There is something about climbing in the hills. It’s relaxing, exhilarating, calming and challenging all at the same time.
Hills are the perfect escape from everyday life, you can forget about what happened last week, not worry about what’s going on next week, you can simply get in your own head space and just climb.
La Velocita's Sarah Grove explains how improve your climbing.
Photography - Mike Boudrie
It’s also the perfect chance to build strength to make you a faster rider. Strength development can also be simulated on flat to undulating roads with hard gear training, but nothing compares to climbing in the hills.
But there are some cyclists who dread the hills and avoid them at all costs for fear of getting dropped from their bunch. They find they can keep up with a group ride on the flat, but as soon as they hit hills they always seem to get left behind. “I’m not a climber” is what you will hear from most and simply resign to the fact that they’ll ‘never be able to climb’.
I coach athletes of all levels and abilities, and yes I agree that some people are better suited to climbing – just as some are better suited to sprinting or time trialing. But there should be nothing stopping you working on becoming a better climber, whether it’s for your next race, your next group ride, or simply to learn to enjoy hill riding.
Here I’ll go through some simple technique and tips you can implement to help improve your climbs, so the thought (and pain!) of hill climbing will gradually disappear and you will eventually enjoy climbing and tackle hills head on.
Sitting or Standing?
The big question I get all the time – should I climb in the saddle or out of it? The simple rule of thumb is – if the hill is long, climb seated in the saddle. If the hill is short, stand up. There are times when you may need to stand out of the saddle; this usually happens when the gradient of the hill increases, certain muscles start to fatigue, or an increase in power is needed to crest the hill.
- Consciously relax your upper body, any tension means additional energy is expended for no gain.
- Sit up tall to get maximum leverage and activation from your glutes – your prime movers!
- Place your hands on the brake hoods or on top of handlebars and remember to keep them relaxed.
- Keep the upper body stable by engaging the core, with all power generated from your hips down.
- Smaller framed riders should slide slightly back on the saddle while pushing through the cranks.
- Larger framed riders can benefit from sliding slightly forwards on the saddle (more leverage)
- Push heels down – so foot is parallel to the ground at the bottom of the pedal stroke.
- Do not point toes down!
- With cleats: pull back through bottom of pedal stroke; this engages more muscles – therefore more power!
- Stand up on the down stroke and try to shift to a larger gear prior to standing to minimise the loss of momentum. This is also important when riding in groups to avoid wheel touches.
- Your weight should be over your cranks to maximise power during the pedal stroke.
- Don’t lean too far forward; you don’t want your weight over the bars.
- Keep a relaxed hold on the bars with your hands on the brake hoods.
- Keep your shoulders and torso open– don’t hunch.
- Try not to ‘bounce’ on your pedals; establish a smooth rhythm by pedaling in circles. You will hear people refer to this as ‘dancing on the pedals’.
Gears and Cadence
This one can be debated all day, and can also depend on what phase of your training/program you are in. I’m a big believer on big/hard gear low cadence work to build strength, with specific times in a program/session designated for race pace/lactate threshold efforts. So when I prescribe hills in a program for athletes, I will have them work on sustained strength efforts to build strength before moving into the next phase of a program.
But in general when climbing, you want to simply maintain a comfortable cadence for you. Only shift gears when you become uncomfortable and your rate of pedaling drops too low. An article in “Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise” found that “maximum sustainable power to be greater at 60 RPM than at 100 RPM, and blood lactate responses to be greater at the higher RPMs”.
In setting a pace, go with what you feel comfortable with, based on the hill you are tackling and learn to discover your own natural rhythm. Work on improving your efficiency through technique drills, and understand how your body tolerates varying cadences.
When changing gears, timing is key. Shifting down too soon will cause you to lose momentum, shifting too late will waste energy. Practice smooth gear changes, and learn the best time to shift gears to maintain your speed/effort level.
So next time you are out, try different cadences when climbing and find a range that is suitable for you. Some prefer around 80-90 RPM, however others prefer to climb at a lower cadence – remembering though, that the higher the cadence, the more oxygen you will consume.
And remember – you can’t improve at something if you don’t work on it. So whether you go out in a group or on your own, if you want to improve your hill climbing then get out in them.
There are so many awesome climbs with varying gradients and lengths within riding distance from the city that you are crazy not to go out and enjoy the fresh air and challenge that hill climbing offers. And as they say - what goes up must come down!