Love them or hate them, hills are an inevitable part of cycling. However, there are several things you can do — from lightening up to breathing right — that can make the uphill struggle seem like a walk in the park. Here are the ten tips that will get you to the top.
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1. Short and steep
Compared with those in the Alps and Pyrenees, UK climbs don’t last long. But British hills make up in gradient what they lack in distance.
"Short, sharp climbs suit a different type of rider to your typical hill climber," says Zak Dempster, pro rider with the Rapha Condor Sharp team. “On climbs of 30 seconds to three minutes, you will see sprinters and bigger power riders come to the front, compared with longer climbs where skeletal climbers dance on the pedals.”
Whether you’re racing or just after bragging rights, be on the front of the group at the bottom of the hill. “This will allow sliding room if you need it,” says Dempster, “or provide you with the best launch pad for an attack.”
The mindset for cliff-like climbs is different to longer hills too. “On longer climbs, it’s about rhythm and maintaining your position. On a short, steep climb, you’ll want to go full power, so it’s more of a violent and explosive effort, usually out of the saddle, so your mental approach matches that.”
In a race, though, he recommends keeping that little bit back for a final kick over the top.
2. Up your training
- How: After warming up, do 10 x 1min climbs on a short, steep hill. Ride to a longer hill then do 3 x 3min climbs out of the saddle, and 1 x 5min free climb (in and out of the saddle). Do roll down recoveries between climbs. When seated, slide towards the back of the saddle, keep your heels down and minimise side to side movement. Out of the saddle, keep cadence high.
- Why: You can make significant improvements by training both in and out of the saddle. For maximum benefit, work on your technique while fatigued.
- When: A classic mid-winter session; key in the three to four weeks ahead of a hill climb event, when you should do it once a week.
In and off
- How: Choose a hilly course for this longer ride session. Focus on working while you’re at the bottom of the hill, then following a relaxed, firm climb, accelerate off the top of the hill for around 200m, hitting the same speed that you were at as you entered the hill.
- Why: Mastering climbs isn’t just about being fast uphill, explains Whyte. “It’s not how quickly you climb but how quickly you enter and exit hills that marks a good climber. Killing yourself on the climb with nothing left at the top is the quickest way to failure.”
- When: Throughout the season and once a week in the three to four weeks leading up to a hilly event.
- How: Again, choose yourself a hilly course for this long ride. Run your tyres at a fairly low pressure, carry extra weight on the bike (jacket, belt, bottle and so on) if you are strong and accustomed to using weight, and ride overgeared. Attack the hills.
- Why: “Successful climbing is all about power to weight ratio,” advises Whyte. “If you aren’t the lightest you will need to be strong. Gym work is very valuable for increasing strength and injury avoidance but this session works cycling specific strength.”
- When: This is an ideal winter session. Include it no more than once a week, though, and keep an eye on your knees and back.
3. Less is more
A lighter bike will help you climb faster, as it will improve your power-to-weight ratio.
Analytic Cycling uses mathematical models to estimate the benefits of losing weight. Riding at 250 watts (a determined but not flat-out effort for most) on a 2km, 10 percent climb, a 2kg reduction from 75kg could save 15 seconds.
Saving weight from wheels reduces rotational inertia, so you can accelerate quicker. But Dr Simon Jobson of the University of Kent says that on a climb, weight saved from wheels is no more important than shaving grams elsewhere. “For all intents and purposes the rotational mass effect can be ignored,” he says.
4. Lighten up
Be honest, maybe it’s not just your bike which could do with losing a few pounds. Shift 5kg of lard and Analytic Cycling estimates you’ll be at the top of a 2km, 10 percent gradient 39 seconds quicker.
It’s all about burning more energy than you consume. “If you consume more calories than you push out through your basal metabolic weight and exercise,” says Matt Hart of Torq Fitness, “you’ll be at a positive energy balance (+EB) and will put weight on. Consume fewer calories than you push out and you’ll be at -EB and will lose weight.”
Avoid fads and crash diets, says Hart. Instead, aim for steady weight loss so fitness isn’t compromised. “We suggest a maximum of a 500kcal deficit per day, so if your output is 3,500kcals per day, you should consume 3,000kcals. Considering 1kg of fat is 9,000kcals, it should take you 18 days to lose 1kg of fat. Although weight tends to creep up on us over time, most people think they can lose it again in a fraction of the time, but don’t rush it.”
