Getting better at climbing

When we did our city tour two weekends ago, one of the highlights was Mt. Bonnell. I’d never climbed it before, and I was looking forward to it, for some reason. I guess I had an unrealistic idea of my climbing ability.

Going through neighborhoods on the way there, we came upon a short, steep hill on a residential street. I downhifted to a low gear, but was up out of the saddle, standing on the pedals, struggling to mash the pedals down and keep the wheels turning. I could have gone down two more gears, but because the bike was straining already, I figured I’d lose all my momentum if I tried a downshift, so I kept grinding away. The bottom bracket made a creaky noise I’d never heard before. As long as I could make the bike protest, I thought, I had enough left in me to get up the hill.

And I did. Man, that was a tough one, and with car traffic coming from behind, I had no choice but to go straight up the road — no chance to zig-zag up the hill.

On Mt. Bonnell itself, we had a challenging grade to a right-hand bend, and then the grade steepened. I pulled into a driveway, did a loop, then shot back onto the street with some forward momentum. That momentum carried me, oh, maybe 10 yards or so. This time, I shifted down all the way into the granny gear. I was still tired from the earlier hill, but there was no traffic this time, and I used the width of the street to zig-zag my way up. It seemed like it would take forever, but I finally made it to the top.

An experienced biker riding with us guessed the grade was between 16-20 percent. I decided I wouldn’t be in a hurry to tackle it again (you might recall that I made a wrong turn, and we wound up climbing Bonnell again from the other side — but we walked our bikes this time, too pooped).

My conclusion is that I don’t do enough challenging hills as part of my regular rides. I’ve got some routes that include hills, but nothing like Bonnell. So I suppose I was just undertrained for it.

But if I have to mash pedals in the granny gear time after time, I’m not sure I want to get much better at hills.

What do you suggest for a noob to become at least a little more adept at climbing?

17 thoughts on “Getting better at climbing

  1. I have learned that the ‘granny’ is my friend, and although sometimes I live in the illusion that I am a much stronger climber/rider than I really am, the reality is, that I frequently use my granny gear on steep inclines.
    16% – 20% grade is very steep, and around here, I only know of one route I regularly ride which has sections like it, and you bet, that I am in the low gears. I find I have the most fun and success climbing when I don’t pretend to be someone I am not, and start the mountain in manageable gears for my ability.
    When I feel really good, I challenge myself to ride the grade one cog above the granny and call the day a ‘hill training day’, and it is. What a difference 2 cogs can make. But most of all, to come back to your original question, if you want to become a better climber; climb. Climb as much as you can and look forward to it.

    When I go out on rides with the mind set of “yeah, I got to climb ‘xyz’ today’, I usually have good rides. I never had a good climb going out treading the route. For me it is low gears in higher cadence; friends of mine are in higher gears and mash up the mountain – for you, you need to ride the mountains and find your balance, but never, never, be afraid to use your lowest gear – that is what it is there for.

  2. Hey Noob, I have been riding a couple of years now and like to tackle the hills in the western Carolinas, the southern Appalachians. Here’s a couple of things I have learned about hills. 1) the only way to get better on the hills is to spend time on the hills. 2) Journal; doing the same hill over and again and improving is a real encouragement. 3) Use the granny gear. A higher cadence taxes your cardio-pulmonary which recovers fairly quick. A lower cadence works your legs harder, builds up lactic acid, and when you are done, you are done.
    Hills are a great workout, really gets the heart rate up and keeps it there. The views from the top and the satisfaction of a ride well done make it all worth it. I’m not the expert, but that’s my take on it. Be blessed, be safe.

  3. Two words – hill repeats. Adding them into my workout once a week has made a tremendous difference in my ability to climb. You don’t get better at hills by avoiding them. It’s also great to alternate the grade and length of climb. I like to punish myself on long shallow (4% grade) hills one week and then tackle short steep hills the next. Something like Mt. Bonnell probably is a bit much for hill repeats though.

  4. I’m not a big fan of hills and usually try to avoid them for my commute to the office. But, sometimes, when I have to get around I can’t avoid them. On a former regular route to the grocery, it was always a climb on the return trip to the house. I remember the first few times I thought I was going to pass out because the climb was so difficult. After a several trips, it got easier, so I learned that with repetition I was getting stronger.

  5. I agree with J about the hill repeats.

    Also, the only way you willbe able to climb Mt. Bonnell is by climbing Mt. Bonnell, or at least parts of it. You have to go past your perceived limit if you want to get a training effect.

  6. Yes more hills will help and so will weighing 135 lbs. Besides hill repeats, intervals of 3-5 minutes at VO2 will help on flats or hills. My rides up Mt. Bonnell shows it averages 10.3% grade. The top portion has 2 steep sections of 15.4% and 17%. But it’s short, .4 miles.

    I’ll be doing hill repeats this Saturday morning 6 X (3min at 85% VO2Max power / 2 min @ 50% VO2Max) on the 3 Sisters. You’re more than welcome to come along.

    • Ouch! A double smack! I’d be happy to get down to 185 pounds, let alone 135. And I figured the guy was overstating the grade on Mt. Bonnell, but it hurts that it’s only a little over 10 percent and still gives me such trouble.
      Uh, you’ll be doing your hill repeats without me, but thanks for the invite.

      • The 135 is to reference to Alberto Contado’s weight and I was going to point out how it’s easier for lighter riders to climb than heavier but I forgot to come back to that. Also this is where weight of your bike will come into the most play. I’m waiting for a SRAM gravity diffuser but until zero gravity I’ll have to hit the hills and try to drop weight off of my body.

