In a recent post (Personal Records), I discussed the various ways that cyclists use to chart their fitness progress. I discussed heart rate, power, and using elapsed time from organized events. What if you don’t have a fancy gadget and would actually like to compare yourself not to yourself at an earlier time, but to the very best cyclists in the world?
All you need is an altimeter with a stopwatch and you will have an idea of where you stack up vs. the most gifted climbers in the Tour de France.
When the Spanish or Italian Doctors are evaluating the latest cycling wonder kid, they measure Vo2 max, power at threshold, and watts/kg. Having the ability to generate 6.5-7 watts per kilogram in particular has been a good predictor of TDF success, for it is watts/kg that determines how fast one can climb. For what it’s worth, that number was 5.6-5.8 w/kg in the pre-doping era (see the graph and chart):
Related to this is the concept introduced by Professor Francesco Conconi and used extensively by colleague Dr. Michele Ferrari (yes, the one that worked with Armstrong). Conconi, who is likely best known for allegedly introducing EPO to the sport of cycling, developed the concept of VAM, or vertical ascent in meters. Instead of a laboratory test, a rider is asked to climb for 30-60 minutes as hard as they can. For Pro Tour team leaders, this requires a very big climb indeed.
Converted into feet, in order to win the Tour de France, a cyclist should be able to ascend 6000’ in an hour. To put it into perspective, Mt. Ventoux gains 6000’, as does the Stelvio in the Italian Alps over 16 miles at an average grade of 7.1%. Six thousand feet per hour equates to the mind boggling number of 100’ per minute. I say mind boggling, but it will only mean something to a cyclist who has used an altimeter with a stopwatch to measure his own VAM. Head on out to Cougar or Squak Mountain, climb as hard as you can for say, 10 minutes, and then use your altimeter to see how many vertical feet you have ascended per minute. Whatever the number turns out to be, now fantasize about being able to climb at 100’/minute…and sustain the effort for an hour. What it translates to is the ability to climb Zoo on Cougar or Olympus on Squak (both gain 1000’) in 10 minutes, six times in a row. Maybe that is a better way to put 100'/minute into perspective for you. Just as Tiger Woods is on a whole different level than the average touring pro, Pro Tour team leaders climb at an incredible rate, even compared to Tour domestiques.
At what kind of level is this year’s TDF winner Alberto Contador? A record new and higher one according to his performance on the Verbier climb in the French Alps (see chart):
For us mere mortals, VAM is a very accurate way to see if you are making progress and getting stronger. Yes, there are still environmental factors that can vary, but they have less effect on a very steep climb, the type that is perfect for measuring your VAM. There are even formulas that can use your VAM to estimate average wattage and an approximated Vo2 max, if you use a longer climb. Jonathan Vaughters, currently the Garmin Director Sportiff, popularized such a formula back in the late 90’s:
Average climbing watts=vertical meters of climbing x total weight of bike and rider in kg/divide by time in sec/multiply by 10/add 60. Vo2 max= average watts divided by 72=oxygen consumption in liters/minute x 1000=ml of oxygen consumed. Divide that by body weight in kg to get Vo2 in ml/kg/min. For what it’s worth, this formula produces power numbers 5-8% higher than my power meter.
I always think that my own PR’s are likely to occur on the Sunday Hills of the West Coast ride, but they rarely do. While there are a lot of strong riders to motivate you to go hard on the climbs, the context of a 75 mile, very hard paced ride with multiple climbs is not conducive to making a huge all out effort on a single climb. Not only is it bad form for the leader of the ride to crack like an egg, but we are usually out in the middle of nowhere. More often than not, I am the only person who knows how to get us back safely, since I am the one that took us out there in the first place. Obviously, it’s different for elite cyclists, because they go hard on every climb day after day, but then there are other factors involved as well…
I normally don’t just ride somewhere and do one climb with friends or on a group ride, with the option of bailing if I cook my legs by going super hard on the climb. Always key for me is finding a way to motivate myself to go pound up a climb by myself, which is never easy.
Long before I got a power meter, I had stopped using heart rate on hard rides, as I found that all looking at the number did was slow me down. While pacing yourself with wattage is great on long moderate or hard efforts, I’m starting to realize that watching wattage (or elapsed time) has the same effect as watching heart rate when I am trying to go really hard (see my 9-27-09 HOWC Ride Report post). The mind has an amazing ability to intuitively grasp just how hard you can go for a given time period, and I think riding by feel is best for that really all out effort.
I do know one thing; instead of staring at numbers, I am going to turn that screen off and focus in on the music from my Ipod (uphill only when riding solo!). I read recently that the best climbers mentally disassociate from their mental anguish, and it’s almost as if they are observing themselves on the climb. I don’t know if I can get to that point, but I’ll try selecting my music carefully.