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Power up? Tackling climbs using a power meter

Shimano rider and Epic Cols founder Daniel Hughes finds his staying power on the Zoncolan

Is power the one true way to measure your effort? That is a big statement, and of course, there are other ways. But, personally speaking, this is my preferred way to do it.

Power, at least in physics terms, is the amount of energy that you can put out. In cycling that’s the torque and velocity of the cranks. It’s measured in watts or, if you’re generating more than 745.7 of them you can use horsepower. Perhaps that’s the holy grail but alas, those sort of numbers are out of reach for anything more than a short sprint. So we’ll stick with Watts, which is the reading I’m taking from my Dura-Ace FC-R9100-P power meter.

Dura-Ace R9100-P

Dual Sided Power meter

The choice of the world's best climbers, sprinters, and time trialists, the DURA-ACE R9100 crank drops weigh while maximizing power transfer. The new design, and its iconic look, is adapted for race specific disc brake systems while still offering a wide range of gearing and crank arm length options. The addition of a reliable, accurate, waterproof power meter makes this crank an even more valuable tool to serious cyclists. With a rechargeable Li-ion battery, left/right balance, and Bluetooth LE and ANT+ connectivity, the SHIMANO DURA-ACE Power Meter sets a new standard in cycling data collection.

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My head unit and independent strain gauges on each crank arm tell me the amount of work that each of my legs is doing. So far so good. I’ve had an easy warm-up spin out from Sutrio, a small village nestled in the north-east corner of Italy, to the base of Zoncolan, an infamous climb used several times in the Giro d'Italia.

My power was hovering somewhere around 200w during that warm-up. However it won’t be there for long. Zoncolan covers 1183m of vertical climbing in 13.2 km with an average gradient of 9.8%, rising to a maximum of 17%. Even in my lowest 39T-32T gear ratio I’m going to be pushing hard.

Most people don’t regularly get the chance to ride climbs like this – if you do live on the side of a mountain then you have my pity! – and there’s always a temptation to go for broke when the climbing starts. But with 13 km of constantly ascending road, it’s easy to blow up. That’s where a power meter helps.

At the foot of the climb I upped the pace to my sweet spot power with the aim to hold it there until the top. That’s at approximately 88-91% of the average power I can maintain in a 1h time trial, it’s somewhere between Tempo and Threshold.

Before setting out I put myself through a Functional Threshold Power (FTP) test. This was to measure the best average power I could sustain for 1 hour. It hurt but it was essential to find my best average power output for an hour, which gave me a good idea of what work rate it was sensible to maintain.

In the past I had the luxury of a cycling coach, nutritionist, and more, all to prepare the way I trained and fuelled for optimum performance. But in those days I didn’t use power. I was either going for long unstructured rides, or murdering myself for as long as possible, and nothing in-between. I could hit big maximum power numbers and I could also ride for hours, but keeping high average speed for long periods was difficult. Then I discovered the benefit of using a power meter and riding for periods at my sweet spot. It was a game-changer. It definitely feels like you’re working but you’re not going into the red or going above your FTP.

Anyway, the zone 1-2 warm up is well and truly over. I'm climbing away from Sutrio with glorious views to my right, and the gradient is increasing. From this direction it's already feeling steep and hard. There are 8 switchbacks in quick succession before the gradient decreases. My legs are telling me that they aren’t happy, but I glance down and see that I’ve pushed into my threshold level already. I ease off a touch and try to maintain a steady power level in those initial steep metres. 

I’m into the trees now and my plan is working both in terms of my power output and my timing. It’s been a calculated attempt on two fronts. I knew the road was being cleared of winter snow and I’m pretty certain I’m the first this year to ride it. However it goes, that’s sure to give me some Strava bragging rights.

The air is crisp, and I'm enjoying the effects it's having on my core temperature. I’m sweating a little in shorts and long sleeves, surrounded by walls of ice. It’s 4km to the summit now. The power meter is both my friend and my enemy; it doesn't get excited or bored,it doesn’t accept any fatigue, it keeps me to my chosen work rate and assumes my legs are performing as expected. I’d better not tell it about the glass of wine with dinner last night…

The ascent is really beginning to burn now. I ride up some super steep switchbacks and make meandering lines on the fresh road until the summit comes into view again. I want to push on and increase the effort but I'm still 2km away, and there are gradients of 17% ahead of me. It’s getting harder and harder to remain constant though as I’m in and out of the saddle which makes my power jump.

Zoncolan’s ski resort comes into view. It’s a breather of sorts, not in work rate but more because the gradient has backed off, and I can go faster. I can also maintain a more natural cadence (the speed at which the cranks go round) of 90-100 RPM. In the spring sunshine this is almost feeling like fun.

Just when the devil starts to whisper in my ear about easing off I come around a corner to see the road conditions deteriorating. Ice and snow lay across the road. That’s never a good thing to see on 28 mm tyres. For the last few hundred meters, I proceeded with caution, reaching the monument, which is half-buried in snow.

It’s been super fun to ride this iconic climb for the first time and in such magical conditions. My effort plan worked – I didn’t crack despite not knowing the severity of the climb – although the powers that be meant my lung-bursting effort to the summit would have to be saved for the descent instead. What goes up…

Daniel will be tackling more climbs with Shimano this summer. Keep up to date with his adventures at https://www.instagram.com/danielhughesuk/