Coach Brig Brandt's Climbing Tips

  • By Tim Cusick
  • 16 Nov, 2017
cyclist climbing at cycling camp in mallorca
I’ve been coaching cyclists for nearly a decade now, and the most popular goal among new clients is to improve their climbing. The good news is that while not all cyclists are built to be mountain goats, most of us can improve our climbing ability with some patience, hard work, and, well, a few tricks.

The physics of climbing are pretty simple and essentially boil down to a rider’s power output and the total mass of the rider and bike. While there are some other inputs (aerodynamics, rolling resistance, and mechanical friction), gravity is the biggest burden when the tarmac points up.

Power and weight

Here’s tip number one for faster climbing: gain some power and/or lose weight! Earth shattering, right? How much faster will you climb by dropping weight (or increasing power)? It depends on a few factors, but a general rule of thumb is that every ~1% drop in total mass will result in a 1% faster time. Similarly, a 1% increase in power will generally yield a ~1% faster time. When we look at the numbers, we quickly discover that losing five pounds of holiday belly or increasing power output by 5% will get us uphill a lot faster than replacing an aluminum stem with the carbon version.

What can you do if you and your bike don’t have any weight to lose? Here are a few more tips to help you get over the climb with the lead group.

Sag climb

Sag climbing—where a rider positions himself near the front of the peloton at the base and slowly drifts back over the course of the climb—is a great way to crest the climb with the lead bunch but at a lower power output. The idea is simple; unless there’s a time bonus or mountaintop finish, a rider simply needs to summit in the group, not at the front of it. Sag climbing is best done on shorter (and narrower) climbs and in larger groups.

Know the climb

The details of sustained climbs can be helpful for motivation and pacing; just knowing there’s only a minute left or that the grade eases up around the next bend might provide the extra strength needed to stay with the group. For pacing, remember that if you’re climbing solo, more power on the steeper pitches and less power on the flat sections will yield a faster time than climbing at steady power.

In races where I’m not familiar with the roads, these are the basics I like to know about major climbs:
  • expected time and distance
  • total gain
  • max elevation
  • steepest gradient
This information helps me plan my pacing, gearing, and nutrition.

Conserve before the climbs

Riders who struggle on climbs should conserve energy by drafting and avoiding intermediate sprints. For shorter climbs (a few minutes or less), bigger riders might consider the opposite—that is, drive the pace to isolate the climbers, therefore getting to the base of the climb ahead. Remember, though, that it’s hard to get a sizable gap on flat terrain, so isolating the climbers beforehand will take miles of road (which is why this is hard to do early in a race) and some strong wind, and you’re unlikely to hit the base with a large advantage.

Fuel before the climbs

Make sure to know the approximate time on the course where the climb begins so that you can fuel up with a gel or bar approximately thirty minutes before. Create a fueling plan for the entire event to help ensure you hit the climbs with your best foot forward. For long climbs or hard races, I recommend consuming 60-80 grams of carbohydrates per hour to help prevent late-race bonks; just be sure to test it out in a few training sessions before doing it in a race.

Brig Brandt’s lifelong interest in travel and cycling began in 1989, when his family went on a European vacation to watch the Tour de France. Greg Lemond won in dramatic fashion that year, besting Laurent Fignon in the final time trial, and Brig was hooked. A few years after that Europe trip, Brig entered his first bike race and began to claw his way through the ranks of the professional mountain bike world. He couldn’t shake the travel bug, and in 2008 he decided to race less, travel more, and coach cyclists full time. Brig is a USA Cycling level 1 coach with Peaks Coaching Group and has had the pleasure of helping a wide range of athletes, from amateurs to elites, reach their cycling goals. He’s enjoyed riding bikes all over the world, but his favorite spots are Spain, Italy, and the Pacific Northwest, which is where he calls home.

Velocious Cycling Adventures Blog

By Tim Cusick 16 Nov, 2017
I’ve been coaching cyclists for nearly a decade now, and the most popular goal among new clients is to improve their climbing. The good news is that while not all cyclists are built to be mountain goats, most of us can improve our climbing ability with some patience, hard work, and, well, a few tricks.

