How to ride your road bike up really, really steep hills – with minimal weeping (Guest post)



Regular readers of this blog know that Sam is not a hill climber, and that Tracy, while she has been assured she *will* be a hill climber, is not one yet. Hills are in short supply in the part of the world where Sam, Tracy and I ride our bikes together: the flat terrain and gently rolling slopes of farmland surrounding London, Ontario (100 miles west of Toronto).

I didn’t learn to ride a road bike in little London, however; I took to riding after my husband and I moved to (the rather larger) London in south-east England in 2012. That means I cut my climbing teeth in the short, sharp Surrey Hills, on the ridges in Kent, and in the South Downs, which features the gut-busting Ditchling Beacon, among other gems. While training for our epic London-to-Paris 24-hour challenge ride (read about it here), Jarret and I also did some riding in the Alps, where I learned the difference between “punching” 12% grades for 1/2 to 3/4 miles, and sustaining 8%-12% grades for more than 5 miles up mountain switchbacks. All in all, I’ve ridden up a lot of hills. I’ve learned what it takes to make it to the top, whether quickly or slowly, tightly and neatly or messily, with plenty of crying en route. But I have gotten up every hill I have ever attempted – though in one recent, brutal case that necessitated me going back down again immediately after a failed first attempt in order to maintain my unbeaten-by-the-hill streak. That hill (Yorkshill, in Kent) was by far the steepest thing I’ve ever climbed, and it has inspired me to write this post.

I want to stress that I am not, like Tracy, physically built for climbing: I weigh more than the average female cyclist, and though I’m extremely lean and strong I’m simply not light. I’ve got a sprinter’s body, and as anyone who watches the Tour knows, sprinters don’t climb hills willingly. So my fondness for the hills is perhaps a bit out of (physical) character; what I love about hills is that I have the mental toughness as well as the physical skills – which I have worked on over time, since they did not come naturally – to climb, and I get tremendous pleasure and satisfaction from reaching the top. The hills are a fun challenge for me, and I love a fun challenge on my bike.

I also want to stress that I know I’m a minority in the cycling world, or at least in the cycling world in which I live: most people I ride with groan at the sight of a big hill in the distance. (Jarret, my husband, is not one of these: he kicks hill arse.) But the truth is that a hill isn’t ever going to be as physically challenging as it is mentally and emotionally daunting; people who hate hills mostly hate them because they fear them. I know what this fear feels like; I felt it on Yorkshill last month, encountering what seemed to me a truly unclimbable grade for the first time in a very, very long time. So what I’m going to do here is tell the story of that encounter, and then I’ll offer five top tips for those who want to work past the hill fear and see what they really can do.

Jarret has this book that features the top 50 climbs in the greater London (UK) area; for those who have never ridden in southern England, let me assure you there ARE 50 proper climbs (more, in fact), and they pretty much all suck. Most hills in the ridge-filled terrain near the Thames and the Channel feature grades in the teens and even low 20s; Yorkshill (henceforth known as The Climb), with two shots of (the book claims – reports vary) about 25% and an average grade in the mid-teens spread over just 500 yards, is one of the hardest in the region. When Jarret told me that he, our friend and coach Jo McRae, and I were going to do this hill on a 60+ mile ride through Kent, I didn’t think he was actually serious. But, alas, he was.

The Climb appeared about 2/3 the way through our ride. We hadn’t been hitting it too hard and I wasn’t that tired, but I was jet lagged from my recent flight over to the UK, bike in tow, and I was well aware that I hadn’t been doing a lot of hill work over the autumn in Ontario. So as we approached The Climb, I wasn’t feeling my usual confidence. If anything, I was feeling an unusual level of apprehension. Jo, who had done the ride before and knew what to expect, talked us through the terrain leading up to the really tough part of the hill, and she warned us that there would be mud and slick bits (it was late October). Then, we took a photo at the bottom near the sign marking the start of the climb, agreed it was every rider for her/himself, and set off.

The road was pleasant and barely inclined for the first portion; the tree canopy was lovely, and I let myself think, briefly, that this wasn’t going to be so bad. Then the road narrowed, the trees closed in, and the wall of road that is 25% steep reared into view. I panicked. I could not imagine making it. Nevertheless, I knew I had to try; Jo and Jarret were up ahead, their climbing bodies slipping from view. I did what I always do when I climb a tough new hill: I grabbed my handlebar tops, settled back on my saddle, started breathing deeply and rhythmically, and repeated my hill mantra. Every Hill Ends. Every Hill Ends.

Jo had warned us that this was one of those rare climbs where you simply cannot reach the top without standing. Many climbers stand, of course; it’s easier to use the weight of your body to propel your legs around the pedal circle. But climbing is also high-intensity cardio; you will hit your VO2 max heart rate quickly if you don’t moderate your time off saddle. (This is why lots of inexperienced hill climbers punch and then blow up, struggling desperately to finish the job.) Personally, I prefer to climb on-saddle, keeping my heart rate under control, with very brief bursts out of the saddle to get speed and power up. I knew that this hill would necessitate me getting up when *it* dictated, and not when I chose, which made me even more nervous. As I saw what looked like the worst bit approaching, I rose and rode; I hung on for as long as I could, watching my HR hit 180bpm, very near my max. Then, as things levelled a touch, I sat, imagining the worst was over.

