How to Conquer Difficult Climbs

When I first started cycling, I tended to avoid roads where I might encounter climbs. It didn’t matter what the road was, if it was steep or looked hard, I didn’t want any part of it. I literally felt my fear response as I looked up the road. I thought there was just no way I could do them, or that I just wasn’t strong enough. But eventually I got bored with my neighborhood loop and decided I wanted to delve into event riding. At that point, I knew I had no choice but to confront not only climbs but also longer distances.

A Voyage of Discovery

What I discovered when I started riding hills on a more regular basis is that I was more than capable (and strong enough) to push myself up a climb, and that I enjoyed the challenge of doing them. In fact, I felt a bit silly in my avoidance of doing climbs. And furthermore, I had some regret about not learning how to conquer them. Years later into my cycling journey, I now find that a good ride for me isn’t worthwhile if it doesn’t have a climbing component.

But don’t get me wrong, I am not a great climber. In most cases, I struggle to get up them, and I’m slow as molasses with anything that has a 10% grade or more. But climbs are essential for testing one’s strength and level of fitness, but I doubt if I’m ready to do Mount Ventoux anytime soon. All this said, there are a few things I’ve learned over the years to overcome a difficult climb.

How “To Think” About Climbs

There are those that believe that lifting weights, having a good power to weight ratio, or the lightest and best equipment will help make you a better climber and an overall better bicyclist. While I agree with some of this logic, experience is a better teacher.

What will eventually make you a better climber is just to do them – and do them often, and that being stronger, leaner, and using good equipment – while certainly important — only play a small part in your battle against gravity’s desire to push you down. It’s how you approach, adapt, and think about climbs that will successfully get you to the top.

Reinterpreting the “It’s Just a Hill, Get Over It” Phrase

I’m sure some of you have heard (or read it on a t-shirt) that phrase “it’s just a hill, get over it.” Cute. To me, that phrase sounds like a decree that hills are easy. The truth is climbs are challenging and hard for everyone, even for the pros. To suggest they’re easy, that’s just stupid and arrogant. But there is also another way to interpret that phrase. Climbs are hard because we believe, psychologically, they are hard, which is unfortunate but true.

Fear, Anxiety, and Facing the Unknown

Without question, riding a bicycle down a road shared with cars at a high rate of speed is dangerous enough. In fact, most people would avoid this scenario altogether. But for bicyclists, this is just a fear that we learn to live with if we want to be out riding at all. However, introduce a hill, mountain pass, etc. and most cyclists will have an ingrained fear response, the fear of not being able to get to the top.

That fear response, though, is totally natural and has been with us since humans lived in caves. A lot of it stems from confronting an unknown situation, or as noted here in this article about fear and anxiety, we have these responses and we really “don’t know why, or if they seem out of proportion to the situation. Instead of alerting you to a danger and preparing you to respond to it, your fear or anxiety can kick in for any perceived threat, which could be imaginary or minor.”

Don’t Think Just Ride

Do you spend a lot of time worrying about certain aspects of a bike ride you want to do or even one you’ve done before? Most likely, the answer to that question is no. If you’re an avid bicyclist, you look forward to a ride and the time you have on the bike.

So, why would you spend time worrying about a climb on a ride that’s new to you or you’ve done before, perhaps many times before?  The best way to think about an upcoming climb is not to think about it all and just ride. If you can silence your mind, you’ve overcome a major obstacle and the rest of it is either physical or mechanical, which means that as long as you are in moderate to good health, reasonably fit, and have a well-maintained bike (notice I didn’t say road bike because I’ve seen people on mountain bikes doing hard road climbs), chances are you can do any kind of climb you might face.

Gearing, Pacing, and Cadence

As I mentioned earlier in this post, climbing on a bike is difficult for everyone at every skill level, and it doesn’t matter what shape or form a climb takes. It could be a series of short climbs (rolling hills), a short climb with an increasing grade, or a climb that can last for over a mile that starts hard, levels out, then gets hard again.

To me, these are the hardest of the climbs and kind of dread them, but I’ve learned to appreciate those variations in a hill I’m climbing on the bike. However, no matter what kind of climb you encounter, there are three main elements you have control over to make climbing a more tolerable experience: gearing, pacing, and cadence.

Gearing.  Choosing the right gear before starting a climb of any type is important. If you approach then start a climb in a hard gear, it will quickly zap your power. Sit upright with your hands on top of the bars or the brake hoods and your weight shifted forward on the saddle so your torso is over the bottom bracket (the part of your bicycle where your cranks are attached) and choose a gear that is lite but not so lite you lose momentum at the bottom of hill. Ideally, you want to have some lighter gears to alternate between as you go up the climb.

Pacing.  Some people out there in the cycling world will tell you to charge the hill and push hard. The problem with that approach is you are going to lose steam fast, and by the time you reach midway up the climb, you will be out of gas and, even worse, out of breath. The best approach is to maintain the same pace you ride on a flat road that leads up to the climb, then adjust through gearing to maintain that pace. That will allow you to save some strength to push harder as you start to see the top of the hill.

Cadence. If you ride a 90, 100 or higher cadence on the flats, that cadence is obviously going to drop when you hit the meat of a climb. However, if you can maintain a 50 cadence (or as close to that as possible) throughout the climb, that should be a good enough rhythm to get you close to the top where you can then push hard to get over the top. That type isn’t fast by any means, but it is enough to keep your wheels rolling.

Climbing Position: Standing Versus Sitting

There are many schools of thought about standing or sitting during a climb. If you are strong enough and you have excellent bike control, standing during a climb can give you the momentum and speed to get up a climb faster. On the other hand, if you don’t have great bike control skills, I wouldn’t recommend it.

For one, you’ll weave in and out of the berm on the side of the road, which can be dangerous if you are on a road with no guardrail or that has a steady flow of traffic. Plus, standing a lot during a climb tends to cause fatigue.

Sitting during a climb is a better choice for many reasons. For one, you can maintain a steady pace and cadence up the climb and you won’t fatigue as quickly. After all, it is your legs that get you up the climb and not your body. While sitting, you can also change your hand position from the top of the bars to the hoods of your brake levers as well as shift your weight forward and back. Of course, it’s good to stand occasionally, perhaps if you’re towards the end of a climb or just to stretch out your back.

Overall, the best climbing position is a mix of sitting and standing. Additionally, while you are sitting, and if the climb is particularly steep, you can weave left to right, which allows you to bite off the climb in chunks, but only do this on a road with low traffic.

Concluding Point

Climbing is an essential part of cycling, and once you overcome the fear and anxiety that you might not be able to do it, it is also a whole lot of fun. The best advice I can offer is to take your time with it and learn how to climb on a road you are familiar with, which will only improve your overall confidence when the road tilts up. Then the next time you see an unfamiliar climb on a new ride, you won’t feel that fear swell-up inside. Yes, true, it will be hard but fun and only make you a better cyclist in the end.

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