Real Advice: An Intro to Climbing

climbing_3Real Advice is a series where we turn to the employees here at our home office for some answers. Just like anyone else, they need to balance time on the bike with full time jobs and families. Over the years they’ve gotten pretty good at getting the most out of their rides. Let us know what you think in the comments.

Today we asked Robert, one of our copywriters and dedicated lover of the road ride, to give us some tips on how to get better at climbing.

climbing_brianI learned a hard lesson about climbing a few years ago after moving to North Carolina from a certain Midwestern city known for ferocious winds and two-dimensional topography. I thought I was in pretty good shape—until I decided to join the Thursday night group ride my first week of work at Performance Bicycle. I doubt I had actually ridden a bicycle up a hill before (unless bridges count), but I didn’t think it could be too hard. After 5 miles of rolling hills, I was utterly exhausted, and had long since been dropped. My ego was deflated, but thankfully there’s nothing like a reality check to get you motivated. Here are some of the tips and tricks I used to improve my climbing:

  1. PRACTICE. This seems obvious, but there are no silver bullets here. The only way to get better is to go out and find hills to ride up. Don’t overdo it, but adding challenging vertical mileage to your rides will do wonders.
  2. BUDDY RIDES. After my embarrassment on the group ride, I found a strong climber at the office and rode with him a few times a week. It was painful, but forcing myself to match his faster pace helped me make huge gains in a short amount of time.
  3. YOUR FRONT DERAILLEUR. Use it. You’re not going to impress anybody by big-ringing it up the local hardman hill, and you may even hurt yourself. If you find yourself struggling and out of the saddle from the start of the climb, you need to get into the habit of shifting to the little ring sooner. Since it’s almost impossible to shift the front derailleur once you’re actually climbing, it’s better to shift five minutes too early than five seconds too late.
  4. STANDING vs. SITTING. This one is divisive, but it honestly depends on the type of climb. If the climb is, say, 2 miles at a 6% grade, you’re better off staying in the saddle and pedaling at a higher cadence. If it’s a short, steep climb you can probably just stand up and stomp on the pedals to power up it. In general standing makes you work harder than sitting and pedaling at a higher cadence. If you do need to stand, make sure to shift to a harder gear to compensate for the extra force on the pedals.
  5. RELAX. Climbing is hard, but we subconsciously make it harder than it needs to be. Next time you head uphill, pay attention to your upper body. I bet you’re clenching your abs, tensing your shoulders and white knuckling your handlebars. All this saps your energy and makes it harder to breath. Next time, try to keep things loose and relaxed, control your breathing, and let your legs do the work.
  6. EQUIPMENT. Yes, nothing can really take the place of saddle time—but there are some equipment upgrades that can make climbing a little easier. If you’re really struggling on the hills, consider changing your cassette to a 12-28T, or switching to a compact crankset—both of which can make things a little easier. But the most important upgrade you can make for climbing is your wheelset. Wheels add both raw weight and rotational weight to your bike, making climbing more difficult. Finding a good pair of lightweight wheels is a very personal matter, and much can depend on budget and personal preference, but we offer a huge selection of wheels for every rider.

If you already have a pair of wheels you love but still want to go lighter, then take a look at your cranks, seatpost or saddle. There are many places on a bicycle where grams can hide. For more ideas on how to improve your performance or shave some weight from the bike, check out the “Upgrade Yourself” article in the Performance Bicycle Learning Center.

29 thoughts on “Real Advice: An Intro to Climbing

  1. As a newbie I also find that sitting more upright while climbing helps me breathe better. Like I said, I’m new and older (50) so I’m not cheating the wind when I’m climbing hills. I also shorten my focus and looking at the road closer to me. I never look up to the top of the hill. When I’m focusing 20 yards ahead of me the road looks flatter than when I’m staring up the mountain.

  2. Like Rick, I typically climb quite upright, but also slide way back on my seat for leg-press-type leverage when seated. I’d also add that even breathing helps. Like clinching up, if you let it, your breathing can get very rapid if left unchecked. Chill out and take steady deep belly/diaphram (not chest breathing) inhales and exhales through a relaxed and expanded upper torso. Just from my experience.

  3. Great Adcice!

    Spent a day last weekend climbing hills around Monadnock in NH. Nothing too steep, but some were on the longish side for me. Relaxing in the saddle, staying within myself and looking at the road in front of me kept me in the groove and able to enjoy the ride and climb the hills in peace. I also changed out my cassette (I have arthritis, and standing to ride is almost impossible) to an 11-32. The difference from my 12-26 is incredibly noticeable. Best few dollars I could spend on the bike to get a decent improvement. I am doing a 4 day ride in through NH and Western MA later in the month and I have to say I am now looking forward to it, when I was once dreading it. Overall a respectful pace for the ride on the weekend and I am looking forward to tackling some 4-5 mile uphills on our routes later in the month. Keep Calm and Peddle One!

