Hill Climbing 102: Riding Techniques

This is one of a pair of posts designed to help new riders climb.  I looked at pedaling and shifting in Hill Climbing 101.  In this post I’ll examine some riding techniques that can improve your ability to climb hills.  Part of the climb up the Col du Sarenne, the back route up to l'Alpe d'HuezThere 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.

Drop your heels.  To get a sense of what this feels like, move your leg so that your foot is at the bottom of the pedal stroke.  With your foot in this position, keep the ball of your foot motionless on the pedal and tilt your foot so that your heel is lower than your toes.  You’ll feel the stretch in your calf muscles and achilles tendon.  Try and keep your foot in this position all the way around the pedal stroke but especially on the downward push.  Keeping the heels low brings more of the hamstrings (the muscles in the back of the thigh) and glutes (the muscles in the butt) into play.  These are very powerful muscle groups – use them to get you over the hill.  Pedaling with the heels dropped is relatively easy when your feet are attached to the pedals by clipless pedals.  It’s much harder to do, but still possible, if you are using basket-style toeclips or no clips at all.  Many riders tend to point their toes downward which puts less stress on the hams and glutes and more on the quadriceps (the large muscles on the front of the thigh) and calves (frequent calf cramping is a good indication you’re pointing your toes down).  This tendency can be accentuated by the use of toeclips.  If you’re doing this, try to break the habit and drop your heels when you climb. 

Change working muscle groups.  As you labor up the hill the muscles you are using will become exhausted as waste products produced by your straining muscles accumulate faster than they can be carried away in the bloodstream.  It doesn’t take long to clear these waste products if you can make less use of the muscles for a moment.  You can’t coast on a climb, however, because you’ll lose your momentum or come to a dead stop.  The solution is to briefly work different sets of muscles throughout the climb to give particular muscle groups precious time to recover.  There are several ways to do this.  If you typically ride with toes pointed down or feet flat, drop your heels for a bit to bring your hamstrings and glutes more into play and give your quadriceps and calves time to recover.  Likewise, if you usually ride with your heels dropped, raise them so your feet are flat or point your toes down thereby taking the load off the hams and glutes and shifting it onto the quads and calves.  Shift forward and back on the seat.  Sitting on the front of the seat accentuates the quads, sitting on the back accentuates the hams and glutes.  Stand up for a brief interval and then sit back down.  Just before you stand, shift into a bigger gear and then shift back to the smaller gear when you sit down.  You will have more power when you stand and if you stay in the smaller gear you will lose momentum.  Use these techniques for 10 to 30 pedal strokes periodically throughout the climb to buy recovery time.

Remain seated while you climb.  Standing is terrific for short bursts of power or for a change in muscle use (and hence a bit of muscle recovery) on a very long climb.  However, it is less efficient than sitting and will tire you out faster in the long run.  You will be stronger at the end of the ride if you climb sitting at the beginning.  Less efficient to begin with, standing becomes much more inefficient if your technique is not good and good standing technique is much harder than it looks.  Many riders with poor technique weave back and forth across the road when they stand and thrash back and forth, twisting at the hips.  This wastes a lot of energy (which you will wish you had 20 miles further on down the road) and is hard on the lower back possibly leading to back soreness or tightening on long rides.  Experienced riders are likely to disagree with this advice to climb while seated because standing on the climbs is a standard practice among advanced riders.  Having developed the ability to climb efficiently while standing is one of the many skills that separates the advanced rider from the novice.  If you stick with road cycling, you’ll learn to climb in a standing position but when you’re just starting out, I think it’s better to learn to climb efficiently and well while sitting before learning the more difficult skill. 

Keep a loose, relaxed grip on the handlebars.  As you strain up the hill it’s easy to grip the handlebars harder and harder.  White knuckling the handlebars like this can lead to numbness in the hands.  More importantly, the tension in the hands will spread up the arms to the neck, shoulders and chest.  Tightness in the chest will restrict breathing which will reduce oxygen consumption.  Oxygen is essential for both removing waste products and bringing fresh supplies of energy to your working muscles.  Your legs will tire more quickly and you’ll have a harder time finishing the climb if you are not breathing freely.

