Technique: Uphill battle

Understanding the art of climbing

The brutal simplicity of climbing is one of its most appealing aspects. It’s you and your bike versus the hill. You push the pedals, you breathe hard and you make your ascent.


On the inside it’s a different story. Your body is stretched to extremes, dozens of physiological processes pushed further than at any other time as your bike strains underneath you. Whether you hate hills or crave cols, understanding what your body and bike endure can only make you a better climber.

Body language

As the road heads up, a whole chain of physiological responses will follow as your body works harder to counter the forces of gravity. Your muscles have to burn more energy using oxygen from your blood, your heart rate and breathing rate have to increase to deliver the extra oxygen needed, and you’ll get hot, sweaty and flushed as your body temperature increases and blood is diverted closer to the skin to radiate away heat.

Push really hard and the work in your muscles will produce more of the by-product lactic acid than your body can process. Your body can’t keep up with the workload anymore, and  you’ll soon be crashing into your anaerobic threshold. The speed at which you can climb before these processes reach their limit is down to how fit you are, and your power-to-weight ratio.

Weight for it

“Power-to-weight ratio is the first and probably the most important determinant of being a good climber,” says Dr Garry Palmer of Sportstest. Heavier, less fit riders have to do much more work and meet physiological limits much sooner. You need more power and less weight, and that’s for the bike and rider combined.

“In terms of body composition, lean is the goal,” says Dr Palmer, “you don’t want to drop muscle mass unless you’re bulky up top.” In terms of healthy weight loss targets, you shouldn’t aim to lose more than a pound a week. As long as you achieve weight loss via a combination of healthy, low-fat food choices and the right kind of training, this is the best way to extend your ability before hitting your thresholds.

Know your limits

Your anaerobic threshold is the point at which the exhaled volume of carbon dioxide (VCO2) is greater than the inhaled volume of oxygen (VO2). The maximum amount of oxygen the body can consume during exercise is your VO2 max. They both happen at a similar intensity, but they’re not the same thing. A high threshold and VO2 max make up the second of Palmer’s three factors for climbing: “They dictate your sustainable climbing ability, the rate you can hold up a long climb and, theoretically at least, until you run out of energy reserves,” he says.

“Thresholds vary massively between individuals,” says Dr Palmer,“ but testing reveals your true metabolic threshold. A lab test uses continuous gas composition analysis to monitor the balance of carbon dioxide (CO2) and oxygen (O2) in exhaled breath. Once analysed, lab test results will tell you how to train better, by helping you set training intensity zones. This way you can target the duration and intensity of riding in training in order to achieve your goals, and it will give you valuable pacing information,” he explains.

Don’t pull, pedal

Turning the pedals round from in the saddle uses the same muscles whether you’re plummeting towards the Earth’s core or climbing into the stratosphere. When climbing, it can be particularly tempting to try to pull on the return stroke, but this is a mistake according to cycling coach Dr Auriel Forrester of Scientific Coaching: “Pulling up on the pedals decreases power output as it interferes with the all-important downstroke on the other side – specifically, you can’t pull up against gravity at the same rate or same force as you can push down with gravity!”

As you push down on the pedal – the power stroke – you engage your glutes, quads and calves. The upward – or return stroke – switches the stress to the hamstrings, ankle dorsiflexor and the hip flexors. Since your quads are a lot stronger than your hamstrings, try to concentrate on not doing anything that could detract from the downward power stroke.

Spin and win

The big ring is not for climbing. It’s one thing to grunt and strain your way to the top of a short local climb in a massive gear for a challenge against a riding mate, but spinning is far more effective. Dr Forrester explains: “It depends on the rider and the terrain, but a pedalling cadence of around 72-82rpm is optimum – lower on steeper or longer climbs, higher on shorter climbs. You need to choose gearing that allows you to maintain this cadence.”

Selecting the smaller ring sooner saves you making the change on a steep section when you risk dropping the chain. It also enables you to use the more closely packed sprockets, letting you fine-tune your ratio to suit the gradient and maintain a good cadence.

Experiment with lower gears and a higher cadence on a familiar climb to feel the benefit, then apply that technique everywhere. Using a heart- rate monitor with a cadence sensor – or in conjunction with a manual count of your pedal strokes from one foot in a minute – will help you be more precise. A power meter is the ultimate tool for this job, since it can show your cadence and output together for any point of your ride, and you will quickly discover the speed at which your engine performs best on any particular climb.

Pace yourself

“Too many riders go off too hard at the bottom of a climb because they feel fresh and their heart rate is low,” says Dr Forrester. ”Then they dip too far into their metabolic red zone, start to produce lactic acid faster than the muscles can clear it, and then they fatigue and fade before the top of the climb. Furthermore, climbing in the red uses energy nearly 10 times faster than climbing aerobically, which has clear implications on a longer route.”          