    1. That sounds like a great ride Geof, that’s quite a day of climbing! Out of curiosity, when you changed to a 32T cassette did you need to go to a long cage rear derailleur, or were able to make it work with a standard road RD? Thanks for commenting, and good luck on those next climbs.

  4. Discovered info stating that if you sit forward, to the front of the seat, you work more of the Quad muscles and when you sit to the rear of the seat you work more of the Hams, rotating providing rest for the other. Tried it and I could feel it. …and also as stated earlier, full expiration eliminates your pulmonary tidal volume, resulting in more 02, and at 60+ I need all the help I can get!

    1. Thanks for commenting Dennis. It’s always great to hear about the little techniques and nuances of riding our customers have discovered. That’s some good advice, and it sounds like it’s pretty effective. We’ll have to give it a try next time we head out.

  5. Ditch the macho pride at the bottom of the hill. The difference between 7 mph and 10 mph up the hill is measured in seconds but the energy cost is so much more.

    1. Dave, thanks for commenting. I think we’ve all seen countless riders– amateur and pro alike– start off impossibly strong at the start only to flame out half way up. Knowing how to pace yourself is definitely important.

  6. I too had read that riding more upright (hands on the top of the bars), relaxed, at a high RPM spin is good for long rides with long climbs. The length of the total ride is a good contextual point mentioned above- a seated high RPM spin (aerobic) is much easier to recover from than a standing, low RPM grind (anaerobic)…therefore, if you’re on a long ride, you may not get away with an anaerobic thrash early in your ride.

    1. Oh, and ref #6…if I were to upgrade from my Bonty SSRs (~2166 grams) to the FSAs (1540 grams), that is supposedly a difference of ~1.3 pounds. To climb moire efficiently I also try to lose weight…who cannot stand to lose a couple of pounds?

      1. You’re definitely right about aerobic recovery, on long rides it’s best to use your energy wisely. And regarding wheel weights and rider weights…wheels are a great place to start, but if you can shave grams elsewhere that’s always a bonus too 🙂 Thanks for commenting, and enjoy the ride.

  7. As a new rider as well and 51 YO AND living in Colorado, I have found that a nice steady pace in the right gear makes the climbs much more rewarding. We live at 6.3k feet and the 1k climbs are a challenge but very rewarding when I accomplish them. The tips of relax and focus on not being tense help a lot.

    1. Good suggestions given. Save weight on the dynamic moving parts of the bike- the crank arms, the pedals, the chain rings, chain, and especially the wheels, the tires and tubes. Also don’t overlook shoes and cleats. Saving bike frame weight helps, but losing excess body weight is a lot cheaper. Try riding at a comfortable spin if possible. if you overheat on steep grades, get off and walk for a minute or two , then resume riding … it avoids cramping up. From a Colorado
      Rockies rider in his eighties.

  8. First off I would like to say terrific blog! I had a
    quick question which I’d like to ask if you don’t mind.

    I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your mind prior to
    writing. I’ve had difficulty clearing my mind in getting my ideas out.
    I truly do take pleasure in writing but it just seems
    like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally wasted simply
    just trying to figure out how to begin. Any suggestions or tips?

  9. That’s it?
    1. Get your abs in shape. The bike as two large triangles. The lower triangle consists of the top tube, the down tube, and the seat tube. The upper triangle consists of the top tube, your arms and your torso. If any one of those portions is weak then when stressed going up the hills there will be a lateral sway to the bike and energy lost to forward momentum.

    2. If on a group ride get to the front of the pack as you approach the hill. This way even if the entire group passes you if you are still with the pack at the top you can recover on the downhill.

    3. Work on your pedaling stroke. Most riders push down on their pedals and neglect other aspects of the stroke. Especially on approaching a climb or on any slight inclined road practice accentuating getting your heel down and roll the pedal with force over the top, I call this 10 to 2 riding as it feels as if you are pushing the pedal from slightly back to over the top and down and not just from the 2 o’clock position to 6 [looking from the outside in on the drive side.] This should work your calf muscles. Getting those muscles stronger keeps you from using your thigh muscles until further up the hill so that they don’t burn out too early. Then also work on pedaling back on the pedal, what I would refer to as 4 to 8 o’clock. This does not necessary feel difficult but can add a lot to pedaling efficiency.

  10. I’m 55 years old and ride a 30+ year old single speed German bike and have found that there are some hills just too steep for my equipment and physical conditioning. Given those limitations I try to keep to hills within those limitations and then the biggest help I’ve found is having the saddle adjusted to the correct height and not being afraid to slow down up a grade. I’ve also found that staying seated allows me to concentrate all my energy on turning the pedals, and not having to budget part of it to supporting my body weight.

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