Climbing Hills, or "Building Character..."

by Richard E. Corbett

Many of us mastered hill-climbing long ago. Does that mean we like it? Well, if I said yes, it would be a fib, because hill-climbing is one of those things that just comes with being a complete cyclist, like headwinds ...

There are several keys to not hating hills.Your conditioning, attitude, knowledge, and equipment can all combine to make hills easier.

"The only way to get in condition for hill-climbing is to climb hills." How many times have you heard this? It is true to some extent, but there are other ways to condition oneself for hill-climbing.

Your quadriceps and your heart are the major muscles used in climbing. Exercises specific to the quads, usually done with machines or free weights, can prepare these important muscles. I think we all know about heart exercise. it's what makes us breathe heavily-aerobic. This means that many different activities can serve for heart exercise. I combine exercises for my quads with aerobic by repeatedly climbing the stairs in the building where I work (1 2 stories).

If you believe the hill is going to be too hard, then it will be. On the other hand, if you believe you are well prepared, and that the hill is well within your capability, then it won't be too hard. There's been much written about goal setting, visualization, and similar mental techniques. They work. If you believe they will!

I teach a hill climbing technique called 'swisscheesing.' Mentally break the climb into small 'pieces' by picking a sign, a curve, or a patch on the pavement, about 100 meters in front of you, then focus on riding to it. When you get there, mentally celebrate, then set a new goal. Ride to it, and so on. Soon the entire hill will be behind you!

Knowledge of gear use, breathing, resting, lane position, eating and drinking is important to being a successful hill climber. All these are found in Effective Cyclingtm and are taught in Effective Cyclingtm courses. I'll explain each briefly.

climbing hills

Choose a gear that lets you balance the work of climbing between your legs and your lungs. Remember to take deep breaths rather than shallow ones, and periodically take extra deep, 'cleansing' breaths (those who have had natural childbirth training will know about cleansing breaths - I learned about them as a labor coach, many years ago).

If you must stop to rest, limit the stop to no more than two minutes, and simply straddle the bike - don't get all the way 'off' your bicycle.

Ride closer to the pavement edge, since you are going so much slower. Also, be especially aware of your lane position on hill crests and blind curves to the right.

Eat easily digestible snacks, very lightly, on long climbs; drink lightly, but regularly, on all climbs. The knowledgeable cyclist has a much easier time than a cyclist who knows less.

Low gears are very helpful. I am a firm believer in sitting while climbing. This is partially because in Arizona there are lots of big climbs that take anywhere from 20 minutes to several hours. You just don't stand that long! Even if I lived where climbs are a lot shorter (western Pennsvlvania). I would still be a firm believer in sitting, because the stresses that standing up to pedal while climbing places on your knees are great.

Other equipment that makes a difference includes rims, tires, and tubes. All other things being equal, the lighter they are, the easier your climb will be. Remember though that really light rims are more easily damaged, and really light tires/tubes are more easily punctured; so your choice will generally be a compromise between lightness and durability.

Hill-climbing will never be easy, but it can be easier for you than it is now, if you improve your conditioning, attitude, knowledge, and equipment.

Reprinted from "Bicycle USA", magazine of the League of American Bicyclists, Jan/Feb 1998.
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