Hanging tough in the high passes: How the Giro d’Italia peloton handles the hurt zone

The best climbers in the world tell VeloNews their mind games and methods for getting through the toughest mountain stages at the Giro d'Italia.

Photo: Getty Images

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

MADONNA DI CAMPIGLIO, Italy (VN) – A pro cyclist’s success is defined as much by their capacity for suffering as the strength of their legs.

With the Giro d’Italia peloton completing the first of the week’s three extra-tough high mountain stages Wednesday there’s a whole lot of suffering to be had in Italy in the next few days. And with that, the peloton is bringing out all its coping strategies and pacing techniques for handling the hurt zone of the high mountains.

For some, it’s a rational, logical process. For some, it’s all in the mind games.

“The only thing I can really think about is if my lungs aren’t struggling, then actually physically I’m okay,” Ben O’Connor, winner of the mountain marathon of stage 17, told VeloNews earlier this week. “At that point, I know I haven’t reached my aerobic capability, so it’s just pain. So if I just believe that, there’s actually more to give … It sounds stupid, but it works for me.”

Adam Hansen, a veteran of 29 grand tours and survivor of more mountains than some have had hot dinners, adopts a characteristically methodical, calculating approach. As one of the relative heavyweights on the peloton, the big Aussie leadout man is often one of the first to be dropped on the climbs as he hauls his 75kg frame over the cols.

“I make sure to stay with the main sprinters,” Hansen explained. “You see [Arnaud] Démare, his team’s really built around him and they’re gonna bring it back.”

“So let’s say there’s a super high mountain stage and you’re afraid to make the time limit – if you stay with Démare and you know there’s six guys with him, his team will bring him back, and you get a huge advantage both in the valleys and on the climbs. And that just gives you a bit more comfort.”

For adventurer and ultra-endurance rider Lachlan Morton, it’s simple.

“Like anything that’s difficult, just break it into little small sections,” Morton said ahead of the race’s first multi-mountain stage Wednesday. The EF Pro Cycling “alternative calendar” specialist points at the elevation profile taped onto his stem.

“You just gotta survive until you’re in the break or the breakaway goes … then you’ve got the feed zone down here [points] where you’re more or less halfway. Then once you get this second cat 1 done, then you can think of the finish. It’s not rocket science, but if you think of the whole thing at once it’s overwhelming.”

For some, it’s just a matter of self-belief and the ability to hurt more than the rest.

“Sometimes I just look at my powermeter and hope the others can’t hold such a high pace,” said Larry Warbasse. “Sometimes you just gotta talk yourself through it, manage yourself through the steep bits, and hope it will cool down afterward.”

“I’ve been in the box a lot this race,” said O’Connor. “Believing that if my lungs are good then the legs are good is pretty much the only thing that got me through some of the climbs so far. I just don’t let myself think about anything else.

“Without that tactic, for sure, I would have just stopped straight away at times because it was so painful.”

O’Connor sure didn’t stop Wednesday, taking his first grand tour stage victory on the high mountain haul through the Alps. So maybe climbing is just a case of mind over matter.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.