You've been there, seen it, tried to do it. Come to a hill, and it
seems like some people just go flying up it no problem, and you...well, if there was a way
to go around or through it, you would.
Worst of all, you notice that there's some fast climbers who don't even
look like they're in the greatest shape! Maybe a bit older than you (maybe a LOT
older!), maybe a bit heavier. And they don't even look like they're in pain...in
fact, they almost look like they're enjoying it. What's wrong with this picture?
Well, that could be you enjoying that hill, climbing it faster &
easier, if you want it to be.
The first thing you have to do is perhaps the most counter-intuitive.
Relax. Don't have a death-grip on your handlebars. All you do is add
tension & stress to your body, none of which helps you to climb the hill, but all of
which helps to drain your strength.
Next, think about what climbing a hill means. When you get to the
top, you know you've accomplished something that nobody can take away. You didn't
get there by sucking a wheel (drafting behind a rider for aerodynamic benefit)! You
did something real. And the accomplishment is tangible (unlike fighting a headwind,
where after five or six miles of it, just what exactly do you have to show for it?).
No, as the song goes, they can't take that away from you.
So maybe we know why we're climbing the hill, and this should help our
attitude about it (and remember, attitude is everything, more important even than what
shape you're in). Now back to technique.
We touched on this a bit when we talked about relaxing. Now you need
to find a way to ease yourself into the hill. Don't try and go up at someone else's
pace quite yet...find your own pace. Discover where you have a natural rhythm where
it appears that you're most efficient. This typically means sitting down, not
standing, and playing around with your gears until you find a spot where you can pedal
smoothly (not desperately!) and can envision yourself holding this pace for some time.
Do you have clipless shoes/pedals? If so, practice pulling back
across the bottom of your pedal stroke. This engages a whole new set of muscles
across the front of your lower leg that otherwise just go along for the ride! If
not, at least try to have your heel relatively parallel to the ground at the bottom of the
pedal stroke...don't "stand" on your pedals with your toes pointed down!
You'll exercise a very limited set of muscles that way.
OK, you're cruising along, and the hill just got steeper. Now what
do you do? If you know that the steep part is fairly short, you might just want to
stand up for that short distance and grunt it out, or, if you've got clipless pedals,
really work on pulling back across the bottom of your stroke. This technique can
work wonders (and if you were racing, has the added benefit of not
"telegraphing" your intentions to everyone else). If it's a longer steep
section, there's no substitute for grabbing a lower gear and dropping your speed a bit.
Arrggh! I'm doing all this (or at least think I am) and I still
hate it! Now what?
Well, if you really hate hills and can't see it any other way...you're
probably never going to get very good at them. You need to ask yourself why you hate
hills? Is climbing up a hill really worse than visiting the dentist? Or being
dumped by your girlfriend/boyfriend? Or watching something really stupid on TV?
Of course not! And since you got through those things, what could be so tough
about a hill? In the worst-possible case, consider that the climb will be over in
"x" number of minutes, and then it's behind you. Think of it in terms of
time, not pain, and that after that certain amount of time, a pretty insignificant amount
of time in the grand scheme of things, it will be over. I guarantee it! No
hill lasts forever. And knowing that can help you get up the hill, since you've put
it in its proper place. There's lots of things worse, and many of them (like the
boyfriend/girlfriend stuff) can be open-ended in terms of their pain...you just don't know
when it's going to stop. But you know there's an end to the hill.
So sit down, relax, and try not to fight it, but rather enjoy hill
climbing for all of its positive attributes (the sense of accomplishment, the fact that
there *is* a top that you'll get to in a finite amount of time, and knowing that there are
far worse ways you could be spending that time).
These are the basics and don't address S&M hill climbing techniques
(If I'm in this much pain that guy must be about ready to drop dead...this is great!),
out-of-body experiences (enjoying the absurdity of the task by imagining that you're
watching yourself climb from maybe 10 feet away) or what it's like to have your own
personal vulture circling overhead as you climb out of a steep, hot canyon (Marshall Grade
out of the American River Canyon comes to mind!). But those stories are the type of
thing that are more likely to convince people that those who climb well are somehow
genetically mutated from the rest of us (de-evolved?), and our point here is to let you
know that just about anybody can climb a lot better than they think, especially those who
are intimidated by hills. It's not raw strength that does it!
Addendum, posted 8/16/02-
OK, here I am, 46 years old, used to race competitively back in the
day, basically have ridden forever and probably put on .342 zillion miles in
my lifetime. And yet I recently learned something that's made quite a
difference in my climbing.
In all these years, I only just recently got a heart monitor (a fancy
Ciclomaster HAC-4 unit with downloadable everything, including altitude,
temp, power output, heart rate, temp, you name it). Cool toy. I was
working on trying to keep my heart rate down while climbing at the same
speed (or, conversely, climbing faster at the same heart rate), and
discovered that my old breathing methods, essentially syncing my breathing
to my pedaling, do *not* cut it. In fact, syncing breathing to anything
other than an exceptionally-steady cadence (rare while climbing!) produces a
certain raggedness that's very counter-productive. And yet that's what I've
been doing all these years. May have served me well when racing, but
certainly not now.
Instead, by forcing myself to breath at a relatively even rate, I've found
myself able to perform significantly better while climbing. I'm not nearly
as winded and can maintain high output levels for much longer periods of
It's funny... syncing your breathing to your pedaling seems like such a
natural thing to do, and in a way, almost elegant, something to strive for.
And yet absolutely positively the wrong thing to do. About time I finally get it right, I guess!