≡ Menu

How To Climb Better (On A Road Bike…)

How To Climb Better On A Road Bike

I’m prepared to bet that improving your ability to ride up hills is one of your top 3 priorities on the bike in 2015.

Or perhaps you express it slightly differently: your main concern (dare I say it, fear?) about your next sportive is getting up the hills (or doing so quickly).

C’est normal. We all feel that way. So let’s do summit about it…. (Oh, Monty…)

In this post I’m going to offer up a few thoughts on how to tackle climbing. As always, I don’t profess to have all the answers. I certainly don’t profess to have any particular ability*.

*(Here I offer as evidence, m’lud, the contents of my Strava account which, yes, has not seen a ride recorded in some considerable time – something that I plan to rectify by the end of the week. He says….)

I invite anyone that would like to share a good tip or piece of advice (ideally on climbing), to do so in the comments.

Ride on Macduff.

Let’s Separate The Mental From The Actual

Most hills seem to occupy a larger place in my riding psyche than they deserve.

Many times have I built up a climb in my mind (so long, so steep, so high…) and then been pleasantly surprised to find that it’s not half as dread-inducing as I expected.

This was certainly the case with my first ascent of Leith Hill (which will hopefully be reassuring to any novice riders doing RideLondon that have not yet tackled it). And when I tackled Sa Calobra, way back in the mists of time (or July 2013 as it was known at the time).

It even happens on climbs that I tackle frequently. Many’s the local côte that, during the ‘do I go for a ride/which route’ thought process, grows in stature and severity, only to turn out to be exactly the same short gentle incline that it’s always been.

What’s to learn from this?

Well, for one I need to control my overactive imagination. And two, er, actually, let’s all control our overactive imaginations.

As long as we haven’t set ourselves some ludicrous challenge far beyond our current fitness levels, then no climb should prompt abject fear.

Concern perhaps. A catalyst to think in advance about how we might prepare. But not terror.

Okay, just a little terror.

Swallow The Frog

The best way to deal with fear is to eat the fear.

What?

[Monty shuffles papers; looks confused]

Ahem.

For what it’s worth, if you’re concerned about a particular climb in a particular event, take the next opportunity to ride (or drive) to the bottom of that climb and have a go at cycling up it.

Take the pressure off. Acknowledge to yourself that you’re going to take things really easy. Perhaps you’ll spin up in your lowest gear (or grind up, gasping for air, in your lowest gear). Perhaps you’ll stop halfway for a breather.

Who cares? At least you’ll know more about that climb at the end of the day than when you woke up: what you need to be concerned about and what you need to improve your ability to get up it.

If you can’t get to the specific daemon-climb (you don’t live near the sportive route, fr’instance) then try to find a local climb with approximately the same length and steepness.

If your nemesis climb is an Alpine one with 1,000 metres of ascent and you live somewhere flat…. well, you’ll have to work that one out for yourself….

Now, [Sings]…

Let’s Get Physical… PHYSICAL!

Let me hear your body talk, body talk….

(I’m still singing)

[Stops singing]

We dealt with the mental. (We did! Dealt it good.)

Now for some tips and tidbits that I’ve accumulated over the years and stored in my journal (Monty’s Cycling Almanac) under the title ‘Climbing’.

In no particular order…

Lose Weight

Ha ha ha. Only kidding.

No. I’m not.

It’s a double win. Not only will you have less kgs to haul up that hill, but the act of losing weight (with the aid of a bike) must have had some positive impact on your fitness levels… (Surely!)

Get The Right Gear

(Not a clothing tip).

Experienced cyclist: “You just need to choose a low gear and spin up the climb. Don’t just grind it out.”

You: “There is no gear low enough for me both to spin up the climb and ride with sufficient speed to stay upright on the bike.”

E.C.: “Ah.”

We’ve all been there. Sometimes the gears just run out.

But at least give yourself the best chance you can in your choice of gears (specifically the lowest ones).

If you have any say in the matter, go for a compact chainset (the front set of cogs) and a cassette (the rear set of cogs) that goes up to 28 or 30 teeth on the largest cog. The easiest gearing combination is to have the chain on a small ring at the front and a large one on the back.

Having a really easy gear (ok, a tolerably terrible one) gives you the confidence that you stand at least some chance of getting up the climb. Then, over time, you can work on tackling the climb in progressively higher gears.

Position

The more efficient your riding position, the better your climbing.

