I’m Tired of Being a Wannabe Climber. I Want to be a Climber.

There is a certain magic to climbing a hill on a bike. When you reach the peak of a hard climb, despite your legs screaming in pain, your lungs bursting, and the struggle of what you went through to get to the top, all that is remembered is the satisfaction of making it. Let’s face it, climbing can be bloody hard, but there are things you can do to make climbing easier. Here are some tips that we’ve discovered along the way to help make you a better climber.

Words and images by Brendan Edwards

Know Your Enemy

The more hills you climb, the better climber you will become. If you know of a good hill you haven’t climbed then add it to your wish list and go out and climb it. If you know a hill which is incredibly daunting, don’t shy away from it, go out and tackle it head on. If you can get up something ridiculously steep, nothing else will compare. It’s important to be able to believe in yourself, and have the strength to face any challenge that comes your way. That belief is driven from past success.

It’s also unlikely that you will do particularly well on your first, or even second attempt at a climb. Getting to know what you are up against on a particular hill will really help you go faster in the future.

This Heart Attack

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of your lungs burning, and heart racing on a climb. You want to slow down to catch your breath, but that’s just not an option… It’s amazing how easy it is to get drunk on oxygen once you get to the top. One of the most important aspects of being a good climber is having good cardio, and this is super simple to remedy – ride your bike lots. There is no short-cut, hard work and consistency is the key. Get on your bike, and do it often.

Along this same line you’ve got to be able to climb when tired. Those that have completed the 3 Peaks challenge can appreciate how hard it is to get up a climb like Back of Falls on dead legs, after having ridden 200 kilometres. It’s not called WTF corner because it’s easy… If you want to condition yourself, then any chance you get at the end of a ride, when you’re nice and tired, throw an extra climb in or three just to work those legs over a bit more.

Be the Big Dog

When you’re riding in the big chain ring you can generate more power, when you are in the small chain ring you tend to rely more on cardio to get you up the hill. If you want to be a truly good climber you need the ability to climb in the big chain ring for as long as possible. Really good climbers should be able to use their big chain ring for gradients up to 5 – 6% average, for an extended period of time. This allows the rider to rely more on their strength than their cardio, and this saves energy, as you won’t need to pedal as much to cover the same distance. Developing the strength to ride like this takes time, and it can be a mental, as much as a physical battle to keep a high cadence over a long period.

Plus climbing in the big dog just makes you look cool, and that counts for at least 50% of why we ride bikes anyway…

Stand and be Counted

Having the strength and ability to get out of the saddle to climb for extended periods is vital to becoming a good climber. If you’re only getting out of the seat when you’re forced to, you will probably only be able to do so for short periods. You will also likely find that you won’t develop the core strength needed to stand when it’s most important.

Getting out of the saddle is probably the biggest weakness of most riders. It requires more strength and energy than remaining seated, but is such a great skill to possess. When you’re standing you’re using your whole body to help move you up the climb. This effectively gives some of the muscles that you’re using whilst sitting a chance to rest, which will help you get up the climb a lot more efficiently, and give you a chance to get that second wind.

Red Means Go

Putting yourself in the red zone will help you to learn to push yourself well outside of your comfort zone, which is imperative to becoming strong. All climbers are familiar with the pain cave. Some may call it their “happy place”. Others just curse and want to get off their bikes and walk. If you want to improve you’ve got to remain strong and positive throughout, and don’t give up!

Climbing is not meant to be easy. When you’re in a group climbing it’s not necessarily the strongest climber who will get up the quickest. It’s the one most willing to enter the pain cave who will be the King of the Mountain. Climbing is as much a mental battle as it is a physical, and you’ve got to try and enjoy it as much as possible. Just remember that your mind won’t remember the pain, you will just remember that there was pain.

Becoming a climber doesn’t happen overnight. It may take years to develop the core muscles required to be a good climber. Over time you will find that you will be naturally getting up hills quicker, more efficiently. It’s no secret that to become a better climber you just need to climb. The more you climb, the better you get.
Hopefully these tips will help you get up a hill easier the next time you climb.

Brendan Edwards is the author of the Dandenong Ranges. Head to his blog for many more tales of climbing, adventure & Everests:
https://thedandenongranges.wordpress.com/

Also, remember to subscribe to this blog. Because it it awesome. Wacky-do, wowee, wowzers-type awesome. Do it. Bacardi and Coke, do it.

5 thoughts on “I’m Tired of Being a Wannabe Climber. I Want to be a Climber.”

  1. Big ring climbing is for young riders, and for those who want to contribute to their orthopedic surgeon’s next new Ferrari. At 76 years old, and still with good knees, I climb Tasmania’s many hills using a compact crank ( 34T small ring ) and a 32T on the back.

  2. What do you think of the mantra “spin.spin.spin” ala Chris Froome? reduces over strain injuries?

    also

    I have noted that speed up a hill is inversely proportional to weight on large group rides.

    1. Sure, spinning is the in thing right now. However, this article is about preparation and training. It doesn’t say ALWAYS jump into a fatty gear and grind, just that sometimes, in Brendan’s (and mine for that matter) altering your loads so that you are pushing harder, or in different gears, that you can create an adaptation, and ultimately be a stronger climber. I’m also not one that feels I need to be governed by what professionals are being told to do. I have noted that they all will spend some time out of the saddle, pushing hard, when the situation requires it. Even Froome is not immune to standing up.

  3. While it’s certainly good advice about getting out of the saddle and stamping on the pedals and utilising your whole body – there is a big difference between effectiveness and efficiency and it’s important to use those terms correctly (I’ll say that because I’m a nerd and work on efficiency for my work!)

    Efficiency is getting a better output for the same level of effort, while effectiveness measures just how much output you can get.

    Staying in the saddle and spinning the legs over and maintaining power (not torque) is always going to be more efficient from a physiological perspective than from producing that output by rocking your body from side to side and generally struggling.

    From the info I’ve read, utilising your cardiovascular system in this way is generally more sustainable over longer periods of time than using raw strength (which tends to burn your glycogen up). From taking my SS up a 12km climb with 10% pinches, the time was remarkably similar to on my geared roadie, but I was practically destroyed.

    Certainly in training you need to experience as much variety and be able to give your muscles and body a break (ie standing takes the pressure off your back a bit).

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