If you’re going to ride a bike in Austin, you’re going to ride hills. Learning how to ride them will help make your ride a lot more enjoyable. Personally, I love riding hills. Something about reaching the top of a steep climb gives me this sense of achievement that I do not get when riding flats. I even use hills to help determine my fitness level. When I do the Bee Caves loop, the numbers of times I need to get out of the saddle to get up a hill helps me determine where I am in my cycling fitness.
But I digress. I want to spend a few minutes to give advice on how to help anyone become a good hill climber. In my opinion there are three key areas to better climbing, 1) technique and gears, 2) leg strength, and a 3) mental attitude.
Techniques include body movement and placement, gearing, cadence, breathing and heart rate (effort). Your upper body should be relaxed and rock slightly with each peddle stroke. Your hands should be relaxed and almost resting on the handle bars; you should not be griping the handlebars with a lot of strength. Too much movement or too much tension in the upper body wastes energy. Your shoulders should be back and ‘open’; it allows your chest to breathe efficiently. Sitting back in the saddle during the climb gains you a leverage advantage on the pedals.
When starting a hill, pick a gear so that your cadence is relatively high. As you progress up the hill, shift to higher gears as your cadence drops; always try to keep the cadence above 75-80. Keeping your cadence high helps to prevent muscles from fatiguing early in the climb and keeps your legs from producing large quantities of lactic acid. It is also easier on the knees and back. If you find that can’t keep your cadence above 70 in your easiest gear, you may need to have a higher gear installed. Normally I ride a 12-25 on a hilly course and I’m thinking about using a 12-27 for my Canada race later this year (you have to save those legs for the run).
You should always climb in YOUR comfort zone. It doesn’t matter if someone is passing you at the beginning of the hill, they may blow up towards the top and you don't want to spiked your HR to keep up. Your goal is to keep your breathing deep and comfortable; your heart rate should stay below your threshold level. I try to find a rhythm to where I can keep the same effort for the entire length of the hill.
I like to hear to listen to people debate about standing versus sitting in riding hills. They see the pros standing in the Tour de France as they attack a hill and think they can do that. First of all, they are pros. And secondly, they don’t have to run after the race. TdF riders get a massage and relax after their ride. Its better for tri athletes to sit in the saddle and keep their efforts constant for the entire ride and not to the surge attacks up the hill. Another reason to stay in the saddle is to help keep your heart rate down. The general rule of thumb is your heart rate increase 5 to 10 beats per minute compared to sitting at the same speed. And you have to use your upper body muscles to keep you in control. It’s okay to stand up to stretch and to give your cadence a little jump, but sit down as quickly as possible.
There are a lot of exercises to build leg strength. The two I like the most are doing hill repeats and stairs. When doing hill repeats, find a hill that has a long steady steep climb that you can do 4 to 6 times. I have two ways of doing the repeats. One is to keep the gear as low as possible and your cadence around 60. These are slow climbs using a lot of strength and your heart rate will probably be above threshold. The other is to just hammer up the hill as fast as you can. When you do hill repeats, they never get easier, you just get faster. Running stairs simulates the peddle stroke and can be a very effective way of building strength. I like to find a parking garage that has about 4 or 5 levels and run to the top as fast as I can, repeat 3 to 5 times.
Greg LeMond said “There’s not much difference in the perceived effort between a 40-minute time trial on the fast flat road and a 40-mintue hard climb. But most riders perceive climbing as harder. You need to adjust your thinking to be a good climber.” So the next time you see a hill, just smile and know that it’s no difference then riding hard on a flat road. This slight mental change will make the hill seam easier and be a lot more fun to ride.