How to Climb A Hill On A Bike FAST

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by Rebecca

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Do you struggle up hills and always want to avoid them?  Hills are a natural part of cycling and are what makes our sport fun and interesting.  Don’t fear hills; embrace them and take your hill climbing to the next level.

When I mean ‘hills’, I mean hills that are long enough you can’t simply sprint up them in one big gear!  The hills I talk about here take roughly 5 to 10 minutes to ascend.  These are your typical ‘long’ hills.

You see, climbing a hill on a bike is always going to be tough on the legs no matter your cycling level.  The difference between the good climbers and not so good generally boils down to a combination of cycling hill technique, rider weight (power to weight) and general level of cycling fitness.

The latter two you can manipulate yourself through training and diet, but the former – “cycling technique” has to be learned.  Climbing a hill is therefore a learned skill. So for example, if you had an excellent power to weight ratio, did good training, but never got your hill technique sorted, you’d be a long way off riding that hill to your full potential.

Technique is vital:

There’s three areas that make up good hill cycling technique:

1. The cadence you choose (how many pedal revolutions you turnover per minute, rpm).

2. The gears you choose.

3. The position either seated or standing you choose.

When applied optimally, these are what forms your ‘most efficient’ speed (or power ouput) up any given slope.

In other words, when you climb a hill, you’re looking for an optimum between gears you use, your cadence and whether you’re faster out the saddle or seated.

Let’s take a brief look at how these three areas can be a applied to a hill with a consistent gradient.  I always break down a hill into three main sections:  the beginning, the middle and the summit section.Each section requires a slightly different climbing technique:

The beginning section:

1. Gearing:

When approaching a hill make sure you’re in a lower gear than you think you need.   This ensures as far as you can that you don’t have to shift down to a lower gear whilst riding up a hill.  When you shift down you nearly always lose speed.  Your goal is always to maintain your speed relative to the slope up the climb.

You’ll be surprised how slow you need to go at the foot of the climb to get a personal best up it!

2. Cadence:

This is your pedal frequency (revs per minute, or rpm).  You’ll find your cadence drops as you ride up hill from the flat.  If you are in a low enough gear you should find your cadence fairly high (i.e spinning) before settling into a slightly lower cadence as you settle into a good rhythm and move into the middle part of the climb.

3. Position:

Remain seated on a climb if you’re new to cycling up hills.  It’s best to always get the seated position sorted and used to before learning the standing technique.  Most cyclists will remain in the seated position for the first part of the climb to keep conservative.  Getting out the saddle always uses more energy. Your goal with all your cycling is be as conservative as you can, so remain seated here, get into a good rhythm and enjoy the challenge ahead!

The middle section:

1. Gearing:

Once you’re moving into the middle section of the climb, you have two choices: either step up to a higher gear, or remain in the gear you are in. You really want to be in ‘maximum cruise mode’ on this section. This is where your ‘anaerobic threshold’ training comes in.  You want to be able to cruise fast up this section, but not so fast you ‘blow up’ – i.e: go into the red and ‘die a million deaths’.  Practice here will improve your pace judgement at threshold pace, as will knowing the climb well.

2. Cadence:

Moving from beginning section to mid section, your cadence will drop somewhat from the beginning section. That’s fine because you’ve taken that into account with using a lower gear.  You now want to hold onto this cadence and not let it drop any further.  If this is done correctly, you’ll immediately feel ‘on top of the gear’ which means ‘in control’ of your gear versus enough cadence.  It ‘feels’ damn hard, but it feels RIGHT and you’ve settled into the ‘sweet spot’ of the climb, so to speak.

3. Position:

This now depends on the slope and how strong you feel.  You can alternate between seated and standing to rest alternate muscles, although again this is really reserved for advanced cyclists.  If you’re new, just continue riding up in the seated position and focus on finding that ‘sweet spot’.

You want to adopt an upright position so you can get enough oxygen into your lungs.  Don’t hunch up or put your face near the handlebars when it gets hard!  You should breathe from your abdomen and keep as relaxed as possible at all times.

