How do I
... Climb a Mountain?
do we start?
Climbing is something that fills all of us,
no matter what our skill or experience, with varying levels of
anticipation, excitement and dread.
Even the worlds greatest climbers are always
afraid that someone, something or even the climb itself, will beat them.
But it doesn't have to be that way for us
mere mortals. Everything is doable. You just need a capable
strategy to help tackle the big problem. This factsheet is for
mountains and hills. The principles are the same, just the pain
lasts longer on one than it does on the other!
Climbing gives more people more problems than
almost the rest of the other cycling disciplines put together. Here's how you break down those
seemingly insurmountable problems in to manageable
chunks. Here is how you can tackle your worst nightmare; this
factsheet won't make you a grimpeur but it will help you grimp.
Climbing is an art. There
are many things you can do to make yourself a better climber, one of
them is to "climb like a climber". Which sounds a stupid statement
but let's talk it through.
Some people climb like they're wrestling an
octopus. Arms, legs, shoulders, head. bike everywhere. Cycling is
all about economy of effort and never is that more true than when you're
a little further back on the saddle than you normally would. This
is where the fantastic "extended" fizik Arione saddle is a God send.
I bought my first one in 2004, about a week after they launched; how
everyone laughed. Within a month I'd bought five, one for each of
my bikes, even my turbo bike! They're that good. People stopped
laughing at them a long time ago.
Perch yourself off the back of your saddle
and push down like you were pushing your feet in to a pair of wellies
(gum boots for our foreign friends). Keep your back as straightish
as you can, with your hands on the tops. When you pedal, make a
conscious effort to drop the heel slightly at the bottom of the stroke.
Feel the power just forcing through the pedals.
You can sit more upright on a climb because
you don't normally need to get an aerodynamic advantage. Your main priority
is to get an uninterrupted flow of air in to your lungs, and from there,
in to your muscles. Hands on the tops, a straight back and open chest will facilitate
Keep the arms relaxed (although when the
going gets tough you can pull on the bars) and try everything you can to
relax the upper body and keep the shoulders steady. It's easy to
see when someone's in trouble on a climb; watch for the drooped
shoulders. If you're in a race and the rider in front starts to
drop their shoulders, give it a dig if you want to lose them.
So there it is; rule number one! Keep
still, keep relaxed, keep pedalling. Make a conscious effort to do
this and if you're out with mates, keep an eye on one an other and keep
reminding them and make sure they remind you. You will be amazed
at the difference it makes to your forward, upward progress.
Standing or Sitting?
The big decision. Each has its merits
and there's a time and place for both. Generally, the gradient
will determine your position on the bike. But climbing a 20
kilometre mountain seated will hurt your back and hurt it bad.
Trying to climb it out of the saddle would just be wrong on many levels!
So there will be times when you need to get
out of the saddle just to stretch your back and just to shake the neck,
shoulders and arm muscles loose.
Sitting hunched over the bars
tightens the muscles and muscles don't like being tight. So mix it
up on big climbs and gradient changes if you want to make the best of a
tough situation. Here's two exponents of the two options.
Climbing seated is around 8-12% more
efficient than standing. Obviously we're all different but the
general consensus (peer reviewed, anecdotal, my power meter) is that
seated is best and here's why.
Standing causes you to use more muscle mass
(arms, shoulders, core), which demands more oxygen provision to service that
muscle mass requirement. Standing gives a lower perceived effort
which is what we're all trying to achieve, isn't it? But at an
increased oxygen consumption and heart rate cost. Which causes
long-term issues and not in a nice way.
Higher oxygen demands require a higher heart
rate to help meet that demand. The higher power output will also
cause higher lactate build up. So when you stand, stand sparingly
and get it over and done with quickly. Before you cause more
problems than you solve.
When standing, the tip of the saddle should
just brush your thighs. Don't hang over the front of the bike.
I've only ever had to do this three times in my life; the Koppenberg, La
Redoute and the stupidly steep
Muro di Sormano.
It's not a good look and it doesn't make you
any quicker. But it does stop you toppling backwards. Unless
you're on one of these three keep your weight central over the frame and
between the bars and saddle. Remember, breathing cleanly is your
The need to stand has to be balanced against the need to
maintain efficient forward momentum. So when the gradient
increases and the revs drop you need to use more muscles, and more power, to
keep your cadence in the happy zone.
This happens generally on the inside of
hairpin bends and switchbacks. If you're in a race situation there
may be a need to attack the inside corner out of the saddle to gain an
advantage over those taking the long way round. Get in, get out
and get sat back down in the right gear and at a cadence that best suits
The optimum cadence is different for all of
us but the technique isn't. At all times your objective should be
to pedal fluid, neat, steady circles. Stomping on the pedals isn't
conducive to a good experience. Keep your foot steady and level
and just drop the heel as you push down to the bottom of the stroke.
