Cycling uphill doesn’t need to be a daunting task. It requires a combination of physical strength, mental resilience, and strategic planning. At its simplest, hill climbing is about power to weight ratio (although aerodynamics and rolling resistance of the tyres play some part) – this means that the higher the power output of the rider, divided by the weight of the rider and bike, the quicker you’ll go up a hill. Whether you’re a seasoned cyclist or a beginner, conquering uphill challenges is a rewarding experience that enhances your fitness and overall cycling skills.
Gear Selection and cadence
One of the fundamental aspects of conquering uphill challenges is mastering your gear selection. As you approach an incline, shift to a lower gear to maintain a comfortable cadence. This allows you to pedal more efficiently. Everybody has a cadence (pedal strokes per minute) that they feel most comfortable at. For most people it’s around 80-100, I personally prefer 90-110rpm. When going uphills, ideally, assuming you’re seated, you keep the same cadence as you would on the flat.
Pacing Yourself – power and cadence meters
It depends on what your goal is for any given hill. If your goal is to get through a very long ride relatively comfortably, then keep your cadence and power output the same as what it would be when riding on the flat comfortably. This will involve letting the hill slow you down. It is helpful to have a power meter and also a meter that measures your cadence. Now, some hills are so steep that even at your lowest gear ratio (smallest at the front and largest at the back), your cadence is slower than you feel comfortable ideally doing and or you are forced to put out more power than you do on the flat. If this is a regular occurrence you may like to consider changing your gear ratios on your bike. You can do this by either going from a standard front chainring set (eg: 52/39 tooth big / small ring) to a compact (50/34), or even a super compact (eg: 46/30). Alternatively you may like to get a bigger rear cassette, for example changing from 11-28 tooth to 11-34 or even 11-36 tooth. These strategies to conserve energy help ensure you have the energy resources to continue along the rest of your ride.
If your goal is to push yourself to achieve a certain time on any given hill (or “Segment” as described on Strava), then understanding how much power you are able to put out for the duration of that hill is essential. You will be able to hold progressively less power for a hill that takes 3 minutes vs 4 min, vs 8min vs 20minutes etc… The only real way to work out what power you can hold for any given length of climb is to do those hills over and again and look at your average power. You could then employ one of two strategies. Pretend the hill takes you about 4 minutes and you average about 380Watts for the hill. Strategy 1 would be to keep the power between 370 and 390W the whole way up. Strategy 2 would be to ‘negatively split’ (or gradually ramp up the power). It may look like holding 330-350W for the first minute, then 350-370W for the 2nd minute, then 370-390W for the 3rd minute, and then 390-410W (with the power really ramping up towards 500W in the final 20-30 seconds).
Aerodynamics are less relevant for hill climbing than on the flat or downhills. Particularly on steep hills, put your hands on the top of the handlebars, sit on the back of the seat and sit upright and tall. You can get an easier and deeper breath this way.
Sometimes standing up out of the seat is helpful when climbing, generally most people do this at a cadence that is 20-30rpm slower than seated, so before you stand up, change the gears on your rear cassette 2 (or even 3) gears harder. Standing up can be useful to get the absolute most out of yourself at the end of a hill that you are doing a hard effort on. It can similarly be useful on long rides as something to simply change your hand, neck, shoulder and back position and minimise stiffness building up through your body.
If you are pushing yourself for a quick time up a hill, then pay attention to your breathing patterns. Focus on deep, rhythmic breaths to ensure your muscles receive an optimal oxygen supply. Controlled breathing helps maintain your energy levels and promotes mental focus during challenging ascents.
Incorporate interval training into your cycling routine to build strength and endurance for uphill climbs. Intervals involve alternating between periods of intense effort and recovery. This training simulates climbing demands and prepares your muscles for sustained uphill performance. You can choose intervals which approximate the length of the climbs you will be doing (like the times mentioned above), or if you live near a variety of hills, use them for your interval training, and have rest periods between each hill to recover.
Uphill challenges can be mentally demanding, especially when faced with steep gradients and big power demands. Cultivate a positive mindset and break the climb into smaller, more manageable segments. Focus on reaching the next turn or landmark, celebrating small victories. This is just as useful on a 2 minute all out climb, as a 20-60 minute climb.
Hydration and Nutrition
Proper hydration and nutrition are vital for sustained energy during uphill rides. But in all reality it is no different to when you are on the flat. Ensure you are well-hydrated during the ride and on the ascent, and carry snacks like energy bars or gels to replenish glycogen levels if you are going for a long ride. Staying fueled will help you maintain strength and focus throughout your ride.
Mastering uphill challenges is a journey that involves a combination of physical preparation, mental fortitude, and strategic execution. By implementing these cycling strategies, you’ll improve your uphill performance and enhance your overall cycling experience. Embrace the challenge, stay focused, and enjoy the sense of accomplishment as you conquer those demanding ascents. Happy cycling!