  7. Yup…no secret here. Ride more hills. Spin up them instead of mashing. Stand only when necessary. Lose that extra ten pounds.

  8. Pingback: Hill repeats « GT in LA

  9. I have to agree with the rest. The only way to ride hills is to ride hills. But never walk up a hill without at least giving it a try first, because the hill you walk up today will be the one you can’t ride tomorrow.

    One thing I’ve found is that many riders handicap themselves by starting out in too low a gear, so you lose all your momentum right off the bat and have to rely on muscle power alone to get up the hill.

    I prefer to attack a hill by shifting up, not down, as I approach a hill, and pick up my cadence a little. That way I build momentum before I start the climb — and it’s a lot easier to maintain momentum that to build it. Then just downshift as necessary to keep up your pace. You may find you can take that hill in a higher gear than you think you can.

  10. Ride with some extra weight (like loaded panniers). Then when you ride unloaded, the hills will feel easy(er). And maybe when you find out how much difference 20 pounds actually makes, it might motivate you to shed the weight you say you’d like to lose which will help even more.
    Get low gears and use them. (My lowest is a 26 granny front, 28 back)
    Breathe. Early and often.
    Ride hard hills at your own pace, not that of a group or someone else. Different people have different paces and although you can draft on the flat to equalize differences, you’re on your own on the hills. Agree to meet up at the top or some designated point that everyone knows.
    Find hills that have a fun coast down (no stop signs, ‘T’ intersections, or tight curves that require braking away your hard earned energy). It will give you something to look forward to.
    Don’t overheat. Dress light. Toss clothes back on at the top for a long descent if needed to avoid getting chilled. (OK, I know it’s August in Texas right now, so try not to laugh, but keep this in mind for when it does cool down.) If I’m wearing a cap, I’ll often take it off before a climb. Or unzip my jersey. Before the pros were required to wear helmets all the time, they would take theirs off before a final mountaintop finish to stay cooler. If you have water to spare, you can squirt it over your head or down the back of your shirt.
    Digesting food on a hard hill is bad, but so is running out of energy. So eat enough far enough in advance so your body is primed and ready, but not trying to digest and climb at the same time. Snacking right after a hill is a good time (assuming you’re not doing another one real soon.) And be well hydrated too. Don’t try to down a full bottle right before a hill though, or it will just be sitting uncomfortably in your belly. Smaller, frequent sips are easier to process.
    Think back to some previous time when you felt really strong and get into the memory. Maybe a race from back in your jogging days that you remember fondly.

  11. For me, several things help:
    1) Get your breathing right at the beginning of the hill, slow and easy. If you start gulping for air early, you’re done.
    2) Get into an easy gear early on the hill even if it might seem you’re spinning too fast at first. Will put off the lactic acid buildup described in other comment.
    3) If you ride clipless, remember to push AND pull through the whole revolution….sometimes I forget to pull. I think the pulling adds at least another 1/3 effort to your climb.
    4) Keep your head down (if not in traffic) and try not to look at the top of the hill in the distance. At least, this psychological trick works for me.
    5) And another one I use in trip planning is avoidance. 🙂

  12. Pingback: Today’s ride, in which I inflict intense self-suffering. Twice. « BikingInLA

  13. My thoughts are pretty much the same as everyone else here:

    1. Practice makes perfect. I tend to not like repeats unless I am trying to fit in a hard workout in a short amount of time. Instead I have a loop that hits all the local hills. Depending on how I feel I add more or less loops in different patterns. Much more fun than up and down the same hill over and over.

    2. Pace yourself. If it is a long hill find the tempo that works for you.

    3. Don’t be under geared. If I am in too low of a gear I just end up going slower and feeling the same resistance on the legs. The goal is to find the best balance between the cardio system and the muscle strength.

    4. Change up the muscles that are doing the work. I am most powerful when I am bent over with my pinkies hooked under the brakes. I can spin my legs but still put my back into it. But from there I will switch to standing or my hands on the flats. Not as comfortable for me, but a good way to switch my muscle groups.

    5. Don’t be afraid to stand. I have fought my way up some mountains that way switching between siting and climbing every couple of feet. Most notably Palomar Mountain (see below) and recently Mt. Tam (SF) when I could not get into my low gear.

    6. Make sure that your bike has low enough gears for you. For a long time I thought I was running a 11-25 cassette (9 speed). Even climbed Palomar Mountain (San Diego) on it. When it came time to replace the cassette found out it was a 11-23. Replaced it with a 12-25. I am planning on buying a new bike soon and I am thinking about getting a 12-27 for that little extra low end.

    7. And the hardest one of all, lose weight. My big thing was beer drinking. I don’t keep beer in my house anymore. And if I want some for dinner one night I will go buy a tall boy from the local store. Easy way to cut down on calories. I went from 186 to 160 that way.

  14. Don’t pant! Keep your breathing slow and deep, suck in great draughts of air but never pant. It wastes energy and burns your lungs out. Im only 9st but there are hills I love and hills I hate. Some of the hills I dislike are not as steep or as long as some of my favourites but I will always suffer on them more simply because I dont like them. Dont crouch over the handlebars as this restricts the chest. Shift to a higher gear when you must stand and drop to a lower one when you sit back down. If you have the mindset that hills are there to be beaten, the day will come when you will actually seek out longer and harder climbs. Keep the big long climbs for a day when you can find decent recovery time afterwards and plenty of sleep. Because you will want to!

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