PBP Training: Hill Intervals

Whether you are training for Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP), a century ride or racing, speed is an essential part of a successful event. Simply put, the faster you are able to ride, the more enjoyable (and less stressful) your ride will be. You’ll be able to work with pacelines, rather than just hang on. You’ll be able to take leisurely stops, rather than worry about running out of time. And hills will provide a welcome challenge rather than a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.

Fortunately, it’s easy and fun to get faster. There is little mystery about how to acquire speed. The key concept is “overload and recovery/adaptation”. That means that you push your body beyond its comfortable maximum. Your body then adapts to this unfamiliar demand by becoming stronger. You need to give your body time to adapt by resting.

The overload part of the training is best done through structured intervals. During normal riding, even if you try hard, it’s difficult to achieve the “overload” that generates the maximum effect. Intervals allow you to ride as hard as you can, and then rest.

I find that a little friendly competition gives me the incentive to work harder than I usually would, so I often do the intervals with a friend or two. Plus, the rest periods between the intervals are a great time to talk, once we have recovered our breath.

Since climbing is the place where speed provides the greatest benefit, we pick a hill that is a little less than half a mile long. Our favorite is Alder Street in Seattle, because it undulates and curves, making it more interesting than a unrelenting, straight slog uphill. This street also offers great views, and a tree canopy offers shade on hot summer days.

To accommodate differences in our speed and daily form, we use a handicap for the climb. One of us starts a bit ahead (above), and then we race each other to the top. The slower rider tries to stay ahead, while the faster rider slowly catches up.

Ideally, we get to the top in a lung-busting sprint with less than a bike-length separating us.

During the climb, our legs should feel warm, maybe even with a slight burning sensation. On top, we should be so out of breath that we can hardly talk. It’s truly a maximum effort.

If we did a good job and achieved our absolute maximum, we take a little detour on the way down to get some extra rest (and work on our descending skills). If we misjudged the handicap, then either the “chaser” didn’t catch the leader, or passed too early. As we descend the hill, we adjust the handicap for the next run.

The handicap really makes it fun, because the rider who is most exceeding expectations gets to the top first, rather than the fastest rider. I think handicaps would be a great way to make competition interesting for riders of all abilities.

After four or five intervals, we spin along Lake Washington for half an hour before we do the same thing over. Then it’s time to go home – usually rather slowly, because we are tired. The whole training session takes less than two hours.

The recovery part of the “rest and recovery” equation is easy: No training the next day. We may run errands on the bike, or just stay in the office and get some work done!

The effects of the interval training are almost immediate and profound. Two or three interval sessions make a huge difference during the next big ride, whether it’s climbing a mountain or riding into a sustained headwind. Just make sure to rest enough to allow your body to adapt to the new demands you are placing on it.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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20 Responses to PBP Training: Hill Intervals

  1. Alistair says:

    Jan, I’ve never ridden up Alder, looks like a good one though. I’ll be checking it out shortly, thanks for the tip.

  2. Chris Lowe says:

    I’m surprised you didn’t list Golden Gardens as your favorite interva climb.

  3. Andy says:

    I think I’m allergic to the terms training and exercise, especially when it means riding in the same places in repetition. In the spring when I’m looking to start pushing my efforts, I search out moderate length but tough hilly rides that explore new places instead of just looping up the same hills. There’s so many state forests around here with nice dirt roads (and some not as nice too), so I just made squiggly routes through those to explore. After riding >10k miles in the same area, I’ll take any chance to find new roads to ride on.

    • Intervals are about exploring yourself. Every ride up the hill is different, just like the landscape changes when you ride the same loop week after week and notice how the trees bud and the flowers start to bloom. Riding in new places is exciting, but I also enjoy riding in familiar places, where I notice small details that are hidden during first encounters.

  4. Marcello Napolitano says:

    How steep is the climb on your hill intervals? I am adding more hill training to my mix, and I am still not sure if I should do more training on relatively steep climbs (8-15+%, easy to find around here) or more moderate climbs (2-4%). Ideally I would have time to do a bit of both, but since I am training for PBP this year, I am not sure that training for steep climbs is going to do me as much good. But either way, some interval hill training is much better than none. Thanks for posting this.

