As we leave a miserable January behind us and begin to look forward to a year of cycling ahead, it's time to get serious about hills. The January challenge was all about getting easy simple miles under the belt but February is about really getting the muscles and body ready for those long summer climbs and future challenges of one-off efforts.
When I started cycling I used to hate hills, I mean really hate them, but over time I’ve realised that a good hill climb with a view on the way up is about as good as it can get for mind, body and soul.
Fundamentally hill climbing is about your power to weight ratio, this, as a rule, is going to take some time change as you gradually increase your power with more training and reduce your weight by focusing on your diet to exercise levels. But there are some simple things you can do now to become a more effective hill climber.
1. Gear selection
Far too often when we ride and enter a hill there are crunching of gears and load as riders struggle to get set for a hill they knew was coming. It’s very rare on a Waldy ride that we do a brand-new hill, so for most of us, we know when they are coming so we can get ready for them. The trick to an efficient gear change is to think about the hill as you approach it. Many riders will enter a hill, which may last for 5 to 10mins in a gear that they would normally ride on the flat. As the effort increases, they push hard and hard and most importantly they lose momentum. Once the speeds reduce, they think about changing gear but at this point, it’s too late and its followed by a horrendous crunching of gears as the rider tries to get to the correct gear.
Effective hill climbing is about rolling your momentum from the flats into the hills and then settle into a cadence that you can sustain for the hill length.
So, when riding into a hill try the following.
50m or so before the hill changes your front gearing from your big ring to your little ring. If the cadence is too quick, add a little gear at the back by shifting down the rear cassette. This avoids going into a hill with too much gear then changing gear and slowing your speed rapidly.
As you climb the hill, feed in the gears at the back to make it easier, and to keep your legs moving.
Manage your gears so your cadence (leg rotations) is between 75 and 90RPM. If you start dropping below 75 RPM you need to feed in more gear or get out of the saddle. Riding slow cadence on hills is a recipe for an injury.
2: Effort Levels
This month is about linking hills together to accumulate as much height as you can. You should be trying to work in HR or Power zone 3. For any hill over 5 mins in length, don’t worry if there is the odd steep section that needs a little more va va vroom. It is more about the average effort across the whole hill than absolutely maintaining a constant power or heart rate. For anything under 5 mins in length, it’s an ideal time to work at your threshold level (PW and HR zone 4) which is important for later in the year. Working for short periods of time at these intensities will provide a lot of benefit to your fitness and power levels, and start preparing your body for more intense training later in the year. Managing your effort levels will be important to avoid bonking, fatigue, and injury.
It’s best to always grow into the hill climb. Start at a comfortable effort and slowly increase your level. At the top of the hill, it should be uncomfortable to maintain that intensity for much longer.
Make sure you continue climbing with a climbing mentality until you are well past the top of the hill. Too often, the end of the hill is in sight and the rider does not drive through the hill with a high effort level. We have all fallen victim to the false finish to find the hill continues on further than expected.
3: Body Position
When climbing, try and stay seated as much as possible. Your body position naturally changes when you enter a hill due to the change in slope. However, try and be conscious that your bottom should slide back in the saddle slightly. Keep your hands on the hoods of the handlebars or on the top of the handlebar. Keep your shoulders relaxed and focus on driving your power through your legs into the pedals. If you are finding that you are wrestling with the handlebars and pulling on them then you need to think about more gear or getting out of the saddle.
Typically, coaches recommend getting out of the saddle when the gradient gets to above 10-12%. Unfortunately, we are not all pros and so my recommendation would be to get out of the saddle when your cadence drops below 75 and effort level become uncomfortable.
Some drills to improve hill climbing
Nothing will improve your hill-climbing better than practising. When riding hills try targeting one of two that you are going to ride at your maximum. Feel your way into the hill; Start at an even pace and build your effort as the hill continues. Try and max out your effort by the top. It should take you a good 3-4 mins to recover from a very hard hill effort. Try and maintaining HR/PW Zone 4 and then push into Zone 5 towards the top of the hill.
For the time-strapped cyclists here are some drills to do in a short ride of up to 90mins.
Threshold/V02 max efforts
Undertaking short bursts of high-intensity intervals will increase strength. It’s best to do these in hill-climbing conditions but best to find a hill that is not so steep you will be out of the saddle.
Find a hill that suits the interval length you are looking for: 2, 3, 4 and 5mins.
Spend 10 to 20 mins warming up.
Ride up the hill in HR zone 4/5 or Power zone 4 or 5.
Recover for twice the interval length.
Repeat so your overall interval efforts accumulate to 20mins to 30mins of high-intensity effort.
There are several ideal hills in our local area to practice this.
The ballet school climb, in Richmond park, from Sheen Gate, takes between 2 and 4 mins to climb. You can then go around the roundabout at robin hood gate and then do the climb again in reverse.
I would avoid Broomfield Hill (the focus of last years WW hill climb challenge) and Dark Hill as they are a real challenge for intervals; the steepness means you may have to get out of the saddle and not stay seated and driving the legs.
For those who are riding on turbos then below are some Zwift workouts you can use to improve your climbing strength.
Waldy Hill Climbing 1
This session is 80mins long and simulates two climbs around 20 mins long. Four 5 minute intervals are punctuated by 30 sections in zone 6. Make sure you get out of the saddle and attack the 30-second interval.
Waldy Hill Climbing 2
This section is 60 min long and focuses on leg strength and VO2 max intervals to improve your climbing power. Four sets of 2 mins at 110% FTP followed by Four Sets of 1 mins at 120% FTP. All the intervals are at a low cadence. Try and stay seated for as long as you can.
Good luck, and most of all, have fun !