Climbing: you either love it or you hate it! Sadly, for most cyclists, the latter seems to be the norm. The thought of going out for a hilly ride brings many out in a bout of ‘oh gosh, doesn’t the weather look like it’s about to turn?’ That’s why learning to climb when you start out is the best thing you can do.
Climbing is difficult. It’s arguably the hardest thing you can do on a bike; whether it’s a short, sharp lung-burner, or a longer ascent that seems like it’s never going to end. It’s no wonder then that many new cyclists avoid the hilly rides in favour of a flatter, easier route.
Here’s the rub: climbing, like most difficult things, makes you better! Nothing will improve your cycling ability, confidence and enjoyment more than learning to climb. The good news is that climbing is as much about technique as it is fitness, and that technique can be learnt.
Most guides to climbing will tell you to maintain your cadence, and to ride within 65% of your max heart rate, but what does that really mean? What do you do if you don’t have an HR monitor?
Whilst these things are all true, and are important to know eventually, the below tips will easily explain how to improve your climbing, quickly and efficiently.
Do Your Research:
There’s nothing worse than coming up to a hill unexpectedly and not being prepared. You have no idea how long it is, what the gradient is or what kind of twists and turns are in store for you. For an experienced climber this kind of ‘blind’ riding can be a real thrill, but if you’re new or relatively inexperienced, it can be really painful!
Before you set off, have a look at the route, check the profile and make a note of where the climbs are. Use towns or roads as landmarks so you know what’s coming up, or if you’re on a guided ride then ask your ride leader to give you plenty of warning before approaching a climb so you can prepare.
Route creation sites like Komoot are a great way to research a cycling route. You can explore the profile (how many climbs are on the route) and work out where they fall. You can see the distance, elevation gain and gradient of the climb so you can plan ahead. You may not be able to remember all the details when you're on the ride, but you'll at least know something is coming up.
Another good option is Strava. You can use the the ‘segments’ section to search the area you’re going to be riding. If there are any big climbs on your route, they will no doubt be marked as ‘segments’. Google maps can also help, just make sure to turn the ‘terrain’ button on in the menu.
Approaching the Hill:
Fuel, water and clothing...
If you’ve done your research, you’ll know when you’re near a climb. Roughly 15 minutes away from the base is the perfect time to take on an energy bar, gel or banana. If you cram something in just before you start climbing there’s a good chance you might see it again before halfway!
You should be taking on water often throughout the ride, but definitely before, during (if you’re able) and after a climb. Also think about what you’re wearing. Over-heating on a climb is a killer, so stop well before the climb begins and remove your jacket or gilet (unless it’s really raining).
On the Climb:
- It’s not a race!
Some people climb fast, and others climb slowly, and it really doesn’t matter which you are in the beginning. Speed will come with more practise; to begin with you need to focus on your technique and making sure that you can pace yourself up even the longest climbs without stopping. Once you can do that, then you can think about working on your speed.
- Don’t Panic, 50% is in your head!
Panicking, or ‘hill fever’ as it’s sometimes known, looks a bit like this: you see the hill coming towards you, your heart rate goes through the roof, you grip hold of the bars like you’re trying to rip the tape off; accelerate towards the base of the hill and hope against hope that you’re momentum will carry you up. Sound familiar? Panicking usually leads to blow out around half way, getting off (or worse falling off), and walking the rest of the way.
Climbing is a mental game — the winner of which is able to make the climb in their head first. The trick is to calmly anticipate the hill (much easier if you’ve already done your homework), accept the fact that this might take a while, breath, and methodically make your way to the top. Panicking can only be remedied with practise, but it only takes you a few goes to get the hang of it, trust us!
- Stay in the saddle (if you can)
The temptation at the bottom of a hill is to get out of the saddle and stand up, because it feels easier to begin with, doesn’t it? If the hill is any more than a few hundred metres long however, and you’re not Nairo Quintana, then you’re going to be finished way before you reach the summit. Not only that, you’ll be knackered for the next one!
You should only be getting out of the saddle if you know the hill is a short, sharp one or you really really have to. If you’re defending an attack from your over zealous ride-mate, stay seated and let them go, you’ll pass them on the next one!
Staying seated whilst climbing activates your glutes (the biggest muscle you have) and conserves more energy than bouncing around on the pedals. Standing up to ease tension on your lower back and glutes and to shift position to help blood flow is advised on longer climbs.
As an addendum to the above tip, you may find that you prefer climbing out of the saddle. It's a personal thing, and you'll have to practise to work out your optimum climbing style. However to begin with try staying seated as this is the most efficient technique and a good habit to get into.
- Use your gears wisely
Knowing how your gears work is very important in general, but when it comes to climbing, it’s imperative. By this we mean being in the the right gear at the right time, which might sound very obvious, but it’s something that most do incorrectly.
Whether it’s being in too high a gear at the beginning or going too low too early; the end result is a loss of momentum.
The efficient and smooth transition through the gears is vital for a good climb. Our advice is to be on the small chainring (front) and one of the middle sprockets (4 or 5) at the beginning of the climb, and then work your way down through the gears, making them easier as you go up the hill.
You don’t want to drop into granny gear right away, as you’ve then got nowhere to go. Again getting your gearing right will take practise, and you’ll have to try out different combinations, but once you’ve got it, climbing becomes a whole new ball game. Dare we say it, even…fun!
Climbing IS for Everyone!
On a recent trip to the Peak District we went out for a tour of the best climbs in the area, which inevitably brought us to Winnats Pass, a 26% hill just outside Castleton.
We were descending the pass as we’d come up another hill, and weren’t we lucky about that — the descent was straight, nearly vertical and would’ve been hellish to climb.
As we rounded the corner however, we were confronted by a 70 year old man on an ancient steel framed bike, just starting to climb up the pass. Immediate shame — if he can do it, why on earth can’t we!
Granted climbing might never become your forte; you might never be able to sprint up 15% gradient hills. You may never love climbing, but If you follow the above steps, your climbing will improve, and with it your overall fitness and cycling ability.
And hopefully you'll be able to go out on your club or training ride no longer dreading any possible hills that might be on the route.
Good luck on the hills. remember that practise makes proficient (not as sexy as practise makes perfect, but most of us will never be perfect). Let us know your climbing tips in the comments below or on social media (@dirtywknd).