First, the bad news: If you’re not a natural climber, there is very little you can do to make yourself one. The good news is that there are things you can do to make yourself the best climber (or hill rider) you can be, the only problem being that it is very hard work. This section is mostly for the many of us who are not natural climbers. Natural climbers don’t need any help going uphill.
Let’s begin by establishing that there is a difference between hills and climbs. Very different types of riders do well on the two types of rises. Consider the diminutive, emaciated climbers who excel at hour-long 20km climbs averaging 7%, versus the stocky, heavily muscled classics riders who excel on cobbled 800-meter hills averaging 20%, or even the 2-mile long 15% “hills” you see in Liege-Bastogne-Liege. The basic difference between the two can be defined through the type of effort required to get over the obstacle. Hills require a lot of power and can be ridden over by basically giving an “interval” effort, something you can go over your head for, and recover from later (if need be). A climb, on the other hand, requires a tempo that you can maintain for the distance of the climb.
Obviously, this definition means that the line between a climb and a hill are different for different people. A pure climber may view a hill as something as long as 3-miles while a track sprinter may have to view a 400m 6% rise as a climb. So, if you feel you’re lousy at both hills and climbs, or feel like you need to be faster at both, what can you do?
The thing that hills and climbs both have in common is that there is a diminished draft, due to the lack of speed. Along with gravity, this is the biggest reason riding gets a lot harder on hills relative to flatter ground. Without the draft to neutralize differences in raw talent, going upward becomes a test of power to weight ratios. Riders with lower ratios have to put in a bigger effort to go the same speed as riders with higher ratios. The problem, as you all well know, is that as a race wears on and you’re going up that hill for the 7th time, the efforts add up and you risk getting dropped, or might be unable to answer the vital attack on or after the hill. What you’re looking to do is improve is your base climbing tempo, whether you’re on a climb or a hill.
The way to do this is to increase your power to weight ratio, done, obviously, by increasing your power and/or decreasing your weight. The biggest gains can be made by doing a little of both, but that of course is the most difficult thing to do. We’ll look at weight first as it’s the more difficult to improve. Most of you are probably pretty close your racing weights, and know how difficult it would be lose weight beyond that. It is a bad idea to try to do it through diet (unless your diet is very bad) as you then tend to suffer through lack of calories, and can’t train and recover properly. Large and rapid loses of body weight usually also has the undesired effect of losing power. The only way I know to lose weight without losing power is to train long miles and do a lot of hard racing. This method also requires a lot of time, most likely several years to make significant loses, so you can’t count on it for a short-term answer.
That leaves power, and there are a bevy of methods to increase power on the bike for climbing, all of which shouldn’t be employed until you have the proper base. You can, however, establish a proper climbing base and at the same time make yourself better at going up hills and climbs by doing the same thing uphill that you do on the flats: small gears and high cadence. Once again, I base this premise on the idea of a sustainable effort. The only way to get faster is to start with an effort you can maintain, and gradually increase the effort over time.
You don’t have to keep rpms at 100+ on climbs or hills (more power to you (literally) if you can), but aim to keep rpms at 80 minimum. Find a gear you can turn these kinds of rpms on most of the hills you encounter. Right away I’ll say that there are some hills steep enough that you won’t be able to maintain 80+ rpms on without going over your head. The gears needed for these hills simply don’t exist without getting a triple or a compact crank with a 36. In these cases, don’t worry about it, just get over the hill. Figuring out what you can do on a hill may take some time. Say you’re riding a hill you usually push over on 39x18 at 50-70 rpms. If you switch to a 39x21 at 80 rpms, you will find it easier on the muscles to start with, but as you climb, muscle fatigue will set in, and you have to suffer a bit (ok, sometimes quite a bit) to keep it rolling. This is because, as you will discover, rolling those tiny gears at high rpms actually results in a pretty high speed for climbing, usually faster than you would ride otherwise at lower rpms in a higher gear. You’re doing roughly the same amount of work, what’s different is the type of effort you’re making. At higher rpms and with lower gears, you take the emphasis away from muscle and apply it more to heart and lungs. This is precisely what you need to work on to improve your base climbing tempo. When you have a cardiovascular system that can support the power you have, you can start trying to get faster.
