Improve Hill Climbing

The Bike Affair

Climbing a hill whether it is a few 100m or km often is the most daunting thing for new cyclists. I have put together a few tips that will help you during this difficult period to get better at climbing hills. 

Usage of Gears 

Almost all of you reading this will have a multi geared bike. Gears enable you to climb, descend or ride flats at the highest speed while not significantly varying your effort. So the first and most important thing to be able to climb is to be able to understand the gears on the bike and shift to the right one at the right moment. Use appropriate gears based on the terrain. Your bike may have 21, 24 or 27 gears, but not all gear combinations are recommended. Here is a list of recommended gear combos. Lower gear number indicates easier gear which requires less effort and hence ideal for climbing. Similarly higher gears for downhill and medium for flat terrain. Down shifting the front gears in the middle of a climb while pedalling with force can cause the chain to drop. So shift early in the front.

Front/ Rear Gears

7 Gears

8 Gears

9 Gears

1

1 -- 3

1--3

1--3

2

3--5

3--6

3--7

3

5--7

6--8

7--9


If you have only 2 gears in the front then use the first half of the rear gears for the first in front and second half of the rear gears for second gear at front. For example for 2*11 use 1-6 @ back for first gear in front and 6-11 @ back for the second in front. 

Cadence 

Cadence refers to the number of times you rotate the pedals in a minute. Its measured in rpm (revolutions per minute). We should try to maintain the cadence of at least 85rpm and accordingly change gears. Of course if you are in a very steep or long climb, cadence does go below this. But a low cadence indicates that you are putting a lot of stress on the legs and over time can lead to injury. Your bike has limited number of gears, but with practice you could develop a higher cadence and higher cadence means longer time to fatigue and lesser chances of injury. Here are a few steps to improve cadence. 

  • A foot restraining system like clipless systems (cleats) or toe clips help in significantly improving cadence. Having this enables you to pull the pedal in the upstroke, thus making it more efficient. There are different muscle groups used at different points in the pedal stroke. The calfs, hamstring and glutes are involved in the upstroke. It is a crime not to use these big muscle groups. Riding on the trainer should give you confidence to get used to clipless systems. 

  • As part of every cool down at the end of any ride do one of the two following routines 

    • Do 5 sets of high cadence intervals (target rpm more than 110) at low gear for 1 min with 1 min easy spin recovery. In fact if your cadence is very low. Dedicate an entire ride every week for routines like this. 

    • If you have cleats or toe clips as part of cool down do single legged pedalling (pedalling with only one leg) 1 set - 30-60 secs on each leg with 60 secs normal pedalling - do 3 sets

Weight 

It is no rocket science to know that the lighter you are the easier it is to climb. So monitor your weight and include smart nutrition and training practices to reduce weight.

Rhythm/ Pacing

Every climb comes with a riders cabinet full of stories on how scary it is. If you have the right gear ratios (yes you should look to change to a climbing cassette before embarking on hilly tours), have the right cadence and have dialled in your weight, the only thing that is standing between you and the hill is your rhythm. Identify a comfortable rhythm through a combination of cadence, Heart rate and / or power and just stick to it. If you train with a heart rate you should know your maximum heart rate and the zones which you can maintain for different periods of time (1min, 5 min, 20 min, 2 hrs). So stick to that rhythm and you will be fine.

Practice this on the trainer by identifying your threshold power and heart rate and riding around that for sustained long periods. (upto 10 min @ threshold power, upto 30 min @ 85% of threshold power). Riding at sustained periods without break @ 85% of threshold (also referred to as sweet spot) is very important. It helps you increase your threshold power and ability to hold high power for long periods while reducing chances of injury. These sweet spot efforts are more frequently repeatable.

Miscellaneous 

  • Practice occasionally riding out of the saddle for 1 or 2 min. Every climb will have a few steep sections and you need to have the strength to scale them on demand. You could practice these as part of hill repeats every week. Identify a hill which takes about 2-6 mins to climb and try scaling it at different gear combinations while seated and out of saddle. It is very important to properly warm up before doing hill repeats.

