Climbing big hills, and I mean big ones, double digit grades for miles, is no easy proposition. It’s scary as hell for some beginners. Some may even consider a triple crankset just to get up hills without having to walk.
Relax. It’s easier than you make it seem. Kind of.
First, I’m no lightweight, 150 pound rail. At 170-180 pounds, there’s definitely more weight on me to lose than I can get out of the bike, at any price. I can, however, climb with some exceptional climbers. There are tricks to climbing fast, and they do not include zig-zagging up a 10% grade. That should not be necessary.
Getting up a decent hill is no different, theoretically, from cycling on flat ground other than these facts:
The grade makes it a little harder.
The consequences from even a tiny mistake are huge.
Climbing a hill is all about momentum. When momentum is maintained, a seemingly hard climb can be accomplished with less effort than you might think. Lose momentum and you can get stuck trying to grind it out. There’s a reason they call it grind.
The momentum I’m talking about here is not going up. Dude, you can’t beat gravity. Gravity is not a Theory, it’s the Law.
The momentum is in your cadence, how fast one turns the pedals over.
I have a friend, Mike, who is incredibly strong on flat ground. You put that fella on an incline and he’s a completely different cyclist. He loses momentum in his cadence and tries to grind up hills.
He’s regularly one of the last guys up a hill.
Now, to keep that momentum, there are a couple of things that are important to know:
First, contrary to popular belief, you’re not stuck with the gear you’re in unless you’re in the last gear you’ve got. To shift, up or down, you have to relieve some pressure off the pedals/drivetrain for the derailleur to shift. Do this by getting out of the saddle and picking up your cadence and a little momentum. Then, when you’ve got a second of steam built up, put your fingers on the sifter and throw your bike forward as you plop down in the saddle and shift while continuing to pedal. As your butt hits the saddle, ease up on the pedals (pressure) slightly to let the derailleur complete the shift.
Second, pushing too easy a gear is just as bad as too hard a gear. Spin too fast and you’re going to run out of juice just like you will trying to grind too hard a gear. The idea is to be able to turn the pedals over a little easier than you would on flat ground at cruising speed. You match the gear you want to that feeling. From there, you just keep your cadence between, say 60 and 80 rpm. This is going to seem a little fast at first, especially because you’re going up a hill at slow speeds… Trust it and give it a go. If you’re in too hard a gear to get the pedals moving, downshift one and try it again. If you’re in too easy a gear, get a good head of steam in the gear you’re in, let up on the pedal pressure just a bit and upshift. Then spin away, and don’t worry about speed. The main concern is with breathing and maintaining your momentum so the gear you’re in stays relatively easy to push (compared to your normal flat ground cruising).
When you get the cadence down, all you have to worry about is breathing. This can be a little tricky but if I look at it as though I’m just spinning normally on flat ground, I know where my RPM should be for an easy cruise – as long as I keep the cadence near that, I can fly up a hill while others are left behind trying to grind it out.
Now, as a final note, one should never look at climbing decent hills as “easy”. No matter how good your climbing Kung Fu is, it’s still hard work. On the other hand, there’s an easy way and a hard way to get up a hill and once I figured out the proper cadence and how to incorporate my breathing into that rhythm, I became instantly more proficient.
Finally, and this is very important, don’t judge yourself on someone else’s performance. You have no idea how hard someone else trained to get that fast, so don’t assume that you can, or would even be willing to, give up what they did to get to where they are. Ride your ride, not theirs.
I am a century cyclist. I’m actually a multiple-century cyclist. Two, three, even four days in a row. No worries. Sub five-hour century? Check. Five hour centuries, many – and usually with as few as four or five guys.
Cramping, nausea, inability to sleep afterward? Check. Check. Check. Of course, it’s not so bad anymore, whether it’s that I’ve just grown accustomed, better fitness, or wiser nutrition, I don’t know but I don’t suffer like I used to afterward. Though the first two (cramping and nausea) were fixed nutritionally, the third is what it is. I usually have to wait several hours to nap, or till the evening to simply crash.
This post reflects my experience with cycling’s marathon; The Century. This post is for Karen, who inspired its writing. Thank you Karen.
There’s no doubt 100 miles is tough and cool to most normal folk. Those who don’t ride will think you’re cool for being able to do it in under 14 hours. Their jaws will drop when they find our you’re faster by more than half. As with everyone I ride with, something magical happens about 80-85 miles in… My friend Mark put it succinctly, “I hit 80 miles and I just want to get off the frickin’ bike.” We hit the wall. Ride through it and a fourth or fifth wind is usually in the not too distant future.
Proper nutrition after the ride is also imperative. Eat too soon and, well, it’s ugly. Wait too long and recovery is slowed. I also have to eat the right stuff. Some watermelon immediately after is excellent, followed by a decent carb/protein balanced meal which aids recovery.
Then there is the multiple-day centuries. If you think one is tough, try three or four in a row, all at your best pace. The third day is toughest for me… If nutrition is important for one, eating properly for four takes that to a whole new level.
After enough centuries, they’re really not too bad. Almost enjoyable. The operative word in that two-word sentence is “almost”.
That said, there’s a twist.
I don’t particularly like or dislike a century ride. I always feel like I’ve accomplished something but I have to wonder if the pain of riding through the proverbial wall is really worth it.
After discussing this with most of the guys I ride with, it’s almost unanimous across the board. It’s not.
While we all still do the distance, and will continue to, the 62-1/2 to 75 mile distances are far more preferable, if for nothing else, just being able to skip those several hours of feeling hammered afterward. As far as I’m concerned, personally, I prefer 70-75 miles. Too often, 60-65 just seems like it’s over too soon. That extra ten to fifteen seems to get me to that spot in my head where I think, “Yep, that’s good enough”.
In the end, I suppose it’s about preference. Our club used to have a guy they called “hundred mile Rick”. Everything was a century with that guy. You’ve got your double-century folks, your century folks, double metrics and metric century folks… all the way down to the ride around the block club.
While centuries are shy of “too much of a good thing”, four or five hours up to ten hours in the saddle is a long time. It’s not for everyone. While many cyclists will embrace and enjoy the century ride, if you’re not one of them, definitely don’t sweat it. You won’t be the first or the last who says, “Meh” to the whole thing. I have several friends who would much prefer a 70-75 mile ride over a century. The trick is, at 70-75 miles, you’re not likely to hit the wall, you still feel like you did something exceptional and you’ve got some gas left in the tank.
Humorously, my position on this has evolved quite a bit. Four years ago I’d have sworn up and down that the century is a must as far as cycling accomplishments. Now that I’ve done dozens upon dozens of them, well let’s just say it’s not all that big a deal any more. Do them or don’t. All that really matters is that you’re riding the miles you do with a smile on your face.
Oh, and one last thing… As a cyclist, you are likely run into people who will judge another cyclist by whether or not they’ve ridden centuries. First, you don’t want to ride with those people anyway. Second, if you need to provide them a good reason, a simple “I don’t find a need or desire to go that far” or “I have no desire to spend that kind of time riding a bike” will suffice. Keep it simple and short… and simple – and above all, enjoy yourself. There’s too much pressure off the bike as it is, no sense in screwing up a perfectly awesome leisure activity as well because you don’t want to spend 4-10 hours on a bike.
In fact as a more extreme example, I have many friends who will do the Michigan 24 hour challenge every year. Each year I’m asked if I will join them, to which I respond the same, every time: “Dude, it’s awesome that you want to do that but that’s a little too much of a good thing for me. No thanks.” I have absolutely no desire to ride a bicycle 24 straight hours. That’s a hard pass.