Picture this: You see an insane climb up ahead—a track that basically looks like a wall in front of your bike. You prepare to crush it, then work side to side to reduce the gradient. Soon, your legs feel more like you’re squatting weights than pushing pedals. Then, as you reach the top of the pedal stroke, you realise that you aren’t quite going to make it and have to unclip in ignominy.
That right there is one of the toughest parts of cycling—conquering crazy steep hills, which is why many of us plan routes to avoid them. However, with some practice and proper technique, you can make it up these climbs.
To give you an inside edge on tackling inclines, we caught up with Hanna Muegge, pro cyclist and former winner of Red Bull Bay Climb in San Francisco, a race in which racers conquer grades of up to 21 percent. Muegge got a lot of steep climbing practice in on her way to the win. Although she had a few tips that only apply to hillclimb racers (like leaving her water bottles at the base of each hill) there is a lot we can all learn about steep climbing from one of the best.
Train on Hills
Muegge prepares for climbs with lunchtime hill intervals, her local Strava segments, as well as hilly road races, to inject some variety and intensity. This allows her to work the specific muscle groups and movements associated with climbing. Those who live in flat areas can train in larger gears, or on an indoor trainer like the Wahoo Kickr Climb, to simulate climbing. Muegge trains with a power meter; through experiences on similarly insane climbs, she had a good idea of how many watts she’d be able to put out on race day.
Cut the Weight
Every gram on your body and bike will slow you down. Muegge made an extra effort to enter the race at a competitive weight by eating a light dinner the night before and leaving accessories, like her bottles and GoPro, at the bottom of each hill. You don’t need that level of insane deprivation if you aren’t trying to be a racing champ: Eating a healthy and balanced diet that fuels your training and maintaining a healthy body weight will help, and a light bike or wheel set goes a long way.
Pace Your Effort
It’s easy to get pumped up for a steep climb and hit the bottom so hard that you run out of energy before you run out of climb. “This is especially true when the adrenaline is pumping at exciting events,” Muegge says. Pro racers use metrics such as VAM (a measure of your vertical ascent in meter per hour) and wattage to keep an eye on their efforts. But keeping effort in mind from the start can pay off in a stronger drive to the top.
Get in Gear
If you can’t pedal at a reasonable cadence, it is much harder to balance on a steep climb. Modern compact cranksets, combined with wide range cassettes, allow for a climbing gear that should let you stay seated on most climbs and not waste energy. Exercise physiologist Sean Burke says, “In the long run it is better to stay seated, but sometimes you just need to get out of the saddle and smash on the pedals to keep your momentum up.” But if you’re standing for the whole climb, even in your easiest gear, it’s time to consider shifting.
Ride With Faster People and Push Through
“When you line up for a race that has an average grade of 15 percent you know you are in for a round of hurt,” Muegge says. The more you do rides that acclimate you to being uncomfortable, the more you’ll be able to tolerate it. You can also get gearing, shifting, and pacing tips from more experienced riders. If you can find a group of riders who can push you on the climbs, you’ll grow stronger without having to motivate yourself to really push your body to the limits.