    • Alder is probably about 8-10%. I like hills that are steeper than what we usually find on rides (and in PBP), so that the hills during the event seem easy. Much steeper than 12% just gets too hard. My bike isn’t geared for that, and there is little training (or fun) in grinding gears that are too big for the terrain.

  5. Wayne J says:

    I’m a first-time PBP qualifier looking to tune up during the next couple of months.

    I’ve got a decent choice of hills close by. The longest/hardest are probably a bit over 1K distance and a bit under 200 meteres vertical rise. There are lots of shorter and/or less steep hills too. If I wanted ideal hills for PBP training, what distances and grades should I try to find? Maybe asking the same thing another way, how many minutes should it take to ride an ideal interval?

    (I ought to use scare quotes on “ideal.” I know that’s going to vary from person to person. Just trying to get a sense of it.)

    • There is a lot of literature on this, and I am no expert. It appears that for starters, an effort of a minute or so is good. Our hill takes about 4 minutes, but we go super-hard only toward the top, when we catch each other. It’s not like we hang about during the early stages, but an all-out effort cannot be maintained for more than 45 seconds or so. Basically, you don’t want to go at a pace you can maintain, but much, much faster.

  6. Melinda says:

    I like this idea a lot! I’d read before about intervals and hill repeats, but doing them with a friend sounds like a way to take a boring or tedious exercise and make it fun.

    If some kind of exercise is less fun than plain old riding my bike around, I find that it doesn’t happen. See also: “why I don’t have a gym membership”.

  7. Bottle says:

    What can one do in the place where is too flat to find any long enough hills to climb for speed training? Use big gears to sprint?

    • rob says:

      hitch up a trailer and add toddlers. works great for me :-)

      • We had our daughter a few months before the 2003 PBP. To train, I took our son (2.5 years) in the trailer. He napped while I did hill intervals (on a steadier grade with the trailer), then we picked up my mail, went to the playground, got groceries and went home. Mom had an afternoon with the baby, our son got his nap, I did my hills, we had a good afternoon together and even got groceries.

  8. Narayan says:

    Jan, how long do you warm up before you start your intervals? Thanks.

    • It takes about 40 minutes to get from my house to Alder… If I do intervals closer to home, I ride up and down the hill a few times at a moderate pace first.

      • 40 minutes is about how long it takes me to ride from my house to Lexington, MA, where I’ve been practicing hills. I find that I really need the warm up; I always start out feeling sluggish when I cycle, then get more energetic as the ride goes on. Sadly, my riding partners tend to be the opposite!

  9. This is an outstanding specific suggestion for incorporating real speed work into one’s cycling life. If I were to I guess, I’d say that 95% of the endurance cyclists I know (and I know lots of them) do nothing remotely like this. Most think that just going on a “club ride” is “enough” speedwork. But as you say, it takes much more structure, and repetitions, to get the effect you’re after, and achieving.

    When I raced solo RAAM, I rarely even rode 300 miles a week in training, because I was doing so much intensity and quality riding, as well as what I called “on the bike cross-training,” while my competitors were just putting in “piles of miles.” As a result, I rode faster and slept double or triple what the others slept on RAAM, and it was also the most fun race of my entire life – in part because the speed I had on tap made the race itself almost a breeze, plus a lot of fun when I wanted to heat things up with my competitors.

    Good stuff, Jan. Thanks again!

  10. Tim Quijano says:

    Congratulations on the New York Times mention! Hope this year’s ride is a good one!

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/05/nyregion/for-randonneurs-the-road-goes-on-for-miles.html

  11. Ian Kizu-Blair says:

    Thank you for sharing your training advice – it’s my favorite element of this blog. Having started randonneuring only last year, I appreciate the focused suggestions for building speed. I’ve been doing long training rides, and long climbs like Mt. Tam, but never sprints up shorter climbs. Inspired by this blog post, I went out yesterday and did hill intervals in the Presidio, and am excited to continue trying out the training method (as soon as I find a friend to challenge). Having more speed would be helpful for me for the upcoming Old Cazadero 300k, which has a challenging hilly course. Thanks!

  12. djconnel says:

    Great article, as always! And I loved hearing from Chris Kostman….

    GPS data on Alder: http://app.strava.com/segments/619307

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