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The Noob’s Guide to Cycling:  The Art of Climbing (For the Average Cyclist).

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Cycling in Kentucky should have been a shock to my system, and legs.  If we hit 3,000 feet of climbing over a hundred miles here at home, that’s a fairly big deal.  The Horsey Hundred, in stark contrast was well over double that, but I flew up hills most were grinding up.  You see, I love climbing hills.  I know it may sound ridiculous, but I do love to climb on a bike.  There’s something about working up a hill that makes me feel good about being me.  Maybe I should put a caveat on that…  I’m good for about a 45 minute climb.  After that, it drags on a little bit and gets a touch boring – so Kentucky was perfect for me.  There were some steep one’s, but most climbs were less than mile and a half on the Horsey Hundred and Sunday was just a series of rollers, no real climbs.

The hills did, however, bl0w up a friend of mine who resorted to simple pee stops at the rest areas so he could get out ahead of us.  While I, on the other hand, was taking in the pickles, half-bananas and oranges before topping off my water bottles, using the facilities and then heading out.  He had maybe a five minute advantage on the rest of us and we’d make that up before we hit the next stop.

Oh, and my friend is a stronger cyclist than I am.  On flat ground.  In the hills, I hammer him.  How does that work?  Well, I can smash him because I know what it takes to make it up a hill, I have the gearing to do it, and most important, I know how to use it.

Over the course of that hundred mile ride, something clicked.  Something changed in how I climb a hill.  Something not related to my fitness, that had me passing people as if they were standing still.  I figured out how to use all 20 of my gears.  Well, maybe 19 of the 20.  I never used the granny gear.  Never had to.

I finally figured out how to use a real, honest to God, 90-100 cadence when climbing a hill without losing my breath within 30 seconds.  While momentum played a part on the shorter rollers, all bets were off on the ascents that stretched on for more than a quarter of a mile – and there were plenty of those with a few longer than a mile between 8 & 12%.

First, I do not have a climber’s bike.  I have an aero sprinter’s bike.  I don’t have a compact crank on the bike…  I roll the new “pro-compact” 52/36.  So to those with a 50/34 compact (like my wife), I’m at a disadvantage.  My friend was a different tale of woe though… I had a distinct advantage over him.  He rides a 52/39 race crank with an 11/28 10 sp. cassette (same cassette as me).  Those three teeth on the little ring up front make a difference on a 10-12% grade.

Beyond setup though, because I was able to hammer past dozens of people sporting compacts, and I was never passed once on a hill, was the manner in which I used the gears I had.

First, before I get into this, a bit of caution for the true noob…  If this invaluable information is used incorrectly, you could flip a bike backwards on a steep enough hill.  Usually mountain bikes with crazy torque gears up ultra-steep inclines are what you have to watch out for.  I’ve lifted my front wheel with a pedal stroke more than once on a single-track.  Be aware of what you’re doing.  Don’t flip your bike because that would suck, for you and your bike.

Here are the tricks I stumbled on that had me climbing with a smile:

First, leave that 30% shit to the pros.  Second, I scooted my butt back a few millimeters on my saddle and dropped my head and shoulders a little lower than normal.  This position changed how I was able to spin…  It made climbing a little easier and it was good.  Why?  I have no clue, but I liked it.
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Next, I took all questions of “big ring or little ring” out of the equation.  For any hills that I even had to wonder about, I chose the little ring.  Think about it; worst case scenario, you’ve got enough gear in the cassette to hold 22 mph in the little ring…  So I just used the little ring going into climb – but there’s a trick to that… How do you pick the right gear when you shift from big to little – and where do you shift into the little ring (if you missed it and are wondering what all of this talk of big ring/little ring is, I’m talking about the front chain rings)?  My friend, on the other hand, has used a Flight Deck computer that told him what gear he was in.  Leading in to a lot of the climbs he panicked to figure out the right gear…  With that little hesitation, he found himself off the back and couldn’t catch up.  Now this guy is an experienced cyclist, he’s not some just picked up his first Allez and he’s gonna ride him some mountains.  In fact, that’s the why for this post.  If he struggles, maybe this post can do some good for others.

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Real quick, answer this question:  If you’re cruising along at 15-20 mph and you wanted to shift to your little ring, maintain your speed and cadence, which gear would you use?

I can answer that, and pick that gear, without thinking, and shift to it, faster than it takes for you to say, “Jerk” as I go by…  No missed gears, no mistakes, no late shifts, no problems – and it works like this:

There’s a hill coming up.  Three upshifts right lever (harder gear which will slow the cadence for a split second), one downshift left, and I’m in close to the same cruising ratio in the little ring that I was in the big.  It takes all of two seconds.  I was in the little ring before I ever started going up a hill.  From there, it’s just downshifts when my cadence starts to drag. I never have to worry about whether or not I was in the right gear – I always was in the optimal gear at any given moment, without having to think about it (or second guess myself).

See, this may not seem that it should be such a big a deal, but in my neck of the woods, I’ve only ever needed the little ring to climb a hill maybe four times, so I never had to worry about any of this.  We just don’t have many hills big enough to warrant a little ring.

The only question left is spin in the saddle or out of the saddle.  I’ve been a mixture of both on flat ground for a long time – when the breathing and heart rate get out of whack from too much spinning, I always switch to a heavier gear to let my muscles do the work till they burn.  Then it’s back down to an easier gear to spin.  Decent climbs are no different, though I’ve found it far more beneficial to save the grinding for the shorter climbs.  Anything over a quarter mile and I’m spinning it unless there’s a short but sharp increase in grade at some point in the climb – then it’s spin-grind-spin.

The main thing to remember when climbing is that the strategy isn’t really too different from cycling on flat ground, it’s just a lot slower.  Take some time on climbs to work through where you want to be on your gearing so that when you get to the hill you don’t have to think, just downshift to maintain your cadence.  Then spin away till you get to the top.  Work on getting your breathing square so you’re not hyperventilating 2/3’s of the way up the hill and if you are, shift to an easier gear and keep spinning (your forward progress will slow a bit, but when learning how to handle a hill, it’s never a race – get your strategy right first, then worry about getting faster).  Finally, if you want to get out of the saddle for a break from spinning, shift up to a harder gear (or two)…  If you try to climb, out of the saddle, in too easy a gear, your heart rate and breathing will go through the roof…

In conclusion, remember this:  Learning how to climb hills properly is a process.  It takes a lot of thought and strategy to get it right, so find a hill and practice until you can get the shifting, cadence and feel right.  Climbing is excellent fun, when you know what you’re doing.

UPDATE:  For several more excellent tips, check out Gary’s excellent post.

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17 Comments

  1. idahoatheart says:

    I am slow on hills but I love them too. I tend to pick the hilliest roads when I ride.

  2. Rookienotes says:

    hills are something serious.. It takes a special person to make it up those hills

    • bgddyjim says:

      Thank you, but I don’t think I’m all that special… Until we start talking about the fact that I actually like them, now that’s a rare breed, admittedly.

  3. Sue Slaght says:

    Very good tips Jim. As we have chatted before I’m working on the cadence and shifting. Can’t say I love the hills but there is great satisfaction in it.

  4. I love hills too, though I would be so much slower. I do use a 34 on the back, which allows me to spin easily on steep climbs and not get my heart rate too high. I also tend to do the first bit of a climb slowly and catch folk towards the top when I’m going OK. I’m also lucky as most rides round here have a lot of climbing, so good for the soul.

  5. MJ Ray says:

    Well done.bWhy not shift to the small ring first, then shift the back up, to keep cadence up?

    • bgddyjim says:

      Excellent question MJ. First, It’s easier on the front dérailleur and helps the chain from bouncing into the bottom bracket. Second, and more important, the cadence required to maintain tempo at 20+ mph and shifting to the lower ring first would drop me back 6″ to 16″… Even though the shift happens very fast, I still have to keep my forward momentum going or I could drop back onto the cyclist drafting me which would be insanely dangerous. I speed up before a hill a little to give those behind a foot or two, then shift… By starting with the back first, I can keep pace while still letting off enough pressure to shift. Done front first, my legs would either spin wildly (I’m already between 80 & 90 rpm) or I’d have to back too much pressure off and soft pedal before the back gears caught up.

      • MJ Ray says:

        I don’t understand the bit about bouncing the chain onto the BB shell – if that can happen, then I’d feel the derailleur wasn’t set correctly or the shifters are wrong – but I can appreciate that when riding in close formation (which I almost never do any more) then you’d rather strain your legs a bit than risk getting rear-ended. Even in loose formation, I’m careful about who’s behind me before I shift the 3-speed hub down, as few people expect the effect of a clutch and a 25% gear drop (compared to a derailleur and 10ish% on current racers), so I know the potential problem.

      • bgddyjim says:

        Your perception about the dérailleur adjustment is not unfounded or without merit, but the four shifts happen so fast the chain does get to bouncing pretty hard. It doesn’t happen every time, not even close to it, but it has happened to me a couple of times in the past when I went front first out on my own… I’d simply rather avoid the possibility altogether for the safety of my mates so I go back first.

  6. Roelski says:

    Hmm… Double shifting… I like…

    Especially when shifting up, it’s a thing of sheer beauty when executed flawlessly: simultaneously shift the front from small to big and the rear 3 clicks up…

    No loss in cadence, and keep on hammering!

    (Well, at least if you don’t fail…) 😉

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