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How to Train Your Bike to Climb


I used to be TERRIFIED of climbing on a bike. Terrified.  Sometimes, when I first started riding, I would see a hill coming and I would turn around. Leave. Adios. Didn’t really matter the size of the hill (because really, they all look worse than humanly possible) – I was still terrified.

After over two years now of going to Coach M’s spin class and hearing:  “It’s a beautiful day to climb on a bike!” OR “Make friends with the climb!” OR “What a wonderful morning to suffer on a bike!”… some of it has started to sink in a little.

Interestingly, the Expert and I put down 47 miles – in the hills yesterday- and I can actually walk today.

Seriously. The day before I hurt my foot in February, we had ridden 50 miles on the flat Silver Comet trail. However, because Augusta 70.3 in September has rollers, Coach Monster declared that I needed to get out on the hills. Which is fine. But he scheduled FIFTY miles? That’s twenty more than I had done in the rollers. But…. we did it, save 3 miles. But the reason I didn’t finish the last three was simply time – I had somewhere to be… and I was already late.

The title of this post is a little tongue in cheek, obviously.  You aren’t training your BIKE to climb – you’re training its clumsy rider.  But once the clumsy rider learns how to climb, the climbing is not as bad.  And like Coach M says, you may find yourself making friends with it.  47 miles later… it is clear that the Monster’s madness is working.


“Embrace the Suck!”
This is a Chris McCormack phrase, but also part of the Coach M philosophy.  Make friends with the climbs. Embrace the pain. Acknowledge that the difficulty is about to commence, recognize the toughness and prepare your mind to focus on the effort.

“Where Can You Relax?”
Do not underestimate this one. Like most brilliant triathlon advice, I can also attribute this gem to Coach Monster.  Keeping your upper body completely relaxed – right down to your face muscles – saves energy and makes the climb feel easier.  Do not lock your elbows. Do not clench your hands to the point of white knuckles.  Do not scrunch your face. Don’t grind your teeth. Keep everything up top relaxed and you will be amazed at the energy it saves on the bottom (and the next day!).  I was not naturally able to do this – but I practice this everywhere, including spin class and when I am in the car in Atlanta traffic and some d-bag cuts me off.   As you are going up hill, keep your chest open, with your elbows kind of close to your body and loosy-goosey.  It makes a massive difference.

Get in a Good Gear BEFORE the Hill.
This does not mean to slam the bike into the lowest gear – that will make a mess and cause you to overspin, possibly topple over and make a fool out of yourself.  [I am not sure how I know this.  I take the Fifth.]

Caveat: if you are a new rider, you may want to shift down to the lowest gear when you get to the hill just to ensure that you have time – just bear in mind that you could overspin and calculate accordingly.  And finding the right gear for each hill takes practice, but eventually, you will instinctually know where you  need to be, gear-wise when you get on that hill.  But make a move with your gears before you are on the hill, being devoured by it.  If you are pushing a hard gear downhill and find yourself halfway up a hill and screeching to a halt… you may find that you cannot spin that pedal, nor downshift—-and you may fall over.  [I do not know how I know this either.  Fifth.]

Buzz up the Short Ones, but Otherwise Stay Seated
If you can buzz up the hill quickly and it won’t blow up your legs, then don’t fool with the gears and just pop over the hill.  If you grossly underestimated the hill when you are halfway up and you realize you are about to be in serious trouble, you  may want to pop out of the saddle and get over it that way. “When possible, keep your rear end on the seat and keep your cadence high. This assures a maximum transfer of your energy into power. Need more power? Drive your rear end to the back of your seat as you push on the downstroke. Also, lean forward. Keep your elbows flexed but pull on the side of the handlebar opposite from your downstroke. This helps you use your gluteal muscles as well as your leg muscles.” (from REI).

“Push your butt back!” 
This is a Coach Monster phrase as well.  When you see the hill coming, stay seated and push your rear to the rear on the seat.  As you drive your feet downward on the downstroke, use your glutes to push forward.  You will want to lean forward though, because pushing the butt back is going to unweight the front end ever so slightly – got to try and keep your center of gravity in…well, the center.

Repeat Eminem Lyrics.
Okay, so this is mine.  Some how repeating the lyrics to “‘Til I Collapse” in my head gets me up the hill faster.

“Keep Your Head Up!”
Yes, Coach M again.  Head up, eyes wide, chest open. Do not look at the ground or your bike.  Keep your head up to allow your airways to remain open and get the O2 to those punishing lungs.  Not to mention, you best be looking at the road at all times. Unfortunately, I have been caught on camera in most race photos with my head staring down at my feet. I am a repeat offender.

Err on the Side of Safe.
Riding a bike is dangerous, more dangerous than many of us realize.  We have sadly been reminded of this lately with the accident at Iron Girl Atlanta.  Some good tips that I have received from the Expert (who actually is a pretty good technical cyclist) and others:  Err on the side of caution and slower speeds, especially on a downhill.  Do not suddenly grab your brakes on a downhill.  When you are headed downhill, your body’s center of gravity has shifted towards the front wheel.   Keep your butt back on the seat as much as you can in order to keep your center of gravity away from the front. Brake carefully, lightly and steadily  to control your speed on a downhill.  Be careful with your front brakes:  if you use excessive front braking you can go over the handlebars; same with front braking through corners.  If the front tire hits some loose gravel around a corner while you lock down that front wheel on a corner, you can cause the front tire to lock down and the bike to slip out from under you. Always brake before corners.   Learn to ease into braking and use more pressure on your back break. A good habit is to rely on your back break and use the front break when in a straight line – this will help keep you from using the front break in an emergency situation and going over the handlebars.

Don’t Take the Downhills “Off”
More Coach Monster wisdom.  Within the bounds of safety, if you can keep pedaling and working hard downhill, you are going to have an advantage over riders who take the downhills off to rest.

“Perfect Pedal Strokes!”
By keeping your foot flat on the bottom of the stroke and using those clipless pedals for what they were designed for, you are able to put more power where it matters and become an efficient cyclist.  Coach M reminds us in spinning class to have “perfect pedal strokes.”  This means keeping our feet flat in the bottom of the stroke and engaging our hips on the upstroke to keep a perfectly engaged, circular pedal stroke – a push and pull motion.  In other words, use the entire pedal stroke – don’t just stomp your feet downward – also remember to pull upward on the pedal.  See? Perfect circles.

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Oh, and the “somewhere I had to be” which was the reason for cutting my ride a tad short – I was asked to speak at the Getting 2 Tri Foundation’s  paratriathlon camp close-out lunch – Mike McBlessings – the President and founder of the awesome organization – had a last minute cancellation.  I was able to wing a little chat… meet some awesome people AND meet a SBM friend, Lisa from PA.  Hugs all around!

SBM & new friend, Lisa.

G2T Athletes, Supporters and SBM. McBlessings is the McHottie in the middle.

Snazzy pedicure... which one is "which"? 🙂



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