Four years ago, I started working on the Tour de France. To say I didn’t know much about the event would be a gross understatement and so I prepared for my month in Gaul by reading as much about its signature sporting event as I could. Lance Armstrong’s two books It’s Not about the Bike and Every Second Counts contributed enormously to my appreciation and understanding of what I quickly came to see as the greatest contest in the world.
As you might imagine, there was plenty to learn about fitness in Lance’s book (as well as life). My favorite little morsel was a little give and take Lance used to have with his son. The seven time champ would ask, “What do we do on the hills?” to which the younger Armstrong would respond “We attack.” “What else do we do on the hills?” the legend would say, “Make them suffer,” his son would say.
Newcomers to the Tour will understandably be confused with the racing in the first week. Across the flat stages of these early days, the competition is wide open and men that have no chance of winning the overall Tour will dominate the headlines. But the real race begins when the Tour goes up. Almost without exception, who stands on the podium in Paris is determined by who can perform consistently in the Pyrenees and the Alps. Climbing is the essential skill of Tour champions, it can’t be the only weapon in their arsenal but they’ve got to be solid at least, if they have any hopes of winning.
The only way to get good at climbing is to do it. And Lance was (and probably now is) obsessive about training on the climbs featured in the Tour. As soon as the course for the Tour was announced, he would begin training on the mountains that had been selected. It is shocking still how few riders choose to do this.
But then again, maybe it isn’t.
Hillwork sucks. It’s incredibly painful and requires a huge amount of self-discipline to get out there and just make yourself suffer. The hardest part about it is the seductive notion always whispering in your ear “you can end this any time you want, just ease up.” Trying to shut that voice up is almost as challenging as a 10% grade but if it is ignored, if you do put in the time to take on the hills, the rewards are enormous.
I try and do a steady diet of both hill repeats and longer runs with lots of vertical. Especially when you’re going up, hills actually put less stress on your joints because the impact of your footfall is lessened with the rising surface. So, if you’re ever short of time, you can always be productive with a couple of hills.
For the most part, hillwork has put me in some good places on race day. A few years ago, I was in my hometown race and there were a couple of “Just out of college kids” that had passed me in the second of four point seven miles with just a whiff of haughtiness. I settled into their wake and waited for the road to go up. In the last half mile, there is a gradual climb before the descent into town for the finish. It’s not much of a hill and if you haven’t been running flat out for the previous four miles, you probably wouldn’t even notice it. But everyone at the front of this race, including me and the college boys, had been running hard. We got to the bottom, I threw in a surge and came up on the shoulder of the guy on the right and when I was sure they felt me and had turned their head my way, I turned to my left to look at them.
In perhaps the most iconic moment of his career, Lance Armstrong, after seeming to struggle all day long, rode up to his fiercest rival Jan Ullrich on the lower ramparts of L’Alpe d’Huez. Ullrich was grinding his big gears, no doubt, certain that he’d finally vanquished the Ugly American. But suddenly, here was Armstrong, not only by his side but staring at him. Armstrong later explained that he was looking to see if Ullrich had anything left in the tank. Sports fans around the world have interpreted “The Look” to have had a slightly more intimidating purpose. Regardless, of what was behind it, after taking the measure of his competition, Armstrong stood on his pedals and rocketed up the Tour’s most fabled climb. Ullrich was left in the dust and the Tour was basically over that day. Once again, the king of France had attacked on the hills and his competition had suffered.
When I looked into my college-aged buddies eyes, my motives were definitely a little sinister. Yes, I wanted to see if they had anything left in the tank but I also was throwing down the gauntlet. I wanted them to know that if they were going to beat me to the line, I was going to make them suffer up the hill. Once sure they had seen me, I threw it into that extra gear that only hillwork can provide. In the last half mile, I gapped them by more than a dozen seconds. It felt spectacular, I owed it to Lance.
What else but hill repeats. 3.5 mile warm-up, 7x1:00 hill repeats with a 3.5 mile cooldown.