Climbing on a Bike

You bastard mountain—I hate your guts! (Zorba the Greek)

Dancing on the pedals (Phil Liggett’s description of Lance Armstrong climbing)

The saddest words I ever hear a cyclist say are, “I don’t like to climb.” Climbing isn’t just a third of riding—it’s the best part of riding. Even telling yourself “I have to do this in order to get the descent” is to miss out on the joy that is climbing. If you don’t agree, this chapter will tell you how to fix that.

Prepping Your Bike and Your Body

Get in climbing shape. Climbing uses the body differently than riding on the flats. Nothing you do will make climbing rewarding if you haven’t done the conditioning. No amount of flat riding will condition you for climbing.

Ideally, getting climbing fitness should take the same effort as any other conditioning, namely, an elevated effort 3 times a week for a minimum of 30 minutes (for more on the subject, see the Training chapter). Most of us don’t have that kind of time, and you will reap benefits doing less, but it’s good to accept the idea that that’s what you’re aiming for. If you can climb 3 times a week for a couple of weeks, you can then scale back.

As with all conditioning, you want to start by “just riding,” but once you have a base you want to vary the effort so as to train the entire climbing body. As always, training works best when you make it up yourself and have as much fun as possible, but here are six basic training modules—try to do versions of all of them:

  1. Long, steady climbing: moderate HR, no significant lactic burn
  2. Pacemaking: maintaining a noticeable effort, with elevated HR
  3. Intervals: hard efforts for short periods of time, with recovery riding in between
  4. Isolations: 10-30 pedal strokes emphasizing one muscle group or one part of the pedal stroke
  5. Standing
  6. Pushing an unnaturally large gear. Be careful here—overzealousness can harm your knees and lower back.

There is more information on these and other training techniques in the chapter on Training.

Lose weight. In climbing, power-to-weight ratio rules. Lose weight and your PWR goes up. You can lose weight in two places: in your bike and in your body. There’s a chapter on each in this book.

Get climbing gears. With the wrong gear ratios, climbing can be well-nigh impossible. Do not be macho or elitist about this. Do not take pride in being able to crush the hill in a big gear. Do not despise the Freds spinning up the hill in their 34/32’s. Think of it like this: you don’t purposely ride a 35-lb bike or ride in tennis shoes—harder is not better. Use the technology. Fit out your bike with a 34-tooth front chain ring and a 32-tooth rear granny gear unless you have some objective proof that you can climb and have fun doing it without them.

You can measure how low a gear you need with a simple test. Since you want to spin when you climb (see below), you want to maintain at least a 70-rpm cadence up the hill—ideally, you want 80 to 90 rpm, but we’ll call 70 the absolute acceptable minimum. Go ride up an easy grade in your granny gear while maintaining a 70-rpm cadence (watch a timer while counting your pedal strokes if you don’t have a cadence sensor on your computer). Note your speed. Now, any time you are climbing in your granny gear and you are going slower than that speed, you want lower gearing.

Gravel riding, which has changed bike technology in lots of healthy ways, has helped here. People who ride dirt want low gearing, so gravel riders ride around with 42-tooth granny gears in the back, and they’ve made it acceptable for us roadies to have low gears too.

Use a higher tire pressure (or a lower one). The Your First Ride chapter discussed tire pressure and how we’re all using pressures around 80-90 psi now. But when you slow down to climbing speeds (5-10 mph), the advantage of a lower tire pressure (lower rolling resistance) disappears, so you’re actually faster with harder tires. Unless the road surface is rough. As we discussed, any time the road surface becomes rough enough that your tires begin to chatter, the chattering is diverting energy from forward motion. When you’re climbing, this loss of forward energy is palpable—every pimple and hairline crack in the road surface seems to stop you dead, because you have almost no momentum to overcome it. So you want a tire that’s as hard as possible, for ease of rolling, but that deforms and absorbs any road chatter. All of which boils down to more or less pressure than you use on the flats, depending on road surface: perhaps 95 psi on smooth hills, 80 psi on rough hills.

