Big-Gear Work to Increase Riding Power
Pushing the “BIG MEAT”
by Coach Vincent Fichera
Power on the bike is measured in watts and is the product of two components: Force and velocity. Force on the pedals is rotational or (torque) and may be measured in Newton-meters, N-m (metric system) or pound-feet or pound-inches (British system). Pedal velocity is also rotational, and may be measured in revolutions per minute (rpm).
To get up a hill faster, you must improve your power-to-weight ratio. This is how much power (watts) you can produce for the duration of the effort for each kilogram (metric system) or pound (British system) of your body weight. The higher your power to weight ratio, the faster you will climb.
Let’s Look at Jim on Palomar
Consider that I have an athlete; let’s call him Jim, whose goal is to climb Palomar Mountain, a 4,100-foot climb, in 60 minutes. Jim’s current personal best is 69 minutes. He weighs 163 pounds (74.1 kg), has 10% body fat, and set his personal record (PR) at an average power of 300 watts (torque of 37.3 N-m at 77 rpm).
His power-to-weight ratio is therefore 4.1 watts per kilogram (300/74.1).
How do we find out the power-to-weight ratio needed for Jim to climb Palomar Mountain in 60 minutes? Here are two methods:
(1) Theoretical: To estimate power from climbing rate, I use Dr. Arnie Baker’s formula1: Power (watts/kg) = (1.12 x feet climbed per hour) / 1,000 For Jim to climb Palomar in 60 minutes, he needs to produce an average of (1.12 x 4,100)/1000 = 4.6 watts per kilogram of his body weight. At his current weight of 74.1 kg, this equates to an average power output of 341 watts.
(2) Practical: To estimate power from known climbing rate, since climbing rate is nearly directly proportional to power output, use Jim’s known data:
Power required = current power x current time/desired time
= 300 x 69/60.
Therefore, Jim needs 345 watts, which is in good agreement with the theoretical 341 watts, 4.6 watts per kilogram above.
Q. How do We Help Jim Climb Faster?
A. Improve Power-to-Weight Ratio
(1) Increase power (watts): Since Jim currently climbs at 300 watts for an hour, if weight stays the same; he needs to find 40 to 45 watts of power (a 15% increase) to meet his goal. To help Jim figure out how best to do this, we can break down the power equation into its component parts: torque (rotating force) and velocity (rpm). We can increase power by (i) increasing the torque (how hard Jim can push on the pedals), (ii) increasing Jim’s cadence (rpm) in the same gear, or (iii) doing both.
(2) Lose body weight: Jim would have to lose 8.9 kilograms (19.6 pounds) for this method alone to bring his current 4.1 Watts/kg up to the 4.6 Watts/kg he needs. It’s calculated like this:
Weight loss needed =
Current weight – (Current average watts/target watts per kg) = 74.1 – (300/4.6)
= 8.9 kg (19.5 pounds)
1 From High-Intensity Training for Cyclists, 12th ed., by Arnie Baker, MD. Among other assumptions, the formula supposes equipment weighs 15% of rider’s weight and a 7% grade.
At Jims current 74.1 kilograms and 10% body fat, he might be able to lose 0.5 to 1.5 kg (1 to 3 pounds). It is not realistic for him to lose almost 9 kilograms (20 pounds). When an athlete already has low body fat, the answer to climbing faster seldom comes from losing fat. It is more often achieved by gaining additional power and staying healthy, so that he/she can continue to train effectively.
Although some athletes can stay healthy and be powerful at very low body fat percentages (4% to 6%) most of us cannot. Jim’s goal will be to lose 1.4 kilogram (3 pounds) of body weight – a healthy and realistic target.
(3) Get lighter equipment: Beyond standard racing equipment, this approach is expensive and yields small time savings. For every 100 grams (3.5 ounces) he shaves off his bike, Jim will add 0.005 watts/kg. One pound (454 grams) in weight savings is worth about 20 seconds across a 1 hour climb.
