Bike-Handling Basics #10: How to Climb

Marc Lindsay
by Marc Lindsay
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Bike-handling is integral to riding outdoors, and this series covers the basics — from cornering to descendinghandling rough surfacesriding out of the saddleriding in a pacelinedoing tricks on the bikedraftingshiftingsprinting — and now, climbing.

Whether you’re a new cyclist or a seasoned veteran, ascending a long climb on a road bike is tough. Fortunately, there are some adjustments you can make to your technique to help improve your power, comfort and efficiency.

Follow this guide to learn all of the basics for body position, cadence and pace so you can conquer any climb that comes your way.

Changing your body position on the bike when the road heads up is the first thing you should do to conserve energy and improve your overall efficiency while you pedal. Staying in the saddle on long climbs as much as possible is generally recommended because you’ll waste less energy, but there will be times on steep gradients or when your lower back just needs a break that standing for short periods makes more sense.

SEATED POSITION

The seated position is recommended for long climbs when you’ll need to pace yourself and deliver power over a sustained period of time.

  • Head: Lift your head up and relax. A crunched, forward position makes it harder to breathe. Sitting more upright opens your lungs and makes it easier to get oxygen into your system.
  • Shoulders: Because the effort is difficult, you might find your shoulders getting tense. Staying as relaxed as possible on a climb helps you conserve energy, so focus on keeping your shoulders loose and your upper body still.
  • Hands: On climbs, moving your hand position to the bar tops allows you to sit a little more upright. At slow speeds aerodynamics become less important, and this hand position makes breathing easier and allows you to scoot back on the saddle a little more for extra pedaling power. Grip the handlebars lightly, which helps keep your upper body relaxed.
  • Back: While a more forward position often causes you to round your back, sitting more upright while climbing allows you to have a flatter back. This posture allows you to be a bit more comfortable while you dish out extra power to the pedals and helps to utilize your glutes and hamstrings even more.
  • Butt: Scoot toward the rear portion of the seat and stay off the nose. This helps avoid numbness from staying seated for long periods and allows for a more efficient pedaling position.

STANDING POSITION

Standing while you climb takes a lot more energy, but there may be times when your body needs a break. Getting out of the saddle for a short period of time can help take some of the strain off your back and legs by utilizing different muscle groups. It can also be a good way to power up particularly steep pitches of road. Here are the basics of the standing position:

  • Head: Avoid looking down at your front wheel or pedals. Looking up the road helps you keep your weight forward, which is a must for standing.
  • Shoulders: Keep your shoulders still and as relaxed as possible. Though your weight should shift forward onto the front wheel, don’t let your shoulders move past the front axle. Keeping them in line with the brake hoods is generally recommended.
  • Arms: With your elbows bent, use your arms to gently rock the bike side to side. As your left foot presses down on the pedals, your arms should rock your bike to the right (and vice versa).
  • Hands: When you shift from sitting to standing, move your hands to the hoods. This makes balancing easier and gives you access to the shifters to change gears.
  • Hips: Your hips move forward and over the pedals. If your butt is hitting the nose of the saddle, you’ll need to move your hips toward the handlebars a little more.
  • Feet: Standing helps you use your bodyweight to press down on the pedals. The key to efficient pedaling in this position is to also to pull up on the backstroke to pedal in full circles.
  • Toes: When seated, you may pedal with your heels down. When standing, try pedaling with your toes down instead. This helps move your bodyweight forward and keeps you from brushing against the nose of the saddle while you pedal.

Once you’ve got your body position dialed in for seated and standing climbing, there are some technique tips you can use to improve efficiency and deliver as much power as possible. Here are a few things you can practice to get better at climbing:

1

CADENCE

While this is highly individual, spend some time figuring out a good cadence you can maintain from the bottom of the climb to the top. The recommended range is usually somewhere between 70–100 revolutions per minute (rpm). Experiment with a power meter and heart rate monitor to determine which cadence is most efficient for your body type.

2

PEDALING TECHNIQUE

Utilizing your glutes and hamstrings for additional power can help a ton on climbs. Scooting to the back of the saddle helps, but you’ll need to practice pedaling in full circles. Using a scraping motion by pedaling your heel down through 6 o’clock position, then toe up to pull on the upstroke (7–10 o’clock) helps get the most out of your pedal stroke.

3

PACE YOURSELF

Pacing is crucial on long climbs. Either with a heart rate monitor or a power meter, monitor your pace to ensure you don’t go into Zone 4–5 too early in your climb to keep from bonking. Try to climb slower during the first half than you do during the second to ensure you have enough energy to reach the top.

4

FOLLOW THE WHEEL IN FRONT OF YOU

If you’re riding with someone who has a similar fitness level, follow their wheel when you can. This makes it easier for you mentally and lets you relax a little, concentrating only on staying just behind the pace they’re setting.

5

KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT

Whether it’s a race or a training ride, knowing what climbs and how many you have to face on any given ride makes it easier to prepare mentally for what lies ahead. Finding yourself on a 6-mile climb when you didn’t expect it can make it tough to pace yourself, and not knowing how much longer you’ve got to go to make it the top can make things feel impossible. Research things like climb length and gradient to formulate a plan that works for you. While you’re on the climb, break it up into segments to make it feel more manageable.

About the Author

Marc Lindsay
Marc Lindsay

Marc is a freelance writer based in Scottsdale, Arizona. He holds a master’s degree in writing from Portland State University and is a certified physical therapy assistant. An avid cyclist and runner of over 20 years, Marc contributes to LAVA, Competitor and Phoenix Outdoor magazines. He is the former cycling editor for Active.com.

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