I’m a big proponent of getting a professional bike fit. I might have mentioned this before (like here and here).

Not only does a well-fitting bike protect you from injury (or, in my case, cure one), it will make you go faster (FACT). The right position will allow to recruit all the bestest muscles. Those same muscles will help you get up your target climb at speed…

Or at least without vomiting.

Whoa. Quick Hill Workout For You

Interlude!

I think I got this workout from an old copy of Cycling Weekly.

Enjoy. Which isn’t the right word.

Step 1: Find a climb that takes about 6–8 minutes (so that’s about 50 metres of ascent for me…)

Step 2: Do the first two thirds of the climb in a low (lowest?) gear – so chain on your smaller front ring and on the largest or second largest cog at the back.

Step 3: For the final third of the climb, change up to a slightly higher gear at the back – somewhere in the middle of the cassette and sprint for the top.

Step 4 (not in the article): Vomit

…and repeat…

Back to the tips…

Breathe

Helpful.

Make a conscious effort to push out each breath. The carbon dioxide that you’re breathing out is a waste product – the quicker you get rid of it, the more efficient your aerobic system will perform.

Clearly we’re not aiming to hyperventilate. Deep, measured outward thrusts of … pelvis air are the order of the day.

Relax

Again, helpful.

HOW CAN I FUGGING RELAX WHEN IT HURTS SO MUCH.

Deal with it. Be stoic and heroic.

If you’re manically gripping the bars, you’re wasting energy on something that is not helping (and is potentially hindering) your climbing.

High Cadence

I’ve sort of mentioned this already (when I tried to persuade you to fit sensible gears, or buy a bike that already has them).

Assuming you have some choice over whether you spin up a climb in an easy gear or elect to travel at the same speed in a higher gear (with a lower cadence), you will tend to do better choosing the former.

I accept that everyone is different – some people are natural spinners; some are gear grinders. But watch the Tour de France and note that the riders who are comfortable on the long climbs tend to have a fluid, ‘spinny’ style.

Only when a rider blows do we suddenly see him grinding laboriously up the incline, prompting veteran commentator Phil Liggett to roll out one of his trademark cycling cliches (‘pedalling squares’, etc).

The danger with grinding up repeated climbs (for you, rather than a TdF rider – they can look after themselves) is that you exhaust your leg muscles to such a degree that it seriously impairs your ability to ride comfortably for the rest of the ride. And riding the last 20km of a sportive with your legs on the verge of a cramp (or actually cramping) is no fun (this is bitter experience talking).

It’s Not All About The Legs

Core and upper body strength is important for climbing.

Maybe as important as leg strength, who knows? (Someone probably does…)

Pro cyclists, when they’re not stage racing can be in the gym 2 to 3 times a week, even during the competitive season.

A bit of strength work is really important if you’re at the ‘experienced’ end of the maturity spectrum (generally speaking, muscle mass tends to reduce in humans after age of 40 (eek!)) or if you know that you lack good upper body strength.

We’re talking low weight / high repetition exercises all around your upper body (chest, arms, back) along with sensible core exercises (planks, crunches). Do your research to find information sources you can trust (such as here and here) and start gradually.

Enough Words, I’m A Visual Sorta Guy/Gal

You probably came to the wrong blog, but hey ho.

Unfortunately (or perhaps thankfully), neither the Sportive Cyclist budget nor my level of expertise extends to making professional (and credible) videos. The Global Cycling Network (GCN) does though.

For those that are ready to make the leap, here’s how to ‘climb like a pro’…

Further Reading For Hill Climb Aspirants

If you want to find out how gears work (and thus be able to select the right one), I’ve written a couple of articles:

Bike Gears: How Do They Work (learn what terms like ’53/19′ mean)

More About Bike Gears: A Short Treatise on Chain Rings (is a crankset different to a chain set; what does ‘compact’ mean?)

I also took a punt at writing (and alliterating) about ‘perfect pedalling technique’, split into two parts: part 1 and part 2.

Ever wondered how Strava classifies your local climbs? Wonder no more, for I wrote about it here.

