Becoming better at climbing is one of the more frustrating cycling skills to get good at. You may be the fastest off the line, out-sprinting everyone on flat ground, but when you hit the hills, you lose your hard-earned position. Climbing is routine in cycling, and there’s always room for improvement.
Better at Climbing – Don’t Be Intimidated
Getting better at climbing shouldn’t be intimidating. Almost anyone can do it with the right mindset, body position, gearing, cadence and pacing, and a bit of muscle at the right time. Never get intimidated. If you do, the hill will surely win before you even had a chance at getting over it intact. Confidence in cycling, not only hills, will take you further than you think giving you the will and drive to push through as you know you can do it.
Let the Hill Come to You
Never attack a hill. The hill will win. Even experienced riders are guilty of this common mistake. Don’t start climbing until you need to. Ride into the hill casually. Ignore the hill until it deserves your respect and then begin to climb by adjusting your gearing and attitude.
It’s Not a Competition
Climb in your own personal comfort zone. Ride at your own pace. Listen to what your body is trying to tell you. Know your limits, especially when you’re with other cyclists. If you become anaerobic, you won’t recover. Let faster riders pass you. If you’re nearing your red line slow down, breathe deep and continue at a speed within your ability. You’ll be sure that you will get better at climbing and will reach the top without having to take a breather with this approach.
Maintain your momentum as long as possible. Momentum can be the difference between an easy climb and a gut-wrenching, heart pounding, vomiting one. Maintain a constant cadence in the right gear when you hit the hill. As the hill requires more effort and momentum drops, shift up as needed to easier gears, keeping it steady as long as you can. You will learn to recognize the point on a climb when forward momentum is gone. You’re in your smallest ring and the climb turns into a pedal mashing test of willpower. Prevent it from happening for as long as possible to get better at climbing.
Stay in the Saddle
It might seem like you develop more power standing by using your upper body weight. You do but it comes at a cost. It requires 10 to 12 percent more energy when your butt isn’t in the saddle. It means more work for your core and back muscles as you pull up on the unweighted pedal. The net effect is more energy used and you go into oxygen debt much quicker. It’s less efficient to climb standing versus seated. However, it is good to get out of the saddle to stretch it out a bit and to incorporate different muscles. Save it for the steeper parts. It can be good to stand though on steeper parts and if you’re a lighter climber and practice it. This article gets into the science of sitting versus standing.
The Advantage of Staying Seated
Sitting back in the saddle activates your glutes allowing the large muscles at the back of your thighs more efficient leverage to push the pedals. Standing up on the pedals might seem more powerful but wears you out quicker. Standing up increases your oxygen uptake at an alarming level, and you run the risk of blowing up or hitting the wall sooner.
Experienced riders are likely to disagree with the advice to remain seated while climbing. It’s somewhat of a standard practice among advanced riders. It’s because they’ve developed the ability to climb efficiently while standing. It’s what separates the advanced rider from the novice. If you stick with it long enough, you may learn to climb standing up but when you’re just starting out, it’s better to stay in the saddle and learn to climb more efficiently until you’re better at climbing.
On long, curvy climbs, it’s OK to take a break from sitting too. Look for a flatter portion where the road curves briefly and stand up to get the blood flowing and to employ different muscle groups. Take a few deep breaths and hit it again. Note that if you are going to stand, it’s fine to let the bike rock under you, but no more than about 6 inches side to side.
Is there a right gear for climbing? The short answer is no. With experience you’ll discover what gears work best for you, and you’ll be able to discern which one to drop into for the hill you are up against. A general rule of thumb is; if your bike resists shifting, it means that there’s too much tension on the chain, you’ve already waited too long to shift up.
If you start to gasp, pant or breathe irregularly, take a deep breath and hold it for a few pedal strokes. Synchronize your breathing with pedal strokes if possible. Start by taking a breath each time one pedal reaches the bottom of a stroke, and then increase the time by taking a breath every 1 1/2-strokes, and finally every two strokes if possible. Whatever the intervals between breaths, you will deliver more oxygen to your system with a consciously controlled breathing effort.
Summit in Sight
It’s OK to stand up at the last minute if you’re within striking distance of the summit and you’ve got some fuel left in your tank for a burst of power. Shift into a higher gear, stand up and use your body weight, mashing the pedals to propel yourself over the summit. You know your time to rest is coming soon so you can dig deep over the top. If you still have a long day however, don’t go to deep or you’ll be feeling it later.
Watch Your Weight
It’s been drilled into cyclists for years that to get better at climbing you and your bike must be light. Mind the overall weight though your own, the weight of the bike, and what you’re carrying on the bike. It costs money to reduce the weight of your bike by a pound, but an extra water bottle or weight in your fanny pack can add up, and that really adds up on a long ride with lots of hills.
Shout and Scream
All cyclists get defeated by hills at some point and none of them are created equal. Climbing hills is hard work. Sometimes it’s just too long or too steep. Sometimes you drop into the wrong gear and can’t keep up the momentum. Don’t be afraid to drop into your easiest gear and just keep mashing. Mental distractions are important. Don’t dwell on your pain. Think of anything that distracts you from the pain. Leave your mind elsewhere for a bit while the climb slogs on. Shout and scream out at the top of your lungs “I own this hill!” if you have to. And when you reach the summit, give yourself a pat on the back for a job well done. You’re on the right path to getting better at climbing.