How gravel riding made me a better climber

I just finished up racing at SA Marathon Champs in Paarl, WC, South Africa this past weekend. To those who were there, well done on surviving "The Wall" ☠️!


Different to most marathon races I've competed in in the past, Paarl is home to some big climbs. Not just long, but steep enough to force that chest as close to the handlebar as possible to get up!


I arrived a couple of days early to check out parts of the course that I was admittedly afraid of. Over 2000m of climbing in 85km is one thing, but 25% gradients are pushing it into a more explosive Cross Country (XC) style of riding. My approach to this race changed quickly as I saw 3 major components show up:


#1: Steep Climbs in the form of single track = short bursts of power within lengthy climbs. High cadence saves the legs in the long run!


#2: Cornering ability (up and downhill) was a priority here. Get it right and you can make up minutes on the course while others break and burn matches.


#3: Find your rhythm and stick to it. Once you have your marathon power and cadence established, commit to it and generate consistency throughout the race. (I actually do this through my RPE rating. Discovered up the first climb of course 😉).


Some days you just wake up and feel good. I was grateful to have legs that were keen to climb. Those who know me, know that the only reason I go uphill is to come down it....fast. I was ready for "battle", whatever position that may be.


We started at as the sun came up. I had warmed up on the rollers to get my mindset into Cross Country mode. We had a climb within the first 10km that required a couple matches to be voluntarily burnt. A 15min climb known as "The Wall" will forever be remembered by my legs and lungs! The attacks came to position ourselves before the single track, and then it was all guns blazing. It's interesting to watch how athletes behave under pressure. Mistakes are easily made if you panic and I promise you right now, if you laugh in the face of fear as it hits you you will come out stronger on the other end. Mentally you can go one of 2 ways. Pick the one that propels you forward and keeps those legs turning!


There was a flood of rush and chaos at the top of "The Wall" as everyone tried to scramble into each others wheels. I was off the back, sitting in 5th and needed to drop the heals and just #SendItSarah.


The single track section up unti the 30km mark played tricks on us. You could see who you were chasing switchbacking their way but you never knew how far away you were. I dropped my post, swept through the corners and just focused on recovering.


The next section required the gravel engine to be switched on. The beauty of racing so many disciplines allows me to understand the kind of pedal stroke needed to compliment segments of the course. Now, I've never been much of a time trialer, but today I surprised myself. I started with focusing on the 4 quadrants of the pedal stroke. If you get this right you're using all the right muscles to start with. Then, using the effort and rhythm generated from "The Wall", I go with a the same RPE (9/10).


Gravel riding taught me how to pedal properly. With open dirt roads you need to "sit-in" and tolerate the thrilling pain of ticking one corner off at a time. The climbing was tough and somewhat felt neverending, but I was chuffed at my legs for managing this kind of effort for so long. It takes practice, and every year I can feel that 1% improvement.


Once over the mountains we dropped into some unforgiving single-track. You'd think my body would happily invite some punchy downhill shredding, but by this point in the race I was a bit broken! I switched my mind into recovery mode down the single-track, because let's be honest. Smooth IS FAST.


Grateful for the waterstation the rest of the race was a mash up of punchy single track climbs and gravel-watt dirt roads. My sense of humour was tested when I felt my legs threaten to cramp 10km from the finish, and then kickstarted when I realized I was catching people left and right who were in the same boat 😂.


Contrary to the Cullinan2Tonteldoos event where I cramped badly and needed to stop due to improper nutrition. This time my nutrition was perfect. It was conditioning the body to steep climbs that I lacked.


As we move forward, I'll be adding more focus to specific course terrain conditioning. It can only help boost the preparation physically and mentally!


Proud to have given it my all at the South African Marathon Champs. 4th place in the end with another awesome experience in my back pocket! I feel ironically more prepared for the explosive XCO races coming up with all the steep climbing practice, and even more motivated for the mega US gravel season coming up!


Watch this space 🌟 #LivCOMMITTED


Sarah Hill

BSc Exercise Science - Sports Nutrition

BA - Sports Psychology

Sarah currently races for an international UCI accredited team called Liv Factory Racing, and enjoys cross country, marathon, gravel and stage racing all around the world. Her most remarkable achievements of 2019 inlcude her wins at Trans Baviaans, as well as the African Leaders Jersey at the ABSA Cape Epic, Joberg2C, and Cape Pioneer as well as placing 26th at World Marathon Champs hosted in Grachen, Switzerland. Despite the 2020 season being put on hold due to the Covid-19 Pandemic, Sarah is looking forward to racing a full international season starting with the XCO World Cup Series in Albstadt, Germany. Get in touch for personalized coaching and follow her season on Instagram @sarahhillrsa.




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