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CYCLING PERFORMANCE TIPS

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Hills/Climbing Tips



Climbing is a power-to-weight activity. World class climbers generally have less than 2 pounds of body weight per inch of height. (For example, if you're 70 inches tall (5-foot- 10), you would weigh less than 140 pounds.) Since achieving this weight is difficult for most of us, here are a few tips for hill climbing. If you'd like to learn a little more about the energy requirements of climbing, go to Effects of a hill on Energy Needs for Cycling. If hills intimidate you, or are your weak link, take it easy. Go 5-10% easier than you think you can asss you get into the climb. Conserve. You can always pick it up later.

Before I cover a few climbing tips, here is an interesting comment pertaining to the ideal physique of a competitive climber from a contributor in roadbikerider.com.

How Can a Small Guy Ride So Strongly?

Question: I began riding last year and recently met my first professional cyclist in person. He's a good climber on a U.S. pro team. I'm astonished at how small he is! He looks skinny, emaciated and weak. But I know he can ride circles around me even though I'm an athletic 6-footer and 190 pounds. How can such an unimposing person put out so much power? I want to climb like him! -- Bradley N.

Comment: When you're familiar with athletes in most conventional sports, it's a shock to see how small and thin top cyclists are. The rule for climbing prowess: You should weigh (in pounds) no more than twice your height in inches. So at 6 feet (72 inches) you'd need to weigh 144 pounds rather than 190. Pro cycling tends to select lean, light-bodied athletes in the same way that the profile of a mastodon is required for football linemen. Climbing ability is crucial in racing, and it depends on the power-to-weight ratio. A light rider doesn't need to generate as much power as his heavier competitor because he has less weight to propel up hills. In the 2005 Tour de France with 189 starters, here's the profile of the average rider:

Of course, there are exceptions. Five-time Tour winner Miguel Indurain is 6-foot-2 and weighed 190 pounds when he began racing. Lots of miles reduced him to 175. At that weight, his huge power output enabled him to ride with the specialist climbers in the mountains even though he outweighed most of them by 30-40 pounds. And of course he was nearly unbeatable in flat time trials where weight doesn't matter much but power output does. Think of Big Mig and don't give up hope for climbing well. Continue riding, train on hills and you'll improve to the limits of your physique.

Now on to the tips.

STAY SEATED AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE

Although you develop more power while standing (you are taking advantage of all your upper body weight pushing down on the pedals), you also use 10 to 12% more energy as your pelvis isn't in contact with the saddle which means more work for your core and back muscles as you pull up on the unweighted pedal. The net effect is more energy used (less efficient) to climb standing versus to climb seated.

On short climbs, the length of a football field or less, it makes little difference. But on longer climbs, stay in the saddle and spin at 80 - 85 RPM. This is particularly so if you are heavier as standing puts just that much more weight on your leg muscles, while sitting uses the seat to help take the extra upper body weight off your legs. Staying in the saddle will:

Want to train for climbing hills while seated?? Here is a drill you might consider. Go hard up short hills while seated. Find a climb that's moderately steep and takes about 30 seconds to crest. Hit it hard at the bottom in a fairly large gear. Beware of letting your cadence slow by the top. Use a gear that lets you pedal at 90 rpm or more all the way up. Start with two or three reps and increase as your strength improves.

That having been said, on long, fairly steep climbs, it may provide a break to alternate sitting and standing to employ different muscle groups. Just before you stand, shift to the next smaller cog, then shift back when you sit. These gear changes will help you maintain a steady pace during cadence changes.

And if you are going to stand, let the bike rock side to side under you - an arc of maybe 6 inches side to side. And don't lean too far forward. Stay back so that your weight is directly over the crank.

BODY POSITION

Being bent over in the drops is the most efficient position on level ground, but hills are different as there is much less aerodynamic resistance. You actually get the most power sitting up as high as you can.

WHEN YOU MUST STAND - pedaling while standing

If you must stand, remember it's hard to pull up because you aren't in contact with the saddle -- there's nothing to brace your hips to pull against -- and you will to power into BOTH the down and up strokes (12 to 5 o'clock on the down stroke and 7 to 10 o'clock on the upstroke). You should use your body weight to help you push down. Let the bike move fluidly under you. Don’t force it. The bike should rock rhythmically side to side in an arc of about 6 inches (judged by the movement of the handlebar stem). This gives each leg a direct push against its pedal and makes the best use of your weight. This will help to maintain a smooth stroke and your momentum. Don't lean too far forward. If the nose of your saddle is brushing the back of your thighs, you are just right. Farther forward and you will press the front tire into the pavement and lose power. Stay back a bit and find the front-to-back sweet spot. This helps center your weight over the crank to drive the pedals as described. And remember to shift up a gear or two just before you stand to take advantage of the extra power you gain from standing (but which you can’t maintain for any length of time).

