Climbing Hills

The way we look at a hill changes everything. Hills and head winds are often perceived as the big bogey of cycling, and are a major deterrent for beginners. Certainly, in a race, hills can be enormously significant, but that's because in a race the idea is to cause the other rider to burn energy faster than yourself— so that you get to the line first, and a hill is a very good place to do that. But in the real world a hill is just... there.


The trouble is that everything which is said about hills is said from the perspective of young men racing. This becomes an invisible filter which distorts everything, so that people end up having to walk up hills, or don't ride at all. This distortion is so bad, so invisible, that in terms of energy usage, most people effectively speed up when they get to a hill. Rather than moderate their energy usage to take account of the hill, they burn more energy.

Here is another perspective on hills: a bike is way more efficient than walking. By definition, therefore, it is more efficient to ride up a hill than walk up it! It is simply a matter of doing it properly.

Last week I rode from Bright to Omeo over Mount Hotham, and then back via Falls Creek the next day. (Victoria) I had around 8kg of gear. Not only was this magnificent and glorious country, it was easy, which is not what people say about "the Back of Falls."  I am serious about this. As a touring cyclist I have had far harder days than those two.

This is the key thing: as a touring cyclist. Racing is another world, with other concerns, and in that world "the back of Falls" is, I suspect, a hard place indeed.

So, as a touring cyclist, the pain hills cause us is all to do with how we choose to see things. Are we simply riding to Bright via Falls Creek, or are we, even if unconsciously, trying to get to Bright in the shortest possible time. The latter is a much harder ride, and will miss much of the scenery. My experience is that it is rather harder to get rid of the influence of that "shortest possible time" understanding of things than we imagine.

A serious consideration at this point is the gearing of your bike. My small front ring as 34 teeth which exactly matches the largest cog at the back. This is 1:1 gearing, which makes a huge difference. If you don't pay attention in the shop, you may well purchase a bike set up for racing, which is great for that purpose, but not helpful for those of us who simply want to go places; this applies to commuting as well as touring.

Here is how to imagine your way into a hill. You know that there is a speed, and a level of effort, and a gear on your bike, where you can "ride forever." It's that energy and effort equivalent of an easy walk along a path. (At 64 years of age, with a small pannier load, I find this this all comes out to mean 20 – 25kmh on a flat surface, which is five to six times the speed of walking.) This is the energy effort we need to take into a hill climb.

When we come to a hill, it will take more energy to go each 100 metres forward because we are now also lifting weight vertically. The basic strategy is not seek to maintain forward speed,   or even only the fastest speed we can manage, but to seek to maintain energy usage per time; that is, to go slower so that we can still "ride forever." This will seem counter-intuitive because of the distorting lens we inherit from the boy racers. It means, in fact, to ride even slower, at the beginning, than the speed we could maintain up the hill if we pushed things a bit. But what it also means, is that we do the entire hill in comfort rather than have it slowly grind us down to the point where the hill hurts and becomes hard work. And that means that on days with many hills, or on hills which are kilometres long, the climbs cease to be a struggle.

If I were trying to teach this to you, I would pick a reasonably steep and longish slope— between 6% and 8%— and get you to ride it as slowly as you could in your very bottom gear.  Hold that gear, even if you could shift up, and ride slowly instead. Imagine you are riding next to your granny or a five year old walking up the footpath alongside. What this means is that you will use less energy than they do walking along the path! It also means that you will use less energy than if you get off the bike and push it while walking, which is very inefficient.

The reason we don't see that this is so is that we try too hard and too fast at the beginning of a hill— let alone the numbers of us who don't use all the gears available to us— which means we exhaust ourselves so that all we can do is walk.  And that means we use even more energy than if we rode properly.

If you practise riding effortlessly in the lowest gear that you have, you will be able to distinguish between the slopes where you can do this a cog or two higher, and the slopes where you must stay in the bottom gear. Clearly, the gearing of the bike, and the fitness level of the rider, will come into play here. But I find that the most significant issue is the mindset; with my 1:1 gearing 16-17% is still more comfortable on the bike than walking alongside.

"The Back of Falls" goes from level road to 13% in about 20 metres, and averages 6% over around 35km.  But when you measure a climb by energy burn rather than speed, several things happen.  Firstly, you discover that the 13% section lasts 400 metres or so. The rest of the time the climb is a lot shallower; there are very few really steep hills. And, secondly, you get to look at the scenery instead of staring at the bitumen and gasping for breath. The exhaustion factor is massively ameliorated.

Isn't it slow? Yes, but Omeo to Bright is 138km. That took me 9.5 hours riding time with no walking the bike. At 4.5kmh (a pretty brisk walk on a 6% slope) I could push out 40km walking for the same time, and would be exhausted at the end. My slow ride beat that be 100km and I was nowhere near as tired.

Surely there is a catch to this? Yes. Several. On the way up to Hotham I was passed by a girl who looked 15. If you're about speed and pride, this method won't work. But if you're still only about speed and beating the women at 64 years old, you have some other problems. This method will let you ride 400km in 24 hours, and keep going after that.

And you do need to gear your bike appropriately; most bikes I see are too highly geared and the riders are holding too high a gear. Gearing and general fitness will determine where the hill becomes hard enough that you need to walk. And if you have a heavy touring load, that changes the gradients we can manage, too.

The last catch is that this method takes time to get into the brain. I learned about gearing and cadence years ago, and the results were instant and obvious. But going slower to go faster and further requires some unlearning and practice. It requires a certain mindfulness from the very beginning of a hill. Society is aimed at being fast rather than at being. If your cycling is about winning Strava segments or similar, this method of hill climbing won't work.

Whilst I have written this post from the point of view of cycle touring, the same principles apply to those of us whose commute involves getting back up to Belair, or up to Golden Grove.  It's not much extra time to climb up the Grove Way or Coonmurra Drive using this method, and the fitness payoff and commuter savings are considerable. I frequently ride up Kara Crescent in Para Hills instead of taking the flat way to work.  This adds around 10km to the trip, but the hill section itself, (10-14%) only adds a smidgen over ten minutes.



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