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.
If you're looking to go a bit faster up the local hill or you just want to make them a bit easier, we've got some brilliant advice from cycling coach Liam Holohan. He's got plenty of experience coaching riders of all levels so you should find his advice easy to apply to your riding.
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. Liam says that the smart approach is to pace yourself up a climb, starting at a steady pace to allow your body to settle into the effort.
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, Liam says that it's time to start listening to your body. If you feel like you can go a bit faster, then increase your effort a little at a time. Small increases in effort can hurt a lot!
That all very well for longer climbs, but Liam suggests that shorter, steeper climbs be taken with more of a 'smash it' attitude.
It can really help to consult some data at this point. Heart rate numbers are good, but power data is best. Just don't be staring at your computer like Chris Froome does! If you haven't got access to these metrics, then learning to judge how your body is feeling is key to good pacing.
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 and conserve some energy for 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 Komoot, 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.
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.
Losing fat mass safely and steadily is Liam's advice and, contrary to the traditional approach, he suggests losing weight in the off-season between October and March. This is because running the daily calorie deficit of between 250-500kCal needed for steady fat mass loss is best done when the rider isn't also trying to build their power.
Liam suggests that the autumn and winter months when many riders switch to steady rides is great for this as focusing on just one thing puts less stress on the immune system. This leaves the spring for riders to build up their power, with the hard graft mostly behind you.
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.
If you're riding in a group, or you find yourself climbing with another rider of similar ability, getting on their wheel will save you a few watts when the gradient is around 7% or below. You're still using quite a bit of energy to push yourself through the air, so this can be a bigger help than you might think.
Liam points out that there is also a significant psychological advantage to climbing in the wheel of another rider. Clinging to the wheel might take all of your mental and physical strength, but you'll likely set a new personal record on that climb.
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.
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.
If climbing is your weakness, don’t try to avoid them, instead, make it your goal to ride more climbs. The more you ride climbs the more comfortable you’ll get on them and the better you’ll become. Through practice, you'll learn how to pace different types of climbs and you can even figure out where on your local hill to rest or even attack.
Although they can be really painful, hill reps are a great way to develop fitness and that fitness will translate onto the flatlands too. Liam has got a very simple hill reps session for you to try:
A power meter is best for these efforts, but you can use a heart rate monitor or simply use RPE (rate of perceived exertion). Liam suggests using a hill of similar gradient to your target climb if you're preparing for a trip to the big climbs in the Alps.
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.
While data is great, Liam says that we shouldn't fixate on one metric, or be held back by the numbers. Power and heart rate data complement each other and can vary from day to day, so keep an eye on both and compare them to how you're actually feeling. If you want to push on, do it.
Another thing that Liam stressed is that the power figures which you can churn out during a 20-minute test will likely differ from those that you can do at the end of a long ride. Similarly, you may find it easier to dig deep on a real hill vs the indoor trainer. It's all about learning how your body reacts to various situations.
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.
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.
Our readers are a knowledgeable bunch. Here are some of the best bits of advice from the comments section.
CXR94Di2 says: "Having just returned from the Alps, I'm faster than my previous attempts at climbing, but not as fast as the smaller lighter riders.This was due to weight loss and a bit fitter.
I had very low gearing which allowed me to spin at 80+rpm for multi hour climbs like the Telegraphe/Galibier and Glandon. Happy 94KG rider."
Mungecrundle says: "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..."
Mingmong has some advice that we're yet to try: "Don't drink 4 pints of Guinness on a Friday... lunch."
And finally, Kil0ran has some comforting advice for bigger riders - "Being around 18st I'm epic at downhills. I've usually got the power to punch over short hills (e.g. Wimbledon Hill on RL I flew up, but Leith would kill me)
Recently rode my tourer on my usual route (disc brakes, 4kg heavier than best bike) and lo and behold set a Strava PB for a long downhill section (only around 2%, over half a mile or so). Isn't gravity great?"
Got any tips of your own you want to share?
David worked on the road.cc tech team from 2012-2020. 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, and you can now find him over on his own YouTube channel David Arthur - Just Ride Bikes.