able to keep a normal cadence at 6% on reasonable gears. I cannot determine how much improvement I need to make in basic muscle strength and whether that is more effectively achieved by cycling up hills of ever increasing grade or gear or by doing strength exercises like stair climbing or gym training.
Its not muscle strength. I'm a middle-aged woman and I can go up a 5% grade all day. I promise you that you are way stronger than me.

What you need is to improve your power while decreasing your weight. How to go about decreasing your weight is obvious.

To increase power, you would think that you need to increase muscle strength. But this is rarely the limiter. What is a limiter for most people is the ability to deliver oxygen to the muscles and for the muscles to effectively use that oxygen. This is what is meant by aerobic conditioning. This is a matter of training.

You, however, also describe an unusual level of difficulty with hills. And an unusual set up, in that you are trying to use a tri set up. This is why I'm saying that your fit and set up may be a huge part of your problem.
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Old 03-20-16, 12:04 AM
  #22  
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Over the two years, how many feet do you think you've climbed? Because based on the post mentioning "50-350 miles a week," the fact that you're still as bad at climbing as you claim to be just boggles me. I've been riding for just over a year now, and climb hills all day. When I started, yeah, I hated them-- because I didn't have the aerobic fitness to manage them. But if I could manage 350 miles a week (a feat I have never accomplished, and I average 220 miles a week, week in and week out) I would think there would be enough aerobic fitness to handle some hills. Also of note, I do no leg exercises other than cycling, so all of my leg strength comes from the bike. Also also of note, if you only ride 1-2 days a week, that's probably the bulk of your problem right there. More climbing, more days.

This thread is strangely compelling.
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Old 03-20-16, 12:06 AM
  #23  
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Originally Posted by justinzane View Post
I'll try to resuscitate a cadence sensor to try, but I'm pretty sure that if I have to go much lower than 65 rpm because of load for more than maybe 15-20 seconds that I'd be unable to continue.


I'm embarrassed to say I've got no idea what the hands off bar test is.
Here it is: while pedaling normally on a flat, usual speed, with hands on the hoods or in the drops, momentarily lift both hands off the bars without otherwise changing your position. You should not fall forward or slide forward on the saddle. If you do, move the saddle further back. If you don't, you can try moving the saddle further forward. The idea is that you should have little weight on your hands. If you are constantly trying to hold your torso up with your hands or pushing back so you don't slide forward on the saddle, your upper body will tire and your hands will get sore. The flip side to this is that you are then using your core to hold your upper body in position, rather than hold yourself up with your hands. Thus you need a strong core. Which doesn't mean do a lot of situps or crunches. They don't help much and aren't even a good idea. Google "core exercises cycling."
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Old 03-20-16, 12:18 AM
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And here's another thing to try doing. This is a perfect time of year for this exercise. Find a hill with an even gradient that will take you 10-15 minutes to climb. Warm up before you get to the bottom of the hill. Then put your bike in a larger gear than normal, so that you are climbing at a low cadence of 50-55, no more, and are breathing deep and hard yet are quite a ways from panting. Keep your upper body as still as you possibly can. Only your legs move and they push and pull on the pedals all the way around the circle. Hold that for 10 minutes, descend and repeat for a set of 3 climbs. Do that once a week. If you can't hold it for 10, do what you can, but do a set of three. It might take a couple of tries to figure it out.
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Old 03-20-16, 01:18 AM
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When making my initial response I didn't realize you were on aerobars. Climbing's harder in a TT position, apart from short bursts in the drops I'm usually climbing on the hoods or on the tops.

The other thing that occurs to me is that you may be starting out too fast, then dying. Start a climb slow, at a rhythm you know you can sustain. You can always change up a gear or two later if it's too easy. But if you redline early in the climb you'll very quickly run out of gas.

And persist. All this comes with time and training.
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