The way you do it is to hit the hills with the gear you can turn at 80+ rpms, at slightly more than comfortable effort, which means you suffer a bit, but it is sustainable. At the top, change your gears up only so much as you can maintain or increase your rpms. This way, you get a smooth transition from the hill to the flat ground, and a smooth transition of effort. When you feel that you can climb the hills on this gear with less perceived effort, its time to move on to more suffering with the next bigger cog, or increase your rpms. Let me assure you that this is a slow process; don’t expect marked improvements in just a couple of weeks. There’s no need to do repeats or necessarily seek out hills, most rides around here are hilly enough that you get a good dose. Repeats and genuine hill intervals come into play when quality training starts. Concerning gear selection, some of you may need to swallow your pride: I regularly pack a 39x25 in the early season. If you need a 27, don’t be ashamed, it is what is necessary. Note also that you can start working on your base climbing speed anytime. You can already be doing regular flat intervals, and if you haven’t done anything about your base climbing tempo while at the same time you feel lacking in hills, doing hill intervals will be premature. Start setting the building blocks before you try to put the roof on.
After you have a good base of climbing you can break things down into specifics:
So long as you’ve done your work, hills (whatever your perceived definition of hill vs. climb is) shouldn’t pose too much of a problem. Obviously, if the pace gets very high, everyone will suffer, and things still essentially come down to power/weight. The only question is how well you respond to it. Peaks or valleys in your form will show glaringly on hills at effort, and that will have the greatest effect on your ability to go up hills fast. If you have a good base, you should have some minimum level of comfort that should keep you in the bunch at the very least. Breaks in local races often don’t go on the hill, but rather after the hill. A quick recovery is important, and a good base helps. Once again, there are no tricks to mastering this ability, the only thing to do is prepare correctly with base, and good quality training.
Most of the races around here are hilly but don’t really have climbs. You can find genuine climbing at the Oregon stage races and at most of the NRC stage races, and if you enjoy those races, you’ll want some kind of climbing proficiency. As stated at the beginning, you can’t make yourself into a climber. Genuine climbers possess a rare combination: a light build combined with powerful muscle development. Most of us don’t have this freakish combination, and it is difficult or impossible to make up for it by increasing power to overcome our larger builds. A long climb is essentially a time trial with the added detriment of gravity. Basically, you have to find a sustainable pace and stick with it. If you try to keep up with the fast climbers at the bottom of the climb, you’ll crack, and end up going slower up the climb than if you had stayed at your own pace. This is important to realize, since it may be possible to catch back on the descent, if you get over the top in decent shape. Often, if you stick to your pace, you will catch people who went over their heads and cracked. Sometimes you even warm into a climb, and pick up speed as you go on.
Many of you may be borderline cases, I was one myself. Most of the time you can’t climb with best, but occasionally you can do it. For example, if I knew if I was coming into very good form and my weight was at 160, I could drop 1-2 lbs over 3-weeks by going for a 30-minute ride before breakfast (what this does is kick up your metabolism quicker) and cutting out a few fatteners like Snickers bars and butter on toast etc. I could then climb with the best guys assuming good form and with my weight at 158 lbs. But I could only do this maybe twice a year, and only for a week or two at a time. If I tried to stay below 160 for too long, I would get sick, or drop in form more quickly than I should have. This brings up another aspect of working too much on climbing: you need to balance the value of working on climbing to the cost it exacts on your other attributes. It may not be worth it. I can’t tell you how to determine any of these things. You have to discover what works for you.
Changes of pace: This is the most difficult aspect of going uphill. It is tough to change your speed on an incline because 1) you’re fighting gravity and your own body mass plus your bike and 2) once you’ve accelerated, and say, bridged a gap, there’s no draft, nor can you coast, to help you recover from your effort. The only way to prepare for this is to prepare for it in training. On your endurance ride days (this is after your base miles period) on longer hills and climbs, try accelerations and see how long it takes you to recover from the effort. Try different speeds of accelerating and find out what your limits are. Some will find they’re better off with a fast acceleration and thus a shorter chase. Some will be better off with a steadier pace and longer chase. The way you improve your recovery (for all aspects of riding, not just climbs) is through intervals.
You can watch Tour de France on TV and see the GC leader’s team lining up the team in front of their star and leading him up the climbs. On the final climb the stars dash off and battle amongst themselves. What’s really going on there? Besides the doping spectacles of past years, there’s next to no draft on the climbs, so what’s the advantage of doing that? The answer is that only one team has business setting the pace on a climb, and that’s the team with the fastest climber. By setting a high tempo on climbs, a team places a bet that their rider is the fastest. If a team is setting a tempo and their guy is isn’t as fast, it is just a nail in their own coffin. All setting the tempo like that does is discourage attacks and wear down possible contenders.
