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:
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!
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.
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:
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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