Last week I published some tips on how to improve your downhill biking skills, which I hope people have or will go out and practice. Some of the feedback I got was that well yeah that helps with the “easy” part, coming downhill, but I still hate to climb! Luckily, while I was writing that article, I jotted down a few ideas on how people could also improve their climbing, so hopefully after reading this you’ll feel inspired to go out and hit the hills.
One thing I want to be clear on is what I mean when I say climbing “hills.” I’m not talking about some little rollies or something you get over in a couple of minutes. I’m talking about climbs, long climbs, 20, 30+ minute long climbs, where you’re in the little chain ring, using the first few gears in the back, climbing. That’s what climbing is about, and here in Santa Barbara people would know Old San Marcos Road, Gibraltar Road, the “2 climbs” on Casitas Pass on the lake loop, and then for the serious climbers Highway 33, the Maricopa Highway, up to Rose Valley and beyond.
If you’re familiar with these climbs, or with your own local long climbs, and you find yourself struggling because you’re just going so slow that it’s painful, I want to suggest that you check the gearing on your bike. With today’s 10 and 11 speed cassettes, paired with smaller gears up front, including a compact crank set option, you might be able to upgrade your gruppo (the components that make up your drivetrain, i.e., Shimano Dura Ace, Campagnolo Record, SRAM Red, etc.) and pick up one or more smaller gears that will help you with your climbing.
If you’re running a standard 53/39 set of chain rings with say a 11-25 cassette, you could switch to an 11-27, 12-27, 12-28, or 12-32 cassette and have another couple of easier gears. For a more drastic change, going to a compact crank set (which differ in the size of the spacing on the “spider” side crank arm, and their smaller chain rings), matched with different gears in the back, and you can definitely find more than a few more easy gears. So if this is something that’s holding you back from climbing more, then maybe you can throw a few dollars at it and find some relief. If not, then here are a couple more ideas to help out.
One thing I’ve noticed with different riders early in the climbs is that they’re reluctant to shift into their smallest gears right away, preferring to grind the early and flatter parts of the hill, thinking they’re saving the lowest gears for later when they’re tired. This is the wrong strategy to be using, as what you’re really doing is making it much harder on your legs earlier, so that further up the hill when you finally shift into your last easy gears, you’re already shot and it hardly helps at all.
It’s much better to shift into these gears earlier so that you can continue to spin up the climb as long as possible, keeping your momentum going. Yes at some point the hills become long enough or steep enough that we’re just trying to keep the pedals going round, but way before that you should try to maintain a higher cadence by using your gears to make the climbing easier. Momentum is one of the keys to climbing success, so by failing to use your gears early on a climb you’ve lost momentum that’s hard to regain unless the hill flattens out.
Speaking of momentum, another tip to help when you’re climbing a hill that has sharp hairpins, where the inside and the outside edges of the turn are much higher/lower than each other, it’s better to take the “long way around” the side that has the least amount of elevation change, then to cut the corner short, riding right through the steepest part of the climb. Each time you do that your heart rate will increase and then decrease, having to respond to these little surges you’re putting in. We each only have so many good surges in our legs, so in training its best take the slightly longer way around and not lose your momentum, keeping your heart rate steady, as your make your way up the climb.
If the climb you’re on has a shallow approach, not too steep, and the group you’re in is pushing the pace up that section, sometimes we find ourselves hitting the steeper sections already near panting with an elevated heart rate. At that point if someone makes a jump up the hill we won’t be able to respond. Even if this isn’t how you plan on racing during a triathlon, and you shouldn’t be doing this by the way, it’s fun on training rides to try and match these little attacks to build your own cardiovascular strength. To prepare for these “attacks”, when you find yourself already pushing it before the steep sections, you can do what I call pre-breathing. This consists of taking in a series of deep belly breaths, using your diaphragm muscles to pull in more oxygen before the steep section, which also helps to slow your respiration and your heart rate a bit, so that you’ll have a little reserve to either respond to an attack or to continue going up the hill strong, instead of having to just slow down and grind your way up it.
One final thought I have has to do with climbing out of the saddle or staying seated. For the long climbs you should remain seated unless you’re following a coach’s guidelines or doing some hill repeats. Climbing out of the saddle recruits more muscles of the body and therefore requires more oxygen to be extracted from the blood, which increases your respiration to bring more oxygen into the lungs, which invariably can wind up with you panting and struggling up the hill. This is fine for short spurts, to get out of the saddle to stretch your back and legs, but for the long haul, sit down, relax your upper body, focusing on spinning smooth circles as your make your way up the hill and you’ll reach the top soon enough.
I hope these ideas give you some motivation to go out this weekend and hit the hills, and maybe you’ll actually surprise yourself by having an easier time of it. If not, then you should keep up the effort for a few weeks to see if your legs don’t respond and then you can really enjoy the hills, especially the reward you get once you reach the top. I think all good climbers enjoy the view from the top of the mountain, and most especially enjoy the speed and challenge of coming back downhill, under control and fast.
Ride safe and ride smart!