By Laurel-Lea Shannon
Hill climbs are challenging for all cyclists and can be intimidating for beginners. Hills are where inexperienced riders often get dropped from the pack. But finding the right gear, cadence and technique can turn the most grueling climb into an enjoyable ride.
Climbing is all about conserving energy, and how you approach a hill will determine how well you climb it. A common mistake is to attack the bottom of the hill too hard, which creates an oxygen deficit partway up (pushing you into anaerobic breathing). By the time you reach the crest of the hill you’ve tanked, which allows more experienced riders, who have conserved their energy on the climb, to surge by you—leaving a gap that you may not be able to close. This leads to a cycle of catch-up, where the dropped rider works hard on the flats to catch the group, only to be dropped again at the next hill. It’s not much fun and it can be exhausting.
Right at the start of the hill you need to manage your energy, your breath and your momentum, and to decide what gear you’re going to use for the climb.
Gear Selection and Cadence
When you approach the bottom of a hill select a gear that matches your riding style—70-80 RPM is a good average cadence for climbs but you may want to go higher or lower. When you start the climb get into a smooth pedal rhythm. As you feel your cadence dropping, shift your gears until you find one that you feel you can comfortably hold for the remainder of the climb.
For long climbs it’s best to stay seated. This conserves energy. When you pedal out of the saddle you use up to 10-12% more energy than when you’re seated.
There will be times when you want to stand out of the saddle—to stretch your back, to give your sit bones a break, to push yourself over the crest of hill, to increase your cadence on a long climb, to burst up a short, steep hill, or to work your way around a hairpin curve up a mountain road—but always return to the saddle quickly to conserve your energy.
Scooting back on your saddle during a climb will give you more power on the pedals. Keep your upper body relaxed and quiet, with your chest open and shoulders back and down (not hunched up around your ears). This will help you to breathe more deeply. For a seated climb your hands should be on the top of the handlebar—2 or 3 inches from the stem, or on the brakehoods, where you can easily find your optimum gear.
Developing good pedal technique is crucial to being a good cyclist. Many riders use a toe-down pedal technique. On climbs you’ll get more power throughout the pedal stroke if you press down through your ankle—keeping your foot in a more neutral position. Pay close attention to your pedal stroke, eliminating any dead spots at the stop and bottom of the stroke. At the bottom of the pedal stroke wipe your foot back, then pull up on the pedal. At the top of the pedal stroke push forward then down. (These last techniques are for clipless pedals only.)
Speed and Rhythm
It’s important to climb hills at your own speed. A common mistake is to try to keep up with the pack at the bottom of a hill only to find that you’ve reached your limits partway up. This is the fastest way to get dropped. Instead, at the bottom of the hill manage your breathing (breathe deeply) and find your own rhythm. The goal is to make it up the hill and still have plenty of energy to push over the top.
Putting it All Together
As you start a climb, get into a rhythm, aligning your cadence with your breath. As your cadence drops, gear down until you find a gear that you can comfortably ride in for the rest of the climb. Stay seated and scoot back on your saddle. Pay careful attention to your pedal stroke—pull up from the bottom. When you reach the top part of the climb—the last 20%—start to pick up the pace. As you approach the crest of the hill, push hard to gain more momentum and punch yourself over the top.