I'm not in to all this, "pull up with your
opposite leg business" and "scrape mud off your shoe" but I do like to
concentrate on smoothing out the pedal stroke to keep a circular pattern
with a steady power application for a full 360 degrees. Always try
to stay on top of the gear and find the sweet-spot for your pedalling
comfort. Don't "do a Lance" and try to hold 100 rpm. Do what
suits you, just do it quickly and efficiently!
Is important; another pearl of Williams wisdom! It's so
easy to fall in to the trap of letting your breathing get ragged and out
of tune with your body. Concentrate on your breathing as much as
you do on your pedalling. In fact the two are very closely linked.
Breathing should be deep and rhythmical, not
shallow and snatched. Once you start ragged breathing, ragged
cycling quickly follows. It's a cause and affect situation.
You take a shallow breath, you can't feed your oxygen requirements, you
start to go in to oxygen debt, you panic, you take a snatched second
breath and the decline in to oblivion has already started.
Pay very, very, very close attention to your
breathing patterns and synchronise them with your pedalling efforts.
When you get the two in to some sort of balance it all begins to flow.
You won't necessarily be quick but at least it's sustainable until you
regroup your resources and feel confident to kick on again.
This is absolutely vital when you're
climbing in the mountains. Most of us sea-level dwellers
completely forget about the strangulation effects of altitude.
It's the invisible hand around your throat that steals oxygen from your
Oxygen content in the air we breath is
around 21%. It's still 21% at altitude but the air pressure at the
top of a mountain is lower than that at the bottom, so the effect is that of the air being
At 2115 metres, which is the top of the Tourmalet,
there is 78% of the atmospheric pressure found at sea level. So we
only get 78% of the expected oxygen molecules in to our body. Which makes a
bad situation 22% worse! If you don't think this is enough to
affect you, how would you feel if you were given a 22% pay cut?
Now you know have this information you can
use it (and your power meter) to make sure you "power back" to a
sustainable threshold as you climb any given mountain. I'll come
to that later.
Attitude not Altitude
Fight or Flight? It's how you prepare
mentally, not just physically, for any climb that will determine your
path to the top.
Will it be a hard slog where you embrace the
pain and take on the world? Or is it going to be a fight against
nature where the whole world is against you and you're looking for
excuses to bale out at the first opportunity?
Climbing is hard, of course it is.
That's why we do it! If cycling was easy it's be called football.
Soccer for our American cousins. So let's not kid ourselves this
is easy. Expect a hard time and suck it up. Bring it on,
find your limit and ride just below it. The rewards for conquering
your first mountain last you a lifetime.
Weight ~ Yours not the bike!
hill and mountain climbing speed/comfort/enjoyment is
primarily governed by your power to weight ratio. However, there
is a law of diminishing returns.
There's more on this subject in the
Climb like a Pro factsheet, so I
won't trouble you with it here.
However, for a 70-odd kilo rider, it's
easier to lose two kilos than it is to gain 15 watts climbing threshold.
Because they're the numbers you need to hit to maintain the same power
to weight ratio.
Losing six kilos could put a six-foot, 70
kilo rider in to serious health issues. Apart from losing weight,
you'd probably lose around 70 watts of power so you'd be in even bigger
trouble if you tried to climb a mountain. You'd be lucky to be
able to leave your sick bed!
everything in moderation. I'm sure the vast majority of us could
probably lose a kilo or two when we take on the big mountain challenges.
Just don't go mad, keep an eye on your
health and once you're back to sea level, let a kilo or so slip back on
again. We're not pros and you don't want to look like Wiggins in
the photo above or Rasmuusen in this shot.
It's not a good look and you ain't going to
pull on the beach in the summer. Especially if you've got mahogany
arms and a body that's Daz white!
If you want to climb better, lighter wheels
will help. Carbon ones are nice but you really don't want to be
descending super-fast descents you don't know, especially in the rain,
on wheels with, what can best be described as, an inconsistent braking
Go light, go alloy and lay off the cream
cakes until the day after your big climb.
Wheels will help you far more than a lighter
frame, saddle or handlebars.
When I started these sportive jobbies in
2003, I had a standard chainset but went large at the back. For
2004 I looked at the events I was doing and threw on a triple chainset,
it's all that was easily available at the time. I hated it!