Keep your momentum as long as you can.  On short or rolling hills keeping momentum is often the difference between an easy climb and a hard one.  If you are approaching a hill from a flat road, build up some speed on the flat so you hit the bottom of the hill moving fast.  Maintain a constant effort when you hit the hill.  As the gradient steals your momentum, downshit to easier gears to keep your momentum going as long as you can.  You will quickly learn to recognize the point on a climb when your forward momentum dies and the climb turns into a pure grunt and you’ll want to prevent that from happening for as long as possible.  If you are riding a series of rolling hills, make use of the preceding downhill to build momentum for the next uphill.  Don’t coast on the downhills.  This will come naturally if you are trying to maintain a constant effort (see Hill Climbing 101) as you will be gearing up and accelerating throughout the downhill.  If you want to put out extra effort, squeeze out every last bit of speed you can on the downhill where it’s relatively easy so you don’t have to work so hard on the following uphill.  As your skills increase you will find that you can fly over hills that once gave you trouble by building the speed you need at the base of the hill and by conserving momentum through the climb by downshifting at just the right moment.

Ride with rhythm.  Many climbs are too long or too steep to be conquered with momentum.  When you’re on one of these, try and find a rhythm that you can ride at comfortably.  Essentially this means finding a cadence that feels right and then using your gears to maintain that cadence as the gradient fluctuates over the course of the climb (see the sections on cadence and maintaining a steady effort in Hill Climbing 101).  The right cadence will feel like a natural, comfortable rhythm.  Shift into a bigger gear when the gradient relaxes and into a smaller gear when the hill steepens to maintain that rhythm.  Don’t worry about what other riders are doing, find your rhythm and stick with it. 

Don’t coast after the crest.  There are going to be times when you crest a hill in agony.  Your legs are screaming for relief, you are in oxygen debt and panting uncontrollably,  and all you want ot do is make it stop.  You’re over the top and now gravity is your friend as it carries you down the other side.  You can coast for a minute; it’s your reward.  Don’t do it.  Keep your legs turning and shift into a higher gear so that you’re getting some resistance from the pedals.  The terrible burning feeling in your legs is produced by the buildup of waste products in the muscles you just overworked.  If you coast and stop using the muscles, those waste products just sit there causing you pain.  If you continue to use the muscles, gently in comparison with what you just did while climbing, the contraction of the muscles will squeeze the waste products out into the bloodstream where they can be carried away.  If you keep pedaling, the pain ends sooner.

Practice on every hill.   It doesn’t matter how long or short the hill is or how large or small the gradient is.  You can always find something to practice and it’s easier to be successful on the small hills than the big ones.  Use every hill as an opportunity to get better.  Success on the small hills today will lead to success on the big ones tomorrow.

Never quit on a hill.  Never.    I don’t really know if this is sound advice or not.  It makes sense and it works for me but anecdotal evidence like this is never worth much.  Here’s the advice anyway.  You’re going to suffer on climbs.  Maybe you went too fast on the early part of the climb and went into the red zone, maybe you blew a shift and killed your momentum, maybe you just don’t have enough left at the end of a long ride to take the climb in stride.  Whatever the cause, you are going to suffer.  The temptation to give up on the climb will be overwhelming.  Don’t do it, fight to the end, pay the price.  Suffer.  A lot of learning to climb is about training the body but some of it is about training the mind.  To be the kind of rider who doesn’t quit, you have to practice not quitting.  If you’re a road rider for any length of time, sooner or later someone is going to challenge you on a climb.  If their skill and fitness levels are so far beyond yours that it is no contest, they’re a jackass who has no business challenging you in the first place.  Ignore them.  However, if the riders are close in skill and fitness it usually comes down to heart and will.  Who will endure the greatest amount of suffering and not break.  If you have refused to quit on every hill in the past, you know that no matter how bad it gets, you’ve been through it before.  You didn’t quit then, so don’t quit now.  Believe me, the first time some guy challenges you on a hill and you break him and drop him in the last 100 meters of the climb it will all have been worth it.

21 thoughts on “Hill Climbing 102: Riding Techniques

  1. Pingback: Hill Climbing 101: Pedaling and Shifting « Tuned In To Cycling

  2. I’m relatively new to riding a road bike and decided to go with a single speed. Where I ride, the hills are relatively small, but I wondered if any of your advice would differ for my situation. You should know that I have it set up as a freewheel right now.

