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I've been biking to work 2-3 times/week this summer and I enjoy it for the most part. My big problem is that my ride is mostly downhill on the way in to work and mostly uphill on the way home. These aren't mountainous climbs or anything but for a newbie like me they're tough.

I have a 21 speed street bike and my hills are on streets in quiet residential areas. What is the proper way to approach a hill in terms of gear selection and effort? Someone told me you shouldn't have to stand on the pedals to go up hills, but that seems like it can't be right from what I've seen (briefly) of the pros on TV. I'm completely in the dark on gear selection. Obviously its easier to pedal in lower gears but then I feel like I'm just wasting my energy pedaling quickly and not getting anywhere.

Any help would be appreciated!

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As the French say, "Sur la plaque" ;) –  Unsliced Aug 18 '11 at 15:49
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Yeah, the obvious answer is "From the top, if at all possible." –  Daniel R Hicks Aug 18 '11 at 17:25
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@Unsliced I haven't found a French web page which says that. –  ChrisW Aug 19 '11 at 2:07

7 Answers 7

I try to put out a constant amount of effort no matter what slope I'm on:

  • A constant 'cadence' of 60 to 90 RPM (that's how fast you spin the pedals)
  • A constant force on the pedals

The useful energy you put in is proportional to a product of the force multiplied by the cadence: spinning faster at the same force results in more energy input.

To keep my cadence and force constant, I change gears: if it's spinning too easily/quickly and I'm going too slowly, then I change up into a higher/harder gear; on a hill if it's too hard to spin (at 60 to 90 RPM) then I change down into a lower gear.

I'm always seated (not standing on the pedals ... except when riding over bumps on the road).

With many (21+) gears you can find a gear (or a range of gears) to match the slope.

The pros on TV are sometimes sprinting etc. You don't necessarily want to ride like they do, when you're commuting (and a self-described newbie).

FWIW now that I'm more practised (5 times/week since March) I sometimes find myself taking a hill in a bigger gear than I used to: but still sitting, and spinning quickly.


Obviously its easier to pedal in lower gears but then I feel like I'm just wasting my energy pedaling quickly and not getting anywhere.

When approaching a hill from the bottom, approach at a good speed: fast cadence, high power, and a big gear.

When you're onto the up-hill, increase your push slightly (to try to maintain your cadence even though you're now going up-hill). Depending on various things (short hill, enough reserve power) you might thus get all the way up the hill without changing gear (but this might be exhausting) and finish before you're even tired (you complete it quickly because you're going quickly).

If you can't power up-hill in the big gear then your speed (and therefore your cadence) begins to drop. It's not worth letting your cadence drop: if you allow your cadence to halve, for example, then to maintain your power output you would need to double your pedal force to compensate (which you're not strong enough to). So whenever the terrain drags your cadence down to some minimum (e.g. 70 RPM) then shift down to an easier gear to compensate. Don't change down too far: only one gear at a time and only as necessary.

The end result is that you're always pedalling at a good cadence and with a strong force: and that is as fast as you can go! Not "wasting your energy".

When you change gears (especially on a hill) it's convenient if you have nice gears which let you shift quickly while you're loading the pedals, or which require you to ease up on the pedals (to avoid grinding and jumping the drive chain) for only a small fraction of a second.

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It might seem like overkill to commute wearing a heart rate monitor, but it is one relatively inexpensive way that you can try to keep your effort constant (equal heart rate more or less equals the same overall effort). –  kmm Aug 18 '11 at 15:17

Hills can be frustrating. 'Jedi Mind Tricks' as well as common sense cycling should help you avoid that frustration and allow you to get more out of your ride.

Go as straight up the hill as you go down it. Keep your handlebars pointing in the direction you are heading, plot a course that avoids the bumps and try not to let the front wheel weave from side to side. Only on the steepest of gradients will you need to zig-zag across the road, for other gradients doing so is costing you precious energy.

You are out to efficiently climb the hill and you are not in a race. You don't have to use every muscle in your body. Rather than be out of the saddle, pulling on the bars with your tendons popping, keep a relaxed upper body, be seated and turn the pedals at a sensible cadence. Keep your upper body focused on breathing, your legs on pedalling. With higher cadence you will be breathing more, with a lower cadence you will be punishing your knees more. Find a gear that gets this balance right for you.

Don't get anxious - there is no top to the top of the hill. Well there is but you don't have to have your psychology set on it. Take the hill in your stride and not give a damn about getting up and over it.

Do your best thinking on the hill. Unwind from your day whilst you wind up the hill. Think about things you want to think about. Dream. Invent. Inspire yourself. Do this instead of getting frustrated by the hill. But do stay awake enough to be aware of traffic etc.

Remember that practice makes perfect. Just by doing the hill every day you will get quicker and better at it. Keep it up and, if you do the hill every day, it will no longer be an obstacle. Take time out and you will be back to square one - huffing and puffing.