I found myself selecting the inner chainring
through fear rather than necessity. I remember climbing the 29
kilometre Col de Portalet in the
in the inner ring and suffering the whole way up. I was just going
In 2005 a compact (that were slowly becoming
available) was fitted and I've never looked back. You get the best
of both worlds and can easily find a gear for the steepest, longest,
baddest of climbs and still have a big enough gear for the sprint on the
Having said that, I climbed Alpe D'HJuez in
58 minutes (to the proper finish!) on a standard chainset. So be
brave if you feel you can be but a compact is really the way to go for
Now we come to my favourite subject. Trust me, nothing
will get you up a mountain quicker than climbing just below your "blow
your nuts off threshold".
One of the biggest problems you'll have
climbing mountains or hills in foreign sportives, or any new event, is
knowing where the top of the climb is and what the gradient is actually
going to be doing around that corner.
When climbing I try to hold a pace I know
won't cause me to blow. In the mountains this is around 220 to 240
watts. Now I know this doesn't sound a lot but it is sustainable.
I held this strategy for the
Ventoux Master Series Challenge,
well I did for the later rides, and banged out some remarkably
consistent and repeatable efforts.
As I said, this figure isn't high, but it is
possible (for me) to hold it for two hours or more in the mountains and
their rarefied air. As I
mentioned above, you have to allow for the gradually decreasing oxygen
availability at altitude.
Your objective is to find what works for you
(be it power or heart rate) and stick to it for the duration of the
climb. One of the great climbing pleasures is to see those that
left you behind at the bottom of a climb, coming back to you, being caught,
getting passed and then dropped like a stone, a kilometre from the summit.
microcosm of this in action is when we ride our Classics Circuit here in
Jersey. One of our speed-power climbs is 90 seconds long and is
climbed at an average of 400 watts.
In the early weeks we hit it at
full speed and try to hang on as long as we can. If nothing else
it keeps us warm.
We end up with a (yellow) power
profile like the one above, not pretty. A big 500w spike at the
start that peters out to around 200 watts as we crest the top, in a
basket and fit for nothing.
the same climb come March and April. Much more measured, a steady
(green) cadence and fairly consistent (blue) speed profile.
The peak power is lower but the minimum
power is much higher and the average is marginally higher by
around 20 watts.
The big difference now, is that when we get
to the top we can attack. We've climbed it quicker, with less
physiological stress and with more reserves available come the summit.
In May it paid off when I took ninth place in the Ble D'or Sportive,
attacking on the final climb and sprinting to the finish.
Fluid & Nutrition
It's always difficult to eat and
drink on a mountain (you shouldn't need to on a hill!) but you
need to fuel the engine and the brain. So here's the best way.
Around 10k from the base fire a gel down
your throat and take a swig of drink. This will kick in on the
When you're a kilometre or two form the base
take a couple of bites of a power bar and get it down your throat and
settled before you start your ascent. As you reach the base, take
a sip of drink again. This will kick in higher up the climb.
Don't eat too much as you'll divert blood
and fluids to your stomach and could get a bloated feel. It's
tough enough climbing without having added gastric distractions!
When you get to a sweeping bend, go wide,
find a flat bit and learn to get your bottle out of its cage, in to your
mouth and back in the cage in four pedal revs. Do this often.
There should be no need to take a second gel
on the mountain but there will always be a need to drink. Save the
gel for the descent especially a caffeinated one. It'll help you
concentrate when cornering at speed and keep you alert when slightly
How do you climb a mountain?; a kilometre at
Climbing mountains and big hills are what
stand us out form the commuting crowd. Don't be afraid of them.
Ride them like you would ride in to a headwind. Stay steady, don't
fight the bike and keep within your limits, don't try to match the limits
of those headstrong fools around you.
Food is important, drink is essential.
You'll be doing a lot of breathing on a mountain and if you've ever
climbed one in the cold you'll see the steam pouring from your mouth
like fire from a dragon. Well that's not fire, it's water.
So remember to drink.
Stay seated but stand when you have to.
Find a rhythm that suits you and keep your weight in check if you want
to enjoy it more. Because it can be one of the most enjoyable days
on a bike. Conquering mountains and nailing descents. (Went
up Alpe D'Huez in 58 minutes, came down in 11:08) It really doesn't get
But finally, do what's right for you.
Take the bits of this article
that work for you and ignore the rest.
Now go and find some big hills, take them on
and book yourself on a sportive that takes on the classic climbs.
Suffering has its rewards.
Why How do I...?
This section of the website was inspired by
a suggestion from Morgan Lewis of Puncheur fame. It also
sends us back to basics, which is what this site was initially set up to
address; before it became all sciency and technical!
This section is for answering all those
questions you have but don't know who to ask. To some it will seem
overly simplistic, to others it will be a shining beacon in a fog of
uncertainty. Whatever the need, it's all designed to help you realise your potential.
Any thoughts, suggestions or requests for
content, which are more than welcome, will be given my full attention
after my afternoon power naps.