These saved grams are very expensive: at current prices, 1 gram often costs between $1 and $5. Since Jim already has a nice top of the line frame set and components, with reasonably light wheels, buying super-light equipment, while fun, is generally not the best way to go. If money is no object, Jim can buy a little time.
For example: A 2010 Mavic Open Pro standard 32-spoke wheel set with Campagnolo record hubs costs $557 and weighs 1,717 grams. The 2010 Zipp 202 tubular wheel set costs $2,285 and weighs 1,182 grams. That is an additional $1,728 for the Zipp wheels to save 535 grams or $3.23 per gram of weight savings.
(4) Do it all: Gain power and lose weight. This will give us the best results and will be our approach, with the emphasis on gaining power.
1) Increase cadence: Increase Jim’s current 1-hour sustainable climbing cadence from 77 rpm to 80 rpm (a 3.9% increase) by doing high cadence climbing drills aimed at developing improved cardiovascular fitness. This will move Jim from 300 to 312 watts (a 3.9% increase) without having to push any harder on the pedals. This is well within a trainable range through improved cardiovascular fitness— fitness trained, for example, with high cadence climbing drills. This will put Jim up to 4.2 watts per kilogram (312/74.1). This goal is achievable over a 6 to 8 week period of specific training.
2) Push the BIG MEAT—increase torque: Increase how hard Jim can push on the pedals (torque). Increase Jim’s current 1-hour sustainable torque from 37.3 N-m to 39.6 N-m (a 6.1% increase) by doing big-gear hill climbing (on-the-bike torque workouts). At Jim’s current 77 rpm pushing 39.6 N-m of torque will yield 319 watts2, bringing his new watts per kilogram to 4.3 (319 watts/74.1 kg) without having to spin any faster. My experience and testing has shown that it’s reasonable to increase 1-hour sustainable torque by 5% to 6% over two six weeks blocks of on-the-bike torque training combined with a gym program in the off-season (for some it may be beneficial to do gym work throughout the year). A strong foundation of gym work, pedaling skills, big/consistent miles, and torque training are essential components for building a solid fitness base. Pushing big gears uphill will increases one’s ability to push harder on the pedals. For example, Cat 3 male racers can push a 53 x 14 or 13 up a 5% to 6% grade with a cadence around 40 rpm for 15-20minute intervals. (Be careful about performing this exercise if you have knee or joint problems; be sure to have a good base of endurance miles and climbing, a strong core, and a good base of strength in the gym prior to attempting this type of work out.)
(3) Lose body weight: lose 3 pounds from current 163 lbs to 160 lb (72.7 kg).
2 Power (watts) = torque (N-m) x cadence (rpm) x 2 x 3.14/60 4
The New Numbers
Jim now has the fitness to push 39.6 N-m of torque @ 80 rpm which results in 332 watts. 332 watts divided by his new body weight of 72.7 kg is 4.56 watts per kilogram; we are most of the way there.
Now Jim can get himself that lighter set of Zipp 202 climbing wheels, spending $1,728 more than his current open Pros to save 535 grams which will net him approximately 28 seconds over the one hour climb, cost $61.71 per second, and result in 332/72.2 = 4.6 watts per kilogram.
Jim will need to muster up the physical and mental prowess to endure the 60 minutes of suffering, and have good weather, but he now has the fitness to do it. Then he will have his goal of climbing Palomar Mountain in 60 minutes achieved!
Here is a recap of the components that made up Jim’s improvement:
85% of the time savings came from increasing Jim’s power, 15% from reducing weight.
Note: The greatest improvement, more than 50%, came from increasing torque—pushing the BIG MEAT.
This example shows you how to help solve the problem of becoming a better climber.
Of course, Jim’s training program needs to be more comprehensive than just targeting his watts per kilogram for his overall fitness to improve, but it’s a great start.
Effective training programs should cover multiple elements of bike fitness and be tailored to you and your specific goals, and then organized over the course of an entire season.