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.