Top Cycling Tips For Better Climbing – How to climb a mountain or two on a bike, and have more fun doing it.
Climbing is the hard part.
Hills, let alone mountains, are surely the number one obstacle for new cyclists, being associated with hard work and pain and all that.
On the other hand, conquering difficult climbs on a bike gives you a sense of achievement and success that’s hard to equal any other way. Many times, you get the additional reward of incredible vistas that you feel you have truly earned.
So whether you’re just setting out as a cyclist and are still daunted by the prospect of those steep hills, or you’ve been riding for ages and would like to find ways to conserve energy and enjoy the uphill ride a little more, check out our favorite cycling tips for better climbing, and please add your own in the comments.
How to learn to love climbing hills – the steeper the better!
Perhaps one of the most daunting and challenging parts of riding a bicycle is hill climbing. Beginners may tend to avoid hills at all cost, but the only way to master climbing hills on a bike is to “just do it!” With the correct gearing, technique, and attitude, you can learn to love the hills — to seek them out, challenge them, defy them — because hills can be a vital part of your cardiovascular training program. Regular training on hills will build your leg strength, your aerobic/anaerobic capacity, as well as the ability for your muscles to recover quickly from the hard effort. Early in your training, you’ll huff and puff up a hill, but after a month or two, you’ll be able to climb that same hill without getting nearly as winded.
First Things First
For newcomers to cycling especially, first and foremost is not so much a cycling tip as a prerequisite for happy cycling: use a bike equipped for the terrain you want to ride on. If you are ready to head for the hills that means having a wide enough range of gears to climb hills. If your bike doesn’t have a low enough gear to switch to when you tackle a hill, you simply won’t be able to ride up it.
And a word of explanation: when we talk about low and high gears, we’re talking about the numbers used to compare one gear with another. Avoiding the technical aspects, a low gear means more turns of the pedals to go a certain distance; a high gear means fewer turns. Pedaling at the same rate, you will go slower in a lower gear. That means less effort, and so in a lower gear you can go up a steeper hill. If it’s confusing, think of lower gears as easier gears.
Learning to change gears smoothly, and to anticipate which gear to be in for the road ahead, are two keys to cycling comfortably on all kinds of grades.
Get a Jump With Your Gears
You do not need to fear hills — the secret is technique, and the most important one is to use your gears to your best advantage. Most cyclists wait too long before shifting to a lower gear when approaching a hill. Think of a hill in three phases: the approach, the climb, and the crest. Whatever your pedal revolutions, as soon as your cadence begins to drop off from effort, however slightly, immediately downshift. You may spin briefly at what feels like an unnaturally high rpm. The hill will quickly bring you back to a comfortable rpm. Apply this rule of thumb throughout the climb.
It’s much easier to change gears when there is less pressure on the pedals. The strain in the chain when you are heaving up a slope can make it tough to move it between the rings and sprockets to get to the gear you need. That’s another good reason to change gear a little ahead of when you really need it.
Get a Rhythm
Coordinate your breathing with your cadence. For example, take one breath for every one and a half revolutions of your pedals. It’ll help you go faster and will help prevent hyperventilation. Be sure to relax your arms, shoulders, and back on climbs. Let your legs do the work.
Out of the Saddle or Seated?
Whether one should be seated or out of the saddle during climbing has caused heated debate. Often the hill decides. Rule of thumb: If the grade is steady and not too steep, try to stay in the saddle. For shorter, steep bursts, get out of the saddle. When you do stand, shift up to the next biggest cog in the back. Keep in mind that climbing out of the saddle accelerates your heart rate to a higher level (requiring more oxygen) than if you stay seated — that holds true especially for heavier riders.
Standing on the pedals when climbing gives you the advantage of adding your body weight to the force of your legs. You can also pull against the handlebars more effectively, getting even more force onto the pedals. This lets you overcome a steeper grade faster than when climbing seated, but the trade off is it takes more energy to climb this way. If you don’t need to climb fast, you can conserve energy by switching to a lower gear, finding a comfortable balance between your pace and effort, and staying seated.
How to Climb Out of the Saddle
When you do need to climb faster or get past a steep section: with road bike handlebars, rest the V of your hands on the hoods, index and middle fingers around the bars. If you have straight handlebars, keep your hands either on the handlebars or on the bar ends, if you have them. As you push down with each pedal, pull up on the bar with the opposite hand. Let the bike rock beneath you, but no more than a foot off-center.
Hand Positions for Stronger Climbing
Road style handlebars give several options for hand position, and you may find that switching it up during a long climb helps reduce fatigue and avoid straining certain muscle groups. For long steady climbs, wrapping thumb and forefingers around the brake hoods gives you a little more leverage to pull against as you pedal, and can stretch the muscles in your upper back a little. Gripping the bars along the straight sections beside the stem, with elbows bent, can help you apply more force when the grade is steeper but you’re still in the saddle. The same hand position with elbows straight can relieve your lower back on less steep sections.
Getting Stronger on Hills
On one weekday ride each week, try doing a hill workout to improve your hill climbing ability and leg strength. A hill repeat workout is shorter than a normal ride, but it’s very intense. Find a challenging hill that you can ride up in about 5 minutes. After warming up on the bike for about 10 minutes, ride up the hill at a moderate pace, then (carefully) turn around and ride back down. Pedal easy on flat ground for about 5 minutes or so, then ride up the hill again. Start off riding up the hill 2 times. You should be extremely tired when you’re done. The next week, add one more trip up the hill to the workout, and so on each week until you can ride up the hill 5 times. Once you get to that point, it’s time to find a more challenging hill. Be sure to cool down by spending about 10 minutes riding easy on the bike after your hill workout.
But I Can’t Make It to the Top
Most beginning cyclists will encounter hills that are too difficult to ride all the way up. Don’t make those hills an all-or-nothing proposition. Instead, break up the hill into tiny increments. The first time you ride up “killer hill,” take note of where you need to stop. Next time you ride that hill, make it a goal to go a little bit farther up the hill — to the next driveway, or street sign, or whatever — even if it’s just another 10 feet up. Do this each time you ride the hill, and before you know it, you’ll accomplish what you first thought was impossible. You’ll ride the whole way up!