Get Over It: How to Climb

Riding a fixed-gear bike in the hills might give you the willies. In Florida, there are not many opportunities to acquire or practice it. I’ve ridden fixed over some ridiculous inclines, including a double-crossing of the Sierra Nevada that involved a 19% pitch that I cleared in 49×18, and Mont Ventoux, which I cleared four times in one day (three pitches in 48×18 and one in 48×19). You need some tricks to pull that off. Here are those tricks (all of which are totally applicable to riders on geared bicycles):

Stand and deliver. The consensus is that most riders, on most pitches, most of the time are best off (meaning, they’re using energy as efficiently as possible) the more they stay seated. On a fixed-gear, no matter your gearing, you’re not going to be able to stay seated as long as you could on a geared bike. At some point as the pitch increases or you tire, your cadence will slow to the point where you must stand.

Climb out of the saddle with good posture. No death grip on the bars! Look ahead. Don’t lean too far forward. Keep your upper body quiet — some rocking of the bike side-to-side is natural. This can take place without your upper body swaying radically. Do not bob up and down. If you’re bouncing up and down like it’s the Summer of Ska, then you’re not transferring power to the pedals. You’re shooting for relaxed and smooth. If you look like you’re just killing it going up a climb, then you’re not. You’re killing yourself and you’re going to blow up. You want the energy to go into the pedals, not into looking gonzo, so quiet down that upper body and relax. You want to look like this just ain’t no big deal. If you don’t look or feel like that, then slow down and relax.

Standing with a high cadence. Unless your first name is Lance and your last name is Armstrong and you’re racing Pantani up Ventoux, don’t do this. Standing means low cadence. If you can turn the gear over without going anaerobic, then do so. If you turn a high cadence while standing on any pitch of significance, you’ll blow up faster than you can say “Floyd Landis.”

Hoods. Some of this advice about standing will be tough(er) if you use track bars rather than road-style bars with hoods. There are hills you won’t be able to climb without hoods but that you’d get up relatively easily if you had them. Bullhorns are better than track bars if you can’t stomach the aesthetic of road bars and hoods. Bar tape is key. Wrapping your bars like a track rider or using grips will hurt the climbing cause. Slippery tops and corners make for a poor grip which makes for poor leverage which means you better have your tennis shoes with you because you’re going for a walk. Wear gloves. You want a light grip on the bars. But you also want a secure one.

Climb Steady. Keep a constant effort. That means starting off the climb at an effort that’ll feel way too easy. You’ll think you should be going faster. Until you have beaucoup climbing experience, don’t. Pick a nice easy effort. Maintain it all the way up the hill and over the top. If you’re nearing the top and you feel like you have gas in the tank and you want to burn it, then burn it. But start things off easy. You don’t want to be that guy who goes nuts at the base of the climb and then blows up with a third still to go. The steady climber will get to the top before that guy, and she’ll get there feeling stronger, more confident, and not trashed for the next climb. Or, for the descent that, on a fixed-gear, requires a lot of work and concentration. You don’t get recovery on the descent when riding fixed, so keep that in mind when pacing yourself on the climb.

Constant effort, not constant pace. You want an effort that is even and that you can maintain all the way up the hill. That means your speed will change as the pitch of the hill does. That’s fine. That’s good. That’s efficient. On a fixed-gear bike, you’ll “feel” even the most subtle changes in pitch in a way you’ll never appreciate on a geared bike. Most cyclists will try to judge pitch visually. This is nearly impossible – discerning slope angle by looking at something head-on is tough to do. Feel the road. Adjust your effort accordingly.

Where’s the top? Successful climbing is about planning the climb and meeting out your effort accordingly. Knowing how much of the climb is left is important. Sometimes you can see it. But a lot of times, you can’t. Or, worse, what you see is actually a false summit — you saw a horizon line because of a change in pitch and you have more climbing left than you have legs. On a fixed-gear the only bailout gear is to walk, so you better get the effort right.

If you can’t see the top — and know that’s truly the top — then you have a few tricks. Is there a cell phone tower or a water tower up there? If so, the base of it is almost always the top of the hill. No matter what the road looks like it’s doing, you’re likely going all the way to that structure. Plan your effort accordingly. Are there power lines parallel to the road? If so, use them to evaluate whether there’s a false summit in the road. You’ll be able to see whether they go up or down beyond where it looks like the pavement tops out. If they’re still going up, then you probably are, too.

Make sure you know where the climb starts. Lots of hills start as false flats. If you cross a bridge with a water course under it, then the second you cross that bridge, you’re climbing, no matter what it looks like or feels like. That water knows what the lowest point in the road is better than you do.

For stuff that’s steep or has big elevation change and multiple pitches, check it out on a Topo map before your ride. Look at the climb on Google Earth to identify markers at various elevations or transition points that can help you pace yourself: “The 19% pitch ends where the guardrail does;” “There’s a driveway where the grade drops below 10% for good;” “At treeline there’s only 1,000 feet of climbing left.” Don’t be afraid to ask someone who’s done the climb before for advice. Knowledge is power, so for steep or big stuff, go get yourself some knowledge.

