Riding Tips: Be a Better Climber

Pedaling a bicycle uphill can certainly be a source of consternation for any cyclist. There’s no getting around the pain in the legs, the burn in the lungs, the ache of the lower back, plus the test of the psyche. And while some riders are simply more gifted in conquering hills through factors such as genetics and physique, everyone has a capacity for improvement and the ability to make peace with climbing and embrace it for the challenge that it is. There’s undeniably a satisfaction unlike any other you’ll experience in cycling of going head-to-head with a challenging ascent and reaching the summit. Here are some tips to make the climbing experience that much more efficient and (dare we say) enjoyable.

Follow our climbing tips and you, too, may one day don the polka-dot jersey. Or at least be the King/Queen of the Mountains on your local ride.

Follow our climbing tips and you, too, may one day don the polka-dot jersey. Or at least be the King/Queen of the Mountains on your local ride.

Mix in saddle and out of saddle pedaling
While this is sound advice in general when riding in order to provide some relief and optimize comfort, the effects are perhaps most noticeable in the midst of a climb. Through experience and over time you’ll likely come to a preferred climbing style, but nonetheless on climbs of more than moderate length you’ll do yourself a favor by mixing up in saddle and out of the saddle efforts. As a lean, mean, climbing teenager I spent plenty of time out of the saddle, Marco Pantani style, in order to push the pace and dole out accelerations to keep competitors on edge, but as time and the physical transformation of age has made their mark I find myself these days more of a seated climber on all but the most severe pitches. Still, it feels good to get out of the saddle and mix things up if only for a mental break and something different to concentrate on. And as a tip, assuming the gradient remains the same, you’ll find it’s a good idea to shift up a cog as you transition from seating to standing as you’re able to use more of your body weight in each pedal stroke plus there’s a tendency to slightly slow the RPMs all of which having a slightly higher gear will counteract.

Become a shifting savant
As one becomes more experienced in riding uphill, you’ll pick up the ability to read the severity of a slope and be able to anticipate the correct gear to be in before getting bogged down on the slope. While the current generation of drivetrains are certainly better at shifting under load, you’ll still do your drivetrain a favor by not shifting under tremendous load. And when you do shift while climbing, it helps to back of the pressure on the pedals slightly during the actual act of changing gears to help achieve a smoother shift.

Don’t bog down
While you can certainly use raw power to muscle up a short ascent of a few hundred meters, once you begin to tackle a climb of any notable length your legs will thank you if you try to keep the gears lower and the RPMs higher. Turning your legs into lactic acid factories with plenty of climbing to go will definitely put a damper on your enthusiasm for going uphill.

It’s all in the mind
No doubt there’s a physical component to going uphill, but keeping a positive mental attitude is a remarkable asset for climbing bliss. To keep from sinking into a downer funk, break the climb into tiny morsels (think “just keep up the pace through that next turn up ahead”) and give yourself a figurative pat on the back when you’ve checked off mini-achievement after mini-achievement all the way up. Just as you don’t want to think “wow, I have 99 more miles to go” at the outset of a century ride, don’t psyche yourself out when you have multiple miles of climbing to face by focusing on the end total.

When climbing in a group, make sure to keep your front wheel protected.

When climbing in a group, make sure to keep your front wheel protected.

Mind your front wheel
Whenever you find yourself climbing with other riders, it’s imperative to monitor the distance between your front wheel and the rear wheel of the rider in front of you. When the rider ahead of you makes the transition from seating to standing, there’s a chance the bike may be thrust backwards some and possibly right into your front wheel if you’re not paying attention. Ideally, when a rider makes the transition to standing he/she will be attentive and not pitch the bike backwards much or at all, but it’s not something you can count on. Similarly, when you know there’s a rider on your rear wheel, try to minimize the degree that your bike moves backwards when moving from sitting to standing.

More distance/less effort
When negotiating switchbacks, be mindful of how steep the inner section of the road/trail can be. Yes, the quickest line through the uphill turn is along the apex, but on some climbs that section is ridiculously steep. If you’re making a left turn on a road switchback it’s easy to stay along the outer edge of the road for an easier gradient. Just be careful when the switchback is on a right turn as the easier pitch puts you out into the lane in the path of motorists approaching from behind.

Know thyself
Through experience you’ll figure out what kind of pace you can handle on climbs and how much you can push into the red without going too far. The worst thing that can happen on a climb, both physically and mentally, is to set a blistering pace early only to have yourself blow up and limp the rest of the way to the top. I fondly remember tackling a 10-mile long ascent in the Blue Ridge Mountains many years ago with a few very eager teammates and almost from the get-go my three companions danced off into the distance as the mano-a-mano slugfest got the better of them. I knew how many miles – steep miles – were ahead and just kept to my own tempo. Soon enough, teammate number 1 was dispatched about 2 miles in, I caught and passed teammate number 2 after about 7 miles of climbing, and I latched onto the wheel of my third teammate inside the final 400 meters to the top. All along my pace kept pretty steady. You just have to have faith in your ability and know when too much is too much. And even if you were in a similar scenario and didn’t catch back on with speedier companions, it’s always a good plan to start more moderately and finish strong.

A rider climbs alone in the mountains.

Solo rider vs. the mountains.

Digital motivation
In my younger days as a burgeoning competitive cyclist, I spent nearly all of my training time alone as I lived in a rural area with a dearth of fellow cyclists. Having a cycling computer made a world of difference, however, as I could use it as a motivator and task master to keep me climbing at a solid rate. “Just don’t let the speed drop below xx MPH” was a consistent mantra.

Reward
And remember, once you crest the summit, at some point – hopefully very soon – you’ll enjoy the fruits of your labor by taking in a healthy descent. And how to manage yourself on that will be the topic for another day. Stay tuned.

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2 comments on “Riding Tips: Be a Better Climber
  1. Mark Pemburn says:

    This Spring, at the age of 65, I started back into serious road riding after a long hiatus. The countryside around my Harford County, MD home is pretty hilly, and I have (re)discovered a true love of hill climbing. My greatest allies are low body weight, a triple crankset with a 30-tooth, an positive attitude, and most of all, great companions who share my love of the hills.

    One thing I can’t completely agree with here is riding out of the saddle. When riding with climbers of about my ability, I often find that I can pass them on hills by maintaining a high cadence with a conscious effort to power evenly through the pedal stroke. Getting out of the saddle breaks my rhythm, and can rob me of stamina, especially later in the ride. This is probably a fine technique for competitors, but the recreational rider should consider whether it’s truly beneficial for them.

  2. Glenn Davies says:

    You forgot the most important rule. Get to the top before you run out of gears.

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