It’s natural to want to avoid steep climbs on a bike ride. Given the choice of a brutally short ascent and a longer, less steep alternative, most of us opt for the latter.
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A long climb is satisfying to ride; you may even seek one out as they are great for pedalling technique and fitness. Pushing firmly on the pedals and spinning them over at close to 100rpm is about the most effective training you can do on a bike.
Transfer that style of riding to a short, steep hill and you will find that it may hurt a bit more but it’s basically the same challenge. Get it wrong, however, and a steep climb will knock the stuffing out of you in a few agonising pedal strokes.
Mentally it helps to know that a climb is approaching as it’s a drag to round a bend and see a wall rearing up in front of you. Check the map and ask your ride mates to warn you. If you know the hill warn the others it’s coming up, how long it is and what gear you need (bottom!).
Be prepared. Select a small gear early on. Even if the first part is less steep it’s worth slotting a gear that feels low and ‘pedally’ sooner rather than later. As the climb ramps up you can settle into a rhythm while allowing your cadence in the same gear to slow to a more comfortable 80-90rpm.
Do not let another rider dictate the speed at the bottom of a climb. Let them go and catch them further up, or just do your own thing. On a steep hill you have to go at your own pace. Either wait at the top for the others or ask them to hang about for you.
If you have a good selection of low gears it should be possible to stay in the saddle. Sitting upright is great for lung function but if it’s very steep you could start to rock back on the pedals. You need to go into more of a racing tuck to stay on top of the pedals. It’ll stop an involuntary wheelie too.
If the climb ramps up you have a few options: get out of the saddle for short spells to maintain the revs in the same gear; concentrate, stay seated in the same gear and allow the revs and speed to drop; stay seated in the same gear and maintain the revs with a burst of power; or change down to a smaller gear and maintain your cadence.
For steep hills you need a low gear. On a road compact with a 34-tooth small chainring the biggest sprocket on the cassette at the back should have at least 23 teeth. You could change the cassette to include a 28 or 30-tooth sprocket but it’s worth checking with the shop that the jockey arm on the rear derailleur won’t foul the biggest sprocket.
On a hybrid or mountain bike with triple chainset and a cassette with a 34-tooth sprocket you will almost certainly have a gear to pedal up the steepest road climbs. It’s worth noting that pedalling madly on too small a gear is a very slow and jerky way to get up a climb. A smooth pedal with some resistance under your feet is quicker and more satisfying.
Make sure your gears are adjusted to perfection as there is nothing worse than a sloppy shift or clacking chain which is not quite sitting right on the sprocket.
If the adjustment is miles out you may not be able to get to your bottom gear at all and there are few more morale-crushing things in cycling than that. Also ensure that the derailleur jockey arm is not pinging the spokes in bottom gear. If the arm catches a spoke it can get sucked into the wheel, causing extensive damage to the wheel, derailleur and frame drop-out.
Finally, drop handlebars are great for riding out of the saddle as they offer multiple riding positions on the hoods and tops. If you have flat bars it’s well worth fitting little bar extensions on both sides.