How to Improve Bike Hill Climbing

Cyclists ride up a hill during Stage 2 of the Tour of California in Lafayette, Calif., Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2006.
Cyclists ride up a hill during Stage 2 of the Tour of California in Lafayette, Calif., Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2006.
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

If you're one of the elites, it could happen at Stage 16 of the Tour de France or Big Bear in the Tour of California. If you're a new jack, it could happen at that gentle quarter-mile incline on the other side of town. But that burning sensation in your quadriceps and the inkling that you're a little higher up than you were a moment ago is familiar to almost everyone who has ridden a bike: You're climbing up a hill.

Hill climbing is just one skill of many -- sprinting, bridging gaps and drafting, among countless others -- that a cyclist must master to become well rounded. Actually, a list of the best hill climbing cyclists looks a lot like a list of the best overall cyclists. So what makes a great hill climber? Is it simply being stronger and faster? Most world-class climbers carry just 2 pounds (1 kilogram) of body weight for every inch of height, meaning a 5-foot-10-inch (1.78-meter) cyclist would weigh approximately 140 pounds (64 kilograms) [source: Cycling Performance Tips]. Elite cyclists also have very low body-fat levels: 6 to 9 percent in males and 11 to 14 percent in females [source: Hewitt].

While densely muscled cyclists can use their heavier frames to produce great power and surge across the flats, the lean elite in the peloton -- the main group of riders in a bicycle road race -- are adept at something vastly more important to hill climbing: producing the highest ratio of power to body weight over long distances. According to The New York Times, Lance Armstrong has produced 6.8 watts per kilogram of body weight, compared to a good recreational cyclist, who can generate 4 watts per kilogram [source: Kolata].

We're not all genetically predisposed for greatness on hill climbs, but they're a fact of life for cyclists everywhere. You might as well do them better.

Turn the page and learn how to perfect your hill climbing technique.

Bike Hill Climbing Technique

No two hills are the same -- some are steep, some are gentle, some are long and some are short. Whatever the profile, a cyclist has two basic strategies at the outset: Hammer up the hill fast and hard with raw power, or drop a few gears and use smooth cadence and technique.

Low-cadence, high-gear climbing can be great for conquering short hills or for a sprint to the finish. But hard pedaling is taxing and, if done too early, can leave you huffing, puffing and drifting toward the back of the pack. It's a somewhat reckless strategy, especially for triathletes who still have miles of pavement to run even after unclipping from the bike.

For lengthy hills, drop a few gears at the start of the ascent and establish a rhythm. Spinning at a cadence of roughly 90 to 100 revolutions per minute (rpm) is best. If you start to tire and your cadence drops, shift to a lower gear. If you're spinning too quickly and not generating adequate power, upshift.

You'll want to practice optimal climbing form, which entails lightly grasping the handlebars across the top, sitting upright, bending at the elbows and pulling the shoulders back to open your chest and make breathing easier [source: Hewitt]. Tighten your core muscles and keep your upper body relaxed [source: Brown]. And pedaling technique is paramount: Drive down with one foot to generate power with your quadriceps, and pull slightly up and back with the opposite foot to engage your hamstrings.

In general, stay in the saddle -- standing and pedaling raises your heart rate and lowers your cadence. However, climbing out of the saddle engages upper body muscles and can generate the burst of power necessary for a quick surge ahead. It's also a good way to stretch and get your blood moving in the middle of the ride, according to Shawn Hanka, a 25-year cycling veteran who placed within the top 10 of his age group over four days of the 2008 Tour of the Gila race, which featured more than 18,000 feet (5,486 meters) of climbing. But racers beware: The initial deceleration that accompanies climbing out of the saddle can cause a trailing rider to rear-end you [source: Hewitt].

Performance coach Vic Brown says that if you're flat-out stronger and textbook technique isn't cutting it, you should use your god-given power to climb the hill [source: Brown]. Good form is less important than what works.

From split squats to hill repeats, the training secrets to maximize hill-crushing potential await.

Bike Hill Climbing Training

Training plans to improve hill climbing ability vary from cyclist to cyclist -- professional, sponsored cyclists train differently than weekend warriors with desk jobs. In general, start by establishing a good fitness base: Ride long, hilly routes for two to three hours twice a week, then bump it up to two- to five-hour rides [source: Brown]. Next, incorporate bike hill repeats -- basically, climb a hill as quickly as possible, glide back down to the base and repeat several times [source: Carmichael].

One of the best ways cyclists can improve performance is by boosting their lactate threshold. As exercise intensity increases, your body releases lactic acid into your bloodstream, and your heart beats faster to remove this waste. When lactic acid builds up faster than your body can process it, your lactate threshold is reached, and fatigue is close behind. "If you hit that point in the middle of a climb, you could be toying with disaster," performance coach Brown says.

To raise lactate threshold, train at a heart rate a few beats below it. For example, if your lactate threshold is 155 beats per minute, you could train at 152 beats for intervals of six to eight minutes, then ride for two minutes at 122 beats to recover [source: Hanka]. You should alternate interval training days and recovery-riding days. As the weeks progress, the heart rate that corresponds with your lactate threshold will increase.

Training for hill climbing need not be bound by the hills themselves. A fixed stationary trainer or bicycle rollers can stand in when bad weather makes outdoor cycling impossible. Besides a heart-rate monitor and a bike computer that measures cadence and speed, devoted cyclists with fat bank accounts might consider a PowerTap from CycleOps, a device that measures real-time power output in watts, a more reliable indicator of effort than heart rate.

In the weight room, cyclists should focus on their core and muscles below the waist: quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings and hips. Single-leg exercises like lunges, single-leg squats and split-squats are best [source: Brown].

Losing weight can improve performance -- but only if the weight loss helps produce a better ratio of power to body weight and keeps you healthy. It's not uncommon for super-lean cyclists to find that having a few extra helpings at dinner and being a few pounds heavier is better for performance [source: Brown].

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Sources

  • Brown, Vic. Assistant Coach, Boston Performance Coaching. Personal interview. Aug. 6, 2010.
  • Carmichael, Chris. "Express Train: Powered Ascent." Outside Magazine. July 2006. (Aug. 10, 2010)http://outsideonline.com/outside/bodywork/200607/fitness-advice.html
  • CycleOps. "Power Meters." (Aug. 17, 2010)http://www.cycleops.com/products/power-meters.html
  • Cycling Performance Tips. "Hills/Climbing Tips." (Aug. 11, 2010)http://www.cptips.com/climb.htm
  • Davis, Grant. "The Greatest Fitness Tips. Ever." Outside Magazine. October 2007. (Aug. 10, 2010)http://outsideonline.com/outside/bodywork/200710/fitness-tips-1.html?rf_region_dd=6&rf_state_dd=&price=4
  • Hanka, Shawn. Personal interview. Aug. 11, 2010.
  • Hewitt, Ben (editor). "Bicycling Magazine's 1,000 All-Time Best Tips." Rodale, Inc. 2005.
  • Kolata, Gina. "Super, Sure, but Not More Than Human." The New York Times. (Aug. 17, 2010)http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/24/weekinreview/24kola.html
  • Overend, Ned. "Mountain Bike Like a Champion." Rodale, Inc. 1999.
  • St. John, Allen. "Bicycling for Dummies." IDG Books Worldwide. 1999.