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Hill Climbing- By: Jasper Blake

“Hill Billy”

By: Jasper Blake

Alpe d’Huez, Mount Ventoux, Hurricane ridge, Mt. Lemon and Mt. Whitney are all examples of bike rides defined by the hills they go up.  Watch the Tour de France with someone who has conquered any of the famous climbs and they will proudly announce that they too have been there and done that.  Rides are often popular because of vertical feet they cover.  Adding to the prestige, there will inevitably be a local hierarchy of times established on the toughest climbs.  Held in highest regard will be the rumored times of cycling legends that have powered their way up, often away from the limelight.  Climbs are a pure test of cycling.  The safety of a pack no longer exists and it becomes an individual test of strength and endurance.  Legs churning, hearts pounding, focus narrowing, it’s a raw display of the bodies ability to endure pain.

The allure of climbing seems simple.  It offers that guaranteed workout often punctuated by an epic finish as the group accelerates to the top.  It offers that feeling of great accomplishment and often the reward of a great view.  Hill climbing is like a micro-lesson in life.  The tougher the challenge, the harder you have to work and the greater the satisfaction at the end.  Let’s not forget the prize that follows a great hill climb.  Barreling downhill, tiptoeing along the edge of your comfort zone, there’s nothing quite like that rush to remind you that life kicks ass.
It’s a great treat to write about something I feel a passion for.  Riding up and down hills is one of those passions.  Riding hills in either direction is a skill that needs to be worked on.  Practice makes perfect in most cases but understanding some basic ideas can really help the learning curve.
Seated or standing?

Ever notice that some people stand while others sit.  Experience has taught me a few things about these two positions and I have learned that there are pro’s and cons to both.  Hill climbing is accomplished most efficiently by maintaining a steady rhythm.  A good rule of thumb is to sit until you feel yourself losing momentum and then stand to maintain it.  Seated climbing requires less from your aerobic system but often more from the leg strength department.  Standing requires more from your heart and lungs but the ability to throw your weight on every pedal stroke can ease the burden on your muscles, albeit rather temporarily.
Upper body, lower body

In skiing we used to talk about the idea of separating the upper body from the lower body.  A wild and crazy upper body can and often does affect what is happening from the waist down.  Power is generated from the legs yet it is common to watch an inexperienced cyclist generate excessive movement from the waist up, almost as if every ounce of their body is being thrust into the pedal stroke.  One need only watch Lance Armstrong or any of the other great hill climbers to see a disciplined upper body in action.  Keeping the upper body quiet and controlled serves two purposes.  The first is that you can keep your front wheel moving straight.  Excessive upper body movement can cause minor direction changes and add distance which is obviously slower.  Secondly, upper body movement is often associated with muscle tension and exertion.  Hill climbing requires maximum efficiency so energy loss through muscles that don’t actually propel you forward can be a waste.

Naturally your cadence will decrease when you climb a hill.  Your choice of gearing becomes essential.  My recommendation is to try to maintain the cadence you would use on the flats especially if the climb is long.  If the climb is short, it is often appropriate to power over the hill to maintain speed.  Riding a massive gear uphill will surely shatter your legs in the long run so make sure you have the right gears and as importantly, make sure you are using the gears you have.

Nothing feels worse than the second half of a climb if you have gone too hard at the start of the climb.  Pacing is a key aspect to smart hill climbing, especially when you are doing races that don’t require you to stay in contact with a group like Ironman or a non drafting event.  In the past the general rule of thumb was to accelerate at the top of shorter hills so you could create gaps between you and your opponents.  I’ve learned that this is not a great strategy as it pitches your workload into a zone that you have to recover from, which will inevitably slow you down.  Instead, think of being smooth and maintaining an effort level rather than a speed while going up over rollers or short hills.  I think you will find this a much faster way to make it from point A to point B.

So climb away happy cycling enthusiasts, tone those leg muscles and work your heart and lungs and while you’re up there, don’t forget the experience.  Hill climbing usually offers a great view so take some time to enjoy it, you never know when an asteroid is going to destroy the earth or aliens will come down here, pick you up and take you back to planet zoltar for a scientific “observation”.

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