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.
[Monty shuffles papers; looks confused]
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….
Let’s Get Physical… PHYSICAL!
Let me hear your body talk, body talk….
(I’m still 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…
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.”
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.
The more efficient your riding position, the better your climbing.
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
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
Back to the tips…
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.
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.
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?)
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…