It’s a well known fact that the bragging rights for any given ride are taken on the hills, and specifically when you’re going up them. Strava trophies are awarded to the King/Queen of the Mountain after all, and the most prestigious segments are climbs.
So, if you want to be the best climber, you’re going to need the best climbing bike, right? It all makes perfect sense.
With that firmly and irrefutably established, what are the most important things you should be looking for in a bike designed for climbing?
Best climbing bikes: what to look for
It perhaps goes without saying, but when you’re riding uphill, gravity is always trying to pull you back down.
Reducing the total rider plus bike system weight means less energy (or power, in cycling parlance) is required to maintain a given speed while climbing.
Therefore, if you want to ride uphill faster, or simply make the hills a little easier for you, a lightweight bike is an obvious move.
It’s for this reason we see hill-climb obsessives chopping and changing practically every component to bring their overall bike weight down to its lowest possible limit.
The only issue is that high-end, lightweight bikes and parts can be eye-wateringly expensive, and the weight-weenie bug can be hard to shake once you get started. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Until fairly recently, climbing bikes made no concessions to aerodynamics. But with the rise of computer modelling, on-bike aero sensors and other advanced testing techniques, this has all changed.
Even dedicated climbing bikes are now launching touting their aerodynamic efficiency.
Take Trek’s recently launched 2021 Emonda, for example. Trek says it has been designed specifically for the rigours of iconic Tour de France climbs such as Alpe d’Huez (a 13.85km monster in the French Alps), yet still features extensive aero treatment.
We won’t deny that there’s usually a minor weight penalty associated with such aero features, but clearly brands have deduced that, on balance, it’s worth it.
We’ll discuss this particular issue in more detail in our buyer’s guide at the end of the article, so keep reading once you’ve read all the reviews.
Now, onto the best climbing bikes in 2020.
The best climbing bikes in 2020, as rated by our team of expert testers
Cannondale SuperSix EVO Hi-Mod Disc Dura-Ace Di2: £9,000
Carrera Virago: £800
Focus Izalco Max 9.7 AXS: £5,699
Orbea Orca OMX M10i LTD D: £7,899
Specialized Tarmac SL6 Expert: £4,250
Van Rysel RR 920 CF: £2,000
BMC Teammachine SLR 01 Two: £9,800
Canyon Ultimate CF SL Disc 8.0 Di2 Aero: £3,749
Giant TCR Advanced Pro 2 Disc: £2,999
2021 Trek Emonda SL 6 Pro: £3,350
Vitus Vitesse Evo Team eTap AXS: £3,700
Cannondale SuperSix EVO Hi-Mod Disc Dura-Ace Di2
A virtuoso of a bike uphill and down and always at speed. David Caudery / Immediate Media
- Fast, comfortable road bike with excellent spec and wonderful handling
- Comes at a high price, and the extra payment needed to activate the power meter is irritating
The successor to one of the most renowned carbon climbing bikes, Cannondale’s latest evolution of the SuperSix EVO Hi-Mod broke with tradition and added features such as aerodynamic tube shapes and components, and disc brakes.
Yes, these features have added a little weight, but being built around a frame and fork that weigh 866g (56cm) and 389g respectively, this top-end build is still competitive in the weight department.
Our size 58cm test bike weighed 7.51kg, and that’s with aero wheels, 25mm tyres, an aero cockpit and a spider-based power meter.
The obvious downside is the price, but those less willing to part with such lofty figures might also consider the Cannondale SuperSix Evo Carbon Disc Ultegra, which comes in at a third of the price but only weighs around 800g more.
There are also three women’s-specific builds available, built around the cheaper, non Hi-Mod frameset.
Weight: 7.51kg (58cm)
Gearing: 52×36, 11-30
The frame geometry is surprisingly aggressive for a budget bike. David Caudery / Immediate Media
- Carbon frame at a bargain price
- Some component compromises have inevitably been made to hit the price point
The headline weight figure of 9.71kg (size medium) isn’t going to wow anyone, but with an RRP of just £800 for the entire bike this is one of the cheapest ways to access a brand-new bike with a carbon frame.
It’s also been smartly specced with a low 34×32 bottom gear to ensure you can comfortably spin up even the steepest of climbs.
At this price, there are always going to be some compromises, but if you desperately want a carbon frame, perhaps with a view to upgrading some of the components later on, this could be a great option.
Weight: 9.71kg (medium)
Gearing: 50×34, 11-34
Focus Izalco Max 9.7 AXS
The ride is brilliant – firm yet forgiving. David Caudery / Immediate Media
- Racy handling and fast feeling road bike
- Decent value compared to the competition
Similar to many other bikes in this category, Focus has evolved its Izalco platform to be more well-rounded.
