Secrets to Cycling Faster Up Hills

There are four secrets to cycling faster up hills. The first is where you should be focusing 80% of your effort while the remaining add that extra boost to pass your stronger friends:

  1. Improve your Power to Weight Ratio – Physics
  2. Improve your riding technique – the tortoise and hare effect
  3. Consider different gearing – mechanical advantage
  4. Adjust your mental attitude – it’s a grind, settle into it

Improve your Power to Weight Ratio

High school physics tells us most of what we need to know for cycling faster up hills. A cyclist’s power to weight ratio is the dominant factor in determining how fast they can climb. It’s about having the power to overcome gravity and the lighter the cyclist, and the bike, the lower the force of gravity acting upon them. Power is a function of your strength and aerobic conditioning. How efficient are you at converting your bodies stored energy into mechanical force at the pedals and how long can you sustain it. Therefore, A light rider doesn’t need to generate as much power as a heavier rider because he has less weight to propel up the hill. In pro-cycling, climbers are typically smaller and lighter than sprinters.

A little physics, not too much, I promise.

There is only one major force that we are trying to overcome when cycling up hill and that is the force of gravity. When we climb a hill, a component of gravity is now trying to pull us back down the hill. Without getting into too much geometry, the steeper the hill the larger the component of gravity that is working to pull us down and the more force that our legs have to exert to overcome it.

Force = mass x acceleration = mass x gravity so if you want to move uphill, you have to exert a force that is larger than the component of gravity that is trying to pull you down the hill. The weight of your bicycle and everything on is included in the total mass so pushing a 30 pound touring bike, with 30 pounds  of gear on it, up a hill is far more difficult than pushing an 18 pound road bike up the same climb.

There are some small frictional forces between the tires and the road called rolling resistance as well as in the wheel bearing of the bicycle but they are insignificant compared to the force of gravity. When the angle of the hill becomes zero, we are on a flat road and there is no component of gravity trying to hold us back.

On a flat road, once you get up to speed, you’re mainly fighting wind resistance, caused by your own motion and the higher your speed the stronger the wind resistance. Since climbing is occurring at a slower speed, wind resistance is not significant. On a flat road the cyclist’s power is the critical factor and not how it relates to their weight. A more powerful cyclist will be faster on the flats, even if they are heavier. Physics would say that bodies in motion stay in motion and bodies at rest stay at rest unless forces are acting on them. You are the force that puts your bike in motion and gravity, when climbing hills, and wind resistance, on flat terrain, are the forces that are working against you.

To climb a hill our muscles need to exert force over the distance of the climb for the time it takes us to get to the top. Power is force applied across a distance in a unit of time and is measured in Watts. Yes, Watts is the same as a light bulb expect in the light bulbs case it is how much electricity is consumed to light the bulb for an hour. You can purchase a rear hub for your bike that will measure your power output in Watts which is an excellent indication of the intensity of your workout as well as your ability to output power relative to your weight. You could actually determine how fast you will climb a particular hill knowing this info.

Force, work, power and their units:  I’m going to use metric units in these descriptions since in English units pound is used for both mass and force and it can be a bit confusing. Using metric units, force is measured in Newtons, named after Issac Newton,  and one Newton  is equal to the amount of net force required to accelerate a mass of one kilogram at a rate of one meter per second squared. Work is force applied across a distance and its unit is the Joule. A Joule is applying a force of one Newton for one Meter. Finally, power is the rate at which work is performed. The unit of power is the Watt, named after James Watt who developed the steam engine. A watt is one joule per second.  

A cyclist can put out different amounts of power for different amounts of time. A sprinter in the last 5 seconds of a sprint could put out 1500 to 2000 Watts of power but it can’t be sustained for long. A climber can sustain 500 Watts of power across an hour or more. But remember that it is the ratio of power to Watts that determines how fast you’ll climb. As a reference point, a pro cyclist typically has a power to weight ratio of about 6 to 7 Watts per Kg of weight which is 6 to 7 Watts per / 2.2 pounds. So a 150 pound pro puts out 477 Watts. Let’s say you weigh 190 pounds, you will need to put out 605 Watts just to keep up. A 100 pound woman would only have to generate 318 Watts for the same pace. So a 100 pound woman with half your strength and conditioning can keep up with you on a climb so don’t feel bad when she passes you. On the flats, where gravity is no longer in the equation you will be much faster.  Have you had these experiences? I have. We rode with a woman we called “Ann the Animal”. When we got to a climb she would drop us like a bad habit because she was well conditioned with a lot of power output and was light.  This is why power is such a good indicator of a cyclist’s conditioning since it measures how effectively they utilize energy and the power to weight ratio will tell you how fast they will climb. Lose weight and add more power and you’ll be cycling faster up hills in no time.

So if you want to start cycling faster up hills, lose weight while at the same time building your muscles and aerobic conditioning. In the extreme, if you took the Hulk from the waist down and attached a stick man’s upper torso,  you’d be quite the climber but I have no idea where you’d buy pants to fit your thighs into:

This photo is from an ad for Alta Bike in Norway. They build single speed free wheel city racers. You can see them at http://www.altabikes.no/  Is the photo real or not? I don’t know, but that build would have an amazing power to weight ratio!

