What it takes to climb hills require more than just bike skills

By Antonio Macasieb

We’ve all gone through this before: as you approach the foot of a daunting climb, you get that sinking sensation of anxiety and self-doubt. It can be hard to avoid that dreaded moment when you think to yourself, “I don’t know if I can make it to the top.” Today, we’ll dispel those fears as we present a compilation of tried-and-tested tips on technique, preparation, and conditioning to make you a venerable king of the mountains.

Technique: Climb Smart, Not Hard

Pacing

Riding within your limits can minimize your overall riding time. All too often, athletes drowning in adrenaline feel they can miraculously climb two times faster, only to crash halfway through. Let experience, feeling, and heart rate govern how fast you can go up a hill. Stay under your anaerobic threshold (usually under 80 to 90 percent of your max heart rate) and keep a steady cadence of 90 rpm for most of the climb, if the gradient (ergo, your heart, lungs, and legs) will allow. Watch out for changes in grade; shift gears quickly, as changing gears too late is a sure-fire way to waste energy.

Posture

Change your posture to a straight and arched back, breathing with your diaphragm to open up your lungs. As you begin to slow down for a climb, drag from wind resistance becomes less important than the ability to supply your body with enough oxygen to generate power. While climbing off the saddle is a good skill to have, it’s smarter to complete the majority of your climbs seated. Staying seated greatly reduces the risk of exhaustion as you use larger muscles like your butt. Take note of your upper body as well and watch out for any part getting tense. Keep your shoulders, arms, and grip relaxed.

Transitioning to Descent

The summit of any climb is an excellent opportunity to move up in a race. While other cyclists slow down on top, a smart, well-paced cyclist should maintain effort through the descent until you reach full speed. Try brow sprinting through rolling hills and you might be amazed at how big a gap you can produce. Skilled and confident athletes can cover a lot of ground on the descent, all with little to no energy. A graceful descent requires confidence in high speeds, minimized braking, and an efficient turning technique.

Practicing turning descents on the course itself is one of the best ways to get rid of jitters. For balance, keep your body weight on the rear wheel and the outside pedal. Do all your braking before the turn and accelerate only as you pass the apex of the corner.

Preparation

Know the Curves of the Course

Survey the course on your bike a few weeks before the race. Discovering features like false flats, sharp turns, and rough roads takes out surprises from race day while measuring and timing climbs and descents can greatly aid in your mental preparation.

Dump the Water Weight

Don’t be the silly goose that looks like he’s ready for a three-day camping trip in the mountains. It pays to know where the aid stations are with respect to major climbs. Bring just enough water to get you to the next aid station and save a lot of weight. Remember: one liter of water is a full kilogram. All the weight you saved buying that wheelset might’ve just gone to your bottles.

Gear

Changes to your standard kit can make a world of a difference for a climbing course. Drop any unnecessary gear and substitute components for lighter ones. Switch out your crankset for one with lower gear ratios. Consider opting for a road bike; they tend to be lighter, have a more climber-friendly geometry, and are stiffer, making handling better than their TT counterparts. Also, bring a bit more nutrition and electrolytes with you than usual. Ninety kilometers up and down  thehills can demand a lot more out of an athlete.

Conditioning

Hill Repeats

Nothing helps you get over your fear of a steep slope than plenty of practice. Adding a healthy variety of climbs will help you train the muscle groups you’ll need for the ascent. Start with a hill of a grade of eight to 10 percent and a distance that you can cover in about two to three minutes. Approach from the bottom of the hill, climb until you reach the top before turning around to recover on the descent. Begin again once you can breathe normally. Set an effort based on feeling or your heart rate (up to 95 percent of your max HR) with a target of eight repeats.

Standing

Climbing off the saddle (or standing) is an essential skill to master. Standing allows you to produce a more powerful down-stroke for the steepest gradients and fastest paces as well as recruit different muscle groups for a long and tedious climb. Maintain good technique; keep your body close to the centerline as your bike sways from side to side. Your wheels should also trace a straight line on the road and not wobble.

Watching Your Power-to-weight Ratio

Your power-to-weight ratio is how much energy your can body produce for each kilogram you weigh. Use a power meter or visit a cycling studio to occasionally check the progress of your functional threshold power. Watch out for your weight though because the heavier you are, the larger the amount of energy required to overcome gravity. Remember the cheapest dead-weight to cut off your bike might be that belly of yours; maybe it’s time for both you and your bike to go on a diet?