The latest version takes both weight and aerodynamics into account, but doesn’t go so far as to ignore practicality completely – the aero cockpit, for example, uses a standard stem and handlebar set-up to make fit adjustment and maintenance a little easier.
At 7.9kg (size large), it’s not the lightest bike we’ve ever tested but this does include 50mm deep aero wheels and, with a frame weight of just 890g (claimed), it could certainly be lightened up considerably with a few weight-weenie optimisations.
There’s also a slightly cheaper version, the Izalco Max Disc 8.8, that has Ultegra R8000 mechanical gears, but performed similarly well in our testing.
Weight: 7.9kg (large)
Gearing: 48×36, 10-28
Orbea Orca OMX M10i LTD D
Overall, the OMX is a stunning machine. David Caudery / Immediate Media
- Excellent all-round ride and generous tyre clearance
- Clean build with smart component integration
The new Orca OMX has a wonderful blend of low weight, firm pedalling stiffness, decent aero credentials and confident handling that make it an absolute joy to ride.
We also really appreciate the care with which Orbea has integrated the cables. It makes for a beautifully clean front end, without any compromises in fit, and it’s not overly complicated to put together either.
Our test bike weighed 7.5kg (size large), complete with aero wheels. This doesn’t trouble the UCI weight limit, but with an 833g frame and 370g fork (claimed weights), it could certainly be built lighter, if you felt the need.
Orbea also offers the slightly cheaper Orca M25 Team-D.
Weight: 7.5kg (large)
Gearing: 50×34, 11-30
Specialized Tarmac SL6 Expert
When a bike’s this fast and capable, why pay more? David Caudery / Immediate Media
- An excellent all round package, with a great frame and high quality parts
- Bold graphics may divide opinion
Specialized was one of the first major brands to incorporate aero features into its lightweight road bike platform, and it managed to do so without increasing weight too much.
Our size 56cm test bike weighed just 7.63kg, which is impressive for a disc brake bike equipped with aero wheels and an Ultegra groupset.
As usual with Specialized, you also get a suite of excellent components, which add value to the package.
If the price of this particular model is off-putting, Specialized also offers the highly rated Tarmac Disc Comp and Allez Elite models, and a wide selection of women’s specific builds.
Weight: 7.63kg (56cm)
Gearing: 52×36, 11-30
Van Rysel RR 920 CF
The RR 920 CF gobbles up miles on the flat, accelerates sharply and climbs and descends with the best of them. Robert Smith / Immediate Media
- Lightweight and intelligent build
- Excellent value
Decathlon has a well deserved reputation for making great value bikes and kit, and this latest race bike will only continue to burnish that.
Weighing just 7.61kg in a size medium, it’s up (or down) there with the lightest bikes on this list at an incredibly competitive price.
We’ll acknowledge the hybrid alloy/carbon wheels don’t look as tantalising as full carbon hoops, but it does mean you get excellent braking and decent aero performance, so we think there’s a lot to like about them.
Decathlon also sells a women’s-specific version, the Van Rysel Ultra RCR CF 105.
If you’re looking for an even better value road bike, the Van Rysel RR 900 AF is another great option from Decathlon, though it is a bit heavier.
Weight: 7.61kg (medium)
Gearing: 52×36, 11-28
BMC Teammachine SLR 01 Two
There’s very little to fault about the 2021 BMC Teammachine SLR 01 Two, but it’s very expensive. BMC
- Lightweight and faster than ever before
- Very little to fault, but it comes at a high price
Only very recently announced, the latest iteration of BMC’s excellent Teammachine learns lessons from the Timemachine (BMC’s aero road bike) to improve its aerodynamic efficiency, without adding too much weight.
In fact, its 7.09kg weight makes the BMC Teammachine SLR 01 Two one of the lightest bikes on this list, and that’s seriously impressive considering it has aero wheels, disc brakes and plenty of other aero features.
The omission of a Dura-Ace crankset is perhaps the only minor criticism we could make of a bike that’s otherwise extremely hard to find fault with. There’s no denying it comes at a very high price though.
Weight: 7.09kg (56cm, including two bottle cages)
Gearing: 52×36, 11-30
Canyon Ultimate CF SL Disc 8.0 Di2 Aero
Canyon must be applauded for the Ultimate and a specification that’s up there with superbikes. David Caudery / Immediate Media
- Lightweight and aero optimised, but the sharp handling may not be for everyone
- Excellent value build
As always, Canyon provides an excellent value, race-ready package, right out of the box.
