Ask any beginner to intermediate cyclist about the challenges they face while out on the bike, and chances are the subject of how to bike uphill will come up.
Struggling going up hilly terrain is one of the most common difficulties cyclists encounter.
Many riders dread tackling sections of their rides where the grade of the terrain gets steeper, be than on their daily commute, regular training loop, or weekend group ride route.
Cycling uphill need not be such a daunting hindrance to fully enjoying your cycling experience.
Whether the climb grade is a gentle 3% or a killer 25% – or more – monster of a hill, going uphill on a bicycle is often feared but seldom fully understood.
In this article we discuss . . .
- the fundamentals of climbing hills on human-powered two wheels,
- Why understanding cycling power is so important,
- 10 Tips For How To Bike Uphill effectively.
Equipped with the knowledge necessary to get better at climbing hills on a bike, not only am I certain that you will start riding steeper grades with more confidence, but I would also go as far as saying that you might start enjoying biking uphill!
Let’s jump in!
The Science of Climbing On a Bike
The journey of becoming a better uphill cyclist starts with looking at the fundamental factors that determine the ease with which a rider can tackle steeper road grades.
I often like thinking of those factors as rider-specific factors or bike-specific factors, as follows:
- weight distribution,
- and nutrition.
- and bike fit.
Below I explain each of these factors in more detail.
But first, let’s start with what is perhaps the most important factor: cycling power.
What is power in cycling, and why is it important for better uphill riding?
Simply put, cycling power is the amount of energy a rider can produce to keep the bicycle moving, measured over time.
As you ride a bicycle, you are the engine. The energy that your muscles produce to apply force to the pedals, turn the cranks, and engage the gearing of your drivetrain is what keeps your wheels rolling.
Power is measured in Watts (w). Devices known as powermeters can be incorporated in certain types of bicycle cranks, hubs, or pedals can constantly monitor your energy output and give you a snapshot of your power numbers at any given moment.
We won’t get into the nuances of powermeters and power-based training here, but rather we use this basic understanding of cycling power to highlight the key element to going faster uphill: your power-to-weight ratio.
Take the following practical example on power:
Let’s say that you are riding on a flat road and that your power output is around 150w @ 25km/h. Then the road starts going uphill, and your power output is still at 150w, but now your speed dropped to 15km/hr.
Your power hasn’t changed, then what accounts for the drop in speed going uphill?
In the above scenario, and given a constant power output coupled with a decrease in speed, what is happening here is that you are not really working harder on the climb compared to the flat road, but rather the same rate of effort (i.e. power) is now fighting gravity, which means that the same amount of power is only enough to generate a reduced rate of speed.
This explains the frustration of feeling slow on climbs, or getting tired quickly when attempting how to bike uphill faster, (because you’re effectively trying to increase your power output to maintain the same speed).
How To Bike Uphill – 10 Tips
With this understanding of cycling power, you can do several things to become a better climbing.
Let’s look at the top ten tips for being a better hill climber on the bike:
#1: Use Mechanical Advantage
Push a lower gearing to be able to maintain a constant cadence as your incline increases.
To do that, you need to ensure that your bike is equipped with the gear ratios appropriate for the terrain where you ride most often.
For road bike gearing, a compact (53/34t chainrings) or subcompact (48/32T chainrings) crankset can give you a more forgiving lower gear range, especially when coupled with cassettes with 32T or 34T largest cogs.
#2: Improve your power-to-weight ratio
there are two ways you can improve your power-to-weight ratio and, subsequently, be a better climber:
1) Increase your power output by training your aerobic capacity and strength, or
2) lose weight.
It doesn’t have to be one or the other, though.
A basic yet structured training plan, combined with good nutrition and sleep, can allow you to simultaneously improve your endurance and power while shedding extra weight.
Weight on your bike itself matters, too. Using lighter components and easier rolling tires can make your bike a better climber (again, remember: a lighter bike will feel easier to push uphill, but you are the motor!)
