Real Advice: Climbing Steep Hills

The hills around where we live in North Carolina tend to generally not be too difficult. They’re long, but the grades are generally easy, and most well trained cyclists can even big-ring it up most of them.

When we got to Flanders for the Ronde Sportif, however, we were in for a whole new world of hurt. Flanders is mostly flat, except for its notorious Bergs. The Koppenberg, Steenbeekdreijs, Kwarmonte and Paterberg are smaller than the hills we’re used to—most of them are less than 300 feet tall. But what they lack in height they make up for in steepness. Usually they average somewhere around 13-16%, but can often top out at more than 20%. This is a type of climbing we’re definitely not used to, and we had to turn to some locals for advice, which they were more than happy to hand out.

While the general idea is much the same as climbing any hill, there’s a few things to keep in mind.

We talked with some local racers a few nights before the ride, and here’s their advice for how to handle steep climbs.


1. Gear Down

Only you know how strong you are, but if you’re going out to tackle some tough, steep hills, you may need to adjust the gearing on your bike. Compact or mid-compact cranksets (50/34 or 52/36 chainrings) and wide-geared cassettes can mean the difference between making it up the hill and having to walk…or between finishing the ride and a knee injury. This is something even the pro’s have to do for races or stages with really hard climbs.

Trying to climb in hard gears with a low cadence is usually a recipe for disaster and injury. Instead, chose a gearing that will allow you to spin at a 70-90 RPM pretty much all the time. Most bikes today come with compact cranksets with a 50/34 gearing—which should be fine, but you may also want to go for an 11-28 or 12-28 cassette to just make it that much easier. If you run 11-speed, an 11-27/28 cassette should give you about the same gearing range as an 11-25, but with an extra climbing cog tacked onto the back.

For reference, when we rode the Ronde Sportif we used 50/34 cranksets with 11-27 cassettes, and we still ran out of gears on the Koppenberg and Paterberg. We normally run a 52/36 with an 11-25.


2.  Shift Early

Super steep climbs are extremely difficult to just power your way up. If you hit the hill in too hard of a gear, it’ll be almost impossible to keep your momentum going or keep up with the group.  Additionally, the more stress you put on the drivetrain, the more difficult it becomes to shift the front derailleur, and sometimes even the rear. At a certain point, you’ll snap the chain or rip the front derailleur off if you try to shift on a hill.

Instead, shift to the middle of the cassette a few yards before you hit the hill and settle into an easy rhythm. When you finally start climbing, shift to the little ring as soon as you feel your momentum begin to fade. Wait for a deadspot in the pedal stroke (a time when you’re applying little or no force through the pedals), then shift the front. Adjust your gearing in the rear as necessary. This will allow you to spin your way up, without losing momentum.


3. Sit Up

On really hard hills, your cardio and muscle systems will be pushed to the limit. Give them a hand by sitting up, and sitting back. Shifting back in the saddle will help balance the load between your hamstrings and quads, preventing either muscle group from prematurely fatiguing. Sitting up, and riding with your hands on the bar flats will open up your chest and make it easier to breathe.


4. Relax

This is going to be hard, but you might be making it harder than it needs to be. Pay attention to your body, and concentrate on relaxing and controlling your breathing. Most riders have a tendency to tense their abs, clench their jaw and white knuckle the handlebars. This saps your strength, and makes it more difficult to breathe. Next time, concentrate on making smooth, even pedal strokes, staying relaxed up above the waist, and taking even, measured breaths.


5. Avoid Standing

At some point this may become unavoidable, but on steep grades it’s usually wise to avoid standing if you can. You run the risk of unweighting the rear of the bike, which can cause the back wheel to lose traction, resulting in lost momentum and possibly a crash. Many cyclists also have a tendency to yank up on the bars, which on really bad grades can sometimes cause the bike to begin to tip backwards.

If you find you absolutely have to stand, do it properly. Shift to a harder gear, keep you weight centered over the bottom bracket, and try to pedal like you're running in place with a smooth, even, pedal stroke. Use your arms to try to throw the bike from side to side and forward, instead of pulling up on the bars.


6. Cut The Grade

Before we get into this, we have to say that this isn’t always advisable, and we strongly urge you to always maintain awareness of your surroundings, approaching traffic, and other cyclists—especially during group rides.

If the road gets really bad, you can try and cut the grade by swerving across the road to create little switchbacks for yourself. You don’t have to be all over the road, but sometimes just riding a few feet over to your left, then a few feet back over to the right can cut the grade by at least a few degrees and make a big difference and help you get to the top a little easier.


7. Be Realistic

Don’t feel like you need to chase a group or stay with someone who is clearly faster. Climb within your ability level, and don’t blow all your energy at once. Instead of charging into the hill only to blow up before even making it half way, take it easy through the first part of the hill, and then see how you feel. If you have some energy left, then you can go harder and chase down that rabbit.

And please, please, please remember, if you’re in a group ride or charity event that’s on a hilly route, be aware of others around you. If feel yourself running out of steam or know you’re going to have to walk, stay far over on the side of the road, and give the person behind you plenty of notice. There’s nothing more annoying to other cyclists than being behind someone on a climb who won’t let anyone pass, or worse, who just suddenly stops without warning and gets off the bike. This can, and usually does, cause the person behind you to crash, causes a domino effect, and slows down everyone further down the road.  

Road Cycling