No matter your fitness level, climbing on a bike can be a struggle—but by mastering a few strategic riding tactics and mental tricks, you can push past your crew and set the pace uphill.
We rounded up a few of the top elite Canadian climbers—Ben Perry, Canada’s current criterium national champ; Robert Gutgesell, a Canadian elite road racer; and Peter Glassford, a mountain biker and coach who holds the Canadian Leadville record—to share a few lesser-known tricks to climbing success. Next group ride, you’ve got this.
Up, down, up, down.
Staying in one position for a climb could wreck your chance at success. Breakaways in big races often feature one guy standing and racing for all he’s worth, but to make it up a long climb, most of us mortals will climb mostly in a seated position. So many people think that once you stand, it’s because a) you’re at the final push, or b) you just can’t pedal seated anymore. But even when the going is good, a good climber will change position and stand up for a few pedal strokes to give muscle groups a break, release tension, and get some blood flow back in that butt!
Keep your upper body relaxed.
It’s instinctive to tighten up when we climb—especially when the climb seems to go on, and on, and on—but the less effort you put into tensing your arms, the more energy you have left for your legs. If your shoulders start to hunch, try relaxing your grip on the bar and dropping your shoulders to release tension in your upper back. That will help you take those deeper breaths that get you up a hill.
Don’t freak out (too much) about your cycling weight.
Everyone knows that the lighter you are, the faster you go up hills. But the truly strong climbers know that it’s not just about the scale, and that sacrificing energy and power for the sake of dropping half a pound simply isn’t worth it. It’s a difficult balance that all cyclists deal with, but climbers especially have to find that razor’s edge where they’re lean enough to climb fast, but aren’t starving themselves to get there. Riding with the tank low isn’t going to get you up a hill faster, no matter how many pounds you’ve dropped. If you want to lose weight to get faster, do it slowly and carefully—don’t try to do it all at once right before that hill climb you’ve been planning.
Spin it out.
Most ultra-fast climbers avoid grinding, especially early in a climb. When it’s possible, a good climber is spinning at around 80 rpm—whatever you normally do on the flats. It might feel weird to shift down so drastically, especially if you’re on a steep hill that starts pretty abruptly, but if you can keep your pedaling cadence constant, you’ll be a more efficient climber. Bottom line: If you can avoid your cadence dropping, avoid it. Only start that grind when you’re out of gears… and if you live in a really hilly area, no one will judge you if you swap in a compact road crankset. (You might even beat some of your fast buddies up the hill next time!)
While an extra pound of muscle is going to help you make your way up the hill, the unusable bits of that massive breakfast you had are just weighing you down. That’s one of the reasons the line at the port-a-potty is so long pre-race, especially when it’s a hilly course. Riders are all try to use the bathroom and get that extra weight out before it matters.
Going for a KOM? In addition to stopping at a bathroom at the base of the climb, consider emptying your bottles (leaving a few sips so you don’t dehydrate)—assuming you can refill when you hit the top of the climb. Getting rid of that extra water weight might give you the edge you need to snag the crown.