How do I figure out the right effort? When I first started riding hills my mantra was, “Ride a pace that would not ride [my lovely spouse] off my wheel if she were here.” She’s climbed some huge mountains on a bike, but she’s not quick. A conservative approach works. Most riders jack it up early and then blow up later. That’s demoralizing; it makes you think you’re weak, you were in over your head, or your training sucked. The conservative approach, on the other hand, is confidence-inspiring stuff. Build up a good base of success and confidence and then, if you have the legs for it, turn the pace up a notch. Also, look at pacing this way: you’re riding a fixed-gear. No one will ever give you guff about the pace you went up some hill. They’ll be floored that you went up it at all. Shoot for getting over the hill without having to hoof it and even if someone beat you up the pitch decidedly, they’ll still think you’re a stud.

Rollers and ramps. What constitutes a “hill” is relative. But for all of us, there are pitches that look like you can just roll over them if you drill it for a few pedal strokes. Usually you’re better off doing just that and maintaining your pace (which means an increased effort on the climb, violating my “constant effort” rule, above), especially in rolling terrain where you can work the descent hard and use most of that momentum to carry you over the next pitch. You’ll carry a much faster speed through the rollers and spend less time in those quad-killing low cadences. A useful move is to stand out of the saddle and grab the drops (like you’re sprinting) to generate the extra power.

Tacking. At some point, the pitch gets steep enough that you cannot go straight up it in a given gear. Tacking means weaving side to side to make forward progress. Forget about the lane markings — when your cadence drops to the point when you’re not sure you can push the pedal at 12-o’clock all the way down, then your goal becomes to use as much of the pavement as possible to climb the hill (make sure you have no traffic to deal with). The longest line you can take up the hill will be the line with the least gradient, and this is what you want. Pay attention to camber in the road and switchbacks, if the road has them. Both can affect the pitch. You’ll need to consider how steeply you can cut your turn as you run out of pavement. Too steep, and you’re going to bang the up-hill pedal into the pavement.

Keep in mind that on the wacky-wacky, on a fixed-gear bike, you will NOT be able to re-start from stop. The pitch is just too great to mount the bike and with one leg (because your other is unclipped) drive the pedal down 180-degrees. Because of pedal-strike, you cannot use the road-bike trick of descending and banging a U-turn on the retardedly steep climb. On the wacky-wacky, if you stop, you’re eff’ed. You’re walking the rest of it.

When you get to a hill that’s going to tax you to this degree, recognize it immediately. Bring your cadence down to as low and slow as you can maintain it. You want to keep your heart rate as low as possible, for as long as possible. Slow way down so you have plenty of reserves for the part of the climb where things get stupid. Do that and, with some will power and ridiculous amounts of hamming on one pedal while pulling up with the other and pulling up/pushing down on the opposite hoods, you’ll get up the bastard in good order.

Your mantra here is, “push the top pedal down.” As long as you can get the crank around 180 degrees, then you can continue on. If you fail to do that, even if you’ve got a great track stand, you’re probably walking. Just focus on shoving each pedal down, one at a time. You’ll eventually get there. Big fixed-gear secret: here’s where fixed is easier than single-speed on any geared bicycle. As long as the bicycle is moving forward, the pedals will turn, which means you can get yourself a tiny bit of rest while the pedals roll into the next position and you hammer on them again. On a SS or geared bike, you’ve got do do 100% of the work to put the pedals in position. No rest for you, freewheel rider!

Big-ass mountains. Ain’t no big deal. Just like headwind. Pick a gear you like. Enjoy. Alternate standing and sitting to get your muscles and parts that touch the bike some relief. Do not go anaerobic unless you like to hitchhike. Stop and rest before you blow up. No harm in that. A few short rests will easily be made up by the higher rolling speed you can maintain. Blow up and it doesn’t matter how fast you were going, or that you were too manly to rest, does it?

Easy grades. A big deal. Long stretches of stuff around 3 or 4% just kill you on a fixed-gear whereas on a geared bike, you’d be like, “Whatever.” On fixed, you’re feeling over-geared here. And if you crank it up to keep with your roadie buddies, you’re going to pay for it later. So just relax and ride your (very inefficient) ride and hope your friends wait for you down the road.

Descending. On a fixed-gear, it’s actually harder than ascending, but it only gets one paragraph. You want to be like Fonzie. Cool. You’re the Zen Master. You are totally relaxed. There is no stress or tension in your body. You’re not thinking about anything, but especially you’re not thinking about pedaling a bike. That’s a dark thought that’ll slow you down. You’re driving the pace, keeping some pressure on that gear: you want to keep your feet just slightly ahead of the pedals. If you let the pedals push your feet around, then you’re going to start pogoing and it’s all over. You’re in the drops — you get way more control over the bicycle and put your upper body in a more stable position that way. Look down the road — not at your feet. Remember you only have so many ludicrous (150rpm-plus) spinning sessions in you. Do this once in a ride because it’s cool or to show off, but otherwise, put a leash on that puppy and hit the brakes.

Alright, here’s some advice on gearing. Saved the best for last. If your hilly ride is of any length at all, you want something that sucks for both climbing and descending. Otherwise, you’ll soon be in trouble on one or the other. You want Goldilock’s porridge. My general climbing gear is 70-72″. If I’m riding hard, I can crank that up to 80″ (and I’ve done 84″ though some big hills on long rides) in all but the silliest terrain (none of which is found in Florida). Gear selection is all about experimentation, especially in hilly terrain. If you have a brake, err on the low side. Better to pull the plug on a descent than to have to walk up a hill, tweak your knees, cramp, or blow up.