Discipline yourself when you feel strong. Save some power for later in the ride and blow away your mates on the last climb of the day. A heart rate monitor with an alarm is a good watchdog.

“An ascent of 20-45mins should be climbed at around a rider’s threshold,” says Dr Forrester, “or the level of effort at which conversation becomes difficult.”

Hard core

Even the slightest incline will start a chain reaction of force and fatigue on both your body and your bike: even the slightest incline will start a chain reaction of force and fatigue on both your body and your bike
Paul Smith

The need for good core stability increases when out of the saddle, so a strong lower back and abs are important. You need to anchor your power, so a core like a soggy noodle just won’t cut it.

“You use the core muscles to maintain a solid platform for the legs to work against,” says Dr Forrester. That doesn’t mean you have to be able to do 100 sit-ups. The important thing is that you can ride and climb as long and hard as you want to without your back ever feeling tired.

Give extra thought to this before taking on a significantly harder challenge than you have previously ridden, such as a sportive, or if you’re training seriously for the first time. Do core stability exercises using a ball to stretch and work your lower back through its full range. Add abdominal crunches to give your central pillar of strength a good workout.

Brain training

There’s a vast range of ideas on how to think yourself faster, such as goal visualisation and breaking down the task. But for climbing it all boils down to one thing – handling the suffering.

“The ability to suffer is mental,” says Dr Palmer. “With no data, you can only listen to the signals from your body. But with heart rate and power output information you can put efforts in the context of previous climbs and know for certain that, even if it hurts like crazy, you can sustain your pace.”

At the very least invest in a heart rate monitor so that you can arm yourself with comparative data. You’ll soon find the heart rates at which you can sustain a climb, even if your body is telling you to stop and have a sit down. Armed with that data-driven confidence, you can employ the one-hairpin-at-a-time techniques to just keep going!

Upright citizen

Excessive side-to-side swinging of the bike when you’re out of the saddle is a waste of energy, and it disrupts efficient pedalling. You only need to counter the leverage created by your bike’s Q-factor – the distance between your pedals. Stay smooth and focus on getting all your energy into the back wheel.

Instead of muscling the bike around, think about providing just enough resistance through the bar to counter the pedalling leverage so that the bike stays nearly upright.

Maxing out

You can briefly push past your VO2 max and anaerobic threshold until you reach one of the real limits of physical endurance – maximum heart rate or anaerobic tolerance. If you’re already working hard when you hit the throttle, you’re likely to reach your maximum heart rate and then have nothing more to give. If you launch a sprint from a steady pace then your muscles are more likely to be swamped in lactic acid and your tolerance exhausted before your heart rate gets near its maximum.

Nearly all these processes are automatic, but there are some things you can do to assist them. You can help control your temperature by removing a gilet for instance, so that valuable oxygen-carrying blood flow isn’t diverted to your skin. Even more critically, you can control your breathing, as it’s vital to remember to take full breaths and not just short gasps. You can also control your pedalling to get the most for your effort.

“Pedalling in fluid circles with a fast cadence is the third critical factor to better climbing,” says Dr Garry Palmer. “You might combine the power of a train and the weight of a paper napkin, but all this means nothing if you stamp on the pedals like children jumping in puddles.”

It’s also about the bike

What does the bike go through when climbing, and what makes one bike climb better than another? Who better to ask than Trek? This is a manufacturer with 11 Grand Tour wins – ridden by climbers like Contador and Armstrong – and a company with a huge R&D budget.

If you think you suffer up a steep climb, spare a thought for your bike. “Our testing shows that high loads in low gears and at low RPMs place the highest loads on a frame. It’s the hardest thing a bike has to endure,” says Chris Pomering, composite road chief engineer at Trek.

Stuff all-out stiffness

Doug Cusack, senior R&D engineer at Trek, says that correctly tuned stiffness is the key. “Producing a frame that has the right amount of stiffness allows the frame to flex in a beneficial way that can help a rider to develop a smooth rhythm.”

Conventional thinking says that lighter and stiffer is better, but this isn’t so says Pomering: “Rider feedback has driven us to maintain a specific bottom bracket stiffness rather than maximising it.”

The strain on the bike


“The rear triangle has a larger effect during a seated climb, but ultimately the entire frame contributes,” says Pomering. “During a standing climb, the down-tube undergoes lateral bending at the front near the head-tube and at the rear by the BB, as well as, to a lesser degree, torsion (twist) through the length of the tube.”