Six Steps To Better Climbing

Climbing doesn’t have to be daunting, especially when you have a game plan. Prepare yourself adequately mentally and physically for the hills.

We all know that sinking feeling that comes when you go around the corner and see the Three Stooges of the Old Mutual Wealth Double Century climbing away from you. Your stomach drops almost as quickly as you do once the ascent begins.

You’ll huff, you’ll puff, and then you’ll blow your legs off as they cruise off into the distance. Climbing is supposed to be hard, we all know that, but why is it that some people just do it so much faster? And how can you be one of them? Here are six tips, from the experts at Bicycling, to get you well on your way to becoming a KOM phenom.

Turn a sensible cadence

You don’t want to be grinding a huge gear at the same low cadence you’d churn butter, nor do you want to be spinning away like a hamster on a wheel. You’ve probably seen the pros do both of these things, but they’re succeeding in spite of their inefficient cadence, not because of it.

Instead, Sean Burke MSC (head coach of Crank Cycling) recommends riders self-select a “comfortable cadence between 80 and 110 rpm.” If you find it hard to keep in this cadence range on your local climbs, consider picking up a compact crankset or larger range rear cassette.

Don’t push too hard and burn out too quickly

Physics-wise, the equation is pretty simple. You are going to have to move your mass to the top of the hill. With that said, if you use up all your reserves by attacking the first half of the hill, the second half is going to get you into trouble. It may be hard, but you should still ride at your own speed. You might catch your buddies later and even if not, a steady pacing strategy will still yield a faster ascent overall.

Pro rider Robin Carpenter suggests that you ride within yourself for the first part of a long hill. He says that “Climbing, like time trialling, is all about pacing. When you come into the bottom of a climb jacked up on adrenaline and anticipation, make sure that for the first two minutes, you feel like you are going too slow. The excitement will soon wear off and then you will know what kind of pace you can maintain.”

Train on hills in order to crush them

We know it hurts, and we know you go slower, but the only way to get better at riding uphill is by riding uphill. Climbing uses slightly different muscle groups and a different position on the bike, so if you only ride on the flats, you can’t ever be your best on the climbs. Besides, if you don’t climb up hills you miss out on the joy of ripping down them!

Burke suggests getting in two to three hilly rides a week where you use climbs to add intensity to your training. “It doesn’t need to be all that structured,” he says, “just go hard up the hills.”

Stand up, sit down, repeat

Varying your position on the bike is a great idea on climbs. By adjusting, you can give your muscles (and your backside) a rest by changing the position of your body relative to the bike. If you find yourself standing for most of the climb, or suffering from back or tendon pain, this might be a sign that you don’t have the best bike fit. A trip to a local fitter (or some online research about bike fit) can reveal some changes that will make your riding, and climbing, more comfortable.

Next time you find yourself on a long climb, try to remind yourself to stand occasionally. If you still keep forgetting, tape a little reminder to your stem!

Keep your head in the game

Your attitude has a lot to do with your performance. Think about all the times you have approached a climb and thought “oh no, I suck at climbing, I am going to get dropped.” This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Chances are, you don’t really suck at climbing, but you’ve never given yourself a chance to prove it.

Instead of negative self-talk, try “psychological skills training” in addition to your time on the bike. By affirming your ability to climb, and visualising yourself climbing well, you can approach climbing with a positive mindset and learn to look forward to the hills. In no time, you’ll turn that frown (or grimace) upside down and be one of those weird few who smile as they punch up the next ascent.

Climbing is a war of nutrition

Climbing is often high-intensity and involves lots of standing on the bike. Neither of these things is fun if you feel like you’re carrying a food baby. Likewise, nothing sucks more than bonking and being faced with a wall of asphalt in front of your tearful eyes as you try to cram gels into your mouth and not topple over as you wobble up a hill. Nutrition is important.

Burke suggests that riders should eat sensibly in the 30 minutes before a big climb and avoid too much fat or protein. “On long climbs, you might find yourself needing to top off carbohydrates during the effort,” he says. “I like to use sports drinks or carbohydrate chews; they get the sugar to the muscles fast without causing GI distress.” Burke aims for about 60g of carbohydrate per hour on hard rides.

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