If you live in a predominantly flat area but want to go on a bike tour to check out some classic European climbs, or you have a hilly race like Leadville on your bucket list, it might seem impossible to prepare properly.
But you can prep for hills — even in the flattest areas. Here’s how:
USE WHAT YOU HAVE
If you live in the flatlands, one of the more popular options for climbing is man-made road structures like overpasses. While it may only be 30 seconds of gradual climbing, it still counts as climbing, and since many cyclists actually struggle with the shorter durations requiring more explosiveness and athleticism, you may be surprised how working on 30-second hills makes long efforts more tolerable.
The other option many cities have are river valleys, shorelines and large piles of dirt/fill. Almost every area has a small spot with some elevation gain, and while repeating an overpass might feel extremely boring, you can still work with what you have.
Strength training and targeted cross-training can make a big difference in your on-bike strength, resilience and adaptability. If you are unable to add variability to your on-bike time, sprint a local set of stairs, hike a trail or use a step machine or treadmill on a steep gradient and work on your ability to climb on foot. The muscles you use will be similar. Alternatively, any lower-body or core work in the gym should also help once you test your limits on a big climb.
TAKE TECHNICAL TERRAIN AT SPEED
Even though you may not climb a ton, it is possible you have technical terrain you can use to maximize your skill. This could mean a technical crit course, cyclocross course, gravel course, BMX jumps or a mountain bike trail. So, for instance, if you plan to race the very hilly Leadville 100-miler but don’t have hills to climb, you can still be training for the singletrack portion of the race. Similarly, if you plan on doing a hilly road race or bike tour, a technical criterium gives you the ability to accelerate, drafting skills you’ll need to conserve energy and they will help improve cornering and efficiency so you can keep up with the pack.
ADD LOW RPM WORK
Hills generally mean pedaling at a lower cadence than you would on the flats. While you can’t train on a hill, you can still prepare to be in that low, hard gear beforehand. In the “Cyclist’s Training Bible,” author and coach Joe Friel describes what he calls ‘force reps’ as short efforts in an extremely hard and low gear, so when you’re pedaling hard, you’re at around 50 RPM. Friel recommends using a hill, or any incline that forces you into that 50 RPM speed, and doing sets of 6 extremely forceful pedal revolutions, followed by 3–5 minutes of rest. Think of this as essentially doing leg presses on your bike — it will prepare you for those slow uphill grinds.
TRY SPEED TRAINING
Flat terrain allows for some beneficial training stimulus riders in hilly areas cannot do, such as motor pacing, criteriums and high-speed group rides to simulate motor pacing. The benefits of these types of training include leg speed (coordination) and neuromuscular ability for sprints and accelerations. Having these options for training gives you strengths other riders do not have, and this gives you another set of tools you can leverage in whatever type of race you engage in. While speed training may not directly correlate to hill climbing, any power, skill or athleticism you gain on the bike translates to an uphill effort.