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Home » Cycling » Making A Mole Hill Out Of A Hill: The Noobs Guide To Climbing Hills (Not Mountains, Hills)

Making A Mole Hill Out Of A Hill: The Noobs Guide To Climbing Hills (Not Mountains, Hills)


May 2013

Anyone who deals with hills on a regular basis – and doesn’t like them – knows that a decent one can suck the life out of a great ride, and quickly.  There are a few schools of thought on the “best” way to climb.  I have no opinion on either because each rider will have to pick their poison.

Some shift down a gear or two easier than they’re in when they approach the hill, get out of the saddle and grind up the hill.  Others like to shift into a much easier gear and spin their way up.  I used to be partial to the former until I visited the mountains and found out what climbing hills is all about.

There are also two philosophies for the non-racer concerning hills (and various hybrids of them):  Go easy and drop the pace up the hill then spin up on the way down using gravity as your friend.  There’s a lot to be said for this but I prefer the second in most cases, attack the hills and use gravity and the downhill to recover before pouring it on near the bottom.  I picked this philosophy up from running with a good friend who always emphasized keeping the same pace up the hills, then recovering the breathing on the way down.  The funny thing with gravity is that as a runner I can even pick up the pace without the effort, thereby still recovering.  Hills, looked at this way, become a time to pick up the pace so mentally they don’t have the same dread behind them.  Sure, it’s a mind game, but running and cycling are mostly mental anyway.

In the mountains, a hill that takes 25-30 minutes to climb is a lot different from a little roller on the outskirts of town.  For a real hill, it’s more about not blowing up, it’s about cadence and keeping the breathing under control.  Spin too fast or climb out of the saddle in too easy a gear and you’ll burn up in a matter of minutes (maybe even seconds).  Too hard a gear out of the saddle and you won’t be able to turn your crank over…  On the other hand, for that decent roller, say 100′ rise in a 1/4 to 1/3 of a mile or so (we have a few of those on the Tuesday route), I always shift up one gear (to a harder gear) and then climb it out of the saddle.  It may seem counter intuitive but it allows me to keep my speed up going uphill and I can manage the turnover of the crank at a decent pace so I don’t overcook myself.  I can always downshift if my heart rate elevates (a couple of days in the mountains will make you acutely aware of your limits).  I’ve been attacking hills all spring long like that so when we hit the first hill last Tuesday I pulled away from the group with a minimal amount of effort and I still had plenty left to spin up on the downhill that followed…  In fact, I had to stop pedaling down the hill so I could wait up for the other guys in our group.  Now, lest you think it’s rest time on the smaller rollers, I shift up two gears…

So Tuesday night, this is what my strategy has equated to:  On hills that I used to climb at 15 mph, I’m now between 17.5 and 19 mph.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that picking the granny gear and spinning up in the saddle has its benefits, it just takes forever and a day to get anywhere.  Where that comes in handy is in the mountains (as long as you’re not on a steep section, in which case you’re in the granny gear and out of the saddle already).  I don’t worry about the 90 rpm cadence on hills anymore either.  I probably drop down to 70 and mash the pedals a little bit till just before I get to the crest and then I give it a little sprint until I can feel gravity pulling me down.  If I feel myself burning out, it starts in the legs first then breathing starts to go, I’ll shift down a gear and keep the same cadence.

The payoff, at least for me, has been that I don’t despise hills so much any more because they don’t hurt me like they used to – and that’s all good!  We’ll have to see how this translates to riding in the mountains though…  I’ll be finding that out (and I’ll be sure to write about it) in a couple of months though I doubt I’ll be worrying about philosophy too much – I’ll be on vacation and that will be all about fun.


  1. Cherry says:

    This means I better keep going with my out of saddle practice ….. And real soon! I’m more a granny gear spinner at the moment.

    • bgddyjim says:

      I used to be too, until that trip to the mountains – once I figured my cadence out in the mountains I transferred that to my Southern Michigan hills and I became much more efficient at climbing ours (and they became a lot more fun). Good luck and enjoy.

  2. Chatter says:

    I unfortunately have not gotten used to standing and powering through a hill climb of 6-7% grade. I find myself stubbornly just powering through these climbs in the saddle in the granny gear as low and easy as it will go. Often these climbs take a sheer test of will to get up this way. Need to learn out of saddle skills and ignore triathlon habits.
    On downhills, I take a hybrid approach. At the top I start hard pedalling, get my speed up and then rest each leg a little bit til I get closer to the bottom, then I start a hard push to get momentum for the next climb.

    • Laura says:

      I feel like I’m a fairly strong climber and I never stand. I feel standing is a waste of energy. Go only as low as you need to for the hill and concentrate on keeping your heels down with smooth, round pedaling. But I’m not a racer either. 😀

      We have a road that averages 5.9% grade over almost a mile ( – basically coming up from the creek to high ground. My commuter’s lowest gear is 42/12. It’s a hell of a workout , especially with loaded panniers – but I can’t afford to blow all my energy on the hill because I still have 5 or 6 miles -and other hills- to go before I’m home.

