Whatever your level, most cyclists want to improve at cycling up hills. Whether you want to conquer climbs to win the Tour de France, or just stop fearing the hill on the route to work, climbing is as much a mental skill as it is about physical fitness. Read on for our top cycle hill-climbing tips.
Use your gears
Gears are there to make cycling easier, change gear frequently to keep your legs turning at a comfortable speed throughout your ride. As you approach the hill, carry as much speed as you can into the start of it, particularly if you are approaching it from a downhill. Look ahead as you will need to change down into an easier gear before the hill becomes steep as shifting under load puts a lot of strain on your chain. Find a comfortable rhythm and use your gears to maintain it, shifting into an easier gear if your pedalling starts to feel slow or laboured.
We have all had the experience of searching for an easier gear only to find out we are already in the lowest gear we have. In this situation you have nothing left to do but grind it out. Alternating between sitting and standing climbing can help as you can use your body weight, not just your leg power, to push down on the pedals. When a hill gets really steep and you have no more gears left, you can start to zig-zag across the slope to take the sting out of the gradient.
Did you know you can change the gear ratios on your bike to make climbing easier? If you’re always running out of gears ask your local bike shop for some advice.
It is very easy to attack the bottom of a climb fast and then feel your lungs burn and your legs ‘pop’ before you reach the top. Always look ahead, unless you are confident you can see the top and the gradient is manageable, hold back some of your effort. It is better to start the climb at a comfortable, manageable pace – it may even be a little bit easier than you think you are capable of – and only accelerate once the top comes into sight.
Breathe and relax
Focusing on your breathing is an easy way to relax your body as well as making sure your muscles are getting the oxygen they need to power up the slope. When we start breathing shallowly and fast it sends signals to our brain that our body is under stress and in difficulty. Our shoulders tense up and our heart rate accelerates.
Break the cycle by consciously slowing down your breathing rate and breathing more deeply. This will calm and relax both your body and your brain. Focusing on exhaling hard will help your next breath go fully to the bottom of your lungs, which will help get your breathing under control and supply more oxygen to your working muscles.
If you’re really struggling on an ascent, use markers on the hill to keep you going. Pick a point and look only there, once you have reached it, look a short distance up the road and pick your next point. Tell yourself you only need to do it a little bit at a time, this way you can eke out your energy.
And smile (even if you don’t feel like it!). The action of turning the corners of your mouth up in a smile helps to relax the muscles of your jaw and neck, which also sends messages to your brain that you are calm, relaxed and in control – exactly how you want to feel while climbing up a hill.
Walking isn’t failure
Even if you have to push your bike to the top it still an achievement, you conquered the climb under your own steam. If you do need to stop and put a foot down it can be very hard to get going again. Angle your bike across or slightly down the slope as you set off. This allows you to get pedalling on a slightly easier gradient and get both feet settled on the pedals before you have to turn your bike uphill again.
Hate cycling up hills? Keep doing it and you will get better at it. Unfortunately, one of the few ways of really conquering a hatred of hills is to ride them a lot. Try to see climbing as an opportunity to develop your fitness, improve your leg strength and beat the fear.
Get an e-bike!
This isn’t defeatist advice, e-bikes are brilliant if you’re struggling to build your fitness or overcome your fear of hills as they can help you to get fitter and get mentally prepared for overcoming hill climbs. By giving you the support of pedal-assist when you need it you will be able to ride further and faster than you can on your own. The more you ride, the fitter you get. If climbing hills is putting you off cycling, or making it hard for you to ride the interesting routes in your local area, seriously consider an e-bike, it will transform your cycling experience.
Got any tips for climbing? Have you had to overcome a fear of hills? We’d love to hear your stories.