Play cycling games with yourself. Go constant effort on some days. Go into 'burst mode' some days to push yourself quickly through corners and then ease up on the less steep sections. If you have got clipless pedals push through different parts of the power stroke.

Enjoy the view. Play more games. Imagine what car on the street you would have if you could have any of them. Do the same with the houses. Be positively nosey with the houses and give a good look at them as you crawl by. With a row of identical houses make judgements about which ones have the best gardens/extensions/paint jobs.

Don't get frustrated about your bike. It might have a mega-flexy frame, brakes that rub, tyres that are nearly flat, gears that jump and a seat that is not quite in the right place. If you find yourself getting agitated about the bike and it not being the best in the world then you have to deal with that when you get in. There is nothing you can do on the hill. Remember that it is the rider and not the bike, the $$$$ carbon-fibre mega bike would help but you haven't got one of those and you have to be content with what you ride. The fit guy on a heap-of-junk always gets pleasure passing the flabby guy on the posh bike. Be that fit guy and make the bike immaterial.

Think of your co-workers and your neighbours. Even if it is raining, freezing cold and hard-going on the ride home there is no point feeling sorry for yourself. In fact do the opposite. Even if it is total adversity then you will get a buzz through coming through it. They may be in comfy cars but it is not all gravy. It does not take you that much more time to ride. They will not have done a great deal in the time saved by driving. They might go out to the gym 2-3 times a week, you don't have to bother. Going to the gym costs money and it takes up a lot more time than what you 'wasted' by cycling. Also, those cars cost money. The person paying for a car works for 5-10 hours a week just to keep the car on the road. Take pride in your cycling and see every pedal stroke as earning you money. Privately pity those people in nice warm cars with a nice stereo and cup holder.

Enough may not ever be enough for you. Your journey time, speed and exhaustion levels after the ride may not be what you expect. Put aside your angst at not being quicker, see yourself as flying up the hill. Imagine yourself to be a better ascender than a descender. When you imagine climbing to be one of your cycling strengths you will be more confident and happier doing it.

Do an experiment with the speedometer. Try out of the saddle and in the saddle. Note how your speeds are lower when out of the saddle and bear that in mind on your daily rides thereafter. Keep the speedometer on and make mental notes of what you expect on given sections. Don't push yourself to always improve the speedometer times, however, should you note that you are slower up your pace because you know you can do it. Don't let the speedometer demoralize you. It will always show an average below what you are doing and it may be in single digits on the hill. Don't worry about it.

Don't stop. Don't contemplate walking. Defeatism is not allowed. It also makes for poor time. Keep on keeping on. Think of the long-distance lorry driver and how he gets further up the road in a shorter time than the flash-car motorist that is forever pulling over to service stations. Or think of the tortoise and the hare. It is all about keeping going.

Don't expect to master the art of hill climbing overnight. But if you keep at it then it will come to you.

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This is very good advice. And it's very moralising. Thank you for taking the time to write this. –  Alexandre Martins Mar 27 '12 at 14:26
    
great answer, loved the bit about imagining the inside of the houses / gardens –  robthewolf Oct 14 '12 at 14:38

The gradient and length of your hill will influence how you handle it.

Generally speaking it is good to maintain your momentum for as long as you can. Standing up is fine if you're intending to power up a short hill. If you're in it for a long slog, it is good to stay seated, put your hands on the flats, breath deeply and keep the upper body as relaxed as possible. Occasionally stand up and mash to break the monotony or force your cadence higher but you'll waste energy if you do it too much.

It certainly is possible to be in too low of a gear (especially on a triple like you have). If you're spinning quickly and the steering is slightly wobbly, your gear is too low and you should try something higher and go faster.

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On relatively steep hills with a sweeping turn to the right (US) and good shoulders on both sides I've been known to cross over to the "wrong" side (which I usually never do) since the slope is noticeably less on the outside of a turn. You do travel farther, of course, so it's a bit like dropping down a gear, only you are able to go faster, with less wobble. –  Daniel R Hicks Aug 18 '11 at 18:36
    
yes, absolutely. This is especially effective on switchbacks-- outside if you need the rest, inside if you want to be badass. –  Angelo Aug 18 '11 at 20:07

On a longer hill, it's more efficient if you pedal while sitting. You can get quick acceleration standing up, and climbing a hill is essentially acceleration (gravitational), but if the hill is very long most people are more efficient taking it sitting down.

I find that I can climb a hill faster at a lower gear and a faster cadence than my normal "straight and level" cadence. This may be because my normal cadence is a little slow.

It is faster overall if you work harder to get up a hill than you do on the level and downhill. For example, if you climb 1 mile at 15 mph and descend one mile at 30 mph, your average speed is 20 mph (not 22.5). To increase your average speed by 0.8 mph in this example, you could increase your uphill speed by 1 mph, or you could increase your downhill speed by 4 mph to accomplish the same thing.

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Yes... no... all depends on the hill and your goals. :-)

O.k. generally for daily riding (e.g. you're not trying to attack it like you're in a race) then find the most comfortable gear.

