The 2018 edition of the DRCC Cameron Highlands King of Mountain Challenge was the first event I prepared seriously for. As a sub-50 kilogram rider, I thought I could benchmark myself with other riders in the terrain that suits myself the best.
Unfortunately, I did not have much luck in the actual event day itself with a puncture 5 kilometres into the race, which almost put me close to the last place, and catching my teammate who has also gotten a puncture at 30 kilometres. I am still proud to have finished 150th place amongst the 700-odd participants.
Not a very impressive result in the bigger picture but given the circumstances, this event has taught me that we have to be mentally and physically prepared for the worst case scenario.
Despite my supposed climber weight, I still needed to make the necessary preparations to handle the mountain that is Cameron Highlands. These involved cycling trips to Cameron itself, hill repeats in Singapore, trainer sessions and a strong focus on bike fit, posture and gear selection.
1. Preparation for climbing a Mountain
a) Trips to Race Venue
One of the best ways to prepare for such an event is actually to climb the mountain itself. Going for a cycling trip up Cameron Highlands allows you to understand how it feels like to be in a constant gradient. You’ll experience the steady decrease in temperature as you get closer to the summit and maybe even notice the slightly lesser concentration of oxygen in the air.
Doing a recce or training ride up the same event route allows you to benchmark your current fitness and spot any issues with your fit or as a way to find your weaknesses. For myself, I noticed I lacked muscular endurance, and I wasn’t able to reach the power values I was doing for 3/4 of the ride. This was a critical weakness as your legs will constantly be under load while climbing, and I had to address it immediately.
b) Trainer sessions with fork elevated
To address the weakness that I’ve found, I decided to do my indoor trainer sessions with the fork elevated. This teaches my body to get used to being at a gradient while pedalling. Extended threshold and over-under workouts are done in this posture as you’ll effectively be pedalling close to your threshold while going up the mountain.
It is painful, and it feels like you’ve fallen into a time-warp where the 12-minute threshold block never seems to end, but you’re mentally and physically preparing yourself to the challenges presented by the actual mountain itself.
c) Hill Repeats
In the rather flat terrain found in Singapore, we are often limited to hills that last a maximum of 3-5 minutes long. However, these short hills can be capitalised through doing high-intensity hill repeats. Places like Pepy’s Road, Telok Blangah Park or Rifle Range Road can be looped in close to maximum sustainable efforts each time, using the downhills as your rest interval.
My power target for each ascend is 110-120% of my FTP, which also falls into my VO2Max zone. You’d probably be close to your maximum Heart Rate during the last metres of the hill and gasping for air like a fish out of water.
These efforts will let you understand how it feels to be close to what it seems like your maximum and you have to find the motivation within to pull yourself through. It may be tough at times with your mind messing with you but hang in there! Look forward to the descend for another loop.
I’d set out on the weekend with a target of visiting 3 to 4 hills with multiple non-stop loops each. A favourite of mine is to make 5 loops of South Buona Vista, 6 loops of Peppy’s Road and 5 loops of Mount Faber. Another one is to make a continuous 7 to 10 loops of Rifle Range Road. The idea here is to climb without dismounting after each ascent continuously.
2. Studying the Route
Studying the route involves stalking another person’s Strava activity or looking through Strava segments to have a rough gauge of the gradients and downhills you’d face. Do take note of the distance, gradient and common rider timings for extended steep sections.
You will want to teach yourself how to handle these steep segments and by taking note of the above three things, you could implement it into your trainer sessions. Studying the route can also help you to understand the pacing you will need to do and not mindlessly blast yourself in the opening kilometres of the climb.
At the foot of the mountain, the first obstacle you will face is a 3 kilometres climb that goes 7-8%. I completed this segment in 11 minutes, and it was a really tough one. By understanding this first steep section, I worked on 8 and 12-minute threshold blocks on the trainer so that I am ready for this intensity. On the actual day, it was horrible with my heart rate averaging 198 for 11 minutes holding my threshold power from the foot to the crest of the climb.
Throughout the climb, there are short sections of downhills that you can use to catch your breath. It is also good to take note of this as you can afford to do a higher effort for certain gradients with the assurance that you’d get a short rest period after.
