Cycling up Hills - the Myth of how they are Hard Work.
Or how to love climbing, how to survive hills and why they are a good thing on a cycling holiday;-)
I have a problem with hills.
In our cycling routes page I have to be very careful about using the word 'hill' – if I do that particular route simply doesn't get chosen. The paranoia of beginner cyclists over hills is deep seated and the result of both inexperience and inappropriate gearing of many off-the-shelf cycles. In actual fact none of our routes are hard cycling but many do have a fair share of hills – something which has as many positives as negatives.
The thing is that there are basically those that you can cruise up and those that are very hard work, and a hill that falls into the latter category can be made into a 'cruiser' by the appropriate technique and gearing of the bike.
So what is the secret of hillclimbing?
The first thing is that your bike (like ours) should be geared low enough so that all but the most extreme hills can be climbed with relatively low effort. Of course if a hill is very steep the gear will need to be very low and so in effect you'll need to turn the pedals more often for a given distance – the hill will seem 'longer' requiring the same number of pedal strokes as a longer, less steep hill in a higher gear - but it shouldn't be 'harder'.
Once you understand this, the technique of 'ignoring' hills becomes a lot easier. Everyone, no matter how fit, or otherwise, will have a maximum power output that they can maintain for a considerable time without becoming exhausted. If you think about it it's very like walking. We all have a comfortable stride that we can manage for several miles – it may be slower or faster than someone else but it is 'our' stride. The trick is to find the equivalent 'pace' for cycling and one way of finding this is to spin the pedals at the same speed as if you were walking. For most people this is about 60 turns a minute (the 'cadence' if you want he technical term). If you are out of your natural 'cadence' then you will tire very quickly. The classic error when people are presented with a bike with very low gears like our BB Specials is that they end up 'spinning' very rapidly as there is little resistance even on a steep hill. No! This will wear you out – pick a higher gear where you can feel yourself working but not too hard – just as if walking up a gentle slope. After a while you'll almost automatically 'feel' when you are working at this optimum level and by using the many gears at your disposal find the natural gear for any particular slope. What you don't want to to is either 'spin' wildly or grind hard in too high a gear. You know when you've got it perfect when you use just one gear all the way up – you don't want to find yourself going into a lower and lower gear as you climb and tire because this means the gear at the bottom was too hard.
One VERY important point is that once again, your pace will be individual and unique to you. If you are riding with people who climb faster OR slower than your natural pace you will tire much faster trying to cycle with them than if you kept to your own pace. Personally, when tackling big mountains like the Pyrenees (OK I know – it's an extreme example) I deliberately avoid starting off with others as the natural thing is to try and climb at their pace as you talk and before you know it you are more tired than you should be.
Once you've mastered this then hills are merely 'variety' – they break the ride up because you have a period of working and then the rest downhill – then a bit of flat, a different gradient, a swoop downhill and so on. Believe me, this is actually preferable to riding on the flat all day where you never get a rest and sit 'flat' on the bike all the time. And of course if you have a headwind the flat is a killer as you have to work all the time – no downhill where you can take a break.
So in brief!
1 – Find your own 'striding' pace.
2 – Make sure your bike is geared so that your own pace will take you up any hill – no matter how steep and change into that gear as early as you can.
3 – Cycle at your own pace – don't try to cycle with others at their pace if it's outside your comfort zone.
4 – Remember – for every up there's a down;-)
5 – No hills means no views...
A Small Favour
We hope you've enjoyed reading this short article and will go on to read many more. This website exists both as an information hub for cyclists – (and we offer free advice by email) - but also as a commercial site to sell our cycling holidays. For 27 years we've been the only company in the world offering fully equipped cycle camping holidays and now also offer hotel based holiday and even run our local campsite which is uniquely well geared up for passing cycletourists.
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