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Want to know how to climb faster and easier?

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.

Pace yourself

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.

- 100 Greatest Cycling climbs by Simon Warren

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. 

- How to trim bike weight on the cheap

Climbing in La Manga

Climbing in La Manga

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.

Beginner's guide: understanding gears

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. 

Mike Cotty climbs the Col de Bonette

Mike Cotty climbs the Col de Bonette

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. 

- Buyer’s guide to heart rate monitors

Pedal harder

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.

18 comments

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Sevenfold [67 posts] 8 months ago
1 like

Got to say the Cipollini http://www.mcipollini.com/en/biciclette/mcm2 would be my choice for becoming a better climber

Avatar
mingmong [285 posts] 8 months ago
6 likes

I've got this.

Don't drink 4 pints of Guinness on a Friday... lunch

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SingleSpeed [334 posts] 8 months ago
2 likes

"Got any tips of your own you want to share?"

Ride a single speed.

 

Was it Mercxx who said Train Big Race Small? or ride a bigger gear in training and spin a smaller gear in races? 

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pruaga [166 posts] 8 months ago
3 likes

On really steep hills don't plan too far ahead.  Just look to keep going until the next tree, and then the next tree after that, and then until you go past the guy pushing.

Gets me up Whitedown Lane everytime.

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Mungecrundle [866 posts] 8 months ago
6 likes

Not many hills near me that are even worth changing down to the granny ring. Most of the steep bits are under 30 seconds of effort so you can hit them full bore and go way into the red zone of lactic acid debt, push over the top and recover whilst freewheeling down the other side all nice and aero whilst everyone else struggles in your wake.

At least that is how it always plays out in my head until about 1/2 way up.

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barbarus [466 posts] 8 months ago
2 likes

I think physiology plays a bigger part in this than we might want to admit. I'm built like a climber and rarely practice climbs (although living in the West country they can't really be avoided) yet on a group ride I know I'm always pretty quick on the climbs.

What I DO practice, and don't seem to get any better at, is keeping up with the bigger guys on the fast flat or slightly downhill sections.

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drosco [349 posts] 8 months ago
0 likes

Agree with barbarus, I'm just useless in a chaingang, but put me on a slope and it all just comes together. Since I was a boy it's always been the case. Why so slow on the flat I'm still searching for the answer to.

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HalfWheeler [640 posts] 8 months ago
3 likes
drosco wrote:

Agree with barbarus, I'm just useless in a chaingang, but put me on a slope and it all just comes together. Since I was a boy it's always been the case. Why so slow on the flat I'm still searching for the answer to.

I'm pretty similar. I'm just under 10 stone at 5ft 11 so I'm built to be faster up hill than on the flat or downhill. During midsummer chaingangs I'm hanging on for grim death for the first ten miles. I'm puce with effort, breathing like Fred West, if you could see and hear me you'd think I was about to die.

It's torture.

But as soon as we hit the mile long hill I recover then jump them. Every time. And it feels great. Don't get me wrong, I get caught just as the descent evens out then it's back to square one. But I wouldn't change a thing.

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yerbs [3 posts] 8 months ago
1 like

I find a lot comes down to psychology, dont look to the top of the hill, look down at the road, stuff closer (as prauga says) - nothing more depressing than being half way up a climb, turn a corner and just see it stretch out in front of you.  Also years ago I took the attitude of only stop at the top of the hill and never half way, once you get to the top you don't want to stop anyway.

Of course theres nothing more satisfying that overtaking others going up a hill.. it's the push you need sometimes. 

Itching to get back on the hills, but icy roads, wet leaves and debris makes the decents scary at the moment !

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Sadoldsamurai [44 posts] 8 months ago
0 likes
SingleSpeed wrote:

"Got any tips of your own you want to share?"

Ride a single speed.

 

Was it Mercxx who said Train Big Race Small? or ride a bigger gear in training and spin a smaller gear in races? 

