Knowhow: How do I get better at hill climbing?
Better in the sense of faster is mostly about improving your power-to-weight ratio. On this, those tiresome fitness articles are correct. To climb hills quicker you need to reduce your bodyweight or train more to get stronger, ideally both. Reducing the bike’s weight also helps a bit.
‘Better’ doesn’t have to be racing related, however. It can mean ‘getting to the top of a steep hill without walking’ or ‘going for a hilly ride and enjoying it rather than hating it’. Here’s what you can do other than dieting and training.
Don’t go too hard at the bottom of a long or difficult hill. Start slowly to stave off fatigue. Downshift as soon as your speed starts to dip and keep pedalling at an easy(ish) cadence.
Don’t stay in the same gear, pedalling slower and slower, then desperately downshift. Gears shift better if you ease off the pedalling pressure, which you can’t do if you’re already straining to turn the cranks.
Fit lower gears
Drop-bar bikes in general and road bikes in particular are over geared. You can verify this by visiting Hardknott Pass when the Fred Whitton sportive takes place. Many fit riders will struggle to make the climb. Some will walk up it.
Smaller chainrings and/or larger sprockets are the answer, but these are mostly found in mountain bike groupsets and they’re designed to work with mountain bike derailleurs and shifters.
Drop-bar shifters typically have the wrong cable-pull ratio to operate mountain bike derailleurs, which limits you to the larger gears that manufacturers deem appropriate for road bikes. Fortunately there are workarounds – see sidebar and also Richard Hallet’s advice on whether you need lower gears.
Don’t listen to anyone who says you should be able to ride up any hill using a 34/28 bottom gear. It’s macho nonsense.
The best bottom gear is the one you’ll happily pedal up any hill, while still being able to balance. If you fancy 20/36 or 30/51 as a bottom gear (15-16in on 700C wheels), fit that.
Use an e-bike
If lower gears aren’t sufficient, you need more power: an e-bike gives you an extra 250 Watts. For hill climbing, the other important number is torque. More torque means better climbing.
If you’ll be riding with electric assistance most or all of the time, a mid-motor with high torque (such as 65-85Nm) will get you up steeper hills best. That’s why high-end e-mountain bikes and e-cargo bikes use such motors.
If you only want a helping hand on hills, however, and will spend a lot of each ride cycling without assistance, a lighter bike with a motor that produces less drag when it’s switched off may be better for you – even if it has less torque. A 40Nm motor will still get you up most hills.