The summit section:

This is where you can ‘make or break’ a climb especially against other riders!  Really, this is where most cyclists suffer the most because they’ve gone too hard at the beginning, or even in the middle part of the climb. They ‘suffer’ because YOU go past them!  You now have the advantage of stealing the show from them and teasing them that you’re super fit,when actually you’re just boxing clever… :-) Ok, that’s the racer in me…I’m getting carried away.

Your goal all along has been to be at your fastest nearing the summit of the climb.  If you’ve paced it right you’ll be passing many cyclists about now.  Or, if you’re not racing, then you should feel it’s time to get out the saddle and give it your all as you climb to the summit!

1. Gearing:

Again, you could increase to a higher gear and start to accelerate as you see the summit of the climb.  It depends again on your fitness level and experience, but if you know the climb well and you’ve got enough in reserve, then now’s the time change up to a higher gear or two, and push faster up to the summit.

2. Cadence:

You maintain your cadence even if you change to a higher gear as you approach the summit.  Over the top of the summit you start to push harder to increase your speed, so your cadence should be increasing.  As you go over the summit and start the descent this is when you are at your fastest and really cadence should be high, although by this time you may want also want to change to big chain ring, or simply recover!

Hard?  You bet – summit accelerating is the hardest part of climbing, but then you’re executing what most aren’t willing to do – set out at the foot of the climb slower than you think you should do – so that you have enough in reserve to storm passed everyone in the latter part of the climb.

3. Position:

You can either get out the saddle to accelerate or remain seated.  Most racers once fit, will get out the saddle to accelerate.

Easier said than done:

In reality, hills have varying slopes and the challenge is always to try and find ‘your optimum efficiency’ on each one.  You’ll find that as soon as your cadence drops too far, so your speed decreases – it’s a fine balance that comes with much practice.

One other thing to note is that you actually have enough gears on your bike to start with!  I think the biggest problems I see in sportives is cyclists not gearing low enough, then having to grovel up climbs when they could actually ride up faster if they had lower gears.

Tip: Lower gears used correctly can make you faster, not slower – it’s all in the technique.

Final words:

To get good at climbing hills you need to climb hills all the time. Ok, you need to get your weight down too if you truly want to start ‘racing’ up them, but really you can gain a huge amount of time as a beginner cyclist by improving your technique first, or at least ‘being aware’ of how to climb a hill efficiently.

So with that, head out to the hills and enjoy their magic.  Hills nearly always improve your power output and strength for cycling, so head out there with these notes in mind, and make the hills your best friend!

If you know someone who might benefit from this post, please share it with them!

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathie May 15, 2011 at 5:53 am

I believe I am loving ur site, being new to cycling I think this will help us!
Thank you so much!

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Rebecca May 15, 2011 at 9:18 am

Hi Kathie, …thanks for commenting – glad you are finding the site useful – don’t forget if you have any questions just to email me. Have a great day on the bike and look forward to keeping in touch.

Rebecca

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nick June 11, 2011 at 12:23 am

Hullo!
Interesting technical question. As a keen hobby cyclist as opposed to ‘doing it for years’ club cyclist, I find myself in an unusual position of mediocrity when it comes to looking at my hill-climb times compared to the average club rider, and to those of other non-club cycling buddies who are good on the flat but hate hills.. I am way behind the club dudes, but way ahead of the other hobby cyclists. Now, oddly, my cycling buddies are all fitter, stronger, and more muscly than me and indeed I have chicken legs, yet I can easily beat them on hills. And no just browsing through a tour de France magazine with profiles of all the top climbers, they all seem to have skinny legs as well! That must mean that a very weird combination of muscles, or indeed only a specific part of certain muscles must come into play for climbing. The guys at work who want to improve have been told by their coaches to “do loads more squats to build up the quadriceps” but in my view (as someone who wouldn’t dream of parting with money to go to a gym anyway!) this cannot be correct advice; these guys already have great big legs and calves compared to me, they are brilliantly fit runners and swimmers (they are big into Tri) yet they are slow going up hills.
So my question is – what is the secret combination of precise muscles and muscle areas that are involved in hill climbing? It definitely isn’t thigh muscles as I am prrof of that!
regards :-)

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Rebecca June 13, 2011 at 7:37 pm

Hi Nick – I’ve re-answered this here: http://easycycling.com/?p=3346 as a blog post!