#3: Work On Your Climbing Cadence
Cadence is the number of pedal revolutions per minute.
On flat roads, it’s common for recreational cyclists to maintain a cadence of 75-90 revolutions per minute (rpm).
On climbs, a cadence of 60-80 is usually ideal.
Not only is the right cadence important, but also the quality of your pedal strokes. A smooth pedal stroke avoids disruptions to your balance which are easier to happen on very steep grades due to the much lower speed.
A smoother pedaling motion will allow you to further conserve energy by not having to think about staying balanced on the bike.
#4: Shift Before You Have To
Make sure you are in the right gear before you are already on the steepest part of the climb.
This ensures that you are able to maintain a smooth cadence and allows you to avoid emergency shifts that may be disruptive to your pedalling rhythm.
#5: Avoid Redlining Early
Learn to pace yourself in a manner that allows you to make sure you have enough energy reserves to finish long climbs without feeling completely exhausted, which may force you to stop or dismount and walk.
Don’t get too carried away early.
If riding in a group, ride your own pace and don’t feel like you must keep up if other riders are going faster.
Remember: power-to-weight ratio will vary among different riders, and it’s important to pace your riding in a manner appropriate to your current fitness level and experience.
#6: Stay In The Saddle
Climbing out of the saddle certainly has its advantages, but it is more of an advanced skill because you’re engaging different muscle groups, and your upper body and core become more involved when you pedal in the standing position.
Staying in the saddle allows you to pedal a smoother cadence, conserve more energy by pushing a lower gear (see point #1) and maintain a more regular breathing tempo.
#7: Pay attention to your bike fit and riding position
The assumption here is that you are already riding a bike that fits you well, and it’s always worth looking at your fit and position on the bike.
A bicycle frame that is too big or too small for you will affect the extent to which you are in a comfortable position on the bike, and accordingly your ability to deliver your optimal power output on climbs.
If you are riding a road bike with drop handlebars, you can experiment with different hand positions (i.e. on top of the bars or on the shifter hoods) to allow for unrestricted breathing and a more comfortable upright position.
If you have a headwind against you on a gentler grade (5% or less), you can experiment with riding in the drops for a more aerodynamic position.
#8: Legs, Lungs, and Mind
Your aerobic efficiency, power-to-weight ratio and strength on the bike will play a big role in your hill climbing ability, but let’s not forget the very important role our psychology plays in physiological efforts.
Big hills indeed look very intimidating, especially when approaching them from a distance.
Learn to break down big efforts, and focusing on one section at a time.
Having the right gearing, a light bike and good training is important, but our mindset is often the critical pivot point for all of those factors to come together and deliver the required performance to cruise uphill with relative ease.
#9: Plan your routes to know what to expect
I often like to explore new routes with only a loose ride plan in a general direction.
Discovering new routes is one of the great things about cycling. Nevertheless, going out on a ride that might have a long 30% grade climb when you’re unprepared for a big effort can be demoralizing – especially when you’re just trying to get to grips with how to bike uphill.
Many ride mapping apps, as well as the latest crop of cycling computers with integrated navigation, can help your plan your rides in a way that lets you anticipate any big climbs along the route, which will allow you to plan your nutrition and pacing accordingly.
Tensing up will cause your energy expenditure to spike and your efficiency on the bike to drop.
Given that you are on a comfortable position on the bike (see point #7), maintain a slight bend at your elbows, open up your chest for easy breathing and pay attention to your heart rate.
Maintain a breathing pattern that allows you to keep your heart rate in check and avoid spikes that may put you above your anaerobic threshold, the point beyond which lactic acid starts building up in your muscles and you get that burning sensation in the legs.
To summarize – how to bike uphill more effectively:
- Understand what cycling power is and how you can improve your power output on the bike,
- Make sure your bike is equipped with the right gearing for your terrain,
- Plan your rides to anticipate climbs,
- Train to maximize your aerobic capacity, core strength and improve your pedalling technique.