    Great site by the way.

  3. Reuben, thanks for the kind words about the site.

    The factors like dropping your heels, changing the muscle groups that are carrying the bulk of the load, remaining seated and keeping a loose grip on the bar should still hold with a single-speed, freewheel bike. They may even be more important because you will not be able to make the climb easier by shifting into a better gear. Remaining seated may be harder to do if the gradient gets too steep for your gear.

    Building and maintaining momentum are still important but the ability to do so will be limited by your inability to shift gears in response to changes in gradient or loss of momentum as you go uphill.

    As you know, the biggest drawback of a single gear bike is its lack of flexibility in adapting to changing riding conditions. Because climbing usually involves a lot of variation due to changes in gradient, length of the climb and rapidly exhausting muscles, you’re often going to be at a disadvantage. For example, if the gear you have matches what would be a comfortable rhythm for you given the gradient you’re on, you’re in luck. If you’ve got the wrong gear, you’re not. Single gear bikes can take a lot of the fun out of climbing.

    On the bright side, your bike is lighter than it would be with a full gear set so it’ll be easier to get up the hill and riding in a gear that’s too big for the gradient (within limits) will build leg strength. Also, some riders of fixed-gear bikes claim that hill climbing is easier because the turning rear wheel helps to power the crank through the deadspots in the pedal revolution. If that is correct and you switch to a fixed gear at some point, you’ll pick up this advantage as well.

  4. I ride a fixed gear cyclocross bike and am lucky enough to live in an area where there are nice flatlands with some small low gradient hills.

    However there are also bigger hills (we call them mountains in Ireland) where the scenery is much better. I recently took my first venture away from the safe and pleasant plains to do a 55k cycle in the Wicklow Mountains which really hurt my legs.

    I’m now glad to have found this page as the above is information is really useful. e.g. I’d never heard about dropping the heels before. I actually discovered for myself that while climbing the way I was standing was sloppy and it was obvious that I needed to develop a more efficient standing technique.

    Generally, I’d recommend that people use gears for hills but the hills can be overcome on a fixed or single-speed. Another advantage of fixed gears is that it just removes that temptation to coast at the crest of the hill. Plus, coming down gives you an intense spinning workout. 🙂

    Many thanks for this article.

  5. I ride a fixed gear cyclocross bike and am lucky enough to live in an area where there are nice flatlands with some small low gradient hills.

    However there are also bigger hills (we call them mountains in Ireland) where the scenery is much better. I recently took my first venture away from the safe and pleasant plains to do a 55k cycle in the Wicklow Mountains which really hurt my legs.

    I’m now glad to have found this page as the above information is really useful. e.g. I’d never heard about dropping the heels before. I actually discovered for myself that while climbing the way I was standing was sloppy and it was obvious that I needed to develop a more efficient standing technique.

    Generally, I’d recommend that people use gears for hills but the medium gradient hills can be overcome on a fixed or single-speed – with a reasonable gear ratio. Another advantage of fixed gears is that it just removes that temptation to coast at the crest of the hill. Plus, coming down gives you an intense spinning workout. 🙂

    Many thanks for this article.

  6. Glad to hear you found the article useful. Several years ago I had the great opportunity of riding for about 10 days in County Donegal. The picture of Laura and I you can see in the “About Tuned in to Cycling” link in the header at the top of the page was taken with Lough Swilly in the background.

    Ireland may not have what the French would call mountains but the hills in Ireland can have some wicked ramps that are more severe than anything we found when we rode some of the Tour de France climbs like Alpe d’Huez or le Col du Galibier. You’re riding along in nice and hilly terrain and all of a sudden there’s an 18% or 20% gradient in front of you. I don’t even want to think about trying to tackle one of those on a fixed-gear bike :).

  7. Good advice for us rookies and a great read.

    When do we get to see the article on standing techniques?

    Thanks

  8. Nice article and great site. I’ve been riding competitively for 20 years since I was 13 years old. I was never really much of a climber until I was about 20 years old when I discovered an old Bicycling magazine with an article on climbing using techniques that climbing master Andy Hampsten used in his prime. The results were amazing and I won several King of the Mountains prizes quite soon after mastering these techniques.

