Beginners guide to hill climbing on a road bike

Ever since moving to Cornwall, hills have become a part of my daily life. I thought Wiltshire was hilly and I guess it is, but nothing prepared me for the terrain of Cornwall. There are no straight roads here and certainly no flat ones. It was a real shock to the system and one my legs are still getting used to.

Hills are a part of cycling and will always present a challenge regardless of fitness level. Ride most places in Italy, Majorca, or southern Spain or France and they will feature heavily. So getting used to grades is all part of the pleasure. At least when you get to the top there is usually some high speed payback!

So whether you want to fly like Chris Froome at 100rpm or grind up that hill like Cav, you need to understand hill climbing technique. Power-to-weight ratio and fitness play an important part too, but it’s technique that can make or break a climb.

While this guide is for beginners, it’s important to have your position and comfortable cadence in mind before you tackle any significant climbs. You will find that as you ride, you settle into a comfortable position after a few weeks of fettling. You will also settle into a comfortable cadence. Ideally this should be 85rpm+. If it isn’t, try some cadence training to get it up to that level.

Hill climbing technique

There are three elements to good hill climbing, gearing, position and cadence. Each combines to make a hill easy or hard and are very subjective. Watch any Grand Tour and you will see a huge variety of positions, bike setups and cadences at work. Each rider has a different position that works for them. You’ll have one too. Finding yours will take either coaching or trial and error.

The approach

As you approach the hill, make sure you’re comfortable and seated. Keep your cadence at your usual ride pace and use your gearing to maintain it as you ascend. You’ll find that you use a lower gear than you might think as you approach the ascent in order to maintain speed and cadence as the grade increases.

The middle section

As the hill kicks in for real, try to stay seated for as long as you can. While there is nothing wrong with standing to change muscles, it burns more energy than sitting and hill climbing is all about efficiency. If the climb is long enough, alternating between standing and sitting is a good tactic as long as your seated efforts are longer than your standing ones.

Your position should be fairly upright with shoulders spread to maximise the amount of oxygen you take in. Your hands will find their own position on the bars, either in the centre or on the hoods. Keep your grip loose and arms relaxed to reduce energy expenditure and increase comfort.

Cadence will naturally drop as the gradient increases. Try to keep the gearing low enough that you can maintain a fairly high cadence without loading your leg muscles too much. Ideally you want to be able to cruise up the hill without going into the red or spinning like a madman.

The summit

As the end approaches, you can either keep cruising or give it some beans. Much depends on how you feel and whether you’re riding on your own, in a group or racing. Giving it full gas to complete the hill is also good training but is no good if you’re still early in your ride and have a long way to go.

If you can, go up a gear or increase your cadence to boost your speed. This is the hardest part of the hill and will challenge you. However, in return you will not only crest the hill at speed, you will also get better at hills, increase your fitness and your confidence. You’ll also get more out of the descent if you crest at pace.

Many riders will ride out of the saddle as they near the summit. It does allow you to get more power down but it will quickly tire you. It’s entirely up to you how you handle it. If you’re racing, an out of saddle effort could allow you to surprise the rider ahead or put some distance between you and those behind you. Just make sure you don’t put yourself into the red as you do it!

Ride up grades

As the great Eddy Merckx once said, ‘don’t buy upgrades, ride up grades.’ The more you ride up hills the better a hill climber you will become. You will also learn the right cadence, gearing and position for you and for the grade of hill you’re riding. This experience is what will make you a good climber. Unfortunately, there is no short cut to this, riding hills regularly is the only way to get better at them.

A good training technique is to vary your hill efforts. Some rides, go for cadence and light gearing. On others, hit a slightly higher gear and lower cadence to train for strength. Mix and match as you see fit to round out your abilities as a rider.

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