One of the most common goals of many cyclists is to climb hills better — meaning, faster. You can get better at climbing by working on the elements that make a great climber including building fitness, honing skills and practicing tactics. While losing bodyweight is what many people focus on in discussions of climbing, it is not the easiest or, certainly, the only limit to great climbing. In fact, many skinny riders are not great climbers because they have poor technique, poor fitness and/or poor tactics.
STANDING CLIMBING TECHNIQUES
As you climb a steep hill you will shift to your easiest gear. Your cadence will drop. At some point, you are going to need to stand up on a steep hill to climb your best (if not to avoid falling over sideways).
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Pro cyclist Robert Gutgesell says, “Make sure you’re comfortable out of the saddle, being able to change muscle groups is super helpful.” Visualizing this shifting of load between sitting and standing can be quite a mental breakthrough, especially if you combine it with skillful standing.
For climbs, it is critical you practice getting in and out of the saddle smoothly so when you are working hard on a climb the act of standing up alone doesn’t put you over your limit. Standing on your bike can feel like you are trying to work maximally while on a stability ball, but it should feel like you are walking — or perhaps more accurately crawling — up a hill with points of contact at your hands and feet that you can get tension and balance from.
The best way to learn it and train the muscle required for this full-body motion is to practice it on less steep gradients, on the flats, in sprints and even on looser terrain (as you get comfortable) to refine your standing pedal stroke and body position.
SEATED CLIMBING TECHNIQUES
As a climb gets steeper you need to lean forward to stay balanced. If you can shift forward on the saddle (onto the nose), it lets you keep your hip angle open (so your thigh isn’t as close to your torso), which makes climbing feel better. If you find the nose of the saddle is uncomfortable, check that your saddle is level or pointed slightly down or consider a new saddle. Different saddles will be more comfortable in a variety of positions and can be built for more upright recreational riding rather than aggressive road racing or very steep climbs.
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GETTING THE RIGHT GEARING
Most experienced cyclists choose 80rpm or higher when they are working hard on the flats. With this in mind, Gutgessel says, “Make sure you have a low [easy] enough gear. This seems obvious, but it probably should be lower than you think you’ll need.” With the popularity of gravel, there are many more options for a wide range of cassettes that let you have enough gearing for speed on the flats and still have a few ‘bail-out’ gears for the steep hills.
DEVELOPING GOOD TACTICS
Even when you are riding alone and not pushing at maximal outputs, you can use tactics to improve your climbing. For shorter climbs, you can expend energy earlier to carry speed into the climb. Many riders back off before a short ‘wall’ and then have to pedal slowly up the whole climb, meaning they are working hard for a longer duration.
For longer steep climbs Gutgessel says, “Avoid accelerating or surging as much as possible, it’s really hard to dig yourself out of a hole when it’s steep. Don’t panic if others are accelerating, drafting doesn’t matter here so you have time to bring people back.” With steep climbs requiring most riders to work close to their limit, any surges you make due to inefficient standing, poor shifting, trying to close gaps or speeding up the climb could spell disaster if you spend too much time over your limit.
For those who try to work harder on the flats trying to get ahead before steep climbs, Ben Perry, a pro cyclist for Israel Cycling Academy offers a word of caution: “Leave a little energy in reserve and do not go over your max before the climb. If you blow up, you can lose a lot of time on a steep climb.” If you have an option to draft and not be aggressive before the climb, this can help you get up the steep climb faster by using your energy and momentum there. In a race or workout, this can mean better performance through better tactics.
Climbing is hard work for everyone — and it’s a skill that requires a lot of practice. If you climb more, it gets better. With practice, you become more efficient, you get used to the mental challenges of a climb, you gain movement skills, you figure out tactics and, perhaps surprisingly, you will even start to enjoy climbing and the reward of taking in the view at the top.