    I would suggest to anyone looking to improve their climbing skills to have a look at some footage of Andy in action and copy his style.

    Here’s a clip for starters!

    Happy climbing!

  9. I have been biking for a little bit now I wouldn’t say I am a beginner but I am no elitist either. I have honestly never heard of dropping my heels on the down stroke I always thought it was the opposite. Thank you for such a great little tidbit to make me that much better.

  10. I am an inspired climber, I was seeing what kind of bike do I need? How significant is it to have light pedals? Because, I was in a race on my steel frame and I blew people away on the climb. I am about to buy a new bike, aluminum frame and Carbon fork. What are some drills I can do and any tips to help me improve. I am 5 foot 8 inches, what should my height to weight ratio be? Thank you! And this is an outstanding site!

  11. Pingback: Become a better climber (cycling) « Sport and Things

  12. Pingback: Hogyan? Tekerjünk felfelé… | Pedalando

  13. “Never quit on a hill”. Is this advice given to help you complete a long ride or is it just masochistic pride? When we’re out on our tandem with a full touring load we sometimes choose to get off and walk up the steep bits. This means for a short while we use different muscles and also have a few blissful moments of allowing blood to flow through parts of our posteriors that would otherwise be fixed to our saddles. It seems pointless exhausting ourselves on a steep hill climb when there are still many miles to cycle in a day. Have we got it wrong? Is cycling up the hill just pride or is it better to keep on the bike and to keep the regular rhythm of pedalling cadence going? On the tandem our combined age is 127 years. Are we just whimps?

    • I think the best answer ot all of these questions is “none of these”. I don’t think there’s a right and a wrong reason for riding a bike. One of the great things about bikes is that there are so many ways to ride them for enjoyment. If you are not concerned with getting better at riding hills, or getting stronger climbing legs, or not getting dropped on the hills by other people you’re riding with (if this happens), then getting off your bike and walking up the hill is no problem. In other words, if you’re out on the bike for long rides that you and enjoy and you’re happy with doing it the way you’re doing it, just keep doing it and having fun.

      Whether it’s riding the bike or anything else, if you want to get good or you want to get better, you have to practice. There’s no getting around this. The other side of this coin is that you get get good at what you practice. If you want to get better at hills, or build stronger climbing legs or not get dropped on the hills, you have to practice riding harder on the hills. If you want to be the guy who doesn’t quit no matter how hard the suffering gets, you have to practice suffering without quitting. If you don’t care about this, there’s no reason to practice it. If you get off the bike and walk up hills, you’re going to get good at walking a bike up a hill.

      It’s easy to look at someone else and make derogatory comments about what they’re doing. “He’s a wimp” or “that’s just masochistic prode.” Maybe it’s neither of these things. Maybe it’s just two people who enjoy different things and either want to get better at those different things or are content with where they are.

  14. Pingback: Reflections on Hills, Size, and Confidence | Fit Is a Feminist Issue

  15. Hi, I just started riding this spring at the age of forty seven. I can’t believe it took me this long to try it again. I have a used Topanga Diamond Back, which I love. However, I am pretty much a road rider. When doing a road ride with steep hills, I have been told that a road bike would help me, is this a necessary expense? I have been told that I’m not a serious rider yet, but I do love to ride and want to conquer more hills. Is a road bike something I should invest in?

  16. Thank you. This advice totally changed my hill climbing ability instantly. I was quickly burning out, instantly on any decent hill and having to stop and go back due to poor technique. basically doing the total opposite to what you advice said. Last night I flew up the whole hill with ease (sort of), travelling about 15-20 times farther up the incline than ever before. All though technique. 1000 thanks.

  17. Great advice, well presented. Loads of articles try and teach people like everyone is a pro, but this is good solid advice for normal people. And whilst in Internet years, it’s an ancient article, it’s as true and relevant now as the day it was written.

    I slightly disagree about the momentum section… I have seen many people sprint to get momentum up a hill only to find themselves still out of breath when the momentum has run out and they need to start pedalling. So yes, don’t waste the approach to a hill but don’t kill yourself tying to build momentum as the reward isn’t worth it and you’ll ultimately be in a weaker position.

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