Cycling the Alpes

Many cyclists feel intimidated by hills especially when starting out when cycling legs haven’t been developed yet.  But even if you’re not new to cycling hills can still be difficult to manage and how you feel about them can affect how you feel about your cycling. Being scared and intimidated by hills can ruin your enjoyment of cycling.

So here are some tips and useful bit of information that have helped me over the years.

  1. Cycling legs: If you were previously a runner you might well have a good endurance and cardiovascular fitness so you don’t get puffed out. But it might be several months or even seasons before you find some cycling specific strength in your legs to get you up a hill. This was certainly my experience. So be patient, keep training and it will come.
  2. Bike set up: Other things that might make hills super hard on the bike are the wrong bike set up. If your saddle is too low or too far forward you’ll be overworking your quads and get tired very quickly. So it’s well worth getting your bike set up checked out.
  3. Gears: Use all of your gears and don’t be ashamed of using them. If you need an easier gear to get up a hill and you have one then use it. Its not wussing out or cheating. It’s efficiently making use of your bike and your legs. Warwickshire is pretty flat relatively speaking. But the truth is I use all of my gears every time I ride my bike. If you’re not sure if you’ve got enough gears discuss it with a friendly and supportive bike mechanic to see what your options are. I added an extra gear to my bike for a trip to the Alpes and I was so glad I did.
  4. Think ahead: Try and think ahead before you get to a hill. Anticipate what the hill might feel like and as soon as you feel your speed decrease change into an easier gear.   It can be difficult to change gears while you’re on the hill, going slowly with a lot of pressure.  But by changing late you’ll also be wearing your legs out and losing momentum.
  5. Technique: Riding hills is often about technique and experience. The more you know a hill the easier it will be. If a hill beat you the first time you did it I bet the second time you try it’ll be easier. If you have a race that’s hilly try and ride the route before hand so you can get to know the climbs.
  6. Momentum: If there’s a bit of down hill try you could try and speed up a bit first so you get the benefit of some momentum to carry you up the hill.
  7. Climber or Sprinter: Figure out what type of cyclist you are. Are you built for climbing (probably light and strong) or built for being on the flat (heavier). This makes a difference to how you use your energy and how fast you to get up hills.
  8. Embrace your strengths: I’m definitely not built for climbing and when I came to terms with this it really helped me. It means that when I’m riding in a group I’d have to work super hard to keep up with the group. But then I’d be wondering if we were having a tea break on the flat. Also in a race lots of people go past me going up a hill and I think I’m doing something wrong.  But now I’ve come to terms with it I pace myself going up hills rather than chasing everyone so that I can conserve my energy rather than going into the red.
  9. Energy management: Your body has a limited amount of energy available for your ride and how you use that energy can make a difference to how hard or easy you find your ride. A common mistake is to work super hard up all the hills. This will of course get the hill over quicker and if you know the route and how many hills there are is one strategy.  The danger is that you go into the red on every hill burning more energy so you could run out of energy.  In addition riding hard up all the hills is a little bit equivalent to doing an interval session so it can make it feel a lot harder than riding steady.
  10. Pick a gear: Choose an appropriate gear! If you using a gear that’s too heavy you’ll wear your legs out really quickly. If you use a gear that’s too easy you’ll likely get out of breath, your legs will spin round nice and gently but you could be wasting energy and not be travelling very far.
  11. Experiment: If you use the same type of gears all of the time you’ll never learn anything of develop your skills. If you’re a grinder you’ll never get better at spinning. If you always spin you’ll never get stronger through using heavier gears. So experiment. Try different gears and using different cadences.
  12. Hill Reps: Do some hill reps. This is the best way to get stronger legs and better at riding hills. It will also help your technique and help you to learn something about your riding. Do 10 x 2min hills hard with the first 5 in a heavy gear at 50rpm and the second 5 in an easy gear at 90rpm.
  13. Avoidance doesn’t work: Avoiding hilly routes won’t make you any better at riding hills. Alternate your routes and choose some hilly ones on a regular basis. You’ll only get better at them if you ride them.
  14. Train your brain! It can be intimidating and dispiriting riding up hills because you can be riding super slowly compared to on the flat.  And it can take forever to get to the top. Break the hill up into sections and look around for signs and markers that show you’re making progress. Remember it’s hard for everyone and try and notice any negative thoughts and see what you can do to be more positive
  15. Don’t be scared of hills. You’ll get to the top when you get to the top in your own time. In the end what’s the worst that could happen? You have to walk up a hill. And then you get to go down it on the other side. When I realised that I finally started to enjoy my cycling!
  16. Get a power meter. This was a game changer for me and really taught me how I best produce the most optimal power for me to get up hills. I discovered that I was often spinning a gear that was too easy and going nowhere because I was scared of my legs tiring out (which they used to when I first started riding from being a runner).
  17. Enjoy: Don’t forget to enjoy the view at the top.  Remember what goes up always goes down. Without the up you’d never get to enjoy the down!