First of all, equipment does matter. The heavier your bike (or you!), the more weight you have to carry up the hill. I thought I needed granny gears (a third chain ring [gasp!]) on my road bike. Wrong. I needed a lighter bike. You cannot believe the difference in my hill climbing when I bought a better bike.
That said, even more important for me than my equipment, was my confidence. I’ve heard that hill-climbing ability is 90% mental, and I believe that’s correct. Simple ways to make climbing easier:
- Rather than looking up at the top of the hill as you laboriously climb towards it, focus on the ground just a few feet ahead of you. Try it the next time you ride and tell me that you didn’t suddenly find yourself in a more relaxed rhythm with easier breathing.
- Take a break if you need it. I used to think that once my legs burned too much or my breathing felt too labored I needed to walk the rest of the hill. Wrong. A riding coach told me one time to pull over when that happens and take a break for 30 seconds to a minute. Then get back on the bike and continue up. Unbelievably when I tried it, I found that the rest of the hill was a piece of cake. It’s actually easier to ride the rest rather than walk your bike up the hill.
- Practice hill repeats. Having difficulty climbing steep and/or long hills when you ride? Find one and just go up and down increasing the reps as you get better at it. The more you practice in a controlled environment, the easier you’ll find it when you encounter a hill you don’t know. Plus in the process you’ll strengthen your muscles and increase your breathing capacity.
- Know that your legs will keep moving. If you get to a steep section and feel that your legs can’t pedal anymore, simply move into a harder gear and stand up for five to eight strokes, then shift back into your easier gear and sit again. You’ll breath a bit harder, but you’ll give your legs a break in the process.
- Take a spin class. I was never an indoor-spinning believer before, but I am now. To get me ready for my hilly 70-mile Philly Livestrong ride, my trainer worked with me on hill-climbing in the gym on the spinner. He had me standing for two minutes, adding tension, doing seated hard climbs, and sprinting. We worked in two minute segments and built up to five minutes, and after a couple of sessions I could do anything he asked. That work immediately translated to my road bike — I was stronger, faster, and more confident on every hill.
For me, realizing that after a 30-second break I could climb the rest of the hill with ease was my tipping point (pardon the pun). If I could recover THAT quickly, did I really need that break after all?
Earlier this year I hated one hill, Rebecca Hill, the most. She is long, and she is steep, and then she keeps going up a curve. In June I had to stop twice — once at the very beginning and once about halfway up — to get up her. Then one day I got pissed. How long is this climb, really? At most four minutes to get to the top? I lasted nine years with a tumor on my pancreas, I can last four minutes! So I refused to stop. When I made it to the top I was breathing heavy, and my quads burned a bit, but the pride I felt in pushing past my previous limits was far greater than any pain I had felt.
Since then my attitude towards hills has completely changed. I don’t care what their names are or how tough someone says they might be. To me, to quote a friend, they are simply “a change in elevation.” I just keep pedaling. I focus my vision a few feet in front and find my rhythm and look forward to the swell of pride at the top followed by the thrilling downhill reward.
And now, the only rides that are fun to me are the ones with hills. (I cannot believe I just said that.)