This is an excerpt from Mastering Cycling by John Howard.
Acquiring new cycling skills or improving those you already have is easier with professional instruction, but continual improvement comes with practice. Practicing new techniques will not only improve your skill level, but will also build your confidence and make you more comfortable negotiating roads that have ascents, descents, sharp turns, or other challenging features. Becoming a good climber requires patience, and when you have perfected your technical skills, you should schedule hill repeats in your training.
Negotiating changing and challenging terrain is what cycling is all about. It can thrill, intimidate, frustrate, or delight. Unless you are a born-and-raised flatlander, you are aware of the effects of gravity and the need to become a better, more-efficient climber. Maximizing your climbing potential requires improving your strength-to-weight ratio and technical skill. The steepness of the terrain and the length of the ascent will dictate when you remain seated and when it is necessary to rise out of the saddle.
Climbing in the Saddle
Honing your technique begins when you climb in the saddle and literally goes up from there. Imagine that you are climbing a hill with a grade between 2 and 3 percent. As you feel your rpm drop off, you shift into a smaller gear, increase your cadence, and maintain your speed. To keep your heart rate down, you try to stabilize your power by staying in the saddle, but the hill keeps getting steeper, and lactic acid begins to accumulate in your legs. Slide back in the saddle to leverage more force from your glutes and quadriceps. As the hill steepens further, try pointing your toes to bring the gastrocnemius and soleus (calf) muscles into firing position, boosting the back side of your stroke during hip flexion (see figure 6.1).
As the hill becomes steeper still, you must add more force to your hip flexors. Coach Ian Jackson refers to this scenario as the coup de torchon, which roughly translates to “the power of the dishtowel.” Imagine holding a dishtowel tightly in both hands and then quickly moving your hands in circles. This image demonstrates the steady flow of power that should be distributed through the cranks as you pedal. To keep the center of the dishtowel in the same place, the pressure exerted by one hand must be equally exerted by the other in the opposite direction, then applied all the way around. Your objective is to connect the push of your pedal stroke with the pull to create a continuous application of power on the pedal for the entire stroke. Riding with a flat back and bent elbows lowers your center of gravity and engages the core muscles, delaying the accumulation of lactic acid in the primary muscles.
As you climb, the hill becomes more precipitous, and you wonder if your tire is rubbing against the brake pad. At this point, many riders start losing ground. Their form deteriorates as they elevate their center of gravity, straighten their arms, and begin to fight the bike (see figure 6.2). Experienced masters cyclists remain low in the saddle, keeping their core muscles engaged and focusing on rhythmical and deep exhalations. Instead of yielding to the perceived forces of gravity, they dig a bit deeper while maintaining proper form. When your core muscles are effectively engaged, you enjoy greater stabilization, increased leverage, and a better distribution of muscular force and power. If the hill continues to challenge you and your rpm drops more than 10 percent below your target (for example, 65 to 70 rpm), it may be necessary to shift down, increase power, or leave the saddle (see figure 6.2). Climbing out of the saddle is usually the last resort since your rate of metabolic burn will climb as well.
The art of fast, efficient climbing requires the ability to recognize the precise moment when action is needed and to know what action to take. Should you shift down and stay seated, increase power output and risk being unable to sustain the effort, or leave the saddle and burn precious energy? At some point, it is prudent to climb out of the saddle since it produces more power and gives your muscles some much-needed relief. Delaying the decision too long will result in the loss of both speed and momentum. No magic formula exists for determining your course of action, but momentum must be preserved. Toggling between climbing in and out of the saddle may be a better choice for preserving power and for extending the life of your muscles.
Similarly, no magic formula exists for shifting while climbing. Your gear selection and shifting sequence depends on the available power, your fitness level, and the pitch of the climb. Cyclists who are more comfortable pushing big gears will climb using higher gears than those who like to spin the pedals at a higher rpm in lower gears. The length of the climb also dictates your approach. Shorter climbs allow you to produce more power than long climbs, in which conservation of energy is important. If you are starting to climb a long, gradual hill, use a gear that is comfortable and lets you maintain an rpm of about 90. When your cadence begins to slow down, downshift to an easier gear. If you are going to stand on the pedals, you may want to shift up to a higher gear so that you don’t waste energy spinning.
Climbing out of the Saddle
As when climbing in the saddle, when you are out of the saddle during a climb, your goal is to maintain your heart rate and to increase forward momentum. Holding your hands on the brake hoods and your arms bent at the elbows and pointed slightly away from you, use your upper-body strength to leverage muscular force. To do this, pull on the handlebars while thrusting the leg on the same side. If done correctly, you will lighten the load on the major muscle groups in the lower body while improving the coordination of power and forward momentum. You may need to shift up with the extra power produced. The biomechanical requirements of climbing out of the saddle are very similar to those involved with sprinting. Sprinters apply an explosive burst of power to quickly bring the bike to maximum velocity, but climbing out of the saddle is a slower, more-sustained movement that brings you up the hill faster (see figure 6.3).
Gravity will win the battle if you surge on the pedals, pull and push your upper body forward or backward, or worse, pull your upper body up and down, disengaging the important core muscles. The primary force in moving the bicycle forward is generated at the 3 and 9 o’clock positions of the cranks. A common mistake among less-experienced riders is mistiming the thrust of the cranks. Power is dissipated at the top and bottom of the stroke, which is essentially a dead zone when out of the saddle. See figure 6.4 for an example of incorrect climbing out of the saddle.
Another common flaw is the tendency to rock the front wheel off center when climbing. Weaving up the road takes longer and costs you more energy, so try to maintain a smooth, circular pedal stroke. Balance your weight and center of gravity relative to the grade. If the grade is slight, you may remain seated or move out of the saddle to a position directly over the saddle and the crank axis. Steeper grades will require you to stand and position yourself forward to stay in front of the pedals.
Read more from Mastering Cycling.