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Cycling and Climbing Hills; How Important is Weight (and Why it isn’t as Important as many People Think)?

I love climbing hills.  Absolutely dig it.  Not those @$$-busting 20% dealios, but the 6 to 15% manageable climbs.  Length really doesn’t matter either, once I get a nice rhythm going, I’m good.

I’m not the fastest climber in our group but I’m up there in the top three of 15… and I’m one of the heaviest guys too, in some cases by a lot.  Now, by heavy, we should add that we’re talking about a group of seasoned cyclists here.  I weigh in at about 175-178 depending on the time of year (I’m pushing 179 up a hill right now – I’m extremely healthy by BMI and medical standards, but I’m heavy by climbing standards).  For we amateur weekend warriors, weight is technically relative.  It doesn’t matter what I weigh, it matters how I take that weight up a hill.


Weight in Perspective

If you’re looking at a pro climber, they’re going to weigh in at around two pounds per vertical inch of height (PPVI).  I’m almost at two-and-a-half (180 pounds divided by 72 inches).  I can remember a time not too long ago when I was just over two pounds per inch and I’m a lot faster up a hill today than I was back then (four years ago).  I’m also a hell of a lot healthier (and according to my wife, a lot better looking).

See, at 2 pounds per vertical inch, cyclists become too light for their own health.  They become susceptible to bugs, germs, viruses, etc..  At 2.5 PPVI we are much more robust (I haven’t been sick going on two years now).  Also, looking back at some old photos, I really was pretty scrawny back then.

Now, if I take the best climber in our group, Chuck B, he’s about ten pounds lighter than I am but I’m closer to him as a climber today than I was a few years ago.  I am closer because I am more efficient and I know a few tricks that help me climb better than the average bear…

Climbing Efficiency

The biggest, best climbing tip there is has to do with cadence.  Maintaining a cadence of 80-ish RPM up a hill in an easy gear is way more efficient than trying to chug up the hill out of the saddle in a heavier gear.  The chugging approach isn’t all bad, but the lighter gear and higher cadence is easier.  The trick, of course, is finding the right gear for the grade (and the answer is rarely the granny gear).  Now, climbing style can be quite the bone of contention because a lot of cyclists prefer the stand and grind method.  I use both, because every once in a while I simply like to get my butt out of the saddle for a few minutes.  When I do, however, I always gear up one or two so I can maintain my speed, then gear back down when I sit back down.

From there, it’s just sheer will and fitness…  Oh, and breathing.  Most cyclists don’t know that getting the old air out is just as important as getting the new stuff in!  I happen to be a slow breather.  I breathe deep and slow.  My buddy, Doc Mike, is short and sharp.  I would hyperventilate within seconds trying to breathe like him.  Find out what works for you and use it.  Going up a hill keeping a handle on your breathing is more important than on the flats – it’s harder to recover should you start to hyperventilate.  The closer one gets to hyperventilation, the harder it is to fully exhale and get rid of CO2, which allows the muscles to clear lactic acid.  Breathing too hard or fast will crush your spirit and dreams on hills and will cause you to go into protection mode – usually about 10 mph slower than you can normally ride (and if you’re only at 7 mph on the way up a hill, that’s going to be a problem – even I can do that math).


So, here’s where the rubber meets the road (at least for me):  Strength, technique and efficient pedaling and breathing Trump being scrawny.  Any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

The Key to Successful Climbing

Oh, one last thing, now that I think of it!  When you’re riding with friends, you don’t have to worry about being first up every hill – just don’t be the last!  Everybody waits at the top of a climb anyway.  You get to rest for a few seconds at the top while the others are working their asses of getting up the stinking hill!  I do better waiting for the group to catch up than bringing up the rear.

That tip is free.  👍

Weight isn’t Always Bad  

Most of my extra weight, almost 30 pounds today over four years ago, is muscle.  My legs alone are easily double the size they were at my skinniest.  While muscle weighs one down, it’s also the stuff that produces the force that pushes one up the hill in the first place.  I can spin a harder gear up an incline with more leg muscle, it’s that simple.  The key is balance, and efficiency makes balance easier.

In conclusion, I see, too often, people psych themselves out about hills because of their perceived weight (or extra weight).  Much like the most expensive, aero, light equipment money can buy, a lot of that stuff is overrated (or over-expensive) for people like us.  Work on some climbing technique and you’re going to be able to keep up.  And that’s good enough for government work.