So you want to climb.
I live atop a mountain. Every day, whether I want to or not, I have to climb 3-5 km, depending on the approach, to get home. I used to complain but came to realize this “Little Mountain” has made me a better cyclist, and a more efficient climber.
Yesterday, I cycled the Sunshine Coast. We took the ferry to the Langdale Terminal, and cycled to Earl’s Cove and back – 170 km round trip, For those who know the area, you know it is beautiful, scenic, and extremely hilly. We were constantly climbing or descending with grades ranging from a modest 5%, several gruelling, long climbs at 20%, and everything in between. There is no flat on the Sunshine Coast. Needless to say, I had hours to think about climbing techniques.
Here are a few things I thought about.
- Gear down. Outfit your bike with a compact group and a cassette with a lower gear. I ride with a 50-34 crankset and a 11-28 cassette. Even that isn’t enough sometimes.
- There is no shame in spinning in a “granny” gear. It is easier on your knees, and with a higher cadence, you can actually maintain a relatively face pace except on the longest, steepest climbs.
- Sit to climb. You actually deliver more power to the pedals when seated. Stand every now again again to stretch your legs, or to pick up the pace, but for the most part stay seated.
- Pedal in circles. It took me years to really understand this. I thought I did but until I started climbing a lot, I didn’t realize how important it is. Pedalling in circles means engaging all of your leg muscles throughout the pedal stroke. The key to engaging the ankle, calves and hamstring muscles on the way back up is to lower the heel at the bottom of the stroke. Think of scraping mud off the bottom of your shoe. This is why saddle height is so critical. If it is too high, you can’t lower your heel.
- Ride on the tops of your handlebars. This opens the chest enabling you to breath more deeply and rhythmically.
- Relax your upper body. Holding tension in your arms, shoulders and chest only wastes energy. You want all of your effort to be centred on your legs, buttocks and lower back.
- Look 10 feet ahead. Don’t think about how long the climb is. It will only discourage you. Break the climb into smaller, more manageable chunks.
- Drink and eat lots. Every 30 minutes. This type of cycling burns a lot of calories. So, if you don’t want to “bonk” (and I felt like I was close to it yesterday) drink a bottle of water every hour and eat. I had Gels, Cliff Bars and a banana in my back pockets but I needed more. After 120 km we stopped for a wholesome sandwich. Natural foods are best.
I am not a fast climber. I’m faster than I was, and faster than many on the road, but I don’t fool myself into thinking I am a fast climber. Unless you are 135 pounds and been training in the mountains for years, you are not fast. In my mind, the goal is to reach the top with energy to spare for the next inevitable climb.