Cheers for the question – I enjoyed answering it :-)

Happy cycling…

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nick June 11, 2011 at 5:00 pm

phew!
great advice, much appreciated. I’ll keep plugging away at those hills! It’s interesting that you say that it’s a lot about anaerobic threshold.. however all these colleagues of mine all happily get good times (far far better than I would) at running 5000,10000 meters, half marathons.. so there can’t be too much wrong in that department for them.. I just can’t understand why they struggle so much on hills. Interestingly, they are all very quick endurance cyclists on the flat; I’ve been out for 50-milers with them and I struggle to keep up on the flat, but as soon as the big hills arrive, they drop like flies. So there must be different muscle areas involved.. indeed when trying to go fast on the flat my calves hurt, but I have no muscle aches or pains whatsoever climbing steep hills, very odd! The other thing is that I am 6 foot 2, 14 stone and with relatively short legs for my height (I have friends the same height whose beltlines start about 6 or 7 inches higher up!) so my power-to-weight ratio must be quite poor as a result, it just makes no sense, however the one thing I have done all my life on a bike is grind my way up hills, simply because I just love hills, so I guess as you implied that’s the bottom line – you just have to get out there and do them! Part of me is still wondering if there is a particular set of exercises that can be done on rainy days that would help, but as you say, if its all about the endurance tissue type, then I guess these won’t be of much help! :-)
best regards.

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Rebecca June 14, 2011 at 7:12 pm

Hi Nick – on ‘rainy days’ or if you can’t find a hill in sight, then try the following:

Indoor turbo trainer – intervals work on AT/LT work, raise the front wheel of the bike a couple cms off the floor so your position is replicated as close as possible to climbing…

As you’ve been cycling a while, I’d warm up well 20-30 mins, then do 10 minutes at AT/LT power/heart rate – roughly 85-90% of maximum heart rate, then recover for 5 minutes: repeat 3 to 4 times. Warm down 10 mins.

OR, you could do a test ride at AT/LT on the trainer for 20 mins. Again, a good warm up 20-30mins, then your goal is to hold maximal steady state at AT/LT for the entire 20 minutes – this is a TOUGH workout. If you have power output note your average watts and compare this result to the next time you test to see improvements…

Another good workout but reserved more for racers than sportivers, but nevertheless is an excellent workout if executed properly – is to do a VO2Max speed endurance workout – this trains your ability to ‘accelerate’ over the tops of climbs, i.e it goes over your AT/LT threshold, but can be a quality workout to boost your fitness if needed at any time of year… again on the trainer:

30 min warm up, then work up to maximum effort over the duration of 5 minutes…pace this so that you’re going all out in the last 30 seconds…that’s you hitting your aerobic capacity…recover well for 5 minutes, then repeat! Only start with 2-3 repeats of these when you start out. Progress over the weeks to a maximum of 5-6 repeats! Never do more than 25-30mins of accumulated effort at VO2max – you won’t get the quality doing more and you risk overtraining…this is a TOUGH workout so recovery is key.

Warm down well too from all turbo workouts, and give yourself a day to recover from all three workouts or you won’t see the gains in fitness…also remember to do a few easier workouts on the trainer to adapt to it again..going hard from the gun could end up with extremely sore muscles even if you’re quite well road trained.

So no more excuses on rainy days…!!! :-)

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john g October 2, 2011 at 9:54 pm

How about when a 90 degree turn is followed immediately by a very steep, not gradual climb. You cannot build up any speed?

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Rebecca October 2, 2011 at 10:35 pm

Hi John – that’s correct, in most cases you can’t build up ANY speed approaching the hill, so it’s essential to be ready to hit the foot of the climb in lowest gear, then do what necessary to clamber over it…

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john g October 2, 2011 at 10:11 pm

How about when a 90 degree turn is followed immediately by a VERY steep, not gradual hill?