The physics of climbing are pretty simple and essentially boil down to a rider’s power output and the total mass of the rider and bike. While there are some other inputs (aerodynamics, rolling resistance, and mechanical friction), gravity is the biggest burden when the tarmac points up.
By Tim Cusick 31 Oct, 2017

A couple weeks ago we talked about the benefits of indoor training , and I mentioned how many of us overdo indoor training and end up as a February Superstar. This is easy to do, but it's also easy to prevent, and, more importantly, with a well-designed plan faithfully executed, you can achieve dramatic performance gains from your indoor winter training and hit the racing or gran fondo season in winning form. All the tools are in place and available to you.

Nevertheless, I still see many people blowing it completely, because it seems to be human nature to hope that you can achieve higher goals if you simply exceed the plan an expert has shown you. More is not better. So here, finally, are my favorite dos and don’ts when following a training plan in general, and I’ll spin the advice to specifically refer to your winter indoor training.
By Tim Cusick 18 Oct, 2017

Your indoor training period can provide the most dramatic fitness gains you experience all year. How? Here are some of the advantages:

  • You don’t have to stop for traffic, signs, or signals while trying to execute focused workloads and intervals. No interruptions. Pure focus makes efficient use of time!
  • You won’t be tempted by the other riders you may encounter to overdo your session, and you won’t be tempted to draft those other riders and under-do your session either. Note that THIS profound advantage has been diminished of late by online virtual racing. More about that later.
  • You minimize the time you spend coasting or pedaling easily due to hills. They make you reduce power output because your speed quickly becomes excessive with even a little power applied.
  • Simply put: you can more easily adhere to a workout script in terms of intensity and time and complete the session on target for the prescription.

With the evolution of ergometer training and its associated software, it’s become simpler, even “turn-key,” to follow your script, because you can pre-program it before the ride. Your control software handles the timing of intervals and rest periods, and your hardware controls the power level to be on-target no matter what. I recall my own frustration with writing out the stop-watch readings to start and end each interval and then watching that terrible clock throughout the sessions. It was tedious and discouraged me from riding. With pre-programmed ergometer training, you are relieved of all the menial tasks and left with only the hardest and most important one: pedaling. You have no excuses, and you won’t make any mistakes or miscalculations.

Indoor training’s effectiveness goes far beyond the scope of the single session as I have described so far. In the bigger picture, with an effective planned progression of workload intensity and recovery, day to day and week to week, you can stay on a path of “maximal rate of improvement” without suffering a physical burnout or setback along the way.
By Tim Cusick 01 Oct, 2017
We want your trip to our cycling camp in Mallorca to be as carefree as possible, and we know traveling can be stressful, so we've put together a list of answers to frequently asked questions many campers have. If your question isn't answered here, comment below or contact us , and we'll be glad to help!
By Tim Cusick 11 Sep, 2017

Probably the most frequently asked question we get about camp is this: should I rent a bike or bring my own? I often suggest packing and bringing your own bike for our tours, but for the Mallorca camp, I recommend that you rent a bike instead. Why? In Mallorca they’ve made it so simple and easy to rent a quality bicycle that it’s hard to find a reason not to take advantage of the process.

So how easy is it exactly? You’ll reserve your bike online in advance, and then when you check in to the hotel, you’ll be handed your bike access key. Bring it down to the bike station, and you’ll find your bike hanging on its numbered hook and ready to go. It’s that simple.

By Tim Cusick 07 Sep, 2017

Let’s face it: cyclocross hurts! Not only does it require strong mental and physical toughness, it also requires a rider to be able to implement both skills and tactics while going full gas. This means we need some highly specific training with lots of time spent focused in the high intensity range.

As with any cycling discipline, historical and current data go a long way to guiding your training strategy, implementation, and tracking, and this will improve your results. But with such an intense discipline, you also need a very specific approach to training with data.

Understand the Cyclocross Hour

A lot of riders compare a cyclocross race to a 40km time trial or a criterium because of its similar duration. This is a good starting point, but while there are lot of similarities, there are also some key differences. Let’s compare these hour events.

By Tim Cusick 03 Aug, 2017

It’s hot, it’s humid, and you’re getting tired. Each August I am reminded that my athletes have been training for eight to nine months now. The typical annual training cycle kicks off in November, and August is usually the final, challenging phase. We all face the challenges of heat, humidity, fatigue, and lower motivation, forcing us to reach deep and finish the season with style.

The challenge? After nine months of both physical and mental focus, we’re tired. Those April feelings of “all I want to do is go fast” have turned into the August “I’m not sure I want to suffer anymore” blues. So how do we combat the combination of physical and mental fatigue? I have one word: change.