Remember that if you are in a group, you need to consciously protect those behind you when you stand to climb. How you stand on a hill is very important - do it wrong and the guy behind might suddenly be on the pavement. The issue is the brief deceleration that can occur as you change from sitting to standing incorrectly, which, relative to other riders has the effect of sending your bike backwards and can cause the following rider's front wheel to hit your rear wheel.

On short, rolling hills, the trick is to click to the next higher gear (smaller cog), then stand and pedal over the top with a slightly slower cadence. This keeps quads from loading up with lactate because it helps you pedal with body weight. In fact, it can actually feel like you're stretching and refreshing your legs.

The correct way to stand:

You can practice your technique with a friend during a training ride. They can ride behind and let you know when you've got the hang to it. That's when the gap between their front wheel and your rear wheel doesn't narrow each time you stand or sit.

FIND YOUR SPEED AND RHYTHM

Climbing should always be done in your comfort zone. Ride at your own pace - Know your limits and listen to your body. If you become anaerobic, you won't recover, so let faster riders go. It's a common mistake: Trying to keep up with better climbers on the lower slopes, then reaching your limits and losing big hunks of time. Take it a bit easier and you have a much better chance of catching them later. You don’t want to over exert and go anaerobic. If you're nearing your red line on that hill, slow slightly, breathe deeply and continue at a speed within your ability.

Use the right gears and shift early to balance the work of your muscles and aerobic system. New riders often make the mistake of pushing their muscles until they cannot push any more. When they decide to shift to an easier gear -- if they have one -- it is often too late. The muscles are exhausted and unable to continue.

KEEP THAT CADENCE UP

Think about this. If you ride up the hill in two minutes at 60 rpm, you've divided the total work into 120 pieces (consider each revolution of your pedals as a unit of work). But if you spin at 90, there would be 180. As you've done the same elevation gain, but now broken it into smaller bits, there will be less work (and strain on the knees) with each revolution. (And if you do have knee problems, take a break and stand during hills - which will change the biomechanics and give your knees a break).

Gear down before the hill. The goal is to avoid producing large quantities of lactic acid and then pedaling through the pain. You want a sustainable rhythm. Try to keep your cadence above 70 -- any slower puts excess stress on your knees. The optimum spin rates for efficient pedaling are somewhere between 70 and 80. One rider reported that he actually went faster as he increased his cadence in a lower gear. For example, he would maintain 6.5 mph at 50 rpm in one gear and then, as he geared down, he found he maintained 8 mph at 70 rpm without a perceived increase in effort. If you find that things are going well, you can always shift to a harder gear later.

Try to find the cadence that would let you "climb all day". You are pushing too hard if you:

Ride your own pace. The energy you save may help you catch someone who started too fast near the summit.

BREATHING

If you start to breathe irregularly, take a deep breath and hold it for a few pedal strokes. Try synchronizing your breathing with your pedal stroke - start by taking a breath every time one foot (your right one for example) reaches the bottom of a stroke. Then try 1 1/2, and finally every two strokes. You will actually deliver more oxygen to your system with a controlled rate than an irregular panting or gasping one.

OFF SEASON WEIGHT TRAINING

Cycling-specific weight exercises in the off-season are a great way to improve your climbing power. Two or three sets of 15-25 reps, twice a week is a good general program. The emphasis should be on the legs and back (step-ups, lunges, squats or leg presses. Focus on higher reps and medium weight to develop muscular endurance and minimize the risk of injury - and adding sets of "standing jumps" (standing in place and jumping as high as one can for 20 or more times) after your weight workout will give you the explosiveness to catch your buddy off guard in the spring. And don’t forget to stretch to maintain flexibility.

TRAINING FOR CLIMBING - DO SOME HILLS

After you've developed a good strength base in the weight room, the absolutely best way to improve climbing is to get back on the bike in the Spring and work on climbing. Find some rolling hills and use them like intervals with short bursts of climbing followed by spinning on the flats. Start with hills that take about 15 seconds to climb at a cadence of 90 rpm. Once you have your season base, you might add climbs of 10-15 minutes in a bigger gear that you can maintain easily at 70 rpm - but not if you have a history of knee problems.