Forget about being aero. On a climb, ignore how aerodynamic your bike, gear, or clothing is. Aero effects start becoming measurable at around 17 mph.

Prepping Your Mind

Once you have basic fitness, climbing is mostly in the head. Most beginning climbers climb in fear, spooked by their suffering, “trying hard” to overcome the hill. (If you don’t like the word “fear,” call it stress, worry, anxiety, tension.) All of this makes the hill much harder. To climb, you must climb in (at least) tranquility and (at best) joy. Easier said than done, but there are lots of things you can to help:

Realize you aren’t going to die. When we climb in fear, our fear is telling us, “This hill is going to go on forever. Your heart is going to explode. Your legs are going to cramp. You’re going to tear a muscle.” None of these things is going to happen. Your heart rate will rise, your muscles will get tired, and that’s all. You aren’t doing yourself any harm. In fact, you’re doing your body good. You never see a cyclist’s bleached skeleton along the roadside of a tough climb.

There’s a simple trick to bring this home. As you climb, ask yourself, “Objectively, how hard is my heart working right now? How much longer do I estimate my heart can keep working like this?” If you’re in shape and you’re pacing yourself up the hill, the answers should be, “My heart’s working hard but it’s doing OK—I should be able to do this for a while longer.” Similarly, ask, “Objectively, how are my leg muscles doing right now? How much longer do I estimate they can keep working like this?” Again, the answers should be, “They’re working but they’re doing OK—they should be able to keep this up for a while.” The point is, your fear isn’t about how your body is doing right now—it’s about the endless draining labor you’re imagining lies ahead.

Know the hill. Fear flourishes in the face of the unknown. Notice how any hill is much harder the first time you climb it than it ever is again. That’s because after the first time, you know it. You know you can do it now.

So arm yourself with knowledge before an unknown hill. Use Mapmyride or Strava or RidewithGPS to tell you about the distance, total elevation gain, average pitch, and maximum pitch of the climb. Carry that knowledge with you up the hill, so you can say “I’m halfway there” or “The worst is over” or “It never gets steeper than this.”

By the way, pitches are usually measured in percents—10% meaning the road goes up 10% of its horizontal distance, so 10 miles of riding with 5280 ft of gain = 10%—but sometimes they’re measured in degrees, and the two systems give wildly different numbers. A pitch of 45 degrees = 100%.

Realize no hill lasts forever. If you’re riding in unknown territory and you hit an 8% grade, remind yourself that there are no 10,000-ft mountains nearby so logically it can’t go on very long. This doesn’t work in Colorado.

Don’t extrapolate the workload. Don’t estimate your tiredness level at the end of the climb by multiplying how tired you are now. If you’re on a 5,000-ft climbing day and you do the first 500-ft climb, you’ll be tired, and you’ll be tempted to say, “OMG, I’ve got 10 times this much climbing to do, so at the end I’ll be 10 times this tired! I’ll never make it!” Or you might begin a one-hour climb, and after 10 minutes multiply your tiredness level by 6. This is a great way of talking yourself into despair, and it simply isn’t the way bodies work. Current tiredness level is no predictor of future tiredness level. Remember our mantra: however you feel now, you’ll feel differently in five minutes.

Stop calling it pain—it really isn’t. Pain is a feeling you can’t control and may be doing you harm. This isn’t that. This is something that you are completely in control of, that you’re doing for fun, that you know is good for you. It’s your muscles and heart working, not pain.

Find ways to relax. Working hard, gritting your teeth, mashing the pedals, and fighting the bike all wear you out and add to your fear. Instead, back off, take your time, get smooth, and get your head into something soothing.

You can go in two directions, inward or outward. To go inward is to focus on your body: your quads, your heart rate, your breathing. How precisely do your hamstrings feel right now? How many breaths per minute are you taking? This can be very relaxing. To go outward is to think about something other than the riding. Become fascinated by the scenery. Study the rock formations revealed in the road cuts. Imagine how the local geology was formed. Try to name the wildflowers. Notice how the road construction has opened up the forest and brought a new mini-ecosystem to the roadside. Best of all: get into photography. Study the landscape around you for good shots. Stop to take photos (it won’t hurt you to stop for 20 seconds).

