Compared to sprinting and time trialling, climbing probably sounds like the most easy to understand element of professional cycling. It is all about getting over hills, on a bike, quicker than the other people who are trying to do the same. This is of course, in part a correct assessment, but it won’t surprise you to hear that it isn’t always as simple as that.
In physical terms, climbers need an extremely good power to weight ratio. This means that they are almost certainly one of two things – small or skinny. The best are both. Having thighs the size of tree trunks isn’t going to help here, because lots of muscle means lots of weight, weight that needs to be lugged all the way up climbs. Good climbers can be tall and rangy like Wiggins, but they are rarely chunky.
Climbs themselves are also more complicated than you might think. Depending on the type of race, climbs can vary. One day races are punctuated by short sharp climbs in an attempt to break up the field. These short sharp climbs suit certain types of riders who can attack and attempt to get off the front with a few others in a breakaway group. The grand tours invariably contain mountainous sections, where a number of peak traversing stages are ridden back to back. Stages themselves may contain three or four climbs of varying difficulty or ‘category’. The higher the category number is, the easier (relatively of course), the climb. The hardest of climbs in the Tour de France are known as ‘hors catégorie’ or ‘beyond categorisation’. It is worth pointing out that by ‘mountains’, literally, mountains. Whereas in the winter you might see skiers flying down snow covered peaks, in the summer cyclists fight gravity in order to conquer them.
It’s not just gravity that they have to contend with. Throw into the mix the gruelling relentless switchbacks and the claustrophobic throng of the cycling-mad crowd (who invade the road and run alongside their heroes shouting their support), and all of a sudden, mountainsides seem like a very unpleasant place to be. All this is compounded of course by the physical challenge of climbing itself. Whilst this section is all about climbers and climbing, it is worth pointing out that for every rider who relishes the challenge, there are ten who pedal squares and chew the handlebars all the way to the top.
The overall importance of climbing for general classement (GC) riders cannot be downplayed. Although time trialling can provide the knockout blow in the 12th round that secures overall victory, climbing is the 11 rounds before that, where GC contenders throw jabs, hooks and body shots in an attempt to wear each other down. The mountains provide a massive amount of drama – professional cycling is rarely better for the fan than when two GC rivals are off the front together, battling each other to a hilltop finish, attacking and counter-attacking in an attempt to gain precious seconds and a mental advantage. The noise, colour and fervour of the fans all adds to the occasion. Fans know that when it comes to the leader’s jersey, everything up until the mountains is essentially irrelevant. It can’t be any clearer – in order to win grand tours, you must be able to climb.
This is not to say that every climber is a GC contender. Most real specialist climbers can’t time trial for toffee. For the pure climbers, grand tour organisers developed a separate climber’s jersey akin to the sprinter’s jersey. In the Tour de France and Vuelta a España it is the Polka-dot jersey and in the Giro d’Italia it is the blue jersey. The ‘King of the Mountains’ jersey, as it is known, is awarded on a points basis. Points are available for being first over mountain summits, as well being the first over intermediary climbs.
Another wonderful spectacle afforded by climbing is descending. Not all climbers are by any means good descenders. Some of the best at going downhill are time trialists like Fabian Cancellara, or sprinters like Thor Hushovd. For stage victories and GC contenders the descent is paramount. It is no good pulling out a ten minute lead on your rivals on a climb if they can descend faster than you and catch you back up – you’ll just be where you were before, but you’ll be more tired. With cyclists reaching up to 60mph on descents, they can provide some of the best moments.
Cancellara, Hushovd, Vincenzo Nibali and Yaroslav Popovych are probably the best descenders in the business. Famous climbers include Richard Virenque, David Moncoutié, Marco Pantani, and Samuel Sanchez.