How to master steep climbs

A nemesis for some, a playground for others, steep climbs are one of the toughest terrains cyclists encounter. Here’s how to conquer them.

Clock17:22, Wednesday 10th April 2024

There are arguably no bigger challenges in cycling than climbs with leg-burning gradients — and nothing more frustrating than watching a mountain goat glide up them whilst you virtually grind to a halt. It’s not too surprising then that some riders love them, and others loathe them.

Whatever you think of climbs, there are some easy steps you can take to improve your climbing technique on the steep stuff. We can’t promise you’ll discover your inner mountain goat, but these will make the climbs easier and, dare we say it, more enjoyable too.

Here are our top tips for conquering steep climbs.

Arrive fresh

Pacing is a key part of cycling. It’s about not pushing too hard and keeping something in reserve. This works well for many types of cycling, but is much more difficult on double-digit gradients when simply moving can put you at your limit.

There’s not much you can do to avoid this, but you can ensure that you arrive at the foot of the climb as fresh as possible. Ease off the pedals for a bit to catch your breath and build oxygen in your lungs in the build-up to the climb. That way you should have more left in the reserves when you are grinding up the slopes.

Hone your climbing technique

Most people find it easier to generate power while climbing out of the saddle, but this isn’t sustainable for very long. Instead, it’s best to remain planted in the saddle. It’ll take a bit of practice and won’t be as fast, but it will be more efficient. To help, bring your bum further forward on the saddle to balance out your weight and stop the front wheel from jumping up.

If you’re struggling to keep your cadence, that’s the time to ride out of the saddle for a short burst, to rebuild momentum.

Come prepared with the correct gearing

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. The oft-stated cliche definitely applies to gearing for climbs.

There’s no point in rocking up to a steep climb with a monster chainring and close-range cassette, as you simply won’t have the gears to make it up the climb.

Modern bikes usually provide a wide range of gearing, meaning a compact chainset and wide-range cassette, but you can swap these components out if necessary for even more generous gearing. This is usually only worthwhile if you live in a hilly area where you regularly encounter steep climbs, rather than steep climbs being a rarity.

Remain positive

Start the climb with negative thoughts of failure and the chances are that you’ll end up giving in halfway up.

Try to keep positive throughout the climb. This will be easier if you break the climb down into smaller targets. It could be aiming for the next bend, or a distance marker. It’s surprising how manageable little targets like this can make a climb, and they can really help to produce a positive mindset.

Don’t be embarrassed if you fail

Everyone fails now and again. It’s a part of life.

The key is to bounce back and learn from the experience. So, don’t be embarrassed if you come up short and end up walking some of the climb — we've all been there! It’ll serve as a valuable experience when you return for your next attempt.

Do you have any other tips for climbing steep gradients? Let us know in the comments below.

Check out more cycling advice and how to guides in our dedicated section on the GCN website.

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