Do you have any climbing horror stories you’d like to share? Or perhaps some advice that helped you to become a super-climber? Let us know in the comments below…

{ 16 comments… add one }
  • Nick White says:

    I’ve been cycling seriously since last summer. My climbing is reasonably good from other sports and being fairly light. What I realised through winter training is that even if you can climb fairly well, they take a big chunk of your reserves which has an impact on long rides. Knowing what climbs a sportive/route has is important in order to manage effort on each ascent. Avoid busting a gut to start the climb with lots of speed – watch your heart rate and unless the gradient demands it, stay in zone 3 for as much of the climb as possible – you can always give it some welly towards the top if you’re feeling good (my Garmin shows a profile of the upcoming terrain, which is useful on long climbs). A bit of upper body and core strength is good to avoid wasted effort rocking around on the bike. Stay seated and pedal smoothly.

    Another rider in our group (much heavier than I) is now doing the same and is climbing very well.

    We struggle for hills in Cambridgeshire, so it’s always an option to do a couple of runs up and down the ones we do have. I’m hoping my own advice works, as I’m doing the Tour de Yorkshire in May!!

  • phollingswo says:

    Cheers for this Monty!

    I was in Majorca this weekend. My first time on the island and my first time doing some “proper” climbing. I think my longest until then was some of the Surrey hills, so no more than about 10 minutes.

    Did Sa Calobra in 42 minutes which I was pretty pleased with. And Puig Major in 48 minutes.

    The biggest tip I could give is FUEL UP. I bonked hard on Puig Major. When you’re not used to climbing for that long, it’s really hard to gauge the effort level, and thus how much fuel to take on board before/during the climb. Don’t want to climb on a fully belly. Equally don’t want to climb with nothing in the tank.

    I’m thinking about quitting my job and moving there though. First day back at work today and it’s mighty depressing.

    • Andrew Montgomery says:

      I feel your pain 🙂 That’s quite a time up Sa Calobra – I’m pretty sure I was pleased to be inside the hour mark! I’d love to go back to Majorca…

  • …or you could read my ebook which might help you out: How To Climb Like A Pro on Amazon.co.uk ? – but Monty, you sort of shot yourself in the foot completely by saying in your About Us page: “pros are blessed with natural ability so therefore don’t understand how hard it is…” so, what you’re saying is it’s “easier” for us and therefore we don’t understand the struggle most cyclists go through? huh???? I don’t think you have a clue what HARD is yet… Sorry, for being very to the point, but I needed to say something, because your statement is really off-putting for those who have worked tremendously through struggle to get to those ranks. Thanks and good luck with your blog. Rebecca Ramsay (former pro cyclist).

    • Andrew Montgomery says:

      Thanks for the book reco. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure how many professional cyclists read my blog…

  • Richard Fox says:

    Great article monty

    Doing a sportive in june and there is a big..ish hill to tackle right from the start.I hate that as you might feel fresh but you have’nt sweated up and not in the “zone”

    Btw anyone got any tips on improving upper body strength for indoors as i hate going to the gym.

    • Andrew Montgomery says:

      Thanks Richard. Maybe you need to set up a turbo trainer near your team bus and do a 30 minute warm up prior to starting 😉 Beats By Dr Dre headphones are probably optional…

  • I come for the flatlands (Argentina, Buenos Aires area), as flat as it can get! I spent three months in Rio (for work, folks… yes there are some of us that must go there for work). Everything was fine until I wanted to ride the “Vista Chinesa”, a 4km climb with 10% average slope (13% to 14% in a couple of sections). I could not get up in the first attemps. I blew up in km 2.5… I had VERY bad gear, 39-23… (I bought a used bike there that came like it). I fitted a 28 cassette and I could get to the top, but with one stop. In my fourth attempt I kept a couple of rules:

    1) Know VERY WELL the climb… know were the hard parts are, and where It becomes easier (In my case, the last 700 mts… below 10%!)

    2) NO REDLINING. Kept my HR below Zone 5. Could not get a better gear ratio so I had to keep pedaling hard, at very slow cadence while keeping under control de HR.

    I did it, and could reach in the same climb the Mesa do Emperador, going down the other side of the hill and coming back up.

