Written by : Phil Gale
Whether it is the short sharp climbs which are often found in the UK, or a high mountain pass in Europe, riding a bike uphill is one of the toughest, yet most rewarding parts of cycling. With gravity pulling you backwards, climbs have no places to hide, showing us our level of fitness very quickly. Training aside there are a few techniques which you can employ to makes most ascents a little easier and their rewarding summits a little less hard-earned.
Firstly we need to categorise climbs. There are the short steep climbs, which are short enough for you to muscle up, using power and a lot of your anaerobic capacity. All the time you will be able to stave off the burning sensation in your legs from the all-out effort that these climbs normally demand. Then there are the longer climbs. They tend to be less steep, yet due to their length you need to climb them aerobically, pacing yourself up them as going into the red will mean that you will have to ease back the pace considerably to be able to recover.
1- Gear choice: – Being short these types of climbs give you the freedom to hit them hard in a larger gear using brute force and power to get up them. It can sometimes be useful to maintain as much speed as possible from the flat so that your momentum can get you some way up. By riding a slightly higher gear (low RPM using more force) you can maintain your momentum.
2- Out of the saddle: – Shorter climbs tend to be steeper, so if you have enough traction under your tyres, climbing out of the saddle will allow you to use your whole body’s force to give you extra power to climb. Though be aware, by using more muscles in your body you will put more demand on your cardiovascular system, putting you into the red sooner.
3- Pacing:- Pacing is key to getting up any climb long or short. If you go too hard then you will put your body into oxygen debt. Your body will be able to deal with this for a short period of time, but as the build-up of lactic acid, the by-product of working anaerobically which causes the burning sensation in your muscles, gets too much your body will have to return to working at an aerobic level to be able to neutralise it. If you go too deep into the red you will not be able to make it up the climb. The key on the steep climbs is to ride at a pace which will allow you to get up the climb anaerobically without having to slow near the top.
4- Relax:-. When your body produces lactic acid it is a normal reaction to start to tense your muscles harder due to the burning sensation. The key here is to tell yourself to relax, focus on using only the muscles which you need to for the effort, attempting to relax those which you are not. This will reduce the demand on your cardiovascular system and slow your journey into the red zone as you are only using the muscles needed. It will also focus your mind away from the inevitable pain involved with climbing at your maximum speed.
1- Gear choice:- This is one of the most important techniques for the long climbs, finding a cadence which you are comfortable with. Some high mountain climbs can take hours to climb, so you will need to find a cadence and gear which allows you to use your body at its most efficient. Being long means that you have to climb at an aerobic level so you need to focus on the mechanical advantage of your gears as opposed to the sheer brute force mentioned above. Spinning is the key, this puts less demand on your muscles meaning that they will fatigue slower on these long climbs. Aim for 80 to 100 rpm.
2- In the saddle:- Due to the increased length of these types of climbs it is more efficient to climb them as much as possible in the saddle. This reduces the demand on your cardiovascular system because only your leg and core muscles are active. Focus on relaxing your upper body and eliminating all unnecessary body movement. This is why the above mentioned gear choice is important; too high and you will be rocking like an old person on their porch rocking chair which is just wasting energy.
4:- Pacing: As with the short climbs pacing yourself to the challenge you face is very important. Research how long the climb is that you are attacking, look at what your average speed is then you can figure out a level of work which you will be able to maintain up the full climb. It is an idea to always hold a small amount in reserve because even the longest mountain ascent can hold a steeper section in it as a nasty surprise for the cyclists who are climbing it.
Climbing is an important part to cycling. Those of us who avoid the climbs because they are hard, are not only missing out on the summit views and sense of achievement from making it up the climb, but also on the fun of the descents. As with anything new which you are looking to improve, getting out and doing it and gaining the experience from that, is the best way to improve.