Cycling for Weight Loss

Building Power – Strength and Endurance

Climb more hills – Duh, if you want to become a better climber then climb more hills and find longer and steeper hills to graduate up to. Keep track of the time it takes to get to the top and then compete against your previous time. I had someone ask, after they saw me on an all out sprint to the top of a climb, if I beat my best time. I had!

Spin Classes – Take spin classes in the off season. A good spin class will have a pretty dramatic impact on your climbing speed. A good instructor will make you work a lot of muscle groups and they will teach you to push yourself harder than you thought you possible. My instructor was about 5 foot 5 with tree trucks for legs. He would talk about climbing during the class, “your entering the steep section on Deer Creek Canyon Road, crank up the tension and get out of that saddle for a minute, we have a mile and half to go, sit down but don’t change that tension, push through it come on”. I lost weight, built muscle and improved my mental toughness. Spin classes are an excellent way to start climbing faster up hills.

Weight Training – The following diagram shows the muscles you use throughout the pedal stroke. Squats are a great way to work these muscle groups and you can also use the machines that work these muscles specifically.

Graphic Source: A qualitative analysis of the biomechanics of the proper pedal stroke, Grant Bullock, Davon Cabraloff, Jessica Hickman, Mark Mico, Laura Nethcher and Dan Ward, March 9, 2009.

When it came to climbing I was typically bringing up the rear. I convinced myself that it I over did it on the 50 mile ride leading up to the big climb that was doing me in when in fact it was my power to weight ratio. Over the winter I focused on losing weight and improving my conditioning primarily with a low carb diet and spin classes. The change was dramatic. 6 months later, the same guy on the same bike was now in the top group at the top of the hill. It felt great. Brian, who I never was never able to beat on a climb, was shocked to find me on his rear wheel within a half mile of the top. After that first climb Brain dropped about 10 pounds to be sure that I wouldn’t catch him. By the way, don’t feel bad if a 100 pound woman passes you on a climb. They have a dramatic advantage and don’t need all that much power to push their much lower weight up the hill. Ladies, when you pass a guy struggling up a hill, smile and make it look effortless.

Improve your Riding Technique

Spend more time climbing seated – You can development more power when you stand as you are using your upper body weight, that was on the saddle, to push down on the pedals, however, you’re using about 10% more energy as your leg muscles now have to support the weight that the saddle had been supporting. Your heart rate will be about 8% higher when standing. I’ll stand on long climbs to give my butt a break and switch up the muscles I’m using and to finish strong as I approach the top.

Maintain a high pedaling cadence – If you can keep your cadence above 70 rpm you’ll reduce the stress on your knees and you’ll break the climb up into smaller units of work. This also helps to reduce the buildup of lactic acid that will cause you pain and slow you down. I don’t have a cadence sensor so I’ll just count the revolution of the pedals while watching the timer on my bike computer. Heck, it gives me something to distract myself while grinding out a climb. If you have the gears, use them. Some roadies seem to have an issue with having that third chain ring called the “Granny Gear” on the front. It’s called a Granny Gear because your grandmother could climb a steep hill with it. I’m almost 50 years old and I’m happy to have, and use, that gear if it allows me to maintain a higher cadence.

Keep a constant rhythm and speed – Ride at your own pace and listen to your body. I saw the benefit of the steady pace so many times that I have come to trust it. I find the pace that feels like it’s pushing me but won’t cause me to ever have to stop and then I ride at that pace no matter what is happening around me. If the hill gets steeper in a section I’ll drop a gear, slow down but keep going. I find that the less experienced riders tend to take off at the bottom of the climb. It really is the tortoise and hare story. I’ll smile as they go by and in my mind I say “see you soon” and almost without fail they blow themselves up and I find them off their bikes on the side of the trail or road trying to catch their breath (they went anaerobic).

Shift to a harder gear when you go to stand – When you stand you generate more power and to get that extra power to the wheels you need to be in a more difficult gear. As I’m standing up, I’ll drop the chain down 2 cogs in the rear which allows me to pick up my speed while maintaining a consistent cadence in my pedaling.

Allow the bike to rock when you stand – When you stand your using your weight to put more force into the pedals which will rock the bike from side to side depending on which pedal is in the power stroke position (going down). Allow the bike to swing with this motion and you’ll be faster. It will feel odd at first but with time it will feel very natural.

Consider different gearing – If you find you just can’t maintain a high pedal cadence then consider getting different gearing on your bike. Smaller sprockets in the front and bigger ones in the rear provide you with lower gear options. If you don’t have a granny gear you can consider adding one but it will most likely require you to get a new front derailleur and shifter to handle the third sprocket.

Adjust your mental attitude – Climbing requires a lot of mental toughness. You’re going to get tired, your legs are going to hurt and you’re going to need to push through it. Lactic acid is building up in your muscles and it hurts. Realize that it’s a marathon and settle in for the long haul.