Play mental games. The best ones are ones you make up yourself, because only you know how your mind works. Some riders love to count pedal strokes; others hate counting pedal strokes. Some riders love to imagine a bungee chord pulling them up the mountain. Some love to try to catch the rider in front of them.

Mental gymnastics can be an effective form of distraction. I like to do cycling-related math problems in my head as I climb: if the climb is 3 miles long and the elevation gain is 1000 ft, what’s the percentage pitch? If a hill takes me an hour to climb at 10 mph, what speed do I have to descend the same hill at to average 20 mph?

Create mental images of the ride that feel easy and light. I like to imagine that I’m sitting on a bar stool, with all my weight on my seat, and my legs are just spinning effortless, free-wheeling circles on pedals that are attached to the bar’s foot rail.

For short, hard efforts, like 18% grades or the last pitch before the summit of a hard climb, I have a special mental game. I count pedal strokes in groups of ten, and I divide the ten into 3, 5, 8, and 10. I think in this wise: I can always do 3 pedal strokes; then two more is easy; now I’m at 5 and I’m half done. Three more is easy, and now I’m at 8, and I’m basically done with the 10. Then I start over. It works for me, but I don’t imagine it’s everyone’s cup of tea, which is my point.

Don’t distract yourself by listening to music. We’ve come here to be present on the bike. Music takes us somewhere else. Distracting yourself via music is for when you’re sitting in the dentist’s chair, not riding a bike through the splendors of nature. You go to work, pay the bills, do the dishes, and mow the lawn so that you can do this wonderful thing called cycling—now that you’re doing it, why try to forget you’re doing it? But if you want to anesthetize yourself with music when you’re on your trainer, I’ll totally understand.

Be grateful. If I’m laboring up a hill, I often brighten my outlook by thinking: I am lucky to be doing this. I’m doing the thing I love. There will come a time when I’m too old to do this, and then I would give anything to be able to be here doing this right now.

Ignore your speedometer. Speed is not a good measure of your performance right now. There are many ways to monitor how the hill is going: heart rate, cadence, breathing, how the quads or hamstrings are feeling. Speed is not one of them. If you’re spinning 80 rpm, your heart rate is above 130 and below 155, the muscles are working but not burning, and you can carry on a conversation without gasping, you’re doing great.

Climbing Technique

Climbing, more than any other aspect of cycling, profits from proper technique. Even if you choose not to be a student of cycling, a little study here will pay big dividends.

Make sure your technique doesn’t desert you. All those good habits we learned in the Your First Ride and Advanced Skills chapters tend to disappear when the road turns up and you get tense, and now is when you need them more than ever. Relax your upper body, especially your shoulders. Keep your knees in the same vertical plane as your feet/pedals. Keep your back straight. Don’t rock side to side. Don’t pull with your arms.

Most important, maintain good pedaling form. Since climbing feels like “work,” it’s tempting to forget everything we said about pedaling in the Advanced Skills chapter and try to muscle up the hill with the downstroke alone. Don’t. Keep all your leg muscles in play. Most important: drive the knee upward toward the handlebar on the upstroke.

Tighten your shoe straps. You need to pull back and up with your feet, and any slop in your shoes is a major hindrance.

Spin. Maintain a pedaling cadence of at least 70 rpm, better yet 80, ideally 90. This will spread the work out and help you last longer. Only climb in a big gear for training.

Pace yourself. Unless the hill is just a roller, you aren’t going to be able to power up the entire thing. Spread out the effort. Start less vigorously than feels right, and assure yourself that if you’re making a mistake and end up with energy to burn at the top of the climb you can hammer the last quarter-mile.

