World-class climber vs flat time trial: Is Andrew Feather fast on the flat?

He knows how to fly up hills but can Andrew Feather’s climbing talent convert onto flat roads? Si Richardson decided to find out

Clock18:04, Friday 8th December 2023

Andrew Feather is a man who knows how to fly up hills at incomprehensibly fast speeds. One of the best amateur climbers in the world, his talent has propelled him to multiple British hill climb titles, as well as some other impressive accomplishments, and he even beat Sepp Kuss’ Alpe d’Huez time on Zwift.

We’ve experienced Feather’s climbing ability first-hand here at GCN, having put him to the test on numerous occasions over the last few years. From time handicaps to using a Brompton folding bike, no matter what we threw at him, Feather always emerged triumphant.

We were starting to think that Feather was a cycling immortal with no weaknesses, but Si Richardson had different ideas and decided to put Feather to the test in a different type of challenge: a flat time trial.

On paper, it should be his achilles heel but would it work out like that?

How do cyclists become specialists?

Beyond proving, or not, that Feather is indeed mortal, the test is an interesting case study into how and why cyclists become specialists in one particular discipline.

The men’s and women’s WorldTour pelotons are littered with riders who are capable of both climbing and producing a mean time trial, like Demi Vollering, Jonas Vingegaard, Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič. But there are even more riders who don’t possess the same multi-disciplinary ability, like the many pure climbers such as Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, Enric Mas and Mikel Landa.

In the mountains, these pure climbers are capable of producing an enviable amount of watts, but they struggle to convert that on to flat roads. 

Feather appears to fall into this pure climbing category, on paper at least. He is capable of averaging 400 watts uphill for an hour, a number that many WorldTour pros would struggle to match. However, he’s never reproduced those numbers on the flat - partly because he’s never tried to!

Why can’t some climbers replicate watts on the flat?

Si has a theory that Feather couldn’t replicate his climbing output on flat roads even if he tried, and it’s mostly due to ride position and pedal mechanics.

Like many other pure climbers, Feather spends most of his time riding out of the saddle. It’s the position that he’s most comfortable in and allows him to eke out every ounce of performance, something he simply couldn’t do in the saddle.

While riding out of the saddle may be effective on climbs, it’ll be detrimental on the flat where aerodynamics rule. A rider is the biggest cause of drag while riding and that drag profile increases significantly when positioned out of the saddle. That means that Feather would have to produce his peak watts in his less-favoured seated position, while also trying to maintain an aero stance.

Pedalling dynamics also come into play. The higher your velocity is on the bike, the shorter the power phase of your pedal stroke is. It’s different to climbing, where you can put power out for longer on each pedal stroke. That’s why power output on one terrain can’t necessarily be easily replicated on another without practice.

Then there is one final factor at play: motivation. Pushing yourself to the limit is much easier when you’re doing something that you enjoy. For Feather that is climbing, but the fact that he’s never tried an all-out time trial effort on the flat is indicative of the fact that he simply doesn't enjoy it, which will make it harder to reach those all-out effort levels.

The test

To find out how Feather would fare on the flat, we needed someone to compare him to. We were struggling for any pros so we had to settle for Si who, in normal circumstances, wouldn’t get anywhere near Feather on a climb. Si’s sustained power is significantly less than his rival's, as is his power-to-weight ratio, so the odds were stacked against him.

On paper, there appeared to be very little chance that Si could triumph, but if he did, it would highlight how important individuality and certain mechanics are to cycling performance.

Could he do it? Here are the times:

  • Andrew Feather: 12:28
  • Si Richardson: 12:06

Not only did Si beat Feather, he did it comfortably. Feather simply wasn’t able to replicate his power output on the flat, which dropped to only 371 watts for the effort. In comparison, he averaged 460 watts for a similar duration of time at the British Hill Climb Championships merely weeks before. While his off-season had started in the intervening period, his fitness hadn’t taken much of a hit, and he certainly hadn’t lost anywhere near 100 watts of ability.

As Si had hypothesised, that climbing ability simply didn’t translate to on-road performance.

“It’s just so different,” Feather reflected after the effort. “It feels so unnatural and my back, even though I was only doing a 12-minute effort, I could feel it hurting.

“I think I’ll stick to the hills!”

Like most things, this doesn’t mean that Feather couldn’t excel on the flat. With practice, he would definitely improve on that time, but even then there would be no guarantee that he could ever achieve the same power output as he can on climbs.

That’s due to individual traits and preferences, which may be too much to overcome and go a long way to explaining why riders become specialists in certain disciplines.

For more challenges and adventures, head over to the ‘Lifestyle’ section of the GCN website, linked here.

Related Content

Link to Can Amazon's cheapest e-bike match a super climber on a super bike?
YouTube video z6_AXYWbpHI

Can Amazon's cheapest e-bike match a super climber on a super bike?

Si Richardson climbs aboard his trusty Myatu e-bike to take on Strava KOM record holder Andrew Feather on a vicious UK climb

Clock
Link to GCN takes on the Zwift Academy: Andrew Feather and Cillian Kelly begin the six-week test
Cillian Kelly and Andrew Feather take on the Zwift Academy

GCN takes on the Zwift Academy: Andrew Feather and Cillian Kelly begin the six-week test

Andrew Feather is the British Hill Climb Champion but has never done a workout on Zwift. Cillian Kelly is our 'average man' but does have Zwift experience. Can either of them win the prestigious pro contract with Alpecin-Deceuninck?

Clock
Link to How slow is a pro with 25kg extra weight?
YouTube video X1a-HInjMRs

How slow is a pro with 25kg extra weight?

Conor Dunne straps a weighted vest to Chad Haga, then races him up a climb

Clock
Link to GCN relives the Zwift Academy Finals 2022
YouTube video 5mUYGCBMrwQ

GCN relives the Zwift Academy Finals 2022

10 riders go head-to-head to win a contract to ride in the pro peloton. Watch back-to-back episodes of the 2022 Zwift Academy Finals

Clock
Subscribe to the GCN Newsletter

Get the latest, most entertaining and best informed news, reviews, challenges, insights, analysis, competitions and offers - straight to your inbox