Hill Climbing 101: Pedaling and Shifting

Hills are the bane and the salvation of the road cyclist.  They’re hard, sometimes agonizingly hard, and yet without them road cycling would be unbearably boring.  I’ve had the good fortune to have ridden some of the Laura rounding turn 12 on l'Alpe d'Huezgreat Tour de France climbs in the French Alps like l’Alpe d’Huez and the Col du Galibier.  I’ve also ridden 30 miles of prairie road that was dead flat and straight as an arrow.  If given the choice, I’d ride the climbs every time.  Climbs are the yardsticks by which experienced cyclists measure themselves while new riders often look on them with fear and loathing.

This is one of a pair of posts designed to help new riders climb.  I’ll look at some riding techniques in Hill Climbing 102.  In this post I’ll examine pedaling and shifting.  There are many different approaches to climbing and riders at different stages of development will tackle a climb differently.  A new rider who is desperate to survive to the crest will climb very differently from an experienced racer trying to drop the competition on the steepest part of the climb.  Hill Climbing 101 and 102 are written for the relatively inexperienced cyclist who might benefit from some information about basic climbing techniques.

Cadence.  Cadence refers to how fast your feet go around on the pedals and it lies at the heart of cycling whether on hills or flats.  Most cycling computers measure cadence in revolutions per minute (rpm) although cyclists will often speak of cadences of 90 or 100 and leave out the “rpm”.  There are two basic approaches to cadence:  Spinning and mashing.  Spinning means pedaling in a small (easy) gear at a high cadence while mashing is pedaling in a big (hard) gear at lower cadence.  In very rough terms, spinning will generally build cardiovascular fitness and endurance while mashing will build strength and bulk.  Mashing is also more likely to produce muscle and joint (especially knee) injuries.  As a very general strategy, spinning is usually better than mashing although there are so many different kinds of riders and different kinds of road conditions that there will be many exceptions to this general rule.  The typical recommendation is to spin at cadences of 85 to 105.  This may be a difficult cadence for new riders to maintain but it is good to practice until you can comfortably ride in this range.   When climbing, it is best to spin at a high cadence in a small gear.  Many times you may find yourself climbing in your smallest gear so you can’t shift into an easier gear and spin at a higher cadence.  However, as your fitness improves or the gradient of the hill lessens you can begin to ride in bigger gears.  When this happens, work on achieving a higher cadence on the climbs before you work on climbing in a bigger gear.

Maintaining a steady effort.  If there were one bit of advice that I would hold out as the holy grail of long-distance riding technique, this is it.  The idea is to put forth the same amount of effort consistently throughout the ride.  One way to do this is to maintain a steady cadence.  You adjust for changes in gradient, road conditions, wind, fatigue, etcetera by changing gears and keeping your legs going around at the same rate.  This means that going downhill you gear up into bigger gears and accelerate; going uphill you gear down into smaller gears and decelerate.  Many riders try to maintain a constant speed rather than a constant effort going uphill.  They tend to exhaust themselves on the steeper parts of the hill and then lose momentum on the flatter parts of the hill.  On many hills the gradient will become a bit less steep for the last section before the crest.  The rider who is focused on speed will ramp down their effort as the climb becomes less difficult.  When they back off the effort they often back off too far, lose momentum, slow down and find it difficult to switch from slowing down to speeding up while they’re still climbing.   The rider who is focused on maintaining a constant effort will kick into a higher gear when the gradient eases up and fly over the crest.

Pedaling in a circle.  Once when riding in the Washington DC AidsRide (340 miles in 4 days to raise money to help those suffering from HIV/AIDS) I was riding alongside some inexperienced riders giving them help and encouragement as they climbed a long hill and I suggested they pedal in circle.  As he struggled to keep going, one of riders looked at me like I’d lost my mind and said “Isn’t that what we’re doing?”  Surprisingly, the answer was “no”; his feet were going around in a circle but like most inexperienced cyclists he wasn’t applying force to the pedals all the way around the circle.  As much as you can, try and exert force all the way around the pedaling arc, not just on the downward push.  Push down, pull back at the bottom, lift up and pull through at the top.  This is not as easy as it sounds and it is a skill that takes a long time to master.  However, climbing is difficult enough without trying to do it with only part of your available muscle power.  You’ve got a whole leg and 360 degrees of arc to move it through.  Use the whole thing.  Pedaling in a circle is impossible if your feet are not connected to the pedals.  It’s much harder to do with basket-style toe clips because when you pull back at the bottom of the pedal stroke, you pull your foot off the pedal.  You really need clipless pedals to take full advantage of pedaling in a circle.

