How to ascend like a pro

Unless you live in East Anglia or Lincolnshire, chances are your regular rides includes hills of some sort. Some cyclists will go miles out of their way to avoid them, others enjoy them. Love them or hate them, hills are all part of cycling.

If you avoid them, you’ll never be good at them. It’s as simple as that. Cyclists are hard core, we are willing to go longer and further, endure more pain and longer recovery periods than almost any other sportsperson, so why be scared of a hill?

If you want to know how to take the ascents like a pro, read on!

Hill climbing 101

There are three main elements that make for a good climber. Good training and level of fitness, decent power to weight ratio and technique. They each combine to make you either a good climber or a poor one.

Good training and fitness comes down to how much efficient effort you put in to raising your fitness level. For many of us, that comes down to just getting in the miles on a regular basis. For those who compete it can be a heady mix of intervals, long runs, sprints and recovery. Whichever kind of rider you are, you can control your fitness.

Power to weight ratio is also within your grasp. Eat right, exercise often and recover enough and your body will do the rest.

Climbing technique is something you can learn and something we’re going to discuss now.

Climbing technique

Another list of threes, this time, three elements that make for good climbing technique. They are; cadence, gearing and position. In an ideal world you would balance all three of these to make a very efficient climb. Most of us have to work very hard at it to even get to the top!

A typical hill climb should look something like this:

As you approach the hill, set your gear so it’s slightly lower than you need. Keep your cadence high, ideally in the 80-90 rpm range but the effort light. You need to pace yourself if you’re to get to the summit. Loosen your shoulders and relax your arms.

This is something you should always do while riding, but is worth noting here. If you relax your arms, you not only have finer control over the bike, your body only has to fuel your legs, not your shoulders and arms too. That can add up to a big saving over longer ascents.

Stay seated and try to remain seated for as long as possible. While standing allows you to put more effort into the stroke in a higher gear, it also uses more energy.

As you clear the initial section of the hill try to remain in your present gear or go up one if you can. This will test your aerobic capability. It’s important to keep the effort steady, watch your cadence and not go all out to get to the top. Pacing is vital to prevent you blowing up halfway up the hill.

You got rhythm

Hill climbing is all about maintaining a comfortable rhythm throughout the ascent. Finding a cadence you can maintain is vital. Climbing is about gearing to maintain that cadence, not about changing your cadence to match the hill. Once you get the hang of this technique, you’re halfway there to ascending like a pro.

As you get to the last third or quarter of the hill, you can make a break or sprint if you want to. Just make sure you have enough in you to crest the hill and go for it!

If you can, go up into a higher gear and accelerate as you see the crest. If you do change up, keep your cadence constant to maintain momentum and enjoy that burst of speed. Don’t let your cadence drop too much otherwise you could get bogged down. It’s all about efficiency, not a last hurrah.

Try to stay seated if you can for this final part, but don’t worry if you also have the urge to stand up. As the crest should be almost upon you now it doesn’t matter if you burn more energy. Depending on your fitness and physiology, you may find you can accelerate harder and faster out of the saddle.

As you crest the hill, maintain cadence but drop the effort. Keep moving, sit down and let your legs bleed lactic acid. If it’s safe, take a quick look over your shoulder at what you just achieved and enjoy the moment!

Maintain cadence and continue the ride.

Final word

To be able to climb like a pro, you need to think like a pro. You need to tackle hills wherever you can, pace yourself throughout the ascent to prevent burnout and try to pedal as efficiently as possible.

Pacing is vital, as is choosing the right gear and maintaining a relatively high cadence throughout the climb. It will take practice as your fitness, gearing and technique will heavily influence how well you do.

Finally, never, ever give up on a hill. Your legs might burn, your lings might scream for oxygen, you might be crying in pain, but don’t give up. If you give up on a hill, you don’t get the benefit. Mentally, you’re also beaten. Cycling is about not being beaten. Not by the elements and not by yourself. Climbing is great practice for that.

So even if you suffer afterwards, you keep on going until the summit. Your body might not thank you for it right away, but the mental and physical gains you get from completing the climb will stay with you for a very long time.

Not all hills are a standard percentage ascent, some will have false crests and others will have surprises in store. Practice them all to truly ascend like a pro!


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