But I was wrong. I’d misunderstood Jo’s description of the hill; there was another very, very steep bit coming. I panicked again and started to cry a bit; there’s no shame in the crying, but it doesn’t exactly help the heart rate or breathing. I knew I was in trouble. I rose, and at that minute my back wheel skidded out; I hadn’t kept my body positioned far enough back over my saddle, and thus there wasn’t sufficient weight over the back wheel to maintain traction. I put my foot down.

This was the moment I had a choice. Keep going, or start walking. I’ve never walked a hill; I didn’t want to start now. But I was also realistic about the situation: this would be the ugliest hill start ever. I was on a slope with at least a 12% grade at this moment, if not a higher; I might fall off again quickly, especially if I couldn’t clip in immediately. I made a deal with myself: we get on again and ride as well as we can. If we come off again, we walk, and that’s ok.

I made the hill start. I got another 50 yards or so before skidding out again and coming off. That was it; I could see the top but couldn’t imagine getting there on the bike. I walked, feeling defeated but knowing it was the only option.

Jo and Jarret hadn’t been at the top long when I got there; it turned out Jarret had also skidded near the top and walked the last few yards. Jo knew we both had the skill and the fitness to make the climb; what we needed was to psych ourselves up and talk ourselves through the technical bits, the bits with the traction-challenging standing climbs. She encouraged us to go back down and tackle it again right away; we both knew we’d likely never attempt this hill again if we didn’t do it immediately. Before I had a chance to rethink the idea, we were on our way. Jo stayed at the top; she would coach us as we came into view around the last bend, the most mentally gruelling part of any climb.

The ride down was terrifying; I leaned into my brakes the whole way, riding my drops with gritted teeth, body well back on the saddle for balance. When we reached the point where the trees opened into a wider canopy we turned around. Jarret went first; I let him ride out of sight before I started, knowing that otherwise the climb would become a race rather than a personal challenge for me, and it wasn’t a race I’d win today. I also took a moment to remind myself of everything that would be different this time: I knew what to expect; I knew there were two hard standing climbs and that I’d have to moderate my exertion on the first in order to make the second; I knew what the top looked like and what the bend before it looked like; and I knew, most importantly, that this hill ended. It really ended.

I made it. Here’s how.

(NB: this is an impressionistic list for those with The Fear, not a technical one for those very new to climbing. I recommend looking here and here for some thoughts on gear choices, shifting while standing, different cassette options, etc. All these practical things matter – especially if you haven’t really climbed before.)

1. I talked to myself the whole way up. Mostly silently, but sometimes out loud. I reminded myself of all the steep climbs I had already done, and that I knew I could do; I reminded myself that this hill was no different, just a bit steeper in spots. I reminded myself constantly that this hill ended – that in a couple of minutes it would be all over. Every. Hill. Ends.

2. I took my time. Sure, I’ve raced up hills and nearly puked at the top, but mostly hills feature on races because they separate those who can climb from those who can’t – they aren’t, except at elite levels, about speed. I worked on rhythm, on balance, on breathing. I focused as much as possible on the road immediately ahead of me – not on the road around the bend. (This is Jarret’s trick, too, and I think it’s crucial on really steep climbs.)

3. I didn’t speed up when I stood up. I kept one eye on my heart rate monitor, which is incredibly useful in situations like this. I saw my HR remain steady in the low to mid 170s – high, but nowhere near the puking stage. If I could keep it there, I knew I’d be fine. With my HR mostly in check I could focus on the technique required when standing: a low push-back climb, with a flat back. (When I got to the top Jo reminded me that I need to practice moving my body side-to-side across the handlebars, using the bike like a lever as I climb. Also good advice: that’s a skill that will need some practice but, Jarret assures me, will really help with really hard gradients.)

4. When I felt myself about to panic I talked myself right back down to my mental pace line. I spent a moment with the panic – it’s a natural reaction to having to ride your bike up a 25% incline! – but then I reminded myself again that I was going to make it. I just was: I kept telling myself that I was, and that made it, in the moment, true enough for me to keep going. (When, near the top, I started to doubt my own voice, Jo took over for me. And then I was there.)

5. I made it because I was ready for it – in all respects. This isn’t a hill I could have done 18 months ago. I have ridden a lot of intervening hills, all of them increasingly challenging, so this one was a natural progression upward for me.

Everyone with hill fear has an ascent they believe they cannot do but feel compelled to return to, because somewhere, deep down, they know they can, they will, make it up that hill, someday. My best advice is to use your own version of The Climb as a medium-term personal challenge. Set a day or a week to make it happen. Be ready to fall off, go down and try again, maybe more than once. If you don’t make it, spend some time thinking about why, dissecting the ride both technically (were you in the right gear at the right time?) and emotionally (when was the moment you felt yourself giving up?). Perhaps bring a friend along who has made it up that hill, and who can watch you from the top and talk you through it, like Jo did for me. That person will also help you see trouble spots in your technique that you can’t focus on when you’re really exerting yourself hard.

Above all, don’t get stuck in your belief that you can’t ride up that hill. You can. I know you can! It’s just a question of time, patience, practice, and faith – in yourself.

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