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Home » Cycling » Climbing Hills on a Bicycle. For Beginners.

Climbing Hills on a Bicycle. For Beginners.


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.
It’s slower.
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.


  1. browney237 says:

    All very good advice!
    It’s certainly true that the worst thing you can do is to be influenced by others – it is about riding at your own pace.

  2. bribikes says:

    My climbing skills stink, but the rollercoaster Ozarks taught me some good lessons-it really is all about the momentum. Now I am in Colorado and there are actual mountains to climb! I am so excited and soo nervous especially about descending…I have been rewatching all of GCN’s videos on the subject, hehe.

  3. Great post and great advice… advice I certainly need as hills kill me! If I can keep control of my breathing – keeping a steady rhythm, then I can be ok, but if I lose control of my breathing – I’m done! So I mainly focus on this, and like you’ve said – keeping a momentum is crucial.

    • bgddyjim says:

      Ah yes! I hate that about climbing, losing control of my breathing. Try this: Back off slowly, say go from a 90 cadence to a 80 or even 75… My tendency is to let off too much when I get close to hyperventilating. As soon as I do that, let off too much, I lose all of that momentum then have to grind to get some of it back. If I back off slowly, my breathing steadies and I can cruise up the hill, just a bit slower.

      Thank you, also.

  4. Thanks for sharing, it is another great article.

  5. Reblogged this on Robinson's Strength and Endurance Coaching and commented:
    Here is another great article with great tips. For more great articles like this follow this blog.

  6. Sheree says:

    Great advice! I like climbing because I love descending.

  7. Sue Slaght says:

    I feel like I want to stand up and clap for this post. It’s full of great advice that I will run through my brain during our ride through the Rockies coming soon. But this last section …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…..this should be on cycling t-shirts everywhere. Amen to that!

  8. biking2work says:

    I have been experiementing with climbing & like you could shed a few pounds to carry less weight to make me more effective uphill. This post has helped make sense of when to change gear & cadence-I was doing it but without a specific strategy. Its not hilly here but there are a couple of climbs less than double figures & less than 1km on various routes to/from work. This morning I climbed 2 and got 2 PRs!! thanks for a timely post

  9. […] spent some time thinking about my last post related to climbing and while it was well received, I wanted to get a little deeper.  I simply ran out of space.  […]

  10. Pandoheas says:

    Very good read and important info!

  11. Reblogged this on the conservative cyclist and commented:
    Great post on hill climbing by fit recovery!

  12. As a fixie rider, there is nothing more important than maintaining momentum when you’re climbing. Great article.

    • bgddyjim says:

      A fixie would add an entirely different dimension to it. Nice.

      Of course, that begs the question; as a conservative cyclist, how did you end up on the most hipster of bikes?!

      I am too, by the way.

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