For me and my athletes, August is a great time to introduce or experiment with change in order to squeeze in some final performance while improving knowledge. As motivation and fitness begin to fade, we have an excellent opportunity to introduce some change to recharge our late season. At this point in the season, we’re probably as fit as we’re going to be, and our training focus needs to be on speed and performance. Let’s milk the last vestiges of fading fitness in the name of hitting those late-season goals or events.

Change Your Microcycle

You’ve probably been following the same micro cycle pattern for the past eight months now: Monday off, Tuesday hard, Wednesday aerobic, Thursday hard, Friday easy or off, and weekend full of racing or hard group rides. Your body has gotten comfortable with this rhythm and has actually begun to expect it. This is the first area we can introduce some change and elicit some quick results.

What to change? Try a few weeks of block training. Change the rhythm of your training; shock your body out of its norm by introducing a new training pattern. A simple version of block training can be done as three days on (harder training days) followed by two days off/easy, then four days on, then three days off. This creates a twelve-day cycle. Repeat it two times to complete the month. Sure, it might throw off your schedule and make some challenges for longer ride days not falling on the weekend, but don’t worry about it. You really don’t need longer rides this late in the season, and you’ll get more benefit from mixing things up.

By changing up your daily rhythm and requiring your body to first go hard for more days in a row and then rest for more days, you shake things up and push some new adaption by jarring your system back into response mode.

Change Your Training Tactics

Look back over your training for the last ninety days. I bet it will be more patterned than you think. In early spring we start falling into the same workouts, repeating those that best prepare us for racing or the ones that best fit within a heavy race schedule. August is a great time to change our tactics. If you’ve been focusing on threshold-style workouts, complete a full block (as outlined above) of neuromuscular (sprints) and anaerobic capacity-building workouts. If you’ve been pushing a lot of speed work and sprint stuff, go back to some sweet spot work. The goal is to change your intensity and content and shake up the system by changing the tactical focus of your training. Your body is an amazing adaptation machine; it’s used to adapting to the workouts you’ve been doing, so change it up, shock the system, and squeeze out some final improvement.

Change the Way You Race

You’ve been working on your racing strategy and performance all year. August is a great time to test something different. Try mixing it up. If you’re a sprinter, get some early breaks rolling and see if you can make them stick. If you’re a long break rider, sit in and then attack from one kilometer out. Use this time period to experiment with different race tactics while introducing new high-intensity efforts within the race process to shock your system and push some final gains.

Change Your Equipment

August can be a great time to test some changes in equipment. Have you always wondered if you’d be faster on those deep dish wheels versus your light climbers? Try it! Been exploring some minor changes in position? Give them a try and see if they can help you race (just be careful). We can often find some pretty big sales this time of year offers some pretty big sales on different equipment, which can be an excellent opportunity to expand your toy collection.

Change the Measurement

Since I’m the product development leader of WKO4, this might sound sacrilegious, but change the way you train and race with data. August is a great time to introduce some unstructured training and explore racing without data on your handlebars. Here’s a Pez confession: after fifteen-plus years of training with power, I still do not race with power on my head unit. Why not experiment with training and racing by feel?

Turn the dog days of summer into the change days of summer. It’ll refresh you, your training, and your equipment, and you just might up your final performances in the training year!

By Tim Cusick 07 Jul, 2017

Lets face it: climbing is hard! And what’s harder than climbing? Epic climbing! Let’s take as an example the Taiwan KOM Challenge, a 100-kilometer ride from sea level to over 3275 meters (that’s nearly 11,000 feet). In and of itself, the climb is challenge enough for most, but the real crusher is in the final 8 kilometers averaging nearly 11% and topping out above 27% for a short period.

Find Your Gear

With over 11,000 feet of climbing and some significant grade on hand, the first piece of advice is to get some lower gears. The ability to sit and spin is key to reducing muscular fatigue and energy for stronger climbing later in the event.

Spinning puts more strain on the aerobic system, so expect your heart rate to be a tad higher, but it puts less stress on your muscular system, which helps you manage your fatigue better. I would, however, recommend that you avoid over-spinning (using a gear so easy to pedal that you hit very high cadences) as a way of dealing with the elevation gain. There are enough gearing options available to us that we can get some amazingly low gear ratios, but it’s possible to go too low. This is a timed event, after all, and doing well means going faster, not just spinning faster.

