There’s no denying it, I love to climb. Going out for a ride that includes a long (20+ minute) climb filled with steep, switchback sections (and a QOM to focus on stealing) is my idea of a good time... until I have to descend… but I’m not here to talk about that, I’m here to talk about CLIMBING. Since I enjoy it so much and count it as one of my cycling skills, I wanted to take a moment to help you be a better climber.
Tips to climb better:
Settling into a long climb takes a good deal of comfort. This position will vary for each individual, so try it out and see what works for you. I prefer a more upright position, with my hands gently resting on the top of the bars and core/ hips solid and tight and legs loose and spinning. This opens up the chest, making it easier to breath. All data I’ve seen shows that staying seated is more efficient to posting up. Standing takes more energy and therefore depletes more energy every time you do it. Save standing for the super steep sections or when you have to sprint over the very top or to the climb finish.
As you go up, calories are being torched so be sure to go heavier on the nutrition before getting to the base. This way you can start the climb with energy to burn. As you ascend, make sure to take in a steady supply. If you are climbing at your limit, food will be difficult to take in (its hard to chew when you’re barely able to breath) so rely on easy to consume carbohydrates such as gels and sport drink.
Looking at power when you climb is an important metric to follow. If you’re climbing with a group, you just need to stay with the group. However, if you’re going at it solo, it can be beneficial to have a gauge of your effort. To use power to climb well, you need have a good idea of what power you can sustain for the length of the climb. If it’s a 20 minute climb, your FTP might be a good indicator. Most people can put out more power going uphill than on flats, so you might have an easier time hitting and exceeding power goals while climbing. While power is a great metric, being efficient and fast is the ultimate goal. Use power to pace and know that you’re within your limits, but do not think that higher power will always make for the fastest climb. Also, if climbing at elevations over 6,000ft, you’ll have a hard time putting out the power numbers you’re used to at sea level.
Power to Weight:
On flat roads, this equation doesn’t matter as much. However, as soon as you throw in some rolling hills or serious climbs, it plays a large role. In fact, the longer and steeper the climb, the more it comes into play. Reducing how much you weight, while still being able to put out good power, means you can pull your body weight up the climb with less effort than a heavier person. If climbing is your thing, trying to shave off excess body weight will be helpful. Weight loss should be done in a slow, steady way so power output and general health is not sacrificed. It’s nice to think weight doesn’t matter, but any cyclists will tell you, it does! Personally, I’m currently climbing at a few pounds heavier than I have in the past and yes, I can notice a difference.
Graphs from The Climbing Cyclist
I’ve read the ideal cadence for climbing is around 80. Personally, I’m a lower cadence rider and like to grind it out uphill. But I have learned to spin more which has helped me be able to accelerate and change pace throughout the climb. A couple tips on improving your cadence uphill is to focus on a tight core and keeping the legs loose and rotating smoothly. Another technique I use is to visualize how the world tour riders climb. You’ve watched the races and gawked at how effortlessly they appear to float up the category climbs; practice replicating that pedal stroke! My final cadence tip is to always go one gear easier than you really want to be in. At least for a grinder like me, that tip helps me from over doing it.
This is something I’ve worked / am working on recently. I tend to get very excited for a climb and take off at the base, only to feel fatigue set in halfway up and be caught by other riders. Think of the effort as a negative split; start out slightly slower than your goal pace/ effort and work up to your goal in the middle and beyond it to finish the climb. Using power can help you keep the effort in check and try to keep a steady output for the entire climb. If you don’t have power, perceived exertion is your next best metric to become very aware of. Basically, make sure you have good energy throughout the climb, aiming to have a little gas left in the tank at the top.
If you want to have your best climb, do it again and again and again. This repetition helps you become familiar with the route. Before even climbing it, head to Strava and recon the length, grade and profile. You can also scope out the top times and use those as a goal of what is possible on that given stretch. Next, go climb it, but take the first time slowly and pay close attention to where things pitch up, level out, the best line to take around turns, etc. Next time up, give it a solid, but not max effort and pay attention to where you can save watts and be more efficient; when to sit/stand, when to change gears, when you have a moment to drink or eat, etc. Once you know the climb, let loose!! Charge up that hill using all your gained familiarity and knowledge of how to make that climb yours. A great example of this was when I fixated on the French segment Villard Riculas, a 5.5 miles climb that averages 7%. I rode it 4 times before getting my PR and stealing the QOM from climbing powerhouse Emma Pooley by a mere 12 seconds.
With any endurance venture, mental attitude is important. Climbing is slow and painful which can take a mental toll. I find it helpful to put headphones in for a long climb and play a power mix of songs. If headphones aren’t your thing, try repeating a positive phrase or thought. It is helpful during long climbs to focus on a section at a time such as getting to the next mile marker or switchback. Also, do not forget to look around! Climbing provides the best views cycling can offer and going uphill gives you the chance to take a deep breath, look around and appreciate being outside.
My most memorable climby rides:
Taiwan KOM is the longest paved climb in the world at 66 miles and over 11,000 ft.
France with Friends included this epic ride of 120 miles & 15,000ft of climbing including the Croix de Fer, Col du Telegraph, and Galibier.
Pain Cave aka Piancavallo - I didn’t have a power meter yet, and was just learning to embrace my climbing for this beautiful ride of three Italian mountains – 60 miles and 12k ft.
Kitt Peak located outside Tucson AZ is my favorite American climb.