  • James says:

    Nice column, Monty, on a favorite subject of mine. I like Rebecca Ramsay’s comment (and recommend her book, especially to anyone just starting out), because I have friends who totally psyche themselves out of climbing by believing it ought to come naturally. And of course the good climbers would love you to believe this. But the truth is that they’ve invariably worked hard at it, and if you work hard, you’ll get better too, even if (like me), you’re in no danger or being a pro, former pro, or future pro…

    The best advice I got when I was first started climbing was to go slowly — as ridiculously slowly as possible. So slowly that you can do the whole climb without stopping. Once you can do that, then you can work on going harder, and on implementing all the wonderful tips that people will give you. And stay positive! Admire the view, feel good about finishing the climb (or at least completing more of it than last time), and resist comparing yourself to others unless it really motivates you. If your climbs always finish with good experiences, you’ll find you’re more likely to keep at it. And before you know it, you’ll be addicted too. 🙂

    • Gusters says:

      I share this view entirely – as a heavy weight, getting to the top is the primary goal and beating my last Strava time is a bonus. I love the the sense of achievement of cresting a long hill. Low gears and a slow wind works for me at the moment. Maybe as I shed the baggage I’ll be able to get out of the saddle at some point!

  • Rick Mead says:

    Great article – wherever we go from where we are here in Spain – “it’s uphill” from the start so all that advise will be good.
    You talk about “Zone 3” do you have any articles about Fitness Zones ? Can’t really get my head around the difference in the Manual for my Heart Monitor etc.

  • jfhilborne says:

    I’m fairly decent on the hills (as long as I’m in the lowest gears) and admit that at 106 lbs I might have a weight advantage, but what I lack is upper body strength. To improve my hill climbing, I’ve started planking to build core strength and also participating in time trialling which has dramatically improved my pacing and cardio. The reward was recently conquering a beast of a hill in Southern California (only about 3/4 mile long but 16%+ grade) that I’d previously tried (and failed) twice to climb without stopping.

  • I’m wondering how I can comment on the post above, as I’m ‘sending a comment’ but it’s not getting added to the ‘conversation’? Tx

  • OK that time I tried ‘leave a reply’ rather than ‘add a comment’. And it seems more promising. Learning curve blues…

  • Nick White March 8, 2015, 6:38 pm

    I’ve been cycling seriously since last summer. My climbing is reasonably good from other sports and being fairly light. What I realised through winter training is that even if you can climb fairly well, they take a big chunk of your reserves which has an impact on long rides. Knowing what climbs a sportive/route has is important in order to manage effort on each ascent. Avoid busting a gut to start the climb with lots of speed – watch your heart rate and unless the gradient demands it, stay in zone 3 for as much of the climb as possible – you can always give it some welly towards the top if you’re feeling good (my Garmin shows a profile of the upcoming terrain, which is useful on long climbs). A bit of upper body and core strength is good to avoid wasted effort rocking around on the bike. Stay seated and pedal smoothly.

    Another rider in our group (much heavier than I) is now doing the same and is climbing very well.

    We struggle for hills in Cambridgeshire, so it’s always an option to do a couple of runs up and down the ones we do have. I’m hoping my own advice works, as I’m doing the Tour de Yorkshire in May!!

    • Andrew Montgomery March 9, 2015, 11:09 am

      Thanks Nick. Need to work on my fitness so that zone 3 on a climb becomes at least an option…

  • phollingswo March 9, 2015, 8:41 am

    Cheers for this Monty!

    I was in Majorca this weekend. My first time on the island and my first time doing some “proper” climbing. I think my longest until then was some of the Surrey hills, so no more than about 10 minutes.

    Did Sa Calobra in 42 minutes which I was pretty pleased with. And Puig Major in 48 minutes.

    The biggest tip I could give is FUEL UP. I bonked hard on Puig Major. When you’re not used to climbing for that long, it’s really hard to gauge the effort level, and thus how much fuel to take on board before/during the climb. Don’t want to climb on a fully belly. Equally don’t want to climb with nothing in the tank.

    I’m thinking about quitting my job and moving there though. First day back at work today and it’s mighty depressing.

    • Andrew Montgomery March 9, 2015, 11:07 am

      I feel your pain 🙂 That’s quite a time up Sa Calobra – I’m pretty sure I was pleased to be inside the hour mark! I’d love to go back to Majorca…

  • Rebecca Ramsay March 9, 2015, 11:55 am

    …or you could read my ebook which might help you out: How To Climb Like A Pro on Amazon.co.uk ? – but Monty, you sort of shot yourself in the foot completely by saying in your About Us page: “pros are blessed with natural ability so therefore don’t understand how hard it is…” so, what you’re saying is it’s “easier” for us and therefore we don’t understand the struggle most cyclists go through? huh???? I don’t think you have a clue what HARD is yet… Sorry, for being very to the point, but I needed to say something, because your statement is really off-putting for those who have worked tremendously through struggle to get to those ranks. Thanks and good luck with your blog. Rebecca Ramsay (former pro cyclist).