Gear shifting.  This is perhaps the most difficult hill-climbing skill to develop.  When there is load on the chain, such as when you’re climbing a hill, downshifting to an easier gear puts more strain on the chain and the shifting mechanism than shifting up to a harder gear.  You’ll often need to downshift to an easier gear during a climb but if you don’t do it soon enough, there may be so much stress on the chain that you can’t make the shift and then you’re stopped dead in a gear that’s too big to get up the hill.  On the other hand, if you downshift too soon, you lose your momentum which can turn an easy climb into a hard one in the blink of an eye.  You can feel this happen if you downshift to an easier gear and suddenly your feet are spinning on the pedals and meeting very little resistance.  It’s all about timing.  The trick is to relax your pedal stroke for a brief instant and shift into the easier gear a split second before you have to so that you can put forth the same effort throughout the climb.  The only way to get good at this is to practice.  There’s nothing like a perfect climb where each shift comes smoothly at precisely the right moment and you feel like you’ve just flown over the hill as if it wasn’t there.

Climbing is hard but learning to climb is worth it.  During the AidsRide I rode up and down that hill I mentioned earlier several times helping riders make it to the top.  The hill was the longest on the entire 340 mile ride and many of the new riders had been dreading it since the ride began.  I began riding with one woman at the bottom of the climb who was very much overweight and out of shape.  Like maybe 100 lbs overweight.  In addition, she was riding a hybid rather than a road bike which was making the climb a good deal more difficult for her.  About a quarter of the way up, she knew she wasn’t going to make it.  I talked to her about the hill climbing techniques discussed here and in Hill Climbing 102 and encouraged her to keep going.  Another 10 feet, just make it another 10 feet.  She was in agony.  Just 10 more feet.  The hill had such a fearsome reputation that a good number of people had stopped to stand along the road and cheer the riders on as they struggled up the climb.  Someone had parked a van with a sound system in the back near the top of the hill and Gloria Gaynor’s disco anthem “I Will Survive”  was booming out.  We’re halfway up and the woman was going so slowly that I don’t know how she remained upright on the bike; I had to keep looping around in small circles next to her in order to move fast enough not to lose my balance.  She knew she wasn’t going to make it but she refused to give up until she absolutely couldn’t give it one more pedal stroke.  Just 10 more feet.  Tears of pain and effort were streaming down her face.  About 30 feet from the top of the hill amidst the music and the cheers of the onlookers she realized she was going to make it, that she was going to succeed at something that just moments before she believed was impossible.  The look that came over her face at that instant was so beautiful and so pure that it made every moment I had suffered building the climbing strength that allowed me to ride with her that day worth it.  It was the kind of thing you never forget.  Hills will do that for you.

30 thoughts on “Hill Climbing 101: Pedaling and Shifting

  1. Pingback: Hill Climbing 102: Riding Techniques « Tuned In To Cycling

  2. I’ve been off the bikes for 10 years and have found hills abit tough. These tips look great and make a lot of sense, Thanks.

  3. Warning!!!
    Clipless pedals are very dangerous.
    I’ve been riding bicycles continuously since I was 5. Have even commuted to work year-round in suburb north of NYC, Had been using Shimno clipless pedals for about 10 years and had several occasions when I couldn’t release from the pedal and dumped over. The last time, at age 58, caused my right hip to fracture. I needed 2 surgeries and 6 months of rehab. After the accident I found out about two other cyclists who suffered hip fractures because they couldn’t release from their pedals.
    Needless to say I took them off my Trek and will never use them again.
    The Pain was not worth the gain.