In hilly races one thing a team can do effectively is launch a potential race winner on a hill. If a team drills the pace a couple of km before a hill the bunch will stretch out, and some guys may be caught out of position, or have to kill themselves trying to get into position. When you hit the hill, the “star” launches, and hopefully can win from there, bridge to the break, or whatever goal is in mind. Beware though, that a move like this may simply create a selection of the best riders, and may not end up in the team’s best interest. In other words, it doesn’t always work out. When to employ this move is a matter of experience.
Climbing in the drops:
Remember Miguel Indurain and Marco Pantani climbing on the drops of their handlebars? A few years ago, I decided to try this out and see what was up with that. At first I thought, “Wow, this really makes a difference!” but about 10-seconds later I was back up on my hoods because my legs were cracking. Climbing in the drops puts you in a bio-mechanically better position to pedal, holding your upper body more rigid. With less wasted motion in your arms and torso, you get better power transfer to the legs. So, if you can develop the strength to do for an entire climb, go for it. If you can’t, you can still use it. I found it especially helpful for accelerating on hills when the occasion called for it. I basically got more bang for the buck when I attacked versus accelerating on the tops or hoods. You may find it more useful for carrying momentum over small rises in an otherwise flat road.
An old, renowned trick is to start a climb/hill at the front of the bunch and fade back, so that at the top of the hill you’re at the back of the bunch, having climbed at the easiest pace possible. This can be done, but it takes a lot of local knowledge and good timing skills. Another problem is that the fight to stay up front approaching a climb can sometimes be pretty fierce. You could exhaust yourself just trying to stay there, and get dropped on the hill because you’re already cracked.
Sitting vs. Standing:
Sit or stand? On hills, do whatever is most comfortable, but sitting is more efficient. On climbs, you want to stay seated as much as possible. The basic argument for sitting is this: It is difficult to keep your rpms as high for very long as when you’re sitting. To keep your speed up, that means you have to shift to a higher gear, and over time, this means you use more muscle to propel yourself; muscle you could use later in the race. Sometimes, though, the grade is so steep you have to stand for the extra leverage. Sometimes a change of posture is refreshing as well.
A training method, using hills, to increase power:
You’ve probably seen people doing this: riding up a hill in a ridiculously high gear, and stupidly low rpms, to increase power. This is a big misinterpretation of a method Francesco Moser employed to prepare for setting the hour record. It was described that Moser was riding up 10% grades on a 52x13 to increase power. What most people didn’t realize is that 1) Moser was one of the strongest bike racers ever (and we aren’t), and 2) he was sprinting up 200-400m rises. I guarantee you; all these guys going up hills on the big ring at less than 50 rpms are just making themselves slow. The proper method Moser was using does vastly improve your power, and is very good for improving your sprint. You may want to scale back to a 53x17 or 15 though.
The other way to improve power in this manner is to indeed ride up a hill on a bigger gear, but only slightly bigger. Go a cog or two higher than normal, and keep your rpms within 10-20 of normal. You suffer incredibly to do this, but it does reap benefits. Only do this after you’ve finished base miles however.
Wind on climbs and hills:
A headwind on a climb is every non-climber’s dream. A strong headwind will effectively create a draft. I say effectively because you still don’t get much of a draft, but the wind prevents the riders in front from climbing at maximum speed. Riders sitting behind don’t get buffeted by the wind, and get to enjoy the slower pace. What you should take away from this, is that it is foolish to attack on a headwind climb, unless you’re willing and able to put out a lot of effort. The finest local example of this is the 2-mile long rise at the Walla Walla Stage Race. It is a great pleasure to watch guys attack, only to come sheepishly back into the fold after flailing away in the wind for a minute or two.
Conversely, a tail wind makes climbing for the non-climber more difficult. While the wind does push you a little and aid you up the hill, the real climbers get an even bigger boost from it, and the differences get magnified. In short, if you thought those guys were fast uphill before, watch them now when they have a tailwind. In the meantime, you and your average ilk go up the hill marginally faster.
The main message I want to convey with all this is that, as with everything, there are no tricks, no devices; no easy ways to improve climbing. The only way to get better at it is to go out and ride them, and learn how to suffer on them. The method I’ve described to do this properly is bloody hard work, and not particularly fun. When it gets down to it though, that is the real key to the sport: the ability to suffer enduringly. You can’t suffer well, however, unless you prepare yourself for it correctly.