5. Breathe easy
When climbing, efficient breathing should take priority over aerodynamics says Professor Alison McConnell, author of Breathe Strong, Perform Better. “The aero position creates problems for the diaphragm and other thoracic muscles because it restricts free movement of the ribs and abdomen. When climbing, riders should sit more upright; slower speeds mean the advantage of a streamlined position is far outweighed by allowing free movement of the thorax.”
The higher you go, the more important correct breathing becomes. “At altitude, breathing demand increases enormously,” says McConnell. “It is vital to maintain deep, controlled breathing, and not to allow it to become rapid and shallow.”
“When I go back home to Namibia at 1,500m it takes me around six days before I feel normal,” says Rapha Condor Sharp rider Dan Craven.
But thin air is only part of the challenge. “If you’re riding a climb that’s 20km long you’re going to feel tired anyway,” he warns. The longer and higher the climb, the more important it is to ride at a sustainable pace. “Start steady, and don’t count down every kilometre — you’ll only get demoralised. Get to the next turn, then the one after. Once you’re over halfway you can start counting down to the top.”
6. Big climbers
Not every cyclist is built like Bambi — so how should big riders tackle big hills?
Magnus Backstedt, former winner of the one-day classic Paris-Roubaix, is nearly twice the size of some climbers, but he has learned how to survive on the climbs. Essentially, big riders shouldn’t panic when better climbers up the pace.
“Don’t go into the red,” he says, “you should ride at your own speed.”
Losing weight can help, but Backstedt warns against working on a weakness to the detriment of your strengths. “The best way to lose weight is by riding a lot. Diet can be a dangerous game. You could end up losing the sprint or power on the flat that makes you the rider you are.”
7. Col-conquering cadence
How fast should you turn the pedals to climb efficiently? Marco Arkesteijn, a sports scientist at the University of Kent, has studied the effect of cadence on climbing performance, and says the answer depends on how hard you are climbing.
Arkesteijn’s research found that, at lower intensities (around 230 watts, pushing hard but a long way from flat out for the average club cyclist), a cadence of 60–75rpm is more efficient than spinning at 90rpm. “The cyclists in my study didn’t feel comfortable at 90rpm. They said it felt too ‘bouncy’.”
But if the effort level increases to 300 watts or more (an effort level which the average rider would find demanding), a faster cadence is better. “At high intensity 80–90rpm is more efficient.”
8. Eat your way to the top
On short, hard climbs you’ll be going too hard to eat. Instead, have a few bites of an energy bar or a gel around three miles from the foot of the climb to allow time for the carbs to hit your bloodstream.
For longer climbs, which will burn more calories than a short hill, it’s more important to top up your energy reserves before hitting the early slopes. Eat too much on the climb and your stomach and legs will demand blood at the same time and your riding will suffer. Fluids are much more easily absorbed so drink a little and often all the way to the top of the mountain.
9. Sit or stomp?
On a brief but brutal hill, riding out of the saddle may be the only option. However, for most hills — and certainly long, steady climbs — Marco Arkesteijn says staying in the saddle is more energy efficient.
“Standing for long periods (greater than five minutes) costs more energy than being seated. However, the higher the intensity, the less negative standing up is.”
10. Make an attack count
If you’re racing on hilly terrain and racing to win, sooner or later you’ll need to go on the offensive. French pro Gaël Le Bellec rides with Team Raleigh and has this advice: “A strong climber can have a go at the bottom of the climb to get rid of a number of opponents, but if the climb is very long it’s better to wait and see how the other riders are going. The steepest part of the climb is the best place to attack. It’s harder for everyone and the gap can be made really quickly.”
How the attack is made can be as important as where. “The attack should be made from the back of the group. If you come from far back, then your speed as you go past your opponents may dissuade them from chasing you.”
If the other climbers in the group are also riding strongly, you may have to hit them more than once. “Some riders are able to do a two-time attack. The first one isn’t too strong and allows your opponent to start the chase, which puts them in or close to their red zone. The objective is to let them reduce the gap so they think they will be able to catch up. When the gap is small enough, make a second acceleration, but this time more significant to break your opponents’ morale. It seems cruel but it’s really effective!”