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Climbing Strong

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Article posted: 15/01/2013

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Climbing hills tends to evoke a Marmite reaction from cyclists. Riders either love or hate them, with some being mountain goats whose faces light up and legs spin in a dizzying blur when the gradient kicks up and other big gear churning Rouleurs scowling and coming to a near grinding halt at the merest hint of an incline. 

However, unless you plan to specialising on events in Holland, Belgium or the Fens, sportive organisers are very fond of hills and, on most routes, they go out of their way to pack in as many as possible for you to “enjoy”. However, with the right training, techniques and equipment, even the most confirmed non-climbers can learn to, if not love hills, then to at least not dread them.

The British Cycling Sportive Training Plan will be making you a stronger all round rider. The combination of longer weekend rides and more intense interval sessions will equip you with the fitness you need to conquer even the most mountainous sportive course. However, if you know hills are a chink in your cycling armour, follow this advice from our Insight Zone Experts to turn your climbing weaknesses into a strength.


It’s no coincidence that the most explosive and best climbers tend to be rake thin. If you’re carrying a few excess pounds then, some sensible weight loss, is one way to guarantee better climbing performance. Don’t try to crash diet though as you’ll compromise your training and, if you lose weight too quickly, you could end up losing muscle mass, power and end up climbing worse. Nigel Mitchell, Great Britain Cycling Team Nutritionist and Insight Zone expert, gives advice about safe, sensible and effective weight loss during training in our Power to Weight Ratio feature.

Bike Weight

Once you’ve trimmed down your waistline, shedding some weight off your bike is a fun but expensive way to improve your climbing performance. Before you start obsessing about titanium bottle cage bolts though, remember that the most significant performance gains are to be had by reducing rotating weight. Upgrading your wheels is usually the bang for your buck most effective way to buy some uphill speed. Additionally lower spec and heavy wheels, relative to the rest of the bike, are a common way for manufacturers to produce attractive looking packages, so it’s not unlikely that your wheels aren’t doing your bike justice.


Different types of hills require different riding techniques. Short steep rises are sometimes best attacked hard in a relatively big gear and utilising momentum to get you over the top. However longer climbs require a more measured approach and, apart from injections of pace, are more commonly tackled in the saddle. On longer climbs, the most common mistake many riders make is to go too hard early on and then ending up slowing to a crawl on the upper sections. You should aim for the opposite and be putting out your highest power at the top of the climb. Shift low early, ride initially at a pace you know you can sustain and increase intensity, gearing and effort as the climb progresses. When climbing seated, keep your upper body still, relaxed and lightly grip the bar-tops. If you rise out of the saddle, shift up a gear or two but still try to stay relaxed. Don’t wrestle with the bike and don’t rock it excessively.


Many riders find on long climbs, especially of the length that are typical of many European sportives, that they suffer lower back soreness and fatigue in the upper body. Some supplementary strength work in the gym, focussing on the stabilising muscles of the core, can definitely help to combat this and should be part of a balanced training plan.

Training and testing

Don’t avoid hills in training. Seek them out and try to ride as many different types and lengths as possible. Learn your strengths and weaknesses and the best and most efficient ways for you to tackle climbs. If you have a particular weakness, consider including a session where you ride reps of that sort of climb. Test yourself on a number of climbs to monitor your progress. A key test is the 20-minute threshold test you will have performed to determine your heart rate training zones. This threshold figure can be used as your pacing “red-line” when climbing and is especially useful when gauging effort on a long climb.


With training and practice you will be able to tackle hills with confidence and, by knowing how to pace them, sure that you’ll have to energy to be able to ride over the top. The more you ride hills, the stronger you’ll become and you’ll soon start looking forward to them. A positive mindset, confident in your ability, is key to staying relaxed and climbing strongly.


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