  • Hair pin bends are actually a great place to gain momentum with the right technique. Consider a right handed hair pin bend. The outer line (left most in this case) will be longest and have least gradient. The inner line (right side in this case) will be short and steep. The road is also banked with outer most part being higher - so if you go towards the outer side and dive across towards the inside you will have a slight downhill and if you use that momentum to get out of the saddle and power through the turn you will save significant time. You will be coming towards downhill traffic so need to look out for them and may not be able to do it always, but prepared to use it when you can.

  • Dont forget to fuel yourself before and during the ride

  • Since you will be putting in lot of effort while climbing you will be sweating and very hot, however as soon as you reach the top you may stop and the body will cool down rapidly which only be accelerated if you go downhill. You could catch a cold, so plan to have an additional layer available on you or just stop and have a hot coffee to celebrate the climb. If you don’t have anything a humble newspaper tucked inside your jersey is known to provide insulation.

Dream / Goal 

In testing times like this hope and dreams are what keep us going. I have documented a few of the good climbs I have done and a few I would like to do.

India 

  • Ooty is in Tamilnadu and borders Kerala & Karnataka. It is around 2240m high and has at least 4 different directions to climb 

  1. Mettupalayam - Kotagiri - Dodabedda - Ooty - 

    1. This can be further split into two - upto Kotagiri  

    2. Kotagiri - Dodabedda is a more forgiving climb from Kotagiri. But is about 24km long

  2. Mettupalayam - Coonoor - busier, shorter route upto Ooty 

  3. Mysore - Kalahatti - Ooty -  The Kalahatti Ghat is a 12km climb with average gradient of 10%. Relentless, ruthless, most painful climb in South India. Not recommended to climb down this. Also they have got very strict and do not allow 2 wheelers and bicycles to cross the forest section from Gudalur to Masinagudi or Mysore to Masinagudi. So either get a pass and a vehicle to ride with you or get in touch with local cycling friends before you plan a trip. 

  4. Gudalur to Ooty (or Sultan batheri - Gudalur - Ooty)

  • Srisailam - there are a few climbs around this area. Though I have done them a couple of times, there are quite a few who knows these area like the back of their hands 

  • Maredumally -  (16km 4% )long climb, but lot of flats to catch your breath 

  • Lambasingi -  12km 5% 

  • Nainital - A beautiful hill in Uttarakhand

  1. Nainital - via Kaladungi -  30km, 6% beautiful, you will mostly be by yourself in this route during the off season. Long and testing climb. 

  2. Nainital - via Khatgodam -  34km, 4% busier than Kaladungi route 

  3. Nainital - Bhimtal - Bhowali - now by this time I am sure you are asking why the hell would you do each hill in three different ways. Well, as someone said - “because it is there”. And probably to see if we can do it a bit quicker than the last time or a friend.

    1. Nainital - Bhimtal -  17.5km, 5% - much busier than the others 

    2. Bhimtal - Bhowali - about 8km 

    3. Bhowali - Nainital - about 8km

Asia 

  • Doi Inthanon, Thailand - 39km @ 6% with the last 10km comparable to Kalahatti. Beautiful. The last 10km is so steep that I highly recommend not to descend down and arrange a vehicle to come down. In march there is a race up this and they officially banned descending after a few fatal accidents in the past. 

  • Niseko, Japan - refer to the Niseko Classic UCI Gran Fondo World Series race. Niseko in Hokkaido region is amongst the top ski resorts in the world and is a serene beautiful place to cycle around if you like climbing 

  • Taiwan KOM - this is amongst the toughest climbs in the world - never been there. A friend who did it had 3 friendly words of advice - “dont do it”. And I hope to do it asap ;-)

  • Keppitigala , Sri Lanka - On the way from Anuradhapura to Kandy - 6.7km, 7% 

  • Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka - From Kandy - 34km, 4%

I am sure there are many more climbs in India and abroad. Being primarily a road biker I have mentioned only the tarmac climbs I have done. Off road climbs are a completely different ball game. Feel free to comment and write to me more.