How to climb hills

Do you struggle up hills and always want to avoid them? James Thornhill-Fisher is here to help take your climbing to the next level because without going up you can’t go down…

When I say hills, I mean hills that are too long to simply sprint up in one big gear! The hills I am talking about, take roughly five to twenty minutes to climb. These are the typical long hills, which haunt you in races and taunt you on a weekend fun ride. (Not ultra-long mountain passes either mind you – those are a different matter – but hills long enough to hurt.)

Climbing a decently sized hill, on a bike, is always going to be tough on the legs, irrespective of your skill level. As one of my cycling heroes, Greg Lemond, says: “It does not get any easier, you just go faster.” The difference between the good climbers and not so good, generally boils down to a combination of technique, rider weight (power to weight) and general level of mountain biking fitness.

The latter two you can change and improve yourself, through training and diet, but “mountain bike hill climbing technique” has to be learned. Climbing is therefore a learned skill, making use of your gearing choices, cadence (pedal revolutions per minute or rpm) and your body position.

When applied optimally, these are what form your most efficient speed (or power output) up any given hill. I always break down a hill into three main sections: the bottom, the middle and the top, as each section requires a slightly different climbing technique:

The bottom section:

Gearing:

When approaching a hill ensure you’re in a lower gear than you think you’ll need. Shifting down on a hill will nearly always cost you momentum and can cause derailleur hangers to snap off or bend. Your goal is always to maintain your momentum relative to the slope up the climb.

 Cadence:

This is your pedal frequency (revs per minute). You’ll find your cadence drops as you start climbing. If you are in a low enough gear you should find your cadence fairly high (i.e spinning 80+ cadence) before settling into a slightly lower cadence as you settle into a good rhythm and move into the middle part of the climb.

 Position:

Remain seated on a climb if you’re new to mountain biking. It’s best to always get the seated position sorted and be used to it before learning the standing technique. Most cyclists will remain in the seated position for the first part of the climb to conserve energy. Getting out the saddle almost always uses more energy. Your goal, is to be as conservative as you can with your energy, so remain seated here, get into a good rhythm and enjoy the challenge ahead!

The middle section:

Gearing:

Once you’re moving into the middle section of the climb, you have two choices: either step up to a higher gear, or remain in the gear you’re in. You really want to be in ‘maximum cruise mode’ on this section. This is where your ‘anaerobic threshold’ training comes in. You want to be able to cruise fast up this section, but not so fast you ‘blow up’ (go into the red and ‘bleed out your eyeballs’).  Practice here will improve your pace judgement at threshold pace, as will knowing the climb well.

 Cadence:

Moving from the bottom section to middle section, your cadence will drop somewhat (to around 60rpm). That’s fine, especially if you’ve changed to a higher gear. You now want to hold onto this cadence and not let it drop any further. If you feel your cadence slipping, change down. If this is done correctly, you’ll immediately feel in control. It should still feel damn hard though, that’s the ‘sweet spot’.

 Position:

This now depends on the slope and how strong you feel. You can alternate between seated and standing, to rest alternate muscles – although this is really reserved for advanced riders. If you’re new, just continue riding up in the seated position and focus on finding that ‘sweet spot’. You want to adopt an upright position so you can get enough oxygen into your lungs. Breathe from your abdomen and keep as relaxed as possible. Relax your shoulders and arms and, if you have to pull on the handlebars, pull on both sides every time you push down on the pedals. This will keep you stable and prevent your bike from snaking side to side and propel you forward instead of sideways.

The top section:

This is where you can make or break a climb, especially against other riders!  Really, this is where most cyclists suffer the most because they’ve gone too hard at the bottom, or even in the middle part of the climb. They suffer because you go past them, making it look like you’re super fit – when actually, you’re just clever.

 Your goal is to be at your fastest nearing the summit of the climb. If you’ve paced it right you’ll be passing many riders at the end of a climb. Or, if you’re not racing, then you should feel it’s time to get out the saddle and give it your all as you climb to the top!

Gearing:

Again, you could increase to a higher gear and start to accelerate as you see the top of the climb.  It depends again on your fitness level and experience, but if you know the climb well and you’ve got enough in reserve, then now’s the time change up to a higher gear or two, and push harder to the top. Once you crest the hill you can change up to a bigger chainring and get ready to descend.

 Cadence:

You should maintain your cadence even if you change to a higher gear as you approach the summit. Once you crest the hill, you should start to push harder to increase your speed, so your cadence should be increasing too. Summit acceleration is the hardest part of climbing. But by starting out at the foot of the climb slower than you think you should, you should have enough in reserve to storm passed everyone in the last part of the climb.

 Position:

You can either get out the saddle to accelerate or remain seated. Most riders once fit, will get out the saddle to accelerate. But don’t lean to far forward, rather try and keep your weight centred over the bottom bracket, to prevent the back wheel from slipping and losing traction.

Easier said than done:

In reality, hills have varying slopes, surface terrain and the challenge is always to try and find ‘your optimum efficiency’ on each one. You’ll find that as soon as your cadence drops too low, your speed decreases – it’s a fine balance that comes with practice.

 One other thing to note is that you actually have enough gears on your bike to start with. I think the biggest problems I see in riders, is not gearing low enough to start with, then having to slog up climbs when they could actually ride up faster if they used the lower gears earlier.

Last words:

To get good at climbing hills you need to climb hills. OK, you need to get your weight down too if you truly want to start ‘racing’ up them, but really you can gain a huge amount of time as a beginner cyclist by improving your technique first, or at least, ‘being aware’ of how to climb a hill efficiently.

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