My advice to clients doing timed ultra-climb events is to test gears well in advance and find a gear that allows a high cadence target (70-80 rpm) at a tempo climbing pace; I call this our tempo gear. Once this gear is established, we set up the bike with one or two gears easier to pedal to allow for cadence of 75-90 rpm on similar climbs; I call this our spinning gear. We start all early climbing in our spinning gear to help reduce the load on the muscles early, but at some point, to enhance time, you do need to use the tempo gear and push more power.

Find Your Rhythm

Ultra climbing success has a lot to do with your ability to find your climbing rhythm. We frequently hear this term but rarely see it defined; I define climbing rhythm as the ability to synchronize your power output, cadence, and breathing into a coordinated pace or rhythm. Most people seem to think only about the cadence; here’s how you balance all three.

Power: If you have a power meter, you can put an actual number to the effort, but in this case, I simply mean how hard you’re climbing. The rhythm might be different during longer climbs to deal with changes in grade, so the effort required drives the target.

Cadence: Cadence gets matched to power/effort. For ultra events I tell all my clients to put cadence on their device screen in big, bold numbers. Once you’re going at the right power, match a cadence you previously tested in your gearing tests and stay there as best you can.

Breathing: This is the part of the equation most often neglected. As you climb and fall into your rhythm, make sure your breathing does the same. Take deep breaths to get the most oxygen possible and exhale deeply to empty your lungs. I recommend inhaling through the nose when possible and use this phrase to help my clients remember it: smell the roses, blow out the candle. A forceful nose inhale opens up the lungs and diaphragm, and a more explosive exhale through the mouth empties the lungs effectively. Thinking about your breathing in your training rides will help you develop a habit of deep breathing before you have to deep breathe to keep enough oxygen flowing in your system. This takes some mental focus, but it can really help.

Find Your Stance

Should you stand or sit more? I get this question a lot. Generally, the larger you are, the more you should sit and spin instead of stand; the more weight you need to support in standing, the higher the stress on the aerobic and cardiovascular systems. However, standing does not necessarily create a decrease in efficiency, just some different demands.

I believe it’s very important to stand sometimes, regardless of size, because it engages different muscles, changes some blood flow, and gives the sit bones a little break. I recommend my clients take a varied approach toward seating and standing, but I want it to be part of the climbing rhythm, so we develop a pattern of sitting and standing. For example, we might sit for two minutes, stand and climb for twenty to thirty seconds, then sit again for two minutes. Developing a practiced rhythm of sitting and standing helps you get the most from each.

One note: when standing, always shift into one harder gear (assuming the grade stays the same). The standing effort will always increase aerobic stress and heart rate, and you can justify the cost by using the weight to push a slightly bigger gear to get a tad more speed.

Find Your “I Won't Quit” Voice

At the end of the day, the battle of ultra climbing is won in the mind based on your ability to control (or at least ignore) that little voice in your head that eventually starts whispering, “This hurts, go slower, please stop, we are done, ouch…” All endurance athletes spend a lot of time hearing this voice, but the difference is whether or not you listen to it.

There’s a great video rolling around the Internet about a Navy study on this inner voice. According to the video, when the average person's mind says, “You’re done,” the body is actually only 40% done. I don’t usually quote Internet “studies” designed to be more motivational than scientific, but this message resonates with me. As a long-time coach, I’ve seen the mentally tougher athletes win out time and time again. I’ve also seen athletes decide to believe in themselves and, as a result, go way beyond what they thought they were capable of.

The negative whispers aren’t likely to stop. Ever. But you can fight them with a strong positive message. I tell my clients to find a message that inspires them and keep it in their mind. It can be a short mantra that represents your goal for the event, something that inspires you to overcome, or something that simply motivates you. Regardless what it is, use it every time your body says, “I’m ready to quit now.” Counter the inner negative voice with a positive message and a desire to achieve. And remember: you are only 40% done!


The ability to achieve ultra climbing challenges boils down to training and desire. A well-prepared athlete equipped with the right equipment, tools, and mindset can thrive and end up with a very rewarding experience.

By Tim Cusick 22 Sep, 2016
Fall is an especially wonderful time for cycling as we ride through its colorful foliage and under its clear blue skies. But along with the clear skies come chilly temperatures. After a summer of easy choices (a jersey and shirt), we’re back to the thirty-minute dilemma of what to wear on our long Saturday rides. It’s tough enough just to find those lost layers after months of neglect, not to mention making sure we own the right pieces for the different temperatures.