A heart rate monitor is beyond price here. Gather data from a hundred climbs at a hundred different levels of effort until you know that you can maintain HR X for length of time T without burning too many matches. From experience, I know I can maintain 130 beats per minute for an hour, 150 BPM for 5 minutes, and 120 BPM forever. So if I’m doing an hour climb and I see 150 on the HRM, I know to back off.

Ride as fast as you can. This doesn’t mean start by hammering and burn yourself out. It means the easiest way up the hill, the one where you’ll do the least amount of work, is to ride at the fastest pace you can maintain comfortably.

All other things being equal, climbing faster brings two benefits. First, elapsed time shrinks. If you climb a 10-mile hill at 10 mph, it takes an hour. If you climb it at 5 mph, it takes two hours. Working for one hour is often less tiring than working for two hours, even if the level of effort is a bit higher. Second, the faster you go, the more momentum (the force that keeps the bike rolling forward when you coast) you have, and all the work done by momentum is work you don’t have to do with your muscles. Thus the faster you go, the faster you can go. The guy who climbs the hill at 15 mph while you’re doing 5 mph isn’t working 3 times as hard as you, because momentum is doing most of their work for them. If this makes no sense to you, prove it by riding up a steep hill at an intentionally super-slow pace, like 3 mph, when momentum is doing none of the work, then try it at 6 mph.

Breathe deeply and exhale forcefully. Remember what we said about breathing in the Advanced Skills chapter. During hard climbing is when we’re most likely to forget it. Concentrate on taking slow, big breathes deep into the belly, with a full expansion of the diaphragm (the muscle just below your rib cage), and exhaling fully and forcefully. Whoosh!

This can be fairly distracting, and I don’t promise I do it all the time, but even if you remember to do it in moments of fatigue—when your brain says, “Whew, this is tough!”—perhaps just 4-5 big breaths and forceful exhalations in a row—the benefit is palpable.

Recover by spinning, not by stopping. It’s natural to want to deal with tiredness by stopping to rest, but don’t. Muscles don’t recover best by being idle; they recover best by light work. If you stop, the lactic acid in your legs just sits there and kills you when you start again. If you pedal lightly, you’ll clear the lactic acid out. It may be impossible to do this if you’re new to climbing or the pitch is steep, but when you have fitness and if you took my advice about gearing, you should be able to ghost-pedal up a 5% pitch and recover while doing it.

Keep changing things up. Find ways to vary the experience. Stand up (briefly). Move forward and back on the saddle. Up the tempo (briefly). Change your pedaling style to move the workload from one muscle group to another—exaggerate the downstroke for 30 revolutions, then exaggerate the upstroke. Change hand positions—ride in the drops, or keep one hand on the hoods while resting the other forearm across the handlebar tops. Ideally the road contour will vary the riding for you; if it doesn’t, do it for yourself.

Try different gears. However right the gear you’re in feels, try the gear above and the gear below now and then. Sometimes a harder gear will let you hold a higher speed and thus have more of your work be done by momentum. Sometimes an easier gear will let you ease the load on your muscles by spreading out the workload without losing speed. You’ll never find out if you don’t try.

Ride on the smoothest part of the road. Every crack and pothole, however small, is a little wall you have to crash into, then climb up and over. You’re literally coming to a mini-standstill and starting over with every road imperfection. So dodge what you can. Weaving around on the road is usually a no-no, because it adds distance, but when climbing on rough road surfaces it’s often worth it. The smoothest part of the road, all else being equal, is the paint—the fog line or the centerline (unless the road is wet, in which case don’t go near them). Other smooth paths: the pavement around the double centerline, the shoulder of a chipsealed road, the right-hand car tire track. Obviously traffic has to allow this, so you can’t do it on urban streets, but in the back country I spend a lot of my time riding the centerline.

Ride the outside of the corners. Stay as far from the center of the turn as possible. The reason is basic geometry. With a given elevation gain, the easiest path is the one that travels the greatest distance, because it has the most gradual pitch. Gaining 1000 ft at 4% is easier than gaining 1000 ft at 8%, even though the distance is greater. So riding the outside of the turn must be easier than riding the inside, since you’re gaining the same amount of elevation through the corner and you’re riding a greater distance. This is doubly true if the road is cambered and trebly true if the corner has a dip on the inside, as most tight corners do.

