Watching riders you don’t know power up a hill ahead of you isn’t what I call fun, but watching your buddies crank up hills ahead of you is sheer agony.

Last summer I watched Ken spin away on every single climb we came up on, whether that was in the Edmonton river valley, or a grind up Cox Hill in Kananaskis country. He’d be up at the top catching his breath, mixing a Piña Colada while I continued to grit my teeth and slog it out. By the time I got to the top, he’d be smiling and taking in the views, fully recovered, while I’d be seeing spots and sucking wind. Now, despite the fact that Ken is a better climber than me, he’s still a pretty good guy; he’ll always give me time to get my wind back, take some water or whatever. But as the rides went on, it became demoralizing to always be the last one to the top, and, to consistently get the least amount of recovery time. This really works against you; if you’re the slowest climber in your group, even if you get 2-3 minutes rest at the top, the guys who beat you to the top are always getting more. I decided that during this off-season, I had to do whatever I could to close that gap between us, mostly for my own sanity, or ego more like…

I started reading more books on training, and through talking to other riders, I had a few gems recommended to me. Now, training theories conflict depending on your sources, especially when it comes to endurance cycling and strength training. Some coaches recommend it, some don’t. Some riders do it (Armstrong being one) and some shy away from it. Concerning the conundrum, strength vs. endurance, there seemed to be a vague consensus though that strength training inhibits optimal endurance training – strength comes at the expense of endurance.

As a novice to training, this made little sense because it was pretty clear to me that where I failed on those long, grueling climbs last summer was not just in the realm of cardio, but also in sheer power. My legs just didn’t have the oomph to keep the crank turning over the rocks, roots, loose dirt, or mud on those steep up-hills.

So the question I was left with was, as a rider do I have to sacrifice endurance to be a better climber?

Looking into it further, in a nutshell, the answer was no. Strength training could be highly beneficial to me as a rider. The biggest reason it could be helpful to me though, and not always recommended by the pros, is basically because I’m not a pro – I’m not an elite athlete.

Let me explain.

For a world-class endurance athlete (a cyclist for example) strength is always a core factor, but once the strength required to perform at an elite/pro level is achieved, adding further strength doesn’t add significant improvement to performance. In fact, according to some studies (links below), it can even be detrimental because strength does not directly translate to power, power being an athlete’s ability to perform work in a unit of time (this is a concept you can read more on here). Basically though, what was interesting to me was that by spending time on the leg press machine, a pro cyclist is loosing out on time they could spend on training for speed and technique, ergo the transformation of strength to power. And this comes from riding, riding, riding and more riding, then oh yes, riding some more.

The bottom line is, for a non-pro rider like me, who still hasn’t built the strength I need to clean those hills I’ll face in the 2009 Transrockies, strength training during the off-season will be key. Then, I’ll look to covert strength to increased power in a couple months with more frequent high tempo rides, lots of hill repeats, and hours and hours of pushing the big gears. In the meantime though, while the Edmonton trails sit under a foot of snow and ice, along with my ongoing indoor endurance training rides, I’ll build up my climbing strength with some basic exercises:

  • Leg press
  • Leg extensions
  • Hamstring curls
  • Calve raises
  • Jump lunges
  • Sit-ups
  • Twists
  • Suspended knee lifts
  • Chin ups

During these workouts I’ll keep the reps high (10-12), along with the pace of the workout, to be sure I’m building strength, and not bulk that will increase my body weight. Power to Weight ratio on climbs is the key. So if I can improve that, with any luck, come spring I should be turning that crank over and powering up those hills right with Ken.

Something else important to consider with the Transrockies, it’s not a road race down smooth tarmac. It’s a mountain bike race over rough mountainous terrain that’s historically famous for long sections of Hike a Bike. This will put strain on a lot more than just the legs. I’ll need my whole body to be strong and able to carry my bike for sections each day.

For more info on this subject from both sides of the issue, you can link to any of the following:

Comments, advice, tips all welcome!