Break up the ride into smaller segments – Don’t allow a long climb to mess with your head. You can feel overwhelmed when you think about how far you have to go. I’ve done 36 mile climbs that were relentless. Sometime I look at miles on my bike computer and see each mile as an accomplishment. Sometimes I pick a landmark and think about riding to it as my goal. It might be a road sign, a rock, or a tree. When I get there I pick another one and one segment at a time I make it to the top.

The elastic band trick – This one is going to sound weird but somehow it works. I think about an imaginary bungee cord that is attached to my handle bars and out to one of those road signs or trees ahead of me. It’s stretched tight so it’s pulling me up the hill. When I get close to the object I need to see it attached to a new tree further up the climb. I read about this technique years ago in a mountain bike magazine and still use it today.

Always finish strong – No matter how I feel, when I get close to the top I stand up and push myself hard to the summit. It feels like victory and gets me motivated not to mention that it might make the other riders think that I’m in better shape than I actually am. I know that at the top I’m taking a break and it’s downhill from there so why not?

I hope this provides you with an understanding of actions you can take as well as some motivation to start cycling faster up hills. And remember, the power that helps you to climb faster will also make you faster on the flats.

Comments

18 Replies to “Secrets to Cycling Faster Up Hills”

    1. Thanks Mark. Ride at your own pace but keep going. You’ll build strength and endurance and drop some pounds along the way which will speed up your climbs. One day, if you stick to it, you’ll surprice yourself at how much better you feel on climbs and how fast you’re moving. Take care and be self propelled!

    1. Thanks for the kind words. You’ve done an awesome job of losing weight being down 44 pounds! The last pounds are always the toughest but if you’ve come this far I’m confident that you’ll make it!

  1. Terrific post. One thing: “Shift down when you go to stand” should actually be “shift UP when you go to stand.”

    1. Thanks for the feedback and point well taken. I think of it as downshifting since I’m dropping “down” a few cogs on the cassette but in fact the proper term would be up-shifting to a harder gear. To avoid any confusion I replaced “down shifting” with “harder gear” in the post. If there are other subjects that you’d like to see posts on just let me know. TrailRail is sending me a smartphone mount to try out shortly and I’m working on a post about improving your pedal stroke.

  2. Good article. I like it. Very honest. Very straight forward. Got me some ideas. I will work on them over the months. Thx

  3. Great article. I ride a GT Karakorem 4.0 as my road bike. It is heavy but It’s what I could afford at the time. I read this article a whole back, and put it into practice. Over this last year I have improved so much in my climbing and distance. I purchased a cadence meter and My beginning cadence last year was around 70-80 uphill and flat. Today My cadence on the same ride is 95-100 uphill and flat. I always have those weight weenies fly past me on the hills, and actually give me a snippy remark about my choose of bike, but I gave up caring about what others think the day I bought my bike. It’s about me improving my health, my endurance, and quality of life, not stroking the ego of some pinheaded cyclist. I’m in my 40s and I am looking forward to many, many, years of cycling, and pushing myself to my own limits. I’m gearing up for my first solo century.

    1. Amen Sting just started riding last July 2015 when I bought my 2006 Elete, triple ring road bike. At 59 yrs I’m enjoying seeing my improvement on local hills. I’m sure the tips in the article will help me reach that never ending goal…. to go faster. Just completed my goal of riding 60 miles before my 60th.

  4. Watts should always be written with a capital W. It is a proper noun and referred to the man after whom it was named. Any qualified engineer should confirm this.

  5. Im 57 and totally adicted.myproblem is gradients and i have foumd ur article very helpfull. I find riding upwards if 70 k no problem but the hills reduce my average conciderably thank goodness we have to descend.Has my age got much to do with my weak climb

    1. You’re still young. I ride with guys in their sixties that climb really well. They tend to be light weight and ride enough to have the muscles and aerobic capacity for high performance. While it is true that our bodies change as we age, and it will be hard to keep up with a strong person in their 20’s, it doesn’t mean you can’t still climb well. I like to time my climbs and compete with myself. I don’t need to be the fastest person on the hill, just faster than I was last time. The more you ride the better you get. Enjoy the ride!

  6. A technique that works for me from the female record holder for the Mount Washington Hillclimb is to get out of the saddle for brief, 30 second or so intervals with specific technique: instead of rocking the bike to use the momentum of the upper body as a sprinter would ride, I keep the bike erect and upper body mostly still and my butt just a few inches off the saddle at a high cadence. This allows moving strain to different muscles but also maintains a lot of the efficiency of seated climbing. I do this after the steepest parts of climbs to give myself a reward or as a means to relieve the discomfort every several minutes. I use less steep sections of climbs for rocking the bike to further mix it up when I am fit enough. Now it’s time for less beer and pasta!

    1. Good advice! I’m going to give the non-rocking out of the saddle climb a try. I did a 4300 foot climb a few days ago and While I stood and rocked the bike I could definitely have used some other options to break up the pull. Thanks for sharing and enjoy the ride, and the pasta and beer too!

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