Despite the lack of dropped seatstays, the back-end is still comfortable. So much so, in fact, that the sharp front-end handling initially feels a little out of step with the rear, but this is a race bike after all.
At a shade over 7.5kg, it’s lightweight for a bike of its size, which has disc brakes and aero wheels, and three are women’s-specific builds available too.
Weight: 7.54kg (large)
Gearing: 52×36, 11-30
Giant TCR Advanced Pro 2 Disc
The Giant TCR has finally gone aero for 2021. Simon Bromley / Immediate Media
- Solid all-round spec with lively ride quality
- Lots of tyre clearance
The legendary TCR has finally gone aero for 2021, but that doesn’t mean a huge increase in weight, fortunately.
At 7.87kg, it’s not the lightest bike on this list, but it’s very competitive in its price range and could likely be lightened considerably with some component upgrades.
It also offers a noticeably smooth ride, with confident handling and clearance for up to 32mm tyres, which is very welcome.
Giant’s sister company Liv offers a women’s-specific version called the Langma Advanced Pro Disc.
Weight: 7.87kg (medium/large)
Gearing: 52×36, 11-30
Trek Emonda SL 6 Pro
Trek says the 2021 Emonda was designed around the legendary Tour de France climb, Alpe d’Huez. Felix Smith / Immediate Media
- Stiff and exciting ride quality
- Great quality components
Inline with market trends, Trek has amended the Emonda’s design parameters to encompass a broader, all-round riding style, with the obligatory disc brakes and aero optimisation.
This does mean final builds won’t quite be able to match the positively feathery lows of previous models, but Trek is, unsurprisingly, adamant they will nevertheless be faster most of the time. Our tester broadly agrees with this sentiment too, heaping praise on it for its speed and stiffness.
It’s also worth considering Trek’s beautiful Emonda ALR. Not only are there rim and disc brake versions of that frame (as things stand), but it’s also substantially cheaper. We think it’s an absolute peach of a bike.
For 2021, Trek says the Emonda is now a unisex bike, and offers a broad range of sizes (from 47cm to 65cm) with the intention of fitting all different kinds of cyclists.
Weight: 8.13kg (56cm)
Gearing: 52×36, 11-30
Vitus Vitesse Evo Team eTap AXS
Vitus packs a lot of value into the Vitesse Evo Team eTap AXS. David Caudery / Immediate Media
- Excellent spec for the money
- Long and low ride position is great for racers, but won’t be for everyone
Stiff and lively in the right ways, the Vitesse has a long and low ride position that will please racers.
The frameset is finished with quality branded parts and it’s rare to see SRAM’s wireless Force AXS groupset on a bike at this price, let alone one with excellent carbon wheels.
At 8.25kg, it doesn’t wow on the scales, but it has wide enough gearing to spin up almost any climb with relative ease and you’ll be happy to have the excellent disc brakes on the way back down.
Weight: 8.25kg (extra large)
Gearing: 48×35, 10-33
What we’ve included (and what we haven’t)
This buyer’s guide features lightweight bikes at a range of prices, reviewed by BikeRadar and having scored at least four stars in our testing. While lighter bikes may be available (including custom builds and different models within a given manufacturer’s range), these are bikes we have tried and tested, and can confidently vouch for as a result.
Buyer’s guide to climbing bikes
Carbon vs aluminium
We’ve explored this many times before, but with carbon fibre frames and parts still commanding a healthy premium over aluminium ones, it’s worth touching on here.
Top quality carbon fibre is prized for its incredible stiffness to weight ratio, and rightly so – this is the reason it’s used in Formula One. If you can afford it, the lightest bikes and parts will almost always be made out of high-end carbon fibre.
At the lower end though, good aluminum is competitive with, or even better than, cheap carbon fibre. That applies not just to weight and stiffness, but also for ride quality and strength.
Former BikeRadar staffer, Joe Norledge. built this 5.1kg aluminium bike for the 2016 British hill climb season. Matt Grayson / www.mattgrayson.co.uk
The very last of those characteristics is also a general worry for ultra-lightweight carbon fibre frames and parts, in general. You have to be very careful about sticking to recommended weight, torque and clamping specs, or else it’s very easy to break these feathery items.
Aero vs weight for climbing
It would be easy to think that when you’re going uphill, weight is the only thing that matters. It is, of course, important. After all, a 5kg reduction in total rider plus bike weight will shave around 39 seconds off a 2km, 10 per cent climb, all other things being equal.
But with our many years of collective experience we’ve found that body weight matters much more than bike weight. Besides, unless you can get your hands on something like Berk’s 3.9kg bike, you’re going to struggle to shave anywhere near 5kg off your bike’s overall weight, no matter how deep your pockets.