 

Ride a single speed FIXED 

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Richard1982 [76 posts] 8 months ago
0 likes
Sadoldsamurai wrote:

Ride a single speed FIXED 

 

 Not sure about that, I find fixed is easier going up hill than single speed - although I suppose riding fixed does give you chance to practice your spinning on the way back down!

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tritecommentbot [2268 posts] 7 months ago
4 likes
Sevenfold wrote:

Got to say the Cipollini http://www.mcipollini.com/en/biciclette/mcm2 would be my choice for becoming a better climber

 

That is a ridiculously good looking electric bike. I find that bike analogous to a beautiful ladyboy 

 

 

Avatar
Bobbinogs [250 posts] 7 months ago
2 likes
unconstituted wrote:
Sevenfold wrote:

Got to say the Cipollini http://www.mcipollini.com/en/biciclette/mcm2 would be my choice for becoming a better climber

 

That is a ridiculously good looking electric bike. I find that bike analogous to a beautiful ladyboy 

 

 

Best comment of the week  1

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CXR94Di2 [1723 posts] 7 months ago
2 likes

Simple physics, lose weight.  Only downside is large/tall frame riders are never going to overcome physics eve  with weight loss compared to a small rider.  

Big riders good at flat and short hills, small riders good for hills going up.

The only thing I've learnt to do to make hills slightly easier is spin.  I used to ride at 80rpm but have trained this winter and now ride at 95-100rpm.  Ive also altered my gearing down on my bike to encourage me to spin 

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. . [180 posts] 7 months ago
2 likes
drosco wrote:

Why so slow on the flat I'm still searching for the answer to.

It's because speed on the flat is limited by air resistance, speed up hills is limited by overcoming gravity.  Air resistance is roughly proportional to your frontal area (square of your size), but power is proportional to your muscle volume (cube of your size), which gives big guys an advantage on the flat.

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barbarus [466 posts] 7 months ago
0 likes
Richard1982 wrote:
Sadoldsamurai wrote:

Ride a single speed FIXED 

 

 Not sure about that, I find fixed is easier going up hill than single speed - although I suppose riding fixed does give you chance to practice your spinning on the way back down!

Riding fixed downhill scares the crap out of me! I like it for climbs though.

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Rider X [11 posts] 7 months ago
0 likes
drosco wrote:

Agree with barbarus, I'm just useless in a chaingang, but put me on a slope and it all just comes together. Since I was a boy it's always been the case. Why so slow on the flat I'm still searching for the answer to.

The reason you may be so slow is the difference in crank inertial loading.  Riding on the flat vs riding up hills have different kinetic energy (i.e., it takes longer to slow down on the flat - high kinetic energy; you slow faster on hills - low kinetic energy). Each require different muscle recruitment patterns (on the flat its short duration / fast firing; on hills its longer duration/ slower firing).

Your body and genetics may be more efficient at a slower, longer duration firing pattern.

Cycling tips had a good overview:

https://cyclingtips.com/2013/09/climbing-and-time-trialling-how-power-ou...

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bassjunkieuk [49 posts] 2 months ago
0 likes
barbarus wrote:
Richard1982 wrote:
Sadoldsamurai wrote:

Ride a single speed FIXED 

 

 Not sure about that, I find fixed is easier going up hill than single speed - although I suppose riding fixed does give you chance to practice your spinning on the way back down!

Riding fixed downhill scares the crap out of me! I like it for climbs though.

 

I had a wonderful experience after coming down Wimbledon Hill once towards the town centre - 34mph on 48x16 meant I peaked around 130rpm IIRC, lights at bottom went red so I pulled up and immediately BOTH calves cramp up! Queue some odd looks from crossing peds as I just about unclip in time to avoid falling sideways and swear a bit!

 

Have since upped gearing to 48x14 so I'm not *quite* as spinny on the occasional descents I need to do but does mean more effort on way up  1