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Bicycling Blog - Better Climbing

By Tom Hawley

Better Climbing

Cyclist tend to either be good riding up hill or not so good riding up hill. I've found that those riders that are good at riding up hill tend to plan training rides that include a lot of hills and those riders that loathe the hills tend to plan training rides that avoid the bigger hills. Now, this is one of those Chicken/Egg situations. Do good climbers ride a lot of hills because they are good climbers, or are they good climbers because they ride a lot of hills. Do bad climbers avoid hills because they are not good at climbing or are they not good at climbing because the avoid the hills? I believe it is the latter. I believe that it is the rider's attitude toward hills that that has the biggest impact on whether or not they are good climbers.

So how do you become a better climber? First, change your attitude; stop avoiding hills and make sure you plan your training rides to regularly include hills and at least one challenging hill ride each week. Second, improve your technique to make sure that you are approaching the climb in the most efficient manner. And lastly, make sure you're equipped properly to handle the area's hills to the best of your ability.

Changing your attitude is up to you. It's just a matter of deciding that you are going to get better and and then doing it. Learn where the challenging hills in your area are and make it a point to ride them regularly. As you get more advanced you can do things like hill repeats or hill sprints but the most important thing is to make a conscious effort to include challenging hills in you weekly rides.

Climbing technique has evolved over the last twenty-five years with advancements in equipment. Before SIS (Shimano Indexed Sifting) was introduced in the late 1980s shifting while under the load of climbing was nearly impossible. This meant whatever gear you started the climb in you had to finish the climb in. If you made the wrong gear choice you could end up walking. SIS made shifting under load possible so you could make a shift during the climb if necessary and as SIS has given way to STI (Total System Integration) shifting under the load of climbing has become quite easy. But even with these advances in technology it is still best to determine at the base of the hill the appropriate gear and shift into it at the start of the climb. You want to be able to maintain the proper cadence (80 -100 ppm) all they way to the top of the hill. You should be conservative in your effort at the start of the climb, remain steady through the middle of the climb, and finish off the climb as strong as you can. You don't want to stop at the top of the hill either, let your momentum carry you over the hill and then continue to spin a good cadence as you recover from the effort. Continuing to ride over the top will actually help you recover faster. So picture the hill in three parts, easy does for the first third, maintain tempo in the middle third, and stay strong for the last third. Then keep riding over the top.

You also want to make sure that your gearing is appropriate for your area. The smaller sprocket in the front combined with the biggest sprocket in the back will give you your easiest climbing gear. A Standard Crankset will give you a 53 tooth big ring and a 39 tooth small ring. Typical you can change these but are limited to one tooth in either direction. So to get a significantly small gear in the front you need a Compact Crankset or a Triple. The Compact has a 50 tooth big ring and a 34 tooth small. Triple Cranksets were very common a few years ago but today the Compact is the more popular choice. Triples typical offer a small ring that has only 30 teeth but they also require a different rear derailleur than the compact or standard crankset to shift properly. The Cassette is the group of gears in the back and they come in different gear ranges as well. They are typically describe by naming the smallest sprocket and the largest sprocket, as in 11-23 or a 12-25. For most manufacturers the largest sprocket for the road line is a 27, some offer a 28. You can also use a mountain bike cassette that can have a gear as big as 30 but this requires changing your rear derailleur also. So if you're struggling to keep your cadence up on hills my recommendation is that you make sure you have a compact crankset and and a 27 on the back.

Bottom line, if you are approaching the hills with a positive attitude, using a 34 x 27 gear combination, shifting to that gear early in the climb, and keeping your cadence as high as possible and you are still struggling on the climbs then there is only one solution, you need to train more on the hills. And in time, with some effort on your part,you will be the envy of your hill loathing friends.