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What Makes a Great Climber?

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

There are many good climbers in a World Tour peloton, capable of winning a stage at any of the Grand Tours. And as the Grand Tours are today putting more emphasis on mountain stages, because they are the most dramatic and therefore attract more people to the sport, young riders coming into road racing are becoming more skilled at climbing mountains.

But if there are numerous good climbers in the sport, there are only a few great climbers, those able to climb all the mountains over a three-week Grand Tour without losing time to rivals and then able to produce a long, winning climb on the toughest slope deep into the race. Probably the best climber in the world today is Jumbo-Visma’s two-time Tour de France winner Jonas Vingegaard. According to his coach, Tim Heemskerk, one important reason for his success is physiological.

“His greatest quality is that he can produce the power he pedals during training also at the end of a race, even in a three-week course,” he told the Dutch magazine Wieler Revue. “The true climbers distinguish themselves from the lesser climbers by producing their best values ​​at the end of the race. They show almost no decrease. He can do it at altitude and in warm conditions.”

Heemskerk cited several other qualities that distinguish his protégé from the others. One is that his body responds very quickly to training. “Of all the riders I have ever worked with, Jonas is the one who can get into shape the fastest if he is given the right incentives,” he said. And Vingegaard’s body adapts quickly to training and changing conditions. “Your body keeps adapting. Your body has a memory,” he explained. “So if you stack altitude training sessions, you will adapt more quickly when you are at altitude. Jonas is someone who adapts quickly when certain types of challenges arise, such as altitude, heat or illness.” Finally, the Dane trains very hard, especially for the Tour. “He will be at altitude for more than five weeks before the Tour,” his coach said.

Jonas Vingegaard
We saw amazing performances on iconic Grand Tour climbs from Jonas Vingegaard. © Profimedia

So, according to the coach of the best climber in the peloton, a rider’s physiology is essential for climbing. In other words, the body matters. For example, though he is a wonderful all-around cycling talent, and climbs very well, at 1.90m and 78kg, Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) is probably too bulky to ever become a good enough climber to win a Grand Tour – unless, as he himself said, he lost a lot of weight, which he is not willing to do.

On the other hand, his teammate Vingegaard may have the ideal size for a climber, at 1.71m and only 60kg. Dividing his weight by his height gives a figure of .350. That figure represents the average weight carried by 1cm of the rider’s frame. By comparison, Van Aert’s body bulk ratio is .410, considerably more weight per cm than Vingegaard. That figure for other riders is: Primož Roglič, .367; Tadej Pogačar, .375; Remco Evenepoel, .356. So one reason Vingegaard is able to produce more power consistently on climbs than his rivals is simply because he is carrying less proportional weight on his frame.

These figures should be taken with a grain of salt, as they are not science-based, the riders will change their bodies through long training and they almost certainly lose weight over a three-week race. But it is interesting that van Aert and his long-time rival Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) have almost identical weight to height ratios and are the same type of riders and will never win a Grand Tour. While Chris Froome, who won four Tours, has a ratio identical to that of Roglič.

Another aspect of climbing is that aerodynamics play little role in the kind of long, steep climb that usually decides a Grand Tour because the riders are simply not traveling fast enough. That is why a rider with superior aerodynamics on a bike, like Evenepoel, may be at a disadvantage if he depends on this aspect of his cycling to win a big mountain stage. However, the Soudal-QuickStep leader seems to have the right type of body to become an elite climber and certainly trains hard enough. But, of course, there’s more to climbing than body size and training.

The most underrated component of climbing may be the cyclist’s form, that is, how they turn the pedals as they ride up a mountain and how little of their effort is wasted. It’s interesting that the best climbers, like Vingegaard, are often also excellent time trial riders. The Dane’s ITT in this year’s Tour de France was a real tour de force, as he beat his closest rival, Pogačar, by an astonishing 1min 38sec over only 22.4km. That suggests that Vingegaard is not only the best climber in the peloton, but may also the best cyclist in that he rides more efficiently than anyone else. In the end, even if you have the ideal body and you train hard, it all comes down to your ability to turn the pedals better than your rivals do.