In the last part of climb like the wind we briefly took a holistic look at what contributes to our climbing ability. In this, the second part of the three part series we will check out the finer points of good climbing technique, bearing this in mind: what it feels like can be vastly different to what it looks like.
To keep riding efficiently up hills it is important to keep your cadence up high. I recommend all riders to try to spin at 80+rpm on the hills, or even higher depending on ability, and the hill. This is a lot higher than traditional cycling training, but spinning has far too many advantages and there is volumes of scientific research to support spinning, whether on the flats, or on the hills.
Aside from cadence the next crucial tip for seated climbing is posture, similar to that of flat roads, with the shoulders down and back, straight back, and abs tight. Because hills force us to ride at higher intensities, we are more tempted to sway or bob, so be extra conscious of keeping a rock solid still upper body. Sit slightly further back on the seat than flat road pedalling, and be sure to drive through the up, and down strokes of the pedal cycle equally using full extension and flexion of your legs. This includes pushing down through your fore foot and ankling.
Traditionally we were taught to keep our heels down when riding up hills, and you may have read this elsewhere, however you are missing out on the power that could be produced by your lower leg muscles that lever through your ankle, including full use of your calve or gastrocnemius muscles. "Flat footed" riding it quite common in cycling, up hills and on the flats, and you can even spot flat footed riders who do not rotate their ankles through the pedal stroke because they do not have very much lower leg definition in comparison to their thigh muscles.
Keep your chin pointing up the road in the direction you intend to go, as this helps to straighten your back, and keeps momentum forward. Numerous riders "chew on the bar tape" or have their eyes and head facing down as they suffer up climbs, and this only makes them slower. Keep thinking chin up, straight back, shoulders down, abs tight.
Climbing out of the Seat
Perhaps one of the most unnatural skills in cycling is climbing out of the seat. This requires you to lift your body weight up, and out of your seat, bringing your hips forward and maintaining a good pedal stroke. Climbing out of the seat helps to accelerate your speed, and to change your rhythm if you need to. It is the fastest way to change pace up a hill, and requires a lot more upper body contribution because you have to balance your hands on the handlebars, supporting your body weight, which is why upper body strength is needed in cycling, but also for maintaining correct flat road and seated climbing posture. Climbing out of the seat is best done on the brake hoods of a road bike as the most support weight support comes through having your wrists straight.
Key technique points for climbing out of the seat:
- Transition from in, to out of the seat should be seamless with no drop in speed, otherwise you will lose too much momentum.
- Look up the road as you get out of the seat keeping your chin pointing up the road. This helps to keep your back straight.
- Bring your hips forward, opening them as this allows more leverage to optimise pulling up through the cycle.
- Slightly push on the brake hoods to almost full extension of your arms, but keep them relaxed to allow the bike to move side to side underneath you. Do not resist the bike moving from side to side as it is meant to!
- Focus on pulling up more than pushing down during the pedal stroke. The combined effects of your body weight over the pedals, and gravity help to swiftly push the pedal down so you do not need to concentrate on this as much. Instead, focus on pulling up, and this helps to take the emphasis off your quadriceps, or the front of your thighs.
- Keep your abdominals tight and keep your hips level – imagining as though their is a pole sitting through your hips as you pedal so your hips do not rise and fall through the pedal stroke.
- Transitioning back into the seat is best completed by continuing to pedal as you sit down. This keeps momentum forward, and especially when in a bunch it prevents the bike from momentarily stopping its forward motion, which for the riders behind can be scary as it appears as if the wheel in front is all of a sudden coming for them! Continuing to pedal prevents this and keeps you going faster.
Riding out of the seat for long durations takes some time to master. Even easy recovery rides should integrate skill work so they are just as crucial as physically demanding sessions, because they lay the foundations for being able to sustain hard efforts for longer, and eventually aid improving your physical ability because your ability to push yourself to go fast will always be limited by your skill.
Obviously it is tough to see yourself and therefore critique whether you are maintaining ideal climbing in and out of the seat, so it is good to get feedback from fellow riders or experts every now and again. Even our elite riders need to see themselves doing their job that is cycling on a yearly basis when we drag out the video camera and refine technique. Even if you have been cycling for a number of years you can still improve, and refine. And each and every year our strengths and weaknesses change with training, age, and even our daily jobs. In the next part we will finally review training methods to improve your climbing ability.
Amy Taylor is an Auckland based Cycling Coach and Exercise Physiologist. Amy and fellow coach Aaron Strong coach beginner to elite riders helping them ride to their maximum potential. Contact them directly by phoning 09 631 5436 or via email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
This article orginally appeared in NZ Endurance Sport Magazine.