How do I become a better climber? It’s a question we hear a lot so here are some top tips to help you become a better climber.
Climbs, unless you live in a very flat part of the country, are hard to avoid and an integral part of cycling. Some people embrace climbs and can ride up them with all the grace and ease of a professional, but some people fear them and can struggle with the gradient and fitness required to get up them.
We’ve all done it; hit the bottom of a climb really fast and then struggled to maintain the pace all the way to the top, and grovelled over the summit. The smart approach is to pace yourself up a climb. Try and arrive at the bottom of the climb with your heart rate nice and low, and ease into the gradient of the climb but trying to resist your urge to pedal as hard as possible - this can be difficult in a group situation we admit, but it’s a smart move to adopt your own pacing strategy. Once you’ve settled into the climb gradually increase the pace and try and finish fast and crest the summit feeling strong and ready for the next challenge.
Know the climb
When you don’t know how long or steep a climb is, it’s exceptionally difficult to pace yourself. If you are riding a climb blind, it’s wise to find a comfortable pace that and conserve some energy if the climb becomes steeper or longer than expected. Another strategy, and it's useful if you're doing a sportive, is to make use of modern technology. Strava and Google Maps, to name two examples, allow you to research climbs and get a good idea of what to expect. This way you can know exactly what is in store and be mentally prepared when you arrive at the climb.
Lose some weight
Unfortunately, one of the enemies of fast climbing is how much weight you have to propel up the climbs. You can lose weight on the bike, and you can read some good advice on how to do that, but while it’s easy to throw money at weight savings on the bike, there’s only so much scope for improvement.
No, it’s your body weight that could be the limiting factor to climbing speed and it’s all about the power to weight ratio: lower your weight and/or increase your power. It’s not just fat that will slow you down, muscle is more dense than fat and a lot of upper body muscle doesn’t contribute a whole lot when you’re on the bike. Big biceps, shoulders, pecs… you’re essentially carrying them uphill.
So maybe pass on the biscuits when they’re offered around the office.
Lower your gearing
If you’re struggling because the gears on your bike are just too hard, consider adjusting or changing your drivetrain setup to accommodate lower gears. There’s a lot more choice these days with compact chainsets now very popular on many road bikes, and newer subcompact chainsets offering even lower gears. Add in the increasingly wide-range cassettes now available and you can have some very low gears indeed., ideal if you’re riding a hilly sportive in the Lakes or Alps.
John has written a really detailed guide above to understanding gears and in it, he explains some typical gear set-ups and the lowest gear it’s possible to get. Most of the drivetrain manufacturers, namely Shimano and SRAM, have really started offering a lot more choice these days and you can get some very low gears. Now 11-28 cassettes have become common, and 11-32 and 11-36 are also popular. Combine them with a 50/34 compact chainset, or even a new 46/30 subcompact and you have a huge range of gears. SRAM even makes a 10-42 cassette for its increasingly popular 1x11 Force and Rival offerings. Options aplenty.
To stand or to sit in the saddle?
Most people have a personal preference when it comes to climbing in or out of the saddle, but generally the most effective and aerobically efficient way to climb is seated in the saddle and use the gearing and cadence to get you up the hill. That’s for gradients up to 10% according to professor Ernst Hansen. Out-of-saddle pedalling can boost your power output and helps you to produce the required power to tackle very steep gradients in excess of 10%.
The extra power produced from standing up on the pedals can also be useful to increase your speed on a climb, whether attacking or riding after a friend. The downside to getting out of the saddle is increased oxygen consumption, so save these efforts for short bursts and very steep climbs. Most people have a personal preference, watch any pro race and you'll see that some people never get out of the saddle, and some never seem to sit down on the climbs, so perhaps experiment with both approaches and see what feels more comfortable and effective for you.
Increase your cadence
Instead of grinding a really high gear up a climb, copy the pros and switch to an easier gear and increase your cadence. Pushing a bigger gear can feel more comfortable, but studies have shown that spinning a lower gear leads to a better performance.
A study by Spanish researcher Alejandro Lucia in 2004 revealed that efficiency is significantly higher at higher cadences. The “economy decreases at slow cadences (60 rpm) compared with higher pedalling rates (100 rpm)” and that the decreases are also accompanied by higher levels of blood lactate and fatigue.
So a higher cadence pedalling is more effective because you’re reducing the tension and load on the leg muscles and this reduces the fatigue and early onset of lactic acid that can inhibit climbing performance. If you’re used to pushing quite high gears it can take some training to adjust to spinning a lower gear, so allow some time to adapt and perhaps add short periods of higher cadence pedalling. A cadence sensor is a useful tool for measuring this.
Hill reps - train your weakness
If climbing is your weakness, don’t try and avoid them, instead, try and ride more climbs. The more you ride climbs the more comfortable you’ll get on them and the better you’ll become.
Hill reps are a great way to develop fitness (that’ll be useful on the flat as well as when you’re climbing). Try this:
• Warm up thoroughly as you ride to a hill that takes 6mins to climb.
• Ride it hard, at about 90% of your maximum effort.
• Descend the hill, recovering for a total of 3mins.
• Repeat the process until you’ve done four climbs.
If the hill you find is a little shorter or longer, make your recovery period half the length of time it takes to ride the climb.
Train your weakness is the goal here and only be doing more climbing will you get better at climbing.
Use heart rate or a power meter
While you can pace yourself just by listening to your body and feeling the pain in your legs, you can get a lot more scientific if you want. A heart rate monitor is an excellent way to help you control your pace throughout a climb and can prevent you from going into the red. A power meter is an expensive upgrade but allows even more precise pacing control than heart rate because it’s showing you your direct effort.
Okay, so we’re only half serious here, but pushing harder on the pedals is one way to get up climbs more quickly. Yes, it’ll hurt more, but the pain is only temporary and all that.
What goes up must come down
And remember, while you’re toiling away up a leg-bending climb, there’s the reward of the descent on the other side of the hill to look forward to.
Got any tips of your own you want to share?
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.