      • bgddyjim says:

        That’s a heck of a hill for 42/12! Holy smokes.

      • Laura says:

        LOL – well, my commuter has 12 speeds: 42/52 up front, 14-26 in back (just counted). .

        On the plus side, my legs are getting stronger every day I bike commute. 😀

      • Laura says:

        Whoops – has that backward. 42/26.

        42/12 would hurt even more. No thanks! 🙂

      • bgddyjim says:

        That’s more like it. ;). I’ve got a 52/42/30 triple so I know what pedaling a 42/12 is like – that’s a downhill gear for me. LOL. 12 speeds are awesome. I’ve gotta break out the Cannondale again (14sp).

      • Laura says:

        I would kill for a 30 some days. I was describing a run to one of my city-dwelling friends – up, then down, flat, up, down, up, down, then a long up. She was like “Oh, that sounds terrible!” Life in the burbs – full of ups and downs! 🙂

      • bgddyjim says:

        Here’s the skinny on the triple… It’s ultra sexy in the mountains but it sucks for the group ride. The compact double is where it’s at for that.

        I can’t hit any of the easier gears without cross-chaining horrendously so I end up fighting between the big ring and the 42 all night long where other guys with compact doubles are spinning easy on the big ring the whole time… I

      • bgddyjim says:

        Oh, I almost forgot about the first part… Saddle vs. Standing – I tried to leave the door open on that one because it’s a very opinion dictated topic. I feel much more efficient out of the saddle, it’s just one of those things… Of course we don’t have hills in Michigan like you do (I was born in Roxborough).

      • Laura says:

        Totally agree – my club friends all spend a little time out of the saddle when the pitch gets steep. I have not really tried it in any capacity where it felt like I was actually making progress. So true that it’s personal preference. 🙂

        PA has some serious hills. One doesn’t think (generally) of PA when thinking of good climbing – but I’m heading out this weekend for a 65 miler with an 8 mile add-on called the ICU – Intensive Climbing Unit. over 1200′ of climbing just in those 8 miles. Will be good training for my Colorado century in three weeks. LOL

      • bgddyjim says:

        Have fun, looking forward to reading about it.

      • Chatter says:

        The hill at 7% I was referring to is only a little over half a mile. Staying seated I had to really push to get up it. Glad it was not a mile, would have killed me.

      • Laura says:

        My mantra on big hills is borrowed from the Beastie Boys:

        Let it flow!
        Let yourself go!
        Slow and low –
        That is the tempo!

        Good for you for tackling big hills though – I have come to really enjoy hilly rides over the past year.

  3. lee says:

    Great post, and some great tips to try. A couple seasons ago I swapped in some 30-minute stair climber sessions to my indoor workout (no cheating by hanging onto the rails!). A few weeks later I found huge difference outside on the hills. “Hey, when did they shorten and flatted out this hill?”

    • bgddyjim says:

      No kidding! That’s pretty cool… Same thing happened when I went down south to ride in the mountains – I got back and couldn’t believe that I’d been whining about a few of the hills I used to… Neat tip with the stair climber.

  4. kevinkidder says:

    Well said! I too realized that hills are something to be befriended, not dreaded. Like all skills, when we are novices, we are easily discourages, but as we gain skill and confidence, we take pride in our new found excellence. I have been training lately on a pair of hills called “The Bears”. One is simply Bear Mountain. 7% grade over 4.5 miles. The other is about 1/2 mile long, but tops out at 15%. A combination of strategies serve me. For Bear Mountain… settle in. It is going to be a long ride. Stand when it kicks up to 10%, and maybe to stretch the quads a little. For Bear Ridge Road which is relentlessly steep, well, do your best. Lowest gear. Some standing, some sitting. Keep the pedals turning, keep the heart rate below 185. Survive to the top.

    • bgddyjim says:

      Awesome… Wish we had some of those in my neck of the woods. I have to go on vacation for those. I got to climb a 3-1/2 miler last year in Georgia that was awesome… 6-8% and straight. The climb took 25 minutes, the descent? About 5-1/2. Man that was fun.

  5. I suppose just like any other physical exertion, holding a positive and lively image of the activity allows us to exert and climb better. very important to condition our minds accordingly if we would like to routinise it. So, what is your way of holding an image as you climb?


    • bgddyjim says:

      This is a great question… Sometimes I like to think about how crazy I am to like the climbs – others, when I don’t, I like to do my best to “conquer” them… Still others I like to think about how they’ll make me stronger. When it gets really tough sometimes I just put my head down and grind… I’ll have to put some more thought into this though, thanks for the question.

  6. […] Climbing a hill fast is great way to improve averages.  Embrace your inner beast. […]

  7. I love the smell of Napalm in the morning!! Or should I say, I love the sight of a steep hill in the morning. It gets me all fired up to climb hills on my bike. I have learn a thing or two from this post as well. Another one book marked to refresh my skills as I move forward.

  8. kruzmeister says:

    Another great post full of useful tips Jim. I am determined this winter to make the hills around home my friends, especially after seeing the IMOZ bike course, which is extremely hilly, thank God the run is flat! – Simone

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