This is a world-changing revelation, so let’s do some math to prove its power. Assume you’re riding a 180-degree turn with a radius of 40 ft. The road is 20 ft wide. If you ride on the inside of the turn, you will travel 126 ft. (circumference = pi x diameter). If you ride on the outside of the turn, you will travel 188 ft—50% further, thereby reducing the effective pitch of the road by 1/3! Thus a difficult 9% pitch becomes a very manageable 6% pitch. Amazing.

Obviously you can only ride on the very outside of right-hand turns when you know the chances of on-coming traffic are next to nil (though I do it on back roads all the time), but even riding on or near the centerline instead of the shoulder makes a huge difference in climbing effort.

Keep your tires in contact with the ground. When the pitch gets steep (16% plus), two new challenges appear: keeping your front wheel on the ground and maintaining traction. There is a temptation when climbing to pull back on the handlebar. This is always destructive, but when the pitch is steep it can be disastrous—you can easily pull the front wheel right off the ground and the bike over your head. So keep weight on the handlebar. And there is a temptation to mash the pedals, which increases torque to the back wheel, which in turn encourages it to lose traction and spin in place. If this happens, the bike will instantly stop and pitch you forward into the handlebar. So, as you pedal, keep a part of your mind on your rear-wheel traction and when you feel it start to go, back off the pedal pressure just enough to correct the problem. This sounds more mystical than it is—loss of traction announces its approach in a subtle way you can learn to feel coming. If loss of traction persists, go up to the next harder gear—it reduces your torque.

Re-start on the Diagonal. However buff you are, there will be times on a climb when you have to stop—to pee, to take a photo, to take off your windbreaker. If the pitch is steep, getting started again can be challenging, because the incline will rob you of all momentum before you can cleat in with your second foot. To prepare for this, you can be ready to do a track stand while you’re fishing for your other cleat, or be ready to put your free foot down the instant it fails to clip in, but the best and easiest solution is to move to the extreme side of the road and start at a diagonal across the road, thus lessening the incline and lengthening your coast. Ideally choose an angle that is slightly uphill, 3% or so. Don’t head directly across the road, even though it’s attractively flat, because if you do you will have to make an immediate and extremely tight 90-degree uphill turn at slow speed when you reach the opposite shoulder, which is an invitation to crashing.

When and How to Stand

When to Stand

Don’t stand to go faster. Standing feels faster, but it usually isn’t, because your cadence drops, and even if it were, it’s much more tiring than riding seated, so you end up getting tired faster and thus eventually going slower. That’s why the great Jan Ullrich never stood, and why you should avoid it until it’s called for.

Stand to maintain momentum up short rollers. As soon as the roller becomes so long that you start bogging down, sit down and gear down.

Stand when the pitch makes it impossible to pedal seated. What pitch that is, depends on your fitness and the day. For me, on a good day, it’s about 12%. Sometimes when I’m tired at the end of a long day, it’s 5%. But remember, standing is always more tiring than sitting, so standing because you’re tired will always make the tiredness problem worse in the long run.

Stand to refresh the legs. Standing uses different muscles, or uses the same muscles differently, so it’s a lovely break. Stand any time your legs feel stiff or stuffy or your body wants to stretch. It doesn’t take long to reap the benefit—maybe only 3-10 pedal strokes. After that, you’re burning matches unnecessarily. This works as well on the flats as on climbs.

Standing Technique

Keep your weight over the pedals. There is a natural tendency to lean forward dramatically when you’re standing. It feels right, but that’s an illusion. As always, pedaling works best when your weight and downward force is straight down through the pedal, in line with gravity. Of course you have to seem to lean forward—move your chest closer to the handlebar—to remain vertical as your front wheel elevates, but that isn’t leaning forward, that’s your handlebar coming to meet you.