    • Andrew Montgomery March 9, 2015, 3:44 pm

      Thanks for the book reco. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure how many professional cyclists read my blog…

  • Richard Fox March 9, 2015, 11:57 am

    Great article monty

    Doing a sportive in june and there is a big..ish hill to tackle right from the start.I hate that as you might feel fresh but you have’nt sweated up and not in the “zone”

    Btw anyone got any tips on improving upper body strength for indoors as i hate going to the gym.

    • Andrew Montgomery March 9, 2015, 3:45 pm

      Thanks Richard. Maybe you need to set up a turbo trainer near your team bus and do a 30 minute warm up prior to starting 😉 Beats By Dr Dre headphones are probably optional…

  • aassanelli (@aassanelli) March 9, 2015, 3:03 pm

    I come for the flatlands (Argentina, Buenos Aires area), as flat as it can get! I spent three months in Rio (for work, folks… yes there are some of us that must go there for work). Everything was fine until I wanted to ride the “Vista Chinesa”, a 4km climb with 10% average slope (13% to 14% in a couple of sections). I could not get up in the first attemps. I blew up in km 2.5… I had VERY bad gear, 39-23… (I bought a used bike there that came like it). I fitted a 28 cassette and I could get to the top, but with one stop. In my fourth attempt I kept a couple of rules:

    1) Know VERY WELL the climb… know were the hard parts are, and where It becomes easier (In my case, the last 700 mts… below 10%!)

    2) NO REDLINING. Kept my HR below Zone 5. Could not get a better gear ratio so I had to keep pedaling hard, at very slow cadence while keeping under control de HR.

    I did it, and could reach in the same climb the Mesa do Emperador, going down the other side of the hill and coming back up.

    • Andrew Montgomery March 9, 2015, 3:46 pm

      Thanks Aazzanelli – good advice

  • James March 9, 2015, 9:30 pm

    Nice column, Monty, on a favorite subject of mine. I like Rebecca Ramsay’s comment (and recommend her book, especially to anyone just starting out), because I have friends who totally psyche themselves out of climbing by believing it ought to come naturally. And of course the good climbers would love you to believe this. But the truth is that they’ve invariably worked hard at it, and if you work hard, you’ll get better too, even if (like me), you’re in no danger or being a pro, former pro, or future pro…

    The best advice I got when I was first started climbing was to go slowly — as ridiculously slowly as possible. So slowly that you can do the whole climb without stopping. Once you can do that, then you can work on going harder, and on implementing all the wonderful tips that people will give you. And stay positive! Admire the view, feel good about finishing the climb (or at least completing more of it than last time), and resist comparing yourself to others unless it really motivates you. If your climbs always finish with good experiences, you’ll find you’re more likely to keep at it. And before you know it, you’ll be addicted too. 🙂

    • Gusters September 16, 2016, 12:52 pm

      I share this view entirely – as a heavy weight, getting to the top is the primary goal and beating my last Strava time is a bonus. I love the the sense of achievement of cresting a long hill. Low gears and a slow wind works for me at the moment. Maybe as I shed the baggage I’ll be able to get out of the saddle at some point!

  • Rick Mead June 27, 2016, 9:46 am

    Great article – wherever we go from where we are here in Spain – “it’s uphill” from the start so all that advise will be good.
    You talk about “Zone 3” do you have any articles about Fitness Zones ? Can’t really get my head around the difference in the Manual for my Heart Monitor etc.

  • jfhilborne January 10, 2017, 12:51 pm

    I’m fairly decent on the hills (as long as I’m in the lowest gears) and admit that at 106 lbs I might have a weight advantage, but what I lack is upper body strength. To improve my hill climbing, I’ve started planking to build core strength and also participating in time trialling which has dramatically improved my pacing and cardio. The reward was recently conquering a beast of a hill in Southern California (only about 3/4 mile long but 16%+ grade) that I’d previously tried (and failed) twice to climb without stopping.

  • adrianfingleton56 February 6, 2017, 10:20 pm

    I’m wondering how I can comment on the post above, as I’m ‘sending a comment’ but it’s not getting added to the ‘conversation’? Tx

  • adrianfingleton56 February 6, 2017, 10:21 pm

    OK that time I tried ‘leave a reply’ rather than ‘add a comment’. And it seems more promising. Learning curve blues…

Leave a Reply