Climbing hills is absolutely not my favourite aspect of cycling (descending is, I only excuse hills from going up because they obligingly go down again).
I am getting to be on better terms with uphill as my technique has improved, however. Now, on the few days of the year when I am actually on form, I love the feeling of strength you get when you know you’re climbing (relatively) well.
Years ago (pre husband and children) I used to meet my brother (also a cyclist) in Majorca for an organised spring ‘training camp’. Bob and Keith were legends of this camp.
Bob and Keith (I never knew their surnames) were ex-pros, well into retirement and still both enjoying cycling. Bob was slim and an excellent climber – legend tells of him pushing struggling riders up 10 mile long climbs while never once stopping his mchatter. ‘Rotund’ is probably a good word to describe Keith’s build. Keith could descend like a cannonball, although he climbed like a man who got into the van at the bottom of the hills, and got out again at the top.
Together, Bob and Keith led the slower and less experienced rides on the camp. They also offered advice to riders who wanted it with very few social niceties taken into account (“You’ll never make it around the Etape du Tour” – I was offended….Bob was quite correct).
Those camps in Majorca were really my first experience of group riding. When I first started going, I lived in the Highlands of Scotland and as ‘the only road cyclist in the village’ (well, more or less), I had a wonderful sense of what a great cyclist I was. Sadly, this turned out to be mainly due to the lack of comparison.
When I rode in a group, I really struggled. It wasn’t that I was unfit, but I just could not keep up the pace on the hills. The bigger climbs weren’t all that much of a problem because the groups tended to split up during the climb and regroup at the top. I was slow, but I’d get there eventually. It was the short climbs. I was just fine on the flat, I kept up with the group, wasn’t hanging off the back, and wasn’t struggling. But the minute there was the slightest uphill, the whole group gradually passed me as I got slower and slower and slower. At the top, I could catch back up, so I had the strength, I just could not climb. It was so frustrating.
So, I asked Bob to ride alongside me up some of the climbs I struggled with, and the advice he gave me was priceless. His conclusion was “you’ve got the strength but your technique is rubbish.” He did also give me some slightly more specific pointers. It took me about 6 months to change my technique in the ways he suggested and it really did make me a much better rider.
Recently, I started riding with a club again. Hervelo is a womens’ cycle club. At the moment the road cyclists are in a minority and we have a big mountain biking section. The majority of the road bike girls have not ridden with clubs before they found Hervelo. Like me, they just got a bike and rode it.
Quite a few of them struggle with climbing in exactly the way I struggled in Majorca. This made me wonder if there is a ‘girly’ way of riding a road bike. It could also be that fewer women seem to join cycling clubs and they therefore miss out on the kind of advice that traditionally, more experienced club riders offered to newer riders. Who knows. Anyway, it made me think it was maybe worth writing down the advice Bob gave me.
The Wisdom of Bob
- Use your gears. Seriously, engineering gave us gearing for a reason – it makes it easier to ride a bike. It is not a sign of weakness to change down gears before your lungs are burning and your eyeballs are bulging. I have a triple chainset on my road bike and I love it. I don’t use the granny cog all that much, but when I do I am massively grateful for it.
- Use your gears one at a time. Do not try and hold as big a gear as you can for as long as you can and then slam down 10 gears at once before you fall off your bike. Take at least one pedal stroke before you change each gear.
- Think about your effort level. Personally, I don’t think it really matters what cadence you ride at if it is comfortable for you. But once you hit a climb, change down a gear as soon as you feel it is getting harder. Equally, change up as soon as your effort level drops again. Use your gears to keep your effort level constant (until you run out of gears anyhow, then it’s just going to get tough!)
- Climb with your hands on the bars. Unless it’s steep enough that you can’t and you need to stand.
- Climb with your legs, not with your upper body. Don’t waste energy bouncing up and down.
- Don’t panic. If you look at a hill ahead, or you know it through reputation and you think you are going to struggle or not make it to the top, your body instantly follows your head in panicking. This raises your heart and breathing rate way before the hill has a chance to.
And thus spoke Bob.