    • Hmmm not the case. Clipless pedals are not dangerous – forgetting you have them when you stop is!!! If you remember to unclip they are the single biggest improvement you can make to your pedalling

    • I have a set of clips on by bike with no tension adjustment and they were difficult to release causing me to fall several times. My new pedals have a tension release screw which, when adjusted properly, allows me to quickly and easily release under any circumstances.

    • I use looped grips made from spent Kevlar road tires. They work fine. I can easily ditch without the snag of a clipless. Used on raod and mountain bike

  4. vicp. Whilst sympathising with your plight the only issue with clipless is if tehy arent set up right. Yes i used to hate using then and used standard toe clips after a few spills, but i then went to a bike shop and got my pedals set up correctly with the right tension. I have not ahd a spill since in 5 years.
    If you have problems with cleats then release the tension inthe springs or get multirelease cleats from shimano rather than the single release.. you will nt have any problems with release if they are set up right.
    Since switching the spd’s and getting rid of the toeclips, and dropping my heel to releave the strain on my quads my climbing has gone from strength to strength.. now i love climbs as i can gain way more time here than i can anywhere else,

  5. this will sound very heartless, but:

    clipless pedals are not dangerous. you screwed up, that’s all. it was not the pedal’s fault, it was yours. you either had the pedals too tight, or didn’t have the strength to unclip from what had before been an unclippable tension.

    hip fracture or not, unfortunately i am 99.9% sure the culprit was not the pedals, it was poor setup.

  6. This is beautiful, valuable and ageless advice on hill climbing – soak it up. The last para on the brave lady also tells a lot about mindset. She’ll never ever let a hill intimidate her or other things in life without thinking about that climb and how she got through it.

  7. This is great advice on hill climbing and about hill climbing. Like you said climbing the hill is the part of biking because it is where you feel like you have accomplished something worth while. I am going to go read the 102 now.

  8. This and the second post on this (Hill Climbing 102) are very helpful! I’m new to cycling (Only learned how to ride a bike as an adult about 2 years ago, now doing triathlons) and I have platform pedals and have really struggled with even small and moderate hills. I’m not ready for clipless pedals yet, but the other suggestions are great-thank you!

    • cassielmt – I am an older rider (almost 60) and was amazed at the difference the clipless pedals made. Yes, I struggled with them at first (got some road rash to show for it) but by loosening the clip spring tension to the point where the cleat just barely stays in helps to get started and alleviates some of the “fear factor” as minimal force will release the shoe(s). As you gain confidence and releasing the cleat becomes more “second nature”, begin tightening the spring tension a click or two at a time until you are able to pull up on the back side of the pedal stroke (a circle) with greater force. Be sure to adjust each pedal the same amount. Also, it might help if you have a natural tendency to drop one specific leg at a stop (i.e. left leg, lean left), then practice clipping and releasing that side first. I found that practicing in a flat parking lot was a big help, as was “planning ahead” for your stops (yes – not always possible in real life, but we’re talking learning curve here). Hope this helps –

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  10. It is a great information for climbing but I have a question about gear change. How can we make smooth change from big crank to small one? I always loose momentum when I do that so I leave it always in small gear and shift the back gear to lower gear. Before approaching to hill if it is short one I use high gear in front and change back gear smoothly but in long uphill climbing you need to use nany gear so dropping front gear makes me to loose momentum. Any tips for smooth shift for front gear?

    • Thanks for the kind words. Loss of momentum on a gear change is usually caused by one of two things, either changing to a gear that is too low (probably what’s happening when shifting to a smaller ring when climbing) or a gear that’s too high (probably not the problem here). While the details will depend on exactly how your gears are set up (how big your rings are, how big the cogs in your rear cassette are, and where on the cassette you are when you make the shift), usually shifting to a lower gear by dropping to a smaller ring is a bigger step down than shifting to a lower gear on the cassette and you suddenly find yourself spinning a bit too easily and losing momentum. One way to overcome this problem is to briefly shift into a higher (harder) gear on the cassette right before dropping to the smaller ring.

      Getting the timing right will take some practice. If you stay in the higher gear too long you’re in too big a gear for the gradient and you lose momentum. If you drop into the smaller ring before the rear derailleur shift is complete, you run the risk of dropping the chain and turning a small problem into a big one. The idea is to drop into the lower ring a split second after the rear derailleur shift into the higher gear is complete.

