The pros can’t decide which position is best for climbing, so we ask the scientists for advice on cycling technique
At the 2014 Vuelta a Espana, two exceptional climbers went head-to-head on some of Spain’s most feared mountains. Time and again, Alberto Contador and Chris Froome slugged it out on the ascents, often equally matched, but rarely demonstrating the same technique.
Contador, the eventual winner of that year’s race, tended to prefer an out-of-the-saddle style of climbing (‘dancing on the pedals’ as Phil Liggett would put it), while Team Sky’s Froome would usually stay seated and spin a fast cadence. Both techniques were effective, but which should we emulate?
‘It’s all about the steepness and length of the climb,’ says former BMC Racing rider Marco Pinotti. ‘The shallower the climb, the faster you go, so you don’t need to stand. It’s also more aerodynamic when you sit. If it’s steep, you can enjoy a brief advantage by standing.’
As a six-time Italian National champion, Pinotti’s been there and burnt the quads, but does that broad anecdotal brush reflect textbook physics?
We’re sure that through beads of sweat and with an aorta that’s at bursting point, you’ve pondered the mechanical work that you and your strained limbs are undertaking.
If you haven’t, here’s a reminder of the power required to tame Alpe d’Huez:
W = krMs + kaAsv2 + giMs
We’re all familiar with this of course, but just as a recap, W is power, kr is rolling resistance, M is the combined mass of cyclist and bicycle, s is speed on the road, ka is air resistance, A is the combined frontal area of cyclist and bicycle, v is speed through the air (including headwind), g is gravitational acceleration and i is incline.
It’s a convoluted way of saying that lighter riders with a high power-to-weight ratio tend to excel in the mountains.
But does the technique of smaller riders such as Joaquim Rodriguez – all of 5ft 7in and 59kg – reflect scientific theory?
Climbing balancing act
In 2008, Professor Ernst Hansen discovered that road cyclists were better off remaining seated until the gradient hit 10%. From then on standing became more effective in terms of sustained power output, although the riders consumed 5% more oxygen when standing.
During short (less than 30 seconds) all-out bursts, peak power output has been measured at 25% greater when standing compared to sitting, but there is trade off.
Research has shown that even at shallower gradients of around 4%, ascending at 19kmh while seated requires 10% less oxygen than when standing.
That’s primarily because the body’s centre of mass is supported by the saddle, conserving energy. Science and real life aren’t always happy bedfellows, but it seems Hansen’s Lycra-clad lab rats reflect the peloton.
‘In general, I’ll only stand up on steep sections – around 10% plus,’ says Tejvan Pettinger, winner of the 2013 British Hill Climbing Championships, ‘though standing up is more tiring so usually this is left to below 60-second bouts.’
Those brief out-of-saddle bursts are common across all levels of cycling, whether for varying the effort or accelerating away from a rival, though some riders stay standing long enough to raise eyebrows.
At the 2013 Vuelta, American Chris Horner became the oldest winner of a Grand Tour. His 41 years dominated the headlines, but cycling aficionados were more interested in his climbing style.
‘I’ve never seen a rider spend so long out of the saddle, climbing in a big gear,’ says Professor Louis Passfield, who has worked with British Cycling as lead sports scientist. ‘But clearly it worked.’
Standing has the potential to elicit greater power output due to differences in the kinetic chain, starting with the upper body.
‘When standing, the rider can produce greater leverage from the handlebars,’ says Daniel Healey, who was formerly the head of sports science at BMC, ‘and the wider the better to increase this lever. Horner at the Vuelta in 2013 had super-wide bars.’
Horner’s 44cm-46cm handlebars were purportedly down to a mechanic fitting the wrong ones several seasons back, and he stuck with them.
Playing the angles
‘Standing up also alters many of your body’s angles with a key one being at the hip,’ adds Passfield. By opening this up, you activate more muscles, including the glutes and more of the calves, which gives you more power potential.
‘When seated, that “closed” hip angle can restrict power output.’
The range of hip motion from seated to standing rises from around 40° to 70°. This range increases at the knees, too, from around 30° to 75°. Finally, the range of ankle movement increases from a seated 25° to standing 40°.
‘These angles are close to what you get when running,’ says Passfield, ‘which certainly pays off in the propulsive [down] phase.’
More power is possible when standing, then, but there’s an energy cost.
‘This sounds obvious but it’s down to efficiency,’ says Passfield. ‘It comes down to factors like producing more power for less energy, how much heat you emit and so on. In the past people thought efficiency couldn’t be trained but James Hopker and myself showed that it could.
‘With regard to climbing, this efficiency is targeted, so if you train on climbs in the saddle most the time, that’s where you’ll see the benefits; vice versa when standing.’
Passfield suspects your preferred climbing style arises from your experience from the moment you seriously ride a bike, which raises the question of the effect of nationality.
Does Colombia’s climbing culture, for instance, mean that the likes of Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Uran tend to ride out of the saddle more than, say, Wales’s Geraint Thomas and Luke Rowe?
‘I don’t think so,’ says Pinotti. ‘If there is a correlation, it’s because that country might, in general, produce certain body types.
‘The bigger you are, the more energy you waste, so standing is uneconomical. If you’re light like Nairo Quintana [58kg], that doesn’t apply as much.’
For the record, Contador weighed 62kg and Froome 69kg, which might be a factor in why the heavier of the two prefers to sit.
There’s also the matter of cadence. Numerous studies have shown that 80 to 90rpm is optimum on the flat; slightly less on the hills.
Research on the 2008 Tour de France showed that the average cadence on the 17.5km long and 1,208m high Galibier came in at 67rpm, while the 10.3km and 8.3% Saint-Lary-Soulan registered a lower 64rpm.
As Pinotti says, ‘Your cadence can’t sink too low on the mountains or you’ll lose momentum and fall off.’
It’s certainly not a problem high-revving Froome seems to encounter. Lightweights may dance on their pedals, derrières of heavyweights might remain planted to their saddles, but one thing unites all – climbing hurts a lot regardless.