Pedal with the scissor kick. The natural inclination when standing is to think, “This needs a lot of muscle, so I better mash down on the pedals and throw my body weight hard onto the pedal with each downstroke.” The opposite is true: now you need the upstroke more than ever. When you stand, a lot of pedaling techniques become impossible—you can’t do ankling or pulling backwards across the bottom of the stroke—but you can do the scissor kick (see “How to Pedal” in the Advanced Skills chapter). Scissor kicking is actually easier when standing than when sitting, and you should feel the power of each upstroke throwing you up the hill. I never think about the downstroke when I stand—I think only about the upstroke and let the downstroke take care of itself, which it will. If the upstroke doesn’t feel powerful, go up a gear. And keep heel position simple—keep your feet parallel to the ground through the entire pedal stroke.

Don’t try to do ankling while standing. I think it’s anatomically impossible.

Rock the bike from side to side. If there is one secret to climbing steep pitches, it’s this. Rocking the bike is disastrous when seated, because it diverts energy from forward motion, but it’s crucial when climbing out of the saddle. In effect, the rocking does much of the work for your legs. Push down on the outside end of the handlebar opposite to your pedal downstroke and pull up on the other end.

The degree to which you rock is proportional to the pitch—the steeper the pitch, the more you rock. At 5% you may rock imperceptibly. By 10% the rocking should be ostentatious, and by 15% it should be comical. At such a pitch, you literally cannot rock the bike too much. Try to lay the bike on the ground, and make sure the top tube is hitting your thigh. It feels stupid at first, but it will revolutionize your climbing. You will find yourself able to climb previously impossible pitches with relative ease. (Readers of the Home Page: this is the tip I learned from Jacquie Phelan.)

Rock in proportion to the amount of force you’re applying to the pedal. If you’re powering up a short roller, you will want to rock flagrantly even if the pitch isn’t all that great.

If the payoff for rocking isn’t striking—if you don’t find the climbing effort halved—something’s going wrong. It’s probably one of three things:

1. You’re late. The timing of rocking is pretty natural on shallow pitches, but the steeper the pitch becomes the more unnatural rocking becomes and the more you have to practice. You have to rock the handlebar a bit before the compensating pedal stroke. I find that on 18% pitches I have to keep hurrying the rocking or I’m late. And you have to work harder at being early the more tired you get.

2. You’re over-emphasizing the downstroke. The rock of the bar is counterbalanced entirely by the pedal upstroke. Stress the upstroke—ignore the downstroke completely if you must.

3. Your handlebars are too narrow. Narrow handlebars are now the rage because they make you aero, but they have a bad effect on a bike’s handling, and this is one way they do that.

Rocking on very steep pitches is a completely different skill than rocking on moderate pitches, so rocking on moderate pitches won’t teach it to you. It has to be practiced, so you’ll have to find an 18% pitch to drill on.

Put your hands on or just behind the hoods. Anywhere else seriously inhibits the rocking motion.

Don’t seek speed. On a steep pitch, you’re not trying to be fast; you’re trying to be smooth. Relax, settle in, and seek to be smooth, graceful, effortless, light, elegant. Focus on minimizing effort, and assure yourself that if the pedals are turning at all you’re succeeding. It’s a Zen thing. I like to imagine I’m just hiking at a recreational pace up a trail.

Maintain your form. Even though you’re standing up and rocking the handlebar, don’t use standing as an excuse to go back to old bad habits. Don’t point your toes. Don’t rock your body—the bike rocks; you don’t. Most important, keep your knees in the plane of the pedaling circle, even if the top tube is slamming into your thighs.

Don’t shift. It’s almost impossible to shift gears when standing because you can’t ghost-pedal. If I need to shift when I’m standing, I sit, shift, then stand up again.

Don’t spin. Spinning is great when you’re seated, but when you’re standing, pedaling against slight resistance is instantly exhausting. Make sure you’re meeting firm resistance. You may need to shift up a gear or two just before you stand, unless you’re already pushing a big gear or the pitch is truly challenging.