The Lowdown on Going Up

You don’t need us to tell you that if you’ve signed up for a hilly sportive – like the Prudential RideLondon-Surrey 100 – it’s a good idea to tackle some hills in training. Check out coach Andy Cook’s tips on how to get to the top…

Sit Down

Sitting in the saddle for as much of a long climb as possible is the most aerobically efficient way to the top. Sitting back in the saddle will give the large muscles at the back of your thighs more leverage to pedal. Standing up on the pedals out of the saddle is more powerful but will use vital glycogen stores faster. Even so, getting out of the saddle occasionally is essential to give your bum a rest, get circulation flowing again, and varying the muscle groups that are doing all the work. When you are out of the saddle, try to resist rocking the bike too much, as exaggerated ‘honking’ is inefficient and can waste energy.

And Relax

It’s a waste of energy and tiring to grip the bar tightly and consequently tensing your upper body as you climb. Relax! Work on climbing with your back straight and shoulders back, with your hands resting on the bar tops. This will open up your diaphragm, making more space for your lungs to expand into and improve your aerobic efficiency. Changing your hand positions on the bar will help avoid any pressure or repetitive strain injuries such as ulnar neuropathy. When standing on the pedals, it is best to position the hands on the hoods for maximum stability.

Chase me, chase me!

Despite the motivational advantages of sitting on another rider’s wheel up a climb, there is little aerodynamic advantage to be had from drafting at climbing speeds. The more likely effect of trying to stay with a faster rider is that you will tire yourself out before the top and end up walking. But if you can find similarly paced riders, climbing in a group is more social and may offer protection from crosswinds or headwinds. Beware of riding too close to the wheel in front of a rider who is climbing seated, as when they get out of the saddle they may slow enough that you ride into them. Likewise, try to keep your pace when you stand. When tackling hairpins, remember that the shallowest gradient is always on the outside of the corner.

Gears Ideas

A steady cadence of about 90rpm is ideal. Don’t let a gear get too far ‘on top’ of you before you change into an easier one. This will sap your precious glycogen reserves, and changing down with too slow a crank speed puts a lot of pressure on mechanicals. Just before you stand on the pedals, change up to a bigger gear to compensate for your lower cadence and to keep your power consistent. Change back into an easier gear when you sit down again. If the gradient backs off or a tailwind gives you a helping hand, change up a gear to pick up your pace and keep your cadence and power output steady. If you consistently find yourself struggling, fit easier gears.

Pace, don’t race

Pacing is crucial to deliver your best effort on a long climb. Some big UK sportives and most mountainous European events have several climbs that can take up to an hour to ascend. So if you go too hard, too early, there’s a good chance you could blow before the top – and even if you don’t, going into oxygen debt and digging too deep into your muscle glycogen reserves may irreparably damage your whole ride performance. The key is to stay aerobic as much as possible until you’re ready to give it your all – perhaps in the last few miles of the event’s summit finish. If you’re using a heart rate monitor, this threshold figure will typically be at about 65 per cent of your maximum heart rate. If you’re riding on perceived exertion alone, you need to back off when holding a normal conversation is no longer possible.


  • Practice makes perfect – there’s no shortcut to better hill climbing. If you want to get better, not to mention fitter, you need to do it again, and again, and again, and again… A regular hill climb can also be a good fitness test to gauge your training progress.
  • Don’t forget to fuel as you climb. An energy gel in the preceding miles will also help you arrive better prepared for the effort.
  • Lose weight. Power to weight ratio is everything for climbing, and every extra gram of body fat will make it harder work – and hotter too, as fat insulates more than muscle.
  • Don’t let your body overheat: make sure you undo zips and remove outer layers so that your body can maintain the constant temperature it needs for metabolic efficiency.
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