Spinning vs. not spinning - in theory high cadence while going up a hill will save you legs for later in the ride. The pros will do this cause they have more stages/sprints/hills to contend with, and it does help on long distance rides imo. But in day in day out riding might not matter as much. Bicycling Magazine's book on basic cycling techniques tends to prefer high cadence on hills.

Standing vs. sitting - again really up to you... I try to sit on short climbs as the effort is actually harder, but I'm trying to prep for some rides with major hills in them. Standing is useful when you need that short burst of momentum to get up the hill, but generally is not something you do for the whole climb. Generally you stand for short steep sections cause you need to use your body weight to help turn the pedals.

So until you get used to the hill it really comes down to experimenting since a lot of factors go into it (e.g. how tired are you, how much are you carrying that day, wind, etc.)

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An answer I had posted previously:

I ride both SS/FG and approach climbing hills much of the same way I would if I were on a geared bike with one very big exception...MOMENTUM. When on a heavily geared SS/FG I gain as much speed as possible going into the hill and push hard to maintain it throughout the climb.

Basic climbing tips:

  • Slide back on saddle and drive heels through the bottom of the pedal stroke

  • If you need to stand, do so while minimizing body sway and
    unnecessary counterproductive upper body motion

  • Get into a rhythm - climb at your own pace

  • Stay upright to keep lungs operating at full capacity

  • Pull handlebars into your thighs as you drive pedals forward

Hope this helps!

Added information more specific to your question:

Standing vs. Sitting - when standing your legs are now carrying your body's full weight compared to sitting when the brunt of your body weight is being supported by your saddle. Standing requires more energy, but also allows for greater power output. Notice how when standing you breathing increases dramatically. So what does this mean? Typically if the climb is a short, sharp spike then standing may be required and fatigue is less likely occur. If the climb is very long, it is probably wise to stay seated until you are about at the crest or the end of the climb is in sight.

In terms of gearing, try to not let your climbing cadence drop below 75 rpm. Once cadence is in the 60 rpm range you are shifting from aerobic to anaerobic exercise and muscle fatigue will set in much faster. On flats, your cadence should be in the 85-95 range.

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I'll note that cadence seems to naturally drop as we get older. I ride every year with a bunch of older, quite experienced riders, and all have cadences probably below 75 most of the time, even though the same riders, when younger routinely did 85-90 rpm. I know my cadence has certainly dropped off. –  Daniel R Hicks Aug 18 '11 at 15:35
    
@Daniel R, curious what age range are you describing here? –  GuyZee Aug 18 '11 at 17:13
    
I'm 62, and noticed myself slowing down maybe 5 years ago. The rest of the group is mainly 50-70. –  Daniel R Hicks Aug 18 '11 at 17:21

Mostly what ChrisW said. If you want to become a competitive cyclist you might want to do it differently, but if your goal is simply to enjoy your cycling while building some reasonable degree of strength and stamina then --

  • Maintain a constant cadence (sort of)
  • Maintain a constant level of effort (sort of)

The "sort of" is because it's fairly natural to decrease cadence and increase effort when going up a hill, and do the opposite going down, and you need not be a slave to the above rules, so long as you don't go overboard.

But one important thing to consider is that high effort pedaling at low cadence is especially hard on the knees. So you're doing your knees a favor if you gear down and pick up your cadence, especially on hills.

What cadence and level of effort? Some days you'll feel like working hard and some days you'll want to take it easy, so there are no fixed values. But what I've found is a good rule of thumb for me is to make 1-2 turns of the crank for each breath I take. This automatically adjusts between cadence and level of effort -- if you increase your effort you also increase your cadence, and if you're pushing it too hard the rule cues you to either cut back on effort or drop to a lower gear.

Added

One thing to consider, especially if you're not a particularly strong rider, is your "escape route", should the hill (particularly an unfamiliar one) become simply too steep to climb.

Since your feet are glued to the pedals (if not clipped in, at least well planted against the force of the hill) it's hard to simply stop without falling down. Sometimes there's nice soft grass along the side, so you can fall into that with minimal chance of injury, but that's something of a rarity. It's better, if you can, to "turn downhill" and come to a controlled stop. This works best on the outside of a banked turn on a lightly-traveled road, where you can turn into the roadway. Otherwise you can try to work yourself out into the traffic lane enough to be able to turn toward the shoulder.

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I've never had problems stopping while going uphill when needed. Is this a peculiarity of clipless pedals? –  Neil Fein Aug 18 '11 at 20:34
    
It's perhaps a peculiarity, to a degree, of being a weak rider. Certainly it's less of a problem with toe clips (vs "clipless"), and much, much less of a problem plain old flat pedals. –  Daniel R Hicks Aug 18 '11 at 21:03
    
Okay, fair enough. That one took me a while to master; now I don't even have to think about stuff like balance. (For the record, I use toe clips or flat pedals.) –  Neil Fein Aug 18 '11 at 21:07

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