Hill Climbing  (Is it really as tough as it seems?)

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Sometimes you get the hill, and sometimes the hill gets you! [Sonora Pass, shown here on the west side, is just about guaranteed to be one that gets you]

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 time.

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!

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This is what makes it all worthwhile.  "Flatlanders" will never have an experience like this...the best roads, the most spectacular scenery, the cleanest air, the most beautiful lakes...it's almost always in the mountains!

If you'd like to see some really crazy examples of rides in the mountains, check out our ride reports on Ebbetts Pass & Pacific Grade or Sonora Pass.  Or, if you want something a bit more local to the SF Bay Area, try our Old LaHonda/Tunitas Creek loop or our Alba Road/China steep53.jpg (67957 bytes)Grade beastie (where the photo on the left was taken; click on it for a larger version). But we should warn you...these won't necessarily convince you that hills are something to be enjoyed, but rather that some people are just plain dumb and love to be punished!

You might also check out our article on whether you need a double or triple crankset, and take a look at the overview of the various different rides on our website.

And if reading this has made you decide you never want to even try riding a hill, check out our information on riding Canada Road in Woodside.  Very slightly rolling (nothing steep) and great for the entire family.

Last updated 08/23/07


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