Updated: May 30, 2020
For 60kg whippets hills are a chance to ride away and become human mountain goats. But for many riders, climbing is their kryptonite. On the flat they may feel super strong but as soon as they hit a hill they feel powerless.
This applies to weekend warriors just as much as A grade road racers.
Here are some time proven tips to get you climbing faster.
Everyone has a different cadence that feels natural to them when they climb.
DO NOT force yourself to climb at a specific cadence that is not natural to you. I have ridden with so many people that are trying to climb at 100rpm because someone told them that is the ideal cadence and all they are doing is wearing themselves out. By going up one or two gears to a cadence that feels comfortable they stop breathing so heavy and start going faster. The same goes for riding up a hill in a massive gear at a low cadence with the aim of getting strong. There is little evidence to suggest this actually is enough stress on the muscles to cause a strength adaptation. Usually this ends up lowering the riders natural cadence and gives them nothing but sore knees and an inability to accelerate and vary their pace on climbs. So stick at a cadence feels natural to you.
Don’t go out hard
Unless in a race situation that demands it you are best to start climbs steadily. Too many people start out hard and then decline all the way to the top. You are better off starting out at an intensity that feels slightly too easy and build in it as you go and finish strong. If the speed is less than 20kmh there is little slipstream benefit so you are better off letting others go that start faster and slowly real them back in as you get up the climb.
Keep the pressure on all the way up the climb. If there is a slight relief point in the climb where it flattens or declines – keep pedalling just as hard. This will keep the speed up and give you a little run up in to the next ramp of the climb. It will also stop your legs from going to jelly form the lactic acid. So don’t stop pedalling or back it off for any longer than it takes to maybe stand up and give your back a quick stretch. The muscles in your legs act as pumps to keep the blood moving out of your legs and prevents a build up of fatiguing waste products. If you are a slower climber this can be a chance to catch up some lost time.
This is perhaps the most difficult hill climbing skill to develop. When there is load on the chain, such as when you’re climbing a hill, downshifting to an easier gear puts more strain on the chain and the shifting mechanism than shifting up to a harder gear. You’ll often need to downshift to an easier gear during a climb but if you don’t do it soon enough, there may be so much stress on the chain that you can’t make the shift and then you’re stopped dead in a gear that’s too big to get up the hill. On the other hand, if you downshift too soon, you lose your momentum which can turn an easy climb into a hard one in the blink of an eye. You can feel this happen if you downshift to an easier gear and suddenly your feet are spinning on the pedals and meeting very little resistance. It’s all about timing. The trick is to relax your pedal stroke for a brief instant and shift into the easier gear a split second before you have to so that you can put out the same effort throughout the climb. The only way to get good at this is to practice. There’s nothing like a perfect climb where each shift comes smoothly at precisely the right moment and you feel like you’ve just flown over the hill as if it wasn’t there.
Change working muscle groups
As you labour up the hill the muscles you are using will become exhausted as waste products produced by your straining muscles accumulate faster than they can be carried away in the bloodstream. It doesn’t take long to clear these waste products if you can make less use of the muscles for a moment. You can’t coast on a climb, however, because you’ll lose your momentum or come to a dead stop. The solution is to briefly work different sets of muscles throughout the climb to give particular muscle groups precious time to recover. There are several ways to do this. If you typically ride with toes pointed down or feet flat, drop your heels for a bit to bring your hamstrings and glutes more into play and give your quadriceps and calves time to recover. Likewise, if you usually ride with your heels dropped, raise them so your feet are flat or point your toes down thereby taking the load off the hamstrings and glutes and shifting it onto the quads and calves. Shift forward and back on the seat. Sitting on the front of the seat accentuates the quads, sitting on the back accentuates the hamstrings and glutes. Stand up for a brief interval and then sit back down. Just before you stand, shift into a bigger gear and then shift back to the smaller gear when you sit down. You will have more power when you stand and if you stay in the smaller gear you will lose momentum. Use these techniques for 10 to 30 pedal strokes periodically throughout the climb to buy recovery time. A good time to stand is on any steeper sections like hairpins or short little ramps in gradient.
Ride hairpins wide
Don’t look for the shortest route through hairpin corners. Take them wide where it is less steep and keep your momentum. Stay away from the apex of the corner. The apex is shorter but harder and will upset your rhythm.
Climb predominately seated
Standing is great for short bursts of power or for a change in muscle use (and hence a bit of muscle recovery) on a very long climb. However, it is less efficient than sitting and will tire you out faster in the long run. You will be stronger at the end of the ride if you climb seated at the beginning. Good standing technique is much harder than it looks. Many riders with poor technique weave back and forth across the road when they stand and thrash back and forth, twisting at the hips. This wastes a lot of energy and is hard on the lower back possibly leading to back soreness or tightening on long rides. The key to climbing out of the saddle is to keep your body still and let the bike move side to side underneath you. If you do it right your upper body will be relaxed and not pulling on the bars. Your front wheel should stay in a straight line, not riding in an S pattern. As you get better at standing you will become more efficient and able to spend more time out of the saddle without wearing yourself out.
Keep a loose, relaxed grip on the handlebars
As you strain up the hill it’s easy to grip the handlebars harder and harder. White knuckling the handlebars like this can lead to numbness in the hands. More importantly, the tension in the hands will spread up the arms to the neck, shoulders and chest. Tightness in the chest will restrict breathing which will reduce oxygen consumption. Oxygen is essential for both removing waste products and bringing fresh supplies of energy to your working muscles. Your legs will tire more quickly and you’ll have a harder time finishing the climb if you are not breathing freely.
Start at the front and drift back
If riding in a group or a race always start climbs at the front of the bunch. This gives you room to slowly slip back through the bunch as you get tired. It often means that by the top of the climb you will have kept contact with the bunch. Still will often motivate you to go harder and stay with the group. If you start at the back you have no where to go other than to be dropped and feel demoralised.
Don’t coast after the crest
There are going to be times when you crest a hill in agony. Your legs are screaming for relief, you are in oxygen debt and panting uncontrollably, and all you want to do is make it stop. You’re over the top and now gravity is your friend as it carries you down the other side. You can coast for a minute; it’s your reward. Don’t do it. Keep your legs turning and shift into a higher gear so that you’re getting some resistance from the pedals. The terrible burning feeling in your legs is produced by the build up of waste products in the muscles you just overworked. If you coast and stop using the muscles, those waste products just sit there causing you pain. If you continue to use the muscles, gently in comparison with what you just did while climbing, the contraction of the muscles will squeeze the waste products out into the bloodstream where they can be carried away. If you keep pedaling, the pain ends sooner. If you aren’t too far away from other riders this is your chance to get back in contact with them. Power over the crest and go for broke for a minute or two as you are likely to catch other riders that have relaxed a little. Sprinters that aren’t the best climbers are experts at getting back on with this technique.
Yes you and your bike need to be as light as possible. Every kg you can save off your body and your bike will save you potentially 3-5 watts of output. So it’s definitely worth doing what you can to lose some weight. A kg off your body is the same as a kg of your bike so its much more cost efficient to tighten up your diet before looking at your bike. All the same I would never stand in the way of someone looking to upgrade their bike. As long as you are realistic about the weight savings it will make compared to what you can lose from your body.
Train for it
Every time you are going up a climb think about these techniques and practice them. Also doing specific training efforts will increase your efficiency and power output immensely. Combine the two and you will be flying.
If you are looking to increase your climbing output please contact Angus to discuss your best course of action. Contact Angus now!