We all know that when we’re cycling (or doing hard exercise of any kind) in chilly weather, the first rule of thumb is to rule out any clothing made of cotton. Cotton retains moisture (perspiration) and can leave us feeling wet, clammy, and chilled. For comfort on the bike, choose moisture-wicking layers made of synthetics or merino wool. These fabrics dry much faster than cotton and help transport perspiration away from our skin.

I personally have over thirty years of high-mileage cycling experience, and you’d think dressing for a cycling outing would be easy for me by now, right? Not so much. Part of the problem is that I have too many choices (see below), and I’ve learned I can mix and match the pieces to fit all types of riding and all types of weather. I find it helps to take mental notes on each daily ride or even write down my clothing combos and the approximate temperatures so that I can plan for future rides.

Here are my favorite cool-weather clothing tips. Everyone has different comfort levels and certainly different warming needs, so these are my personal choices and merely guidelines.  
By Tim Cusick 18 Aug, 2016

We are always striving to reach higher levels of cycling performance than we’ve ever achieved before. And we all know this is easier said than done. How can we follow through on this goal? The key is to realize and accept that you’ll need to make some sacrifice and some change. If you're already training smart (or at least reasonably so), you’re ready for three areas of change that will help you smash your fitness and performance plateau.

Increase volume more than 20%

This is the hardest thing for most of us to accomplish because life tends to limit our time to train, but the investment will yield high returns. The key is to increase the volume by enough to really make a difference, and 20% is a great target. It sounds like a lot of time (and it is), but let’s break it down a little. A typical recreational rider, gran fondo participant, or category racer trains about 10-12 hours a week, which means that a 20% increase for these riders means training for roughly 12-14.5 hours a week. Most of us can actually find an extra 2-2.5 hours if we really want to.

It’s important to use the time well. I don’t recommend adding 15 minutes to every workout; to maximize your gains, add an hour to just two workouts each week.

Here are a few tips for making it count:

  • Ride to your group ride. I know, this means you might be a little more tired for the ride itself, but leaving the house early and riding down is a great way to pick up time, because most of us can get up a little earlier. If you don’t have the time to ride home afterward, make a deal with someone to drive you home. This is an easy way to add an hour of cycling time each week.
  • Pull a double. Pick one day a week to ride the trainer early in the morning for an hour, then complete your regular workout later in the day. This is another way to gain time simply by getting up a little earlier.

Increase time at threshold (or just below) by 25%

Threshold power is the single biggest contributor to cycling performance success. Don’t get me wrong; you still need to be able to power climb and surge and sprint to the finish, but building your threshold will give you the biggest possible bang for your buck. It’s also a great focus for the winter season.

Again, lets break down the numbers. Most analytical software programs can show “time in zone” analysis for power or heart rate. Take a look at your time in the zones. If you’re an average recreational cyclist, I bet it’ll be in the 10% range (if you group ride a lot, it may be a tad higher). Using the 10-12-hour total average, you’re probably working in your threshold zone about 1-1.5 hours a week. To increase that percentage by 25%, you’ll need to move your time in that zone up to 1.25-2 hours.

To get the best results, this extra time at threshold needs to be consecutive (accomplished as extended intervals). Here are some ways to get there:

  • Add more sweet spot training (SST) in December, January, and possibly February. Sweet spot means extended intervals ranging from 15-60 minutes of riding at about 90% of your threshold (88-93%, to be specific). SST gives us most of the benefits of pure threshold work with a lot less fatigue, so we can do more in a week or month. The classic target is 2 x 20-minute intervals, but you can expand that to be 3 x 15 minutes, 2 x 25 minutes, and 4 x 15 minutes (or 3 x 20 minutes). An hour of SST in a single workout is a good goal for most recreational cyclists, and you can complete up to four of this type of workouts each week.
  • Plan your progressive workouts. It surprises me how many people do not have a training plan. Ad hoc training is fine if you’re just getting in some exercise, but if you really want to improve your cycling performance, you’ll need to make your workouts progressively harder; this will keep your body overreaching and adapting. Plan your weekly SST load to give yourself a target.
  • Progress to threshold work. In your mid to late base phase, start building your time at true threshold (95-105% of your tested threshold). And then start the process over!

Take a look at the chart below as an example of increasing time in SST zones. This athlete made a significant increase, resulting in a 30-watt improvement in threshold from the same period the year before.

More Posts
Share by: