A Noob’s Guide to Cycling: To Climb Hills Like a Goat, Speed is Everything and One Simple Thing that can make You Bust Your Butt or Cruise Up the Steepest Inclines with a Smile on Your Face
It’s that time of year again my friends, I’m cycling in the mountains and I’ve got a lot of interesting things to mull over. I’m droppin’ ’em like they’re hot.
Unlike years past, this year I spent all of my road time with my wife. While I could have gone off on my own to rack up the miles, getting more miles just wasn’t that big a deal. I’m way up over last year and I’m just in a different place with cycling since I managed to balance my desire to be fast with the ability to enjoy riding with my better half.
Riding with my wife provided me, not only with the opportunity to get a bunch of enjoyable rides in but to really pay attention to little differences in the characteristics of a different style of riding. She’s a few miles per hour slower than I am but fast enough that I get a decent recovery ride at her comfortable pace. Throw in a bunch of hills and things get interesting.
What I’ve learned riding hills at a slower pace is that while I don’t work as hard on the flats and on the descents, I have to work harder on the climbs. A lot harder. There’s a simple truth at work here: When it comes to climbing hills, especially rollers, speed is your friend.
Now it goes without saying that the more speed you can carry into a climb, the less you’ll have to work going up the rest of the hill once your momentum bleeds off. For instance, just before the halfway point of our normal vacation ride, we climb up an absolutely nasty hill. It’s bad enough that I’m almost in my granny gear on the race bike and I have to drop to the baby ring on my triple when I bring the Trek. On the way back though, if I put some leg into it, I can hit 40 mph and I don’t have to pedal hard again for almost a half-mile, over three or four short ascents and a nice flat to slightly uphill section (too much speed would make the switchbacks too tough to manage with traffic). That same section at a slower pace and I’m pedaling the whole way and really working on the ascents. This is the low-hanging obvious fruit though.
Being in the right gear heading into a big climb is huge too. I want to be in a cruising gear or one up (harder to pedal) from that. Once I sense drag on my cadence, I downshift – and I keep downshifting when my cadence drags until pedaling becomes easy enough to sustain a decent cadence (or I run out of gears) for the remainder of the hill. To define “easy enough” can be quite difficult, but here’s my test: If I can accelerate going up the hill with a little extra effort, I’m in the right gear. If I have to grind to accelerate, I’m in the wrong gear – I need to downshift.
Cadence and Spinning Vs. Grinding and Finding the Right Gear
Watching my wife’s struggles and talking with her about them, one of her biggest issues was getting into the right gear before she came up to a hill. She fumbled with the high gears cresting the hills and heading down, she coasted at the worst possible times and then had a rough time getting into the right gear on the way up the next hill. When speed is your friend, troubling with the gears is exactly what we don’t need – you can end up grinding when you want to spin and spinning wildly when you want to grind (this is exactly what my wife was suffering through – heck, even I had a tough time more than once).
So here are my little tricks for not getting stuck. First, don’t stop pedaling. When we stop pedaling whether we’re going up or down a hill, we can get stuck in too high or too low a gear and then we have to scramble to try to find the right gear. Second, throw your ego out the window when we’re talking about ascending a hill. Don’t worry about pace and speed so much as being in the right gear – the speed will come as you get the gear selection right.
We’ll start out on the flat first. It’s very simple, starting with my cruising gear, as soon as I feel drag on my cadence, I downshift and spin that gear till I feel drag again and downshift again. If I get stuck and have to shift big ring to little (up front), I give it two hard pedal strokes so I can lighten up on the pedal pressure, then shift one or two gears up (harder) in the back followed by shift to the smaller ring up front. It’ll be quite seamless once you get the hang of it and each gear setup is different so you’ll have to find what works best for you on your bike. Once I’ve crested the hill and start back down, I immediately go from the small ring to the big ring up front or upshift three gears in the back (smaller gears in the back, remember). Don’t try to do both, you’ll get caught in too hard a gear and you won’t be able to build momentum. Now, if you’re lucky enough to have a triple, except on really tough hills, you can do a lot of damage in that middle ring up front, you’ll only have to worry about shifting in the back. Take a look at that profile above. I was able to climb (spinning a decent 75-90 cadence) every hill on that out and back ride except that big one right in the middle in the middle ring (42 teeth) so I only had to mess with the rear gears for the rest of the ride. My Venge is a little trickier because it’s got a 52/36 double up front but the same principles apply.
Another big problem my wife faced was what to do when cresting a hill and heading down the back side. She was understandably pooped coming over the top of the hill so she’d stop pedaling to rest a second while she headed down. You can guess what happened when she hit 25 mph and hadn’t shifted because she wanted to coast… She was going 25mph in a gear meant for 12 and she’d have to try to upshift to match her speed without going too far up in gears where it got too hard to pedal. This had a profound affect on her momentum and gave her fits once she started climbing the next hill. The trick is to shift up a few gears and light-pedal while you rest. Just because you’re moving your feet around doesn’t mean you have to mash the pedals to go faster. You can still rest and pedal and you’ll be in the right gear when you do want to apply pressure to the pedals. This increases your momentum going into the next climb… because speed is your friend.
Now, as far as coasting goes, I did plenty of it to let my wife catch up, I just picked the right spots to do it. If you want to pedal light to catch your breath, do it at the top of the hill, not at the bottom. You’ll want to be on the gas once you start to pitch up and if you’re not pedaling at the bottom, you’ll never feel the drag to know when to downshift which can lead to, again, being in the wrong gear – and being in the wrong gear on the way up is worse than on the way down because you have to keep going forward or you’ll fall over. Shifting is also harder when you have a lot of pressure on the derailleur (not to mention shifting under pressure wears all of the drivetrain parts out faster) so it’s best to be pedaling at the bottom.
Finally, that last crucial tip I mentioned in the Title of this post. Get this right and you’ll be able to climb faster while working half as hard as others who don’t pay close attention to how they climb… And keep in mind while reading this: I’m 20 pounds heavier than when I was much slower in the hills:
Timing is everything. Get the timing of one shift wrong and you could be laboring up a relatively easy hill or spinning like a madman(woman) down the back. Get the timing right and hills are smooth and a whole lot faster. Take these simple tips and figure out how to put them to work for you. Before you know it, you won’t hate hills as much.