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Rebecca October 2, 2011 at 10:28 pm

Hi John, if you go round a 90 degree turn and you immediately got a ‘wall’ of a hill in front of you, my best answer is to change down to your lowest gear (small chaing ring as well as lowest back cog) or so before the turn so you’re absolutely ready for the abrupt drop in speed as soon as you corner and then hit the foot of the hill. It then depends on how long this hill is – if short (less than 2 mins), simply hit the hill in low gear for one or two pedal strokes to kick-in your legs, then judge quickly whether you should click up a few gears to get out the saddle and ‘give it your all’ to ‘jump’ over the top. IF longer than 1.5-2 mins, you need to start in very low gear and settle into a rythem (out the saddle if very very steep), then eventually click up to a higher gear cresting the hill – if you can manage that of course, you might not if it’s a very very steep leg killer and long…! Sounds fun :-) Hope this helps!
PS: what ‘can’ most likely go wrong is you drop derail your chain cos you’ve gone from big ring to very small (lowest gear)…too quick, so what’s best is to think ahead coming up to the turn….!

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john g October 3, 2011 at 12:41 am

Rebecca,
Thanks for the quick reply…Guess it’s best to know the course!

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Ang September 27, 2012 at 10:31 am

I am a beginner on mountain bike and have hard time to climb up hill. I learn a lot of info from this site. thks

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Rebecca September 30, 2012 at 6:54 pm

Hi Ang, – there will be much more info on hill climbing coming shortly…stay tuned! Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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Blogger Kabir August 1, 2013 at 9:35 am

I like this blog. Because it is very useful for them who want to climb up a hill on bike. There are much information about climbing up a hill on bike. I have gather knowledge about this topic from here. Thanks

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Jane M September 2, 2013 at 12:04 pm

Hi Rebecca

I just wanted to thank you. I’ve just recently taken up cycling and have been well and truly bitten by the bug. However, I had a real issue with getting up hills – until I found your website! I found the advice on this post invaluable and I now have a whole new approach and attitude to tackling hills :)

I write a wee blog of my own – just a bit of fun really – about my cycling exploits and I hope you don’t mind that I’ve put a link to your site on one of my posts. This is the link to that post if you’d like to check it out and if you would like me to remove the link or the quote I’ll obviously do so: http://storiesfromthecyclingsaddle.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/story-10-reaching-top-with-saddle-and.html

Thanks again

Jane

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Rebecca September 2, 2013 at 12:18 pm

Hi Jane, – you might like my ebook too on climbing hills…it might get rather advanced, but is a good read all the same.

As to your link, well you’ve got one in your comment on my site which might help get a few reads to your post! Yes, of course you can put a link back to my site!

All the best with the hill cycling…!

R

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Jane August 8, 2014 at 8:55 pm

Hi Rebecca
Just thought you might like to know that almost one year after I read your post on climbing hills I’ve come on leaps and bounds! I did read your book last year and found it really useful. I’ve had a great year of cycling and some of the hills that used to be terrifying are now thrilling.
I still believe that your advice made all the difference and I don’t think I would be enjoying my cycling half as much if I hadn’t stumbled upon your post.
So, thank you again.
Jane

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Rebecca August 8, 2014 at 9:39 pm

Hi Jane,

So pleased I’ve been able to help you improve your hill cycling!

Do keep in touch..

All the best,

Rebecca

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Elfansoer September 19, 2013 at 3:18 pm

Hi Rebecca

Thanks for your useful information, especially on conserving energy when climbing.
I go to my college by cycling. My college is downhill (lower than my place) so i’m going downhill at morning and UPHILL at evening everyday.
I have been going uphill for about 4.9 km (3 miles) with about 120 m height differences everyday, without knowledge of cycling. Then I found your website, and now I know how to use my energy efficiently…. And very thankful to it.

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mehdi February 4, 2014 at 8:01 am

I will be using this tech tomorrow…. i hope i can make it… its hill we have never climbed before and is full of variations …. newest and longest ever…

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Romford Dave July 12, 2014 at 11:04 pm

I’ve started using this technique riding up Church Hill in Purleigh (on route to Maldon with Essex Roads Cycle Club) and yes there is a certain sadistic pleasure to be gained in offering encouragement to struggling stragglers as you pass them on route to the summit, standing up in the saddle in a seemingly effortless approach to the top….

Shame I’m so slow everywhere else :)

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Rebecca July 26, 2014 at 9:39 am

… keep going Dave!

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