Yanto's Pro Guide to Mountain Climbing: Will It Make You, Or Break You?

I often get asked what my favourite mountains to ride are, and although there were a number of great examples in last week’s blog – it goes without saying that no two rides up a mountain will ever be the same, even if you’re riding up the same mountain!

THE PHILOSOPHY OF CLIMBING MOUNTAINS

I have always found taking on a mountain climb to be quite a transformational experience – in the sense that you mature as the ride goes on. In the moment, the climb may feel like a real struggle, and you might be hard pushed to find any enjoyment in it at all. In my experience I’d go so far as to say that you might actively hate the experience of pedaling uphill for such a long period of time.

And yet, in looking back, suddenly you see the joy in it all. You understand that the mountain offered you an opportunity to face down and overcome a significant challenge, and that challenge gave you the chance to be a stronger rider. Yes, it hurt a lot, but it gave you a lot in return – and I’d say that’s a fair trade for any day out on a bike. 

Yanto Barker - The Mentality of climbing mountains

IT'S MAKE OR BREAK OUT THERE

Not only do mountains make or break each man, they can also make or break friendships. I remember a friend of mine who recalled that when he took on the Etape de Tour one year, it was both the best his best and worst day he’d had on a bike, ever. He said that he’d witnessed grown men crying at the side of the road, in agony through cramp and exhaustion – unable to carry on.

On the last col of the day in that particular year, my friend was making his way up the Hautacam. He passed another rider at the side of the road, who had all but given up. This other rider insisted that he didn’t have the strength to carry on. My friend stopped his own bike, and said sternly to the guy: “Get up! C’mon! You’re not going to fail this one so close to the end.” They ended up riding the final few kilometres together, counting through pedal strokes on the last 5km, each time repeating ‘just five more strokes, just five more…’ I know that my friend is still in touch with that stranger to this day. It’s amazing that a mountain has the power to bring people together like that.

Yanto Barker - riding up Tourmalet

DISTANCE CAN BE DECEPTIVE

Something that always amazes me when you’re out on a big mountain ride is that 1km can seem like a really long way. On a mountain climb, it’s possible see 3km, 4km, or even 5km up the mountain – you never get that kind of view on a ride out on a flat road, and it starts to play tricks with your mind. When the road twists and snakes on, for what seems like an eternity above your head, it’s not unusual to think ‘Sh*t. Have I still got that far to go!?’ The whole thing can seem daunting, and it’s a mental battle not to let the mountain defeat you in that way. I remember having a similar battle when riding up the Galibier - that mountain is a monster!

MIND OVER MATTER

As you become a more experienced rider you tend not to let those scary views get to you so much, and you’re able to be more disciplined in your approach. The focus shifts from being scared of what’s to come, to instead calculating the effort you need to produce to get up the climb. When that happens you start thinking in more detail about precisely how far there is left to go, about the speed you’re riding at and how long it is before you think you’ll make the top. It’s then that you can begin to rhythmically count down kilometres, and push on for the summit.

Yanto Barker - riding up a mountain in Le Col

MY WORST MOUNTAIN RIDE

Unless you’re the strongest person in the race, a mountain is never likely to be your favourite part of the ride. It’s going to hurt, but most pro riders like hurting – they have to. If a pro cyclist doesn’t embrace the hurt, then being a pro probably isn’t the right career choice. That said, when you’re on a mountain and in a lot of pain – getting dropped by the bunch is one of the most difficult things to ride through. Mentally, that’s tough.

Last year, I crashed at 70kph in a bunch sprint in the Tour of Croatia. I went down hard and lost a fair amount of skin from all areas of my body as I scraped along the ground. That crash happened the day before the big mountain of the tour, and a stage which finished with a 1,500m climb! That’s a big climb by any standards, but taking it on at a time when I was so broken - with bruising and muscle trauma - I found that I could only output 65-70% of the power I should have been able to sustain.

That lack of power meant I spent a lot of time on my own that day, and in the end I finished outside the time cutoff, and I was eliminated. I was really disappointed with myself. There were so many times when I’d wanted to just stop and get off the bike, but I’d ploughed on. To get to the finish and realise that it was all for nothing – it cracked me. That was one of my hardest days on a bike.

MY BEST MOUNTAIN RIDE

My favourite time to ride up mountains is actually during training. I’ve done many training camps in my career and one that stands out was last year in the Alpes, when we were staying at Isola 2000. We had fantastic weather, and selected routes which took us on long, sweeping climbs along smaller, quieter back roads. Quite often there was no traffic at all as we pushed on through the day, climbing for an hour at a time in a small bunch of six riders.

That was one of the most rewarding weeks of riding I can remember, hanging out with a really cool bunch of guys and riding spectacular roads. It helped that we were all riding at a similar level, so no one could really dish it out too much. I’m sure that contributed to everyone having a good time. On that day I remember thinking ‘This the best job in the world - to get paid to do this!’

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