      Gear relationships are not linear so the magnitude of the gear change when dropping to the smaller ring will be different depending on where you are on the rear cassette when you make the front derailleur shift. Try to anticipate the climb ahead and if you think you will need to drop to a smaller ring, make the shift sooner rather than later. Again, all of this will depend on your exact gearing set up and where you are on the rear cassette when you shift into the smaller ring. For example, you may have to jump up two cogs on the rear cassette in order to effectively downshift on the rings without losing momentum.

      As always with gear changes, it’s about timing and it takes practice to do it smoothly. I hope this helps.

      • Very good explanation of shifting technique. Works for me and yes it does take practice and more practice. Well done. Sound advice.

  11. Many folks have engaged in thorough force diagram analysis of the pedal stroke, and they have found the “pedal circle” technique to be essentially false. It may prove useful as a psychological construct that allows riders to cut down on “mashing” the downstroke, which goes to one of the author’s earlier points, but it is misleading to make beginning cyclists think that this thought process will actually produce more power all the way around.


    • Like almost every area careful scientific research is applied to activities like cycling, interpretation of results re. pedal stroke can be controversial. Many times people who take adamant positions on one side or another focus on studies that support, or appear to them to support, their position without taking mitigating factors that might limit the applicability of the study to the conditions faced by a cyclist on the road into account. The relationship between the force generated and the velocity achieved at various points on the pedal stroke is very complicated and is affected by a large number of factors such as cadence, gravitic pull (e.g., incline) rolling and mechanical resistance (e.g., how inflated are the tires?), the fatigue and conditioning level of the rider, the weight of the rider’s legs etc. In addition, the goal of the cyclist (generating more force, giving the muscles involved in the downstroke a bit of rest without freewheeling, etc.) is almost never considered.

      On the internet you often get unsupported opinion without reference to well designed and carried out studies in the relevant literature (this limitation applies to many of the posts I’ve made in this blog, for example). The person who made the comment that the circle-pedaling technique is “essentially false” was good enough to provide a link to support his or her claim. However, following that link leads to another site that asserts a position and talks about so-and-so’s studies without any links to the published literature so that interested readers can read and evaluate the research. Since at least one of the claims referenced on this linked page (some business about “brain space” and “available neural RAM”) is complete nonsense (this one I know about because I am a cognitive scientist engaged in lab research on computational human info processing and associative neural nets by profession), it’s hard to know what to make of the rest of it.

      I have not done a thorough review of the literature on the force-velocity relationship throughout the cycling pedal stroke and so cannot give a fully informed opinion. However, the research I have looked at without biasing the literature search towards one view or the other provides fairly consistent evidence that circle pedaling is effective (see, for example, Dorel et. al.) The questions seems to be more one of how effective and under what circumstances is the technique effective than is the technique effective or non-effective. Certainly, the claim that the technique is “essentially false” appears much too strong based on a limited survey of the literature.

    • I think it is a bit of over analysis to refute circle pedaling with physics to the point of it not produce more power all the way around. The point is not to have completely equal power in all pedal positions. The point is to get closer to it. For novice riders it is a BIG help to think circular pedaling just for the benefit of taking the weight of the leg off the pedal on the up stroke.

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  13. Admiring the effort and time you put into your site and detailed information you present.
    It’s good to run into a blog every every now and then that isn’t the same old spun
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  14. Pingback: Reflections on Hills, Size, and Confidence | Fit Is a Feminist Issue

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  16. Hi there,
    Your post on climbing is the BEST advise I’ve read on web. Fantastic muscle technique ie the heel down part in your article and today after thinking about Cadence and CHANGING muscles as per your article I noticed a real change in my ride. And the bit about hill challenges and how to think about them was heavenly advice too.
    Keep the articles coming mate.
    And many thanks!

  17. I am so glad I found your blog this morning! The BEST advice for all aspects of riding!! Great detail and explanation for new riders such as me. I’m off to a triathlon camp in the hills this weekend so your article here was perfect. About to read 102 and I’m bookmarking you for further reference. Thank you for the time and effort you put into your blog.
    Thanks a million!

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