Climbing hills is a huge part of cycling. Some love the climbs and some dread them, but almost every cyclist wants to improve their speed, comfort and technique for when the road starts going up.
Fortunately, there are lots of ways you can improve your climbing. Here’s our supported rider and climbing expert Tom Bell’s top tips to improve your climbing on a bike.
Tom is one of the best cross-country mountain bikers in the UK and well-known as a superb climber, finishing 5th at the 2015 National Hill Climb Championships and holding some enviable KOMs on Strava, including the infamous Holme Moss.
1) Keep that upper body still
When climbing, you’ll want to transfer as much of your energy into the pedals and forward momentum as possible. Bobbing excessively with the upper body can waste a lot of precious energy, so try to keep everything above the hips as still as possible, including your shoulders and head.
Always try to rock the bike from side to side rather than your body when the going gets tough, as this is a far more efficient climbing style and will put more drive into making the bike go forward.
2) Focus on rhythm
Climbing hills, especially if they’re steep or long, can be really painful. One technique to distract yourself from the suffering is to focus on rhythm. This can be found in your breathing, your pedal stroke or the rocking side to side of the bike underneath you.
Try to ignore the burning in the legs and instead allow yourself to get lost in this rhythm, and the climb will likely be over a lot faster than you might think.
3) Use a pacing tool
Pacing is key if you’re to get to the top of a climb quickly and efficiently. This is something a lot of riders get wrong and pay for down the line. Almost everyone will start a climb too fast and slow as the climb progresses, whereas the best thing to do is to hold an even pace as you ascend.
Start the climb as you mean to go on by using a pacing tool. This can be a power meter, a heart rate monitor or even just a subjective pain scale. Choose a power number, heart rate or number out of ten that you feel you can sustain to the top of a climb and stick at it! You might feel slow at the bottom of a hill, but you’ll have plenty of energy left for later on when everyone else is suffering.
4) Alternate seated and standing positions
There are two main ways to ride when climbing hills, and these are staying seated in the saddle and standing up on the pedals. As a general rule, staying seated will be more efficient and will mean less energy lost through using your arms to hold yourself up.
However, standing on the pedals is a great way to use more of your bodyweight to generate power, and is therefore great for short bursts of power. On longer climbs, try to spend most of your time seated, but stand on the pedals every now and again to give your lower back a rest and to use some different muscles that will spread the load better.
5) Set your gears accordingly
Is there anything worse than running out of easy gears when you’re struggling up a steep climb? Before you set out on a big ride or to an event, try to do some research into the types of hills you’ll be hitting.
If there are likely to be climbs that are steeper than what you’re used to, it might be time to make sure you have a sufficient range of gears to allow you to maintain a good cadence when climbing. For hilly routes, you’ll want to look at switching to a compact chainset and/or a large cassette at the back, perhaps one that goes up to a 28-32 tooth cog. This will allow you to stay seated on the steeper parts and ride in an efficient manner at all times.
6) Open the chest
When we get tired, one of the most notable signs can be seen in the shoulders, which slump forward. This can really restrict your ability to breathe well, which will obviously hinder you on the climbs.
Try to always keep the shoulders back and the chest nice and open, so that you can get as much oxygen into the body as possible. You can work on this off the bike too, performing a few drills where you practice keeping the shoulders back by squeezing the shoulder blades together and holding for a few seconds at a time. Keeping your head up whilst you ride will also help you keep the chest open too, so try to look up the road when you’re climbing.
7) For long climbs, keep it steady
Surging on climbs is a great way to launch an attack and get away from a competitor, but for longer distance rides and events, it’s always better to avoid sudden spikes in speed and instead try to ride smoothly.
When you surge, you’re using a lot more energy to increase your speed, and it’s unlikely that you’ll have the benefit of momentum seen as you’re going uphill! As alluded to above, keep your speed and effort as constant and controlled as you can in order to conserve precious energy. To avoid having to surge on steeper sections of a climb too, always anticipate your gear selection and change accordingly before you actually reach that steep pitch.
8) Pedal in circles, not squares
Finally, having a good pedalling technique will only help you when you’re climbing hills on the bike. This means having a pedal stroke that is circular and smooth rather than jolty when you’re pedalling. As muscles become tired, it can be more difficult to maintain a smooth pedal stroke, but luckily this is highly trainable.
A great way to improve this part of your technique is to perform one-legged drills when out on a ride or indoors on a turbo trainer. At first, you might find it very difficult to pedal with one leg in a smooth fashion and it’s likely your stroke will have a lot of “dead spots” in it. This is particularly useful when the ground is slippery and maintaining traction becomes paramount.
Hopefully, these quick tips should help you to work on your climbing game on the bike and ultimately perform better in your next epic ride or event. Be sure to let us know how your next one goes!
Looking for some new gear for the climbing season? Take a look at our road range here