Climbing, For the Non-Climber


By Kelly McPherson — When the road turns upwards, I have always really struggled. I can’t tell you how many group rides, events and races I have stayed away from because the profile of the proposed course had a few hills on it. To me, it is really demoralizing to be pedaling as hard as I can and see the group pedal farther and farther into the distance to be left alone, once again. Early last spring I decided to take on my fear and learn how to climb. I am not a great climber and am certainly not fast at it, but I do get up the mountain and have managed to tackle a few of our areas toughest and live to tell about it. For those of us who struggle, just like I do, below are some of the lessons that I have learned. Please understand that these tips are not for the seasoned hill climbing cyclist, but are for those of us who are just trying to get up the mountain for the first time.

Kelly McPherson at the summit of a climb. Photo courtesy Kelly McPherson
  1. Know the course ahead of time. Strava is a fantastic tool for looking up rides. You can bet that if it is a nasty hill climb, someone has done it and has put it on Strava. Take a look at these files. Find out how long the climb is, how much climbing is involved and how long it has taken other people to climb it. Usually, I look at the list of people who have tried it and then scroll down to the bottom and see how long it took the slowest person to do it. That will likely be how long it will take me. I am not being self-deprecating, simply trying to find a good estimate of how long it is going to take me and how much time I need to budget for the climb. Knowing how long I am going to be working helps a lot in trying to get my head wrapped around what I am planning on doing.
  2. Go with people, but ride without them. There is something about the pressure of knowing that someone is at the top of the climb waiting for you that makes it difficult to just not get there. That is great! Start the climb with them and then let them disappear ahead of you around the next curve. When riding with “climbers,” you may be tempted to push harder than the intensity you need, to be able to get to the top. Blowing up half-way up does not make for a successful climb! Sometimes, it is nice to have someone to talk to and to encourage you, but holding a conversation and maintaining a somewhat civil dialogue can sometimes take more energy than you have. For me, it has been important to be able to just go my own pace and cuss and be grumpy when I need to without feeling like I have to put on a happy face for the insanely cheerful person “encouraging” me up the hill at a seemingly easy effort.
  3. Give yourself permission to stop for time-limited breaks. Depending on how tough the hill is, I will tell myself that I can stop every 15-30 minutes for 1 minute. A 1-minute break is long enough to let your heart-rate come down and some of the lactic acid clear from your legs a bit, but not long enough for you to decide that it is time to quit and flip. The first time I rode Big Mountain, I think I stopped every 5 minutes. It took forever, but I did manage to get to the top. The second time I rode it, I only stopped twice.
  4. Stay hydrated. There is nothing that will make a tough ride tougher, mentally and physically, than dehydration. Bring lots of fluids, particularly with electrolytes and maybe even a little caffeine and drink regularly. On flat roads, I make sure to get a good sip from my water bottle every 15 minutes. On a climb, I drink every 10. Remember that hydration does you a lot more good inside you than it does having to be carried up the hill on your bike.
  5. Stay fueled. Just like hydration, low blood sugar can make you feel weak and grumpy and not in a place where you can get to where you want to go. If you can stomach solid fuel, do. Otherwise, make sure that you are taking in adequate calories through drinks or gels or some other high calorie, easy to digest food of your choice. As a heavy cyclist, I understand the need to short yourself calories in order to lose a few pounds. Skimping on calories on a climb is not smart. Learning to climb is good for you, in your overall weight loss plans. If you give up doing it because your blood sugar is too low to get to the top, you lose that benefit.
  6. Pay attention to temperature. Heat is very demoralizing and can suck every bit of energy out of you. If you can, go early in the morning when temperatures are cool. Take off layers at the bottom of the hill to put back on for the trip down.
  7. Find some mantras. I have used things like “Up the hill. Up the hill. Up! Up! Up!” or “Give it to the legs. Your legs have got you.” Or “comfortably uncomfortable.” Use whatever works and stick to it.
  8. 8. Vary your position, but mostly spin. Sit, stand, push your bum back on the seat, mash, make good circles with your pedals, whatever you need to do to vary the muscles you are using up the hill. Mostly, though, you will find yourself just sitting and spinning. Granny gears have a purpose and climbing nasty hills is that purpose.
  9. Worry about cadence, but not too much. Try to keep your cadence over 70 rpm, if possible. Sometimes, it just isn’t possible.
  10. Ignore your HR monitor. Your heart rate is going to do funky things. It is going to go high. Don’t let that scare you into quitting. If necessary, turn off your HR monitor and just get up the mountain.
  11. Reward yourself. I have been known to ask my husband to place some of my favorite beverage and some rice crispy treats at the top of a climb, waiting for me. Now that the climbs I have been doing are significantly longer and more difficult for him to get to, I tend to reward myself when I get back down.
  12. Just keep going. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, how many stops you make or how much it hurts, keep pointing that front wheel upwards. You CAN do this! When you finish climbing this hill, there will be another and another. Each time you successfully climb, the next climb will get easier to start and finish. Soon the you will have conquered the mountains rather than letting the mountains conquer you.


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