On top of that, more and more brands are discovering that aerodynamics are still important when riding uphill, and for saving energy on the way to the bottom.
Even a brand such as Cannondale, who used to make the definitive, ultra-lightweight hill climb bike, believes its full-on aero bike, the SystemSix, is the faster on gradients up to 6 per cent than its own lightweight bike (the SuperSix) – even at the typically slower speeds mere mortals like us ride at.
Cannondale says its burly SystemSix aero bike is its fastest bike on gradients up to 6%, regardless of the weight penalty. Aoife Glass / Immediate Media co
True hill climb aficionados will no doubt be tearing their hair out at this point, exclaiming ‘anything under 10 per cent isn’t even a proper hill anyway!’, but if you want to go fast, aero always matters, regardless of the gradient.
It’s true that aerodynamic drag becomes a relatively smaller part of the equation as gradients increase in severity, but the absolute amount of air resistance you experience remains the same for any given speed.
On top of that, the power to overcome any increase in air resistance is proportional to the cube of speed. So, if you want to ride your bicycle twice as fast, you’ll need eight times more power to overcome the extra drag force, unless you can reduce your aerodynamic drag.
In an ideal world, then, you want a bike that’s both lightweight and aero for smashing hills.
One of the first brands to use kammtail tubes was Trek. It discovered that a cut-off airfoil shape retained some of the benefits of a full airfoil, but in a shape that was lighter, stiffer and fitted within UCI regulations. James Huang/BikeRadar
“Weight weenies should be Crr weenies”
So said Robert Chung, Professor and Theoretical Mathematical Demographer at the University of California-Berkeley. Chung is perhaps most famous for devising the ‘Chung Method’ of calculating aerodynamic drag, but he also reminds us of the importance of not ignoring rolling resistance too.
Using a power equation for wheeled vehicles (like the one found at www.kreuzotter.de), he showed that even a relatively small difference in rolling resistance (Crr stands for ‘coefficient of rolling resistance’) can be worth as much as large changes in weight, even on steep gradients.
Chung’s graph plots the difference in Crr between Continental’s GP4000S II and GP5000 tyres in terms of the equivalent efficiency found through weight loss on different gradients.
On a flat road, it’s clear that even a relatively small decrease in rolling resistance is worth more than practically any increase in weight. What’s really interesting to note though, is that changing from a GP4000 to a GP5000 is still worth more than 500g of extra mass even on a 10 per cent slope.
Yes, that’s right; the small difference in rolling resistance between two excellent tyres can have a greater effect on your efficiency than 500g of extra weight even on a 10 per cent slope, and that equivalent mass penalty only increases as the gradient gets shallower. On a 6 per cent slope, the difference is equivalent to a kilogram of extra mass.
The key takeaway is that you shouldn’t just look at weight figures when shopping for tyres. The differences in rolling resistance between tyres will be worth far more to your climbing speed than any minor weight variations.
Gearing and cadence when climbing
Some riders apparently enjoy using singlespeed or even fixed gear bikes for climbing hills! But most people are going to want gears.
For a long time though, back in the days when riders only had five or so cogs on their cassette to choose from, gears such as 42×21 were considered adequate for climbing mountains.
Thankfully, though, things have moved on and we now have access to compact/sub-compact chainsets, long-cage rear derailleurs and much larger cassettes. Used together, these can allow practically anyone to spin up steep climbs, rather than turning them into a series of leg presses.
Smaller gear ratios, like this sub-compact 52/36t Shimano 105 R7000 chainset, allow for higher cadences on steep hills. Simon Bromley / Immediate Media
Muscling up a steep hill in a massive gear might feel heroic, but it’s probably slower and it’s costing you more energy too, as anyone with a power meter will be able to attest to. These days, even the pros know you need to gear down when the road goes up.
Rim or disc brakes
Another thorny issue. In our opinion, there are two answers to this; a simple one and a nuanced one.
The simple answer is that rim brakes are, generally, lighter, and therefore are better for climbing bikes.
The lightest rim brakes and wheels are still a little lighter than hydraulic disc brake systems, so many weight weenies prefer them. Simon Bromley
The more nuanced answer is that while disc brake-equipped bikes generally do come with a weight penalty over equivalent rim brake models (though this is becoming harder to measure because, despite what we wrote in 2017, new high-end rim brake bikes are becoming increasingly less common), the advantage of better braking will be keenly felt on the way down the hills.
If the only thing you care about is going uphill as fast as possible, then rim brakes could still be the right choice. Otherwise, the advantages of disc brakes in a more general sense might tip the balance.