A lot of people get nervous when they’re looking forward to doing a hard, hilly race. Whether that’s a crit with steep punchy climb in it, like Cat’s Hill, or a hilly road race, I think a lot of people get too psyched up about the hill that they lose a little perspective on the course as a whole. Right now I don’t plan to get too in depth about it, but here’s a few thoughts on how to race the famous Mike’s Bikes Cat’s Hill Classic here in Northern California, and of course, much of this will also apply to other hilly races, short and long.
- Get a good warm up. Any race that starts off hard, like a crit, a time trial, or a road race with a hard climb at the start will require a good warm up beforehand. If you aren’t adequately warmed up, then things will be harder than they need to be when the race starts, to do yourself a favor and spend at least 20-30 minutes on the trainer or 30-40 minutes out on the road. If you aren’t warmed up, you’re not performing at your best, so that should be a part of your routine for any hard workout or race already. At Cat’s Hill, you need to be ready to sprint pretty hard less than 1 minute into the race, so just keep that in mind.
- Be ready for the hill. Know what gearing you want. Position yourself. A large part of how easy or difficult it is to maneuver your way around the course and up the hill has to do with your positioning going into the hill. I would try to move your way up so that you start the hill close enough to the front that you can respond to attacks if you need to and so that you can take it easier on the hill than the people around you and lose spots in the field but still have plenty of people around you to get a draft. If you start the hill near the front of the field, then you can give up a lot of spots and save a lot of energy but still be comfortably in the field getting a draft over the top of the course, but you will have saved a bunch of energy if you only do a 2/3 effort instead of an all-out sprint up the hill every lap. Also, on the topic of gearing, on any steep hill when you’re going hard, your front shifting won’t work well, so most people do well to set up in their small chainring a few moments before the turn into the hill. That way they’re already set when they lose all their speed up the steep grade and aren’t bogged down in a huge gear in their big chainring.
- Don’t get too excited and don’t panic. Many people get way too excited about the hill and sprint up it almost full-speed every lap. By the end of the race their back hurts and their legs feel like jelly, but every lap they still accelerate hard up the hill and immediately ease up over the top. Rather than doing that, just stay comfortably in the field or close enough to the front that you can reposition yourself over the top of the course. Save energy by being efficient. Feel free to give up a few spots when it doesn’t matter to the outcome of the race if you can easily regain them a few moments later at a lower energy cost… A mid-size male rider may do an 800 watt sprint for 20 seconds to get up it, but will then pedal at 300w over the top of the hill. They could just as well do a 600w sprint to get up the hill just a few seconds slower but then have way more in the tank to do 300w if they can or 400w over the top of the climb to respond to an attack or make an attack. All too often, because everyone else is going hard and because people are afraid of losing their position, they use up too much energy on the hardest part of the course when it actually only matters a little. So, don’t get dropped, but don’t be afraid to lose 5 or even 10 spots in the field. You can regain them later.
- Look for room to attack over the top when many people aren’t usually going as hard. Again, most people go crazy on the climb, but then they slow down across the top of the course. This is where you can potentially pick up a lot of speed and distance yourself from the field going into the downhill. Personally, that’s my favorite place to attack on that course, and most courses, right at the top or right after the top of “the climb” where everyone went hard. When people go hard and then ease up to recover, a lot of the time they’re not looking to attack and don’t think you will. This is where I’ve attacked several times to get away for short-lived breakaways on that course. And, the year that I won the race, I did it by attacking my 2 breakaway companions over the top of the course. I got a gap and it couldn’t be closed on the downhill and finishing straight away.
- Be safe. The roads aren’t great. Sometimes people drop their chain on the climb. There’s always things that can go wrong, so as with any crit, learn the course when you pre-ride it or during the first few laps so that you know where the good lines are, where the fast and safe lines are, as well as where the trouble areas are to avoid hard edges, rough pavement, etc.