For new cyclists hill climbing is one of the most daunting aspects of cycling. Fit, experienced cyclists however enjoy hill climbing immensely and realise that it is in fact one of the best parts of cycling. There is nothing better than making a good climb up a long hill/mountain and then enjoying the descent down the other side. Riding in flat terrain for any distance is boring by comparison. In hilly country you can never know what is over the next hill or around the next bend so the scenery is always changing.
Experienced cyclists use a number of different skills to make hill climbing easier and faster. There is no substitute however to fitness, it is your basic aerobic capacity that limits your hill climbing ability and this can only be improved through more cycling and continually pushing your limits. The other important factor is your power to weight ratio; note there are two elements here: power and weight. Power is related to your aerobic capacity, as previously discussed. If you are overweight hill climbing is obviously going to be more difficult. Again, more cycling will help this situation. Some people are gifted with a body type that is more suited to climbing but anybody can improve to a good level within their genetic limitations through practice and applying the following skills.
There are several different approaches to hill climbing; the best one depends on the types of hill or terrain in which you are riding.
For long steady climbs as you roll into the bottom of the climb you need to change down gears so that your cadence and effort are comfortable for the steepness of the hill and the speed at which you are capable of climbing. You should not be breathing too hard; ideally you should be able to converse without too much trouble. On a long climb if you attempt to push too hard at the start you will find yourself tiring before the top or the end of the ride. Riding at the edge of your ability increases the rate at which lactic acid accumulates in your muscles, leading prematurely to soreness and fatigue. If the gradient varies on the climb adjust your gearing so that your cadence and level of effort are optimised.
For short climbs that you come into off a downhill you can try and power through by making a short burst of effort above your aerobic limit. Don’t change down too many gears and work hard to maintain your speed from the preceding downhill. If you are riding an upright bicycle a short effort out of the saddle will sometimes help you get over the top at maximum speed.
In rolling country with hills of moderate length you try to maintain your momentum for as long as possible into the start of each hill. As you slow down at the base of the hill progressively change down through your gears until you reach a gear you can hold without pushing too hard.
For the vast majority of people the best technique is to remain seated throughout the climb. Sure you see Marco Pantani in the Tour de France climbing rapidly through the Alps whilst out of the saddle, but most people are not Marco Pantani! For us ordinary mortals most people climb fastest when seated and pedalling in the appropriate gear at a good cadence. If you wish you can climb out of the saddle on short climbs to save changing gears or for a change of position on a long climb to rest your bottom and use different leg muscles. On a long climb you may want to change up a gear or two when you alternate between climbing seated and standing.
Many beginners try to climb hills by riding at too low a cadence. A cadence (speed of crank revolutions) of 70 rpm should be a minimum. Sometimes, particularly on a road bike you may not have sufficiently low gears to maintain this cadence; in this case you just need to do the best you can in your lowest gear.
Although it gets more difficult with increasing steepness and fatigue the idea is to maintain the smoothness of your pedal stroke through the climb. Toeclips or clipless pedals assist in this immensely. In your pedal stroke it is much easier to apply force to the pedals when your foot is on the downstroke. This results in uneven power output and results in slight accelerations and decelerations of the bike; these are exaggerated when you are climbing. Constantly accelerating and decelerating your bike is very inefficient. The remedy to this situation is to smooth out your pedal stroke, try to drag your foot backwards across the bottom of the pedal stroke, pull upwards slightly with your foot on the upstroke and pull your pedal forwards across the top of its rotation.
As for your posture on the bike try to keep your upper body as relaxed and still as possible for maximum efficiency. Keep your elbows slightly bent, but not sticking out to the side. If you are riding a bike with dropped handlebars your hands should be on the brake hoods or on the top of the bars. This gives you are relaxed riding position and opens up your chest for easier breathing. These positions are not as aerodynamically efficient as riding on the drops, but this doesn’t matter on uphills as you are going fairly slowly. If you are on a mountain bike you can alternate between having your hands on the bars or on the bar ends for a slight change of position.