If you are going to be riding hills as part of an event or a tour, you might consider building up weekly climbing volume to around 125% of event climbing volume. If it is a one day event, aim to climb at least 60% of event elevation change volume on several rides. For example, if the event has 10,000 feet of climbing, you must climb 6,000 feet in training in one day, several times.

And don't foget to train for technique as well.

WATCH THAT WEIGHT

We all know that lighter riders climb faster that heavy ones. So remember to watch the weight - both your own and the weight you are carrying on the bike. It costs a lot to reduce the weight of your bike by a pound, but that extra water bottle or weight in your fanny pack could easily add up to a pound and really add up on a ride over hilly terrain.

GROUP RIDING TECHNIQUES

One trick for weaker climbers in a group is to move near the front of the group near the start of the climb and allow others to pass as the climb continues. In that way, you will be near the back at the top but won't get dropped and have to fight back to close with the group.

Save a little for a short sprint over the top of the hill -- shift up and stand to accelerate and make up some distance.

EAT AND DRINK

For those long climbs (the Cascades or the Rockies) don't forget the basics for nutrition and hydration. A long climb inexorably drains your body of glycogen and liquid. Take two big gulps of water or a sports drink every 15 minutes. And eat (or drink) the equivalent of a sports bar (250 calories) every hour.

READER'S QUESTIONS

Question: Here in New Hampshire, we have Mt Washington and two annual races up the Mt. Washington Auto Road, one cycling and one running. The Auto Road is 7.6 miles, 11.5% grade, approx gain of 4700 ft to an elevation of 6288 ft. The question among friends is "which is harder, cycling or running?" After arguing among ourselves (mid to back of the pack performers) we agreed to discuss only elite athletes (more apples to apples comparison). The cycling record is 8 minutes faster, 48 something vs 56 something. How would you answer this in technical terms of work, Calories, heart rate, VO2 max, etc? - AA

Answer: Al, I'm not sure I can give you the scientific answer. But here is my best guess.

The total amount of work to climb the hill should be proportional to the weight moved up the hill. Maybe a tad more with the bike as you are carrying an extra 20 - 25 pounds up the hill, but this assumes the weight of the athletes is equal. However, most of the world class bikers are small guys. Check the weight of the winning runners and the winning cyclists. If they are indeed lighter, total energy output (again based on total weight carried up the set altitude) to achieve the top may be less.

If the work done to reach the top is the same, the same total Calories expended should be the same. Since it is a hill, we don't need to worry about wind resistance.

Heart Rate and %VO2 max are related to energy output per unit of time and thus the rate at which the athlete climbs. I'd presume both groups are at their optimum (near 100 % V02max - just slightly sub anaerobic), so these should be equal in both groups.

The fact that after multiple attempts (many riders/runners in each group) the bikers are faster to the top would suggest that they (and biking versus running) are indeed slightly more efficient in terms of rate of climb attainable for equal level energy output.

Question:Why is it that time trialers seem to lose it in the mountains, and a good climber often gets beaten in a time trial on the flats? BM

Answer: The answer involves the interplay of body weight, power output and wind resistance. On the flats, resistance (which slows you down) is primarily related to the resistance created by a rider's bike and body as they move through the air. Big riders, in a low racing position, have a frontal surface area that is quite similar to that of smaller riders. But big riders tend to generate more power thanks to their larger muscle mass. That's why time trials and sprints on flat or rolling terrain favor the bigger, muscular riders.

However the resistance (that slows one down) on a hill is related to gravity. When a rider fights gravity while going uphill, the power-to-weight ratio, not total absolute power output is more important. The more Watts a rider can produce for his (or her) body weight, the faster that rider can climb. To improve climbing, you must either lose weight or increase your sustainable wattage -- or do both.

Here's an example. A big rider (let's say 85 kg or 187 lbs.) and can produce 425 Watts for 20 minutes (a standard test interval) and thus has a power-to-weight ratio of 5.0 Watts per kg. (Top climbers have a ratio of 6-7 Watts-per-kilo.) For comparison, a lighter rider, let's say 60-kg climber (or 132 lbs.) need only produce 360 Watts to achieve 6 Watts per kilo. In this scenario, the lighter rider will overcome the effects of gravity more easily (remember that it is the power per kg that is important in overcoming the resistance of gravity), but the bigger rider will do better on the flats where the wind resistance is relatively weight independent and thus equal for the light and heavier rider - thus the lighter rider is 65 Watts behind and will lose the sprint.


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