It is also important to take note of flat sections too. About 50 kilometres into the route, there is one segment where it is a flat and open road. Positioning is crucial here as going into this section alone will be much slower as compared to working together with other riders.
Here’s a screenshot of my heart rate data for the whole event. As you can see, despite the downhills spread across the route, I was definitely being loaded at close to my maximum for the whole ride.
3. Bike weight is not the end-all
Bike weight is one of the most straightforward numbers to understand. The lighter your bike is, the faster it goes when the road points upwards. Also, we, as cyclists, love to obsess over it and splurge our hard earned money to have the lightest bling possible.
We tend to focus on this detail too much but what is ultimately the most important is the rider’s ability to sustain a high power to weight ratio for an extended amount of time. It is costly to shave off the last few 500 grams off your already high-end bike, and that money could be invested into training, be it a power meter, indoor trainer or a month membership with a spin class.
Think of it as an investment for your fitness that will carry over to your future rides and events. You’d come out stronger by working hard to handle the continuous and unforgiving gradients.
On the event day, carry your spares. Be it on the saddlebag or in your pockets. I prefer my pockets to be full of food and have a saddlebag dedicated to carrying spares. Tell yourself honestly, would you want to shave off 100-200 grams by removing your saddle bag at the risk of not finishing the event due to a puncture?
Yes, your bike will look good and be lighter. It will also look really good as you stand clueless on the side of the road, hoping that a good Samaritan will offer you his spare tube and pump. Maybe slightly easier to carry your bike up the sweeper vehicle too.
4. Posture & Core Strength
As your body will constantly be at an angle and your centre of gravity shifts backwards, your lower back will be under more strain. My first ride in Cameron Highlands in early 2018 was presented with a rather mild aching lower back where the only relief was to dismount, ride out of the saddle or to stand up on every downhill.
It is of utmost importance that you work on your core strength and also ensure that your position on your bike is sustainable and not overly low and stretched out.
For most of the event, I was sitting upright with my hands on the tops. With my shoulders and elbows relaxed, I focused on spinning my legs without having excessive hip movement. This involved the use of my core.
This posture was mostly done in segments where it is 5-8%, and I was able to get a sustainable power value this way. On segments where it is 2-3%, I’ll switch my posture to the hoods as speed and gear changes are more frequent.
Compared to staying in the draft on flat or rolling terrain, a climb will load your legs regardless whether you’re tailing behind a rider and you definitely can’t coast to rest. This is where your cassette and chainring selection is essential. I rode up on a 50/34 compact and 11-28 cassette.
It was sufficient for me, and I did not run out of gears. My understanding of gearing is to have the easiest cog to be your ‘resting gear’. It should be one where you could spin your legs comfortably and flush out some lactate from your legs.
If you’re always finding yourself grinding out of the saddle with the easiest gear, you may want to consider a cassette change, chainring change or more training to address this issue.
Avoid pedalling at a too low of a cadence (e.g. 50-70rpm). Low cadence drills are usually recommended to train for climbs and are typically done in 1 to 4 minute sets. Think of it as lifting weights on the bike. This is done to build up strength and not because you should pedal at such cadences.
You wouldn’t want to turn the whole 2 to 3 hours climb into a low cadence drill. What I noticed during my few trips to Cameron was that pedalling at 95 to 100 rpm yielded a higher amount of power for a longer time compared to 85 to 90 rpm.
My legs felt strong while pedalling at a heavier gear at 85 to 90 rpm but the actual power values I was getting was 10 to 20 watts lower than at higher cadences. This is very dependent on the rider style, so it is best that you experiment (preferably with power) during your climbing training.
Climbing a mountain is one of the things that makes cycling a beautiful thing. It is tough, and it will challenge you mentally and physically. However, you’ll be rewarded with views, photo opportunities and maybe a nice cup of strawberry coffee and strawberry ice cream waffles at the end of the ride.
It is best that we do not obsess over the lightness of our equipment but to look into what can make us more efficient as a rider to reach the summit.
If you have a trip to a climbing event similar to the Cameron KOM challenge, work on your training and equipment preparation to not let your trip be a wasted one by getting picked up by the support or sweeper vehicle.
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