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On the Technique of Climbing
by Luis Bernhardt

Cycling, even on an extended ride of 200 to 600 kms, should be a pleasurable thing to do. Even climbing should be fun. I was a miserable climber during my racing career - I wore the sprint leader's jersey at stage races in Guatemala partly so I could justifiably dog it on the long, long climbs - but even then climbing was fun. Scenery on a climb is always exceptional with more time to enjoy it because you're going slower, the roads are more winding, often ending in colourful small towns with cobbled streets at the tops of high mountains. The key is to take it slowly and painlessly, and the painless part is all about technique.

Yes, there is a technique to climbing. Mastering this technique will make climbing easier, and it makes it possible to climb faster, but then it would no longer be easy. Racing uphill is an altogether different kettle of fish! Using proper technique, you can climb easier and a little faster. So because randonneuring is about cooperation and not competition, I will divulge here the arcane and mystical secrets I have learned over almost 40 years of racing and training, things they never tell you in the bike magazines:

But first, why should you believe me, a decent trackie, but a mediocre road racer (especially on long climbs) until the sprint in the final kilometre? Well, I honestly believe that the best athletes usually make the worst coaches. For the stars, everything came too easy. They were either physically gifted, or the technique just came naturally, so if you asked them to explain what made them faster, they wouldn't have a clue. The guy you do want to ask is the one who came second or third, but consistently. Without the natural talent to make it to the top, he or she had to work harder and think more deeply about things like technique. If you want, I can show you my national and world championship silver and bronze medal collection!

I am going to talk about climbing out of the saddle, because this is where technique becomes important. When you are sitting in the saddle, you are basically on a Universal Gym. The way you fit the bike prescribes how efficient you are. And, all I will say about sitting and climbing is this: When I was a young and foolish racer, it would take me about 55 minutes to get up Cypress Bowl. My lowest gear then was 42x21. Thirty years later, climbing as a clever Masters-age rider, I could do the same climb in under 50 minutes. My lowest gear was 39x25, and I used it. So, sitting down, it's better to spin up the hills. You don't need to be small and thin - Miguel Indurain was about my height and weight - 6'1" and 180 pounds - and he won five Tours de France. And one more thing: don't be bobbing the upper body up and down as you climb. Mountain bikers do this, and it's really ugly and inefficient. It must come from dealing with a front suspension. I remember once doing a 400 km brevet on a suspended Moulton AM-7 back in the early 1980's. Because you couldn't lock out the soft front suspension, you had to climb seated, and you had to compensate for the front end bobbing up and down (I actually learned to keep my body quite still from this experience, which really improved my seated climbing). When you climb seated, keep the upper body relaxed and motionless.

I also need to include a note, mostly aimed at beginners, about drop handlebars. Experienced cyclists already know this: drop handlebars DO NOT have an "intuitive user interface." When you first look at one, the "natural inclination" is to grasp them in the drops. While this is OK for racing on the track, it is WRONG for road riding. It is possible to ride an entire brevet without once going into the drops (I often rode entire road races without using the drops until the last three kilometres, setting up for the final sprint). Most people feel uncomfortable when they are in the drops, or they set the handlebars too high (too high a stem) because they think they need to be comfortable in the drops. No, no, no! You are SUPPOSED to feel uncomfortable in the drops! It is a temporary racing position best suited to sprinting or pounding fast into the wind. Most, if not all, of your riding should be on the tops - your hands on the brake hoods or on the flat part of the bars. This corresponds to where your hands would be if you had flat bars. But a drop handlebar is much more comfortable and offers far more positions for your hands than flat bars, absolutely critical for doing long rides without nerve damage. Climbing is almost always done with the hands on the tops (seated) or grasping the brake lever hoods (standing).

When you climb out of the saddle, you are no longer on a Universal Gym, you are on free weights. You now confront the problem faced by cross-country skiers - what is the most efficient technique? There are so many technical factors in being a decent cross country ski racer that, in fact, classic technique takes at least seven years to learn (I know, because I used to teach it). To climb properly out of the saddle won't take as long, but you do have to think carefully about what you are doing.

It is instructive to look first at bad climbing technique, out of the saddle: The guy's arms are straight, or he's hunched over with arms really bent. The bike rocks side to side. His knees are noticeably bent even near the bottom of the stroke. His body sways side to side, with lots of head motion. And he's overgeared. Conclusion: lots of wasted energy, lots of inefficiency, resulting in slow and painful climbing.

When I trained with legendary coach Mike Walden in Florida in 1991, I was taught two main things about out-of-saddle climbing: (1) keep the bike straight and (2) keep your head still over the bike. Rocking the bike is the first thing you must avoid; the squiggling front tire scrubs speed, forcing you to work against the bike. It's also bad for the bearings, especially radial cartridge bearings which are not designed for oblique forces that occur when you rock the bike as you're pounding on the pedals. (This is why Shimano still uses the old cup-and-cone thrust bearings with loose balls - they are more appropriate for the oblique forces imposed in cycling!). You also want to center yourself over the bike. Strive to keep your head in one place over the bike, and let your hips work naturally side to side. The more you can keep just the middle of the tires on the road, the less work getting up the hill.

In cross-country skiing, there are three principles you need to follow to gain utmost efficiency: (1) center all your weight over the gliding ski (we have just covered the bicycle equivalent of this!), (2) rest on skeletal structure, not on muscular structure (to be explained), and (3) use recovery motions to help propel you. The same would apply to cycling.

When you are out of the saddle, cycling becomes a weight-bearing activity. Your legs must now hold up your body. Therefore, resting these muscles becomes important. When you are standing at rest, you will naturally gravitate to being on straight legs, resting on your bones. The alternative is to get into an "athletic position," with your knees bent. This is fine for reacting to things, except now you are resting on your muscles, which will soon tire.

Apply this to the bike: I read somewhere in Chris Carmichael's writings that he likes the leg to be straight before the front pedal reaches the 3 o'clock position. This means that the pushing leg is straight, resting on skeletal structure, from at least 3 o'clock to 6 o'clock, at least a quarter of its cycle. Contrast this to someone who never straightens his leg, or only straightens it when the pedal reaches bottom, and then he has to start bending it again. This is one of the major keys to easy climbing - just straighten your leg as early as you can and let your body weight drive the pedal as you rest on skeletal structure!

And if you want to climb faster, just pull up with the back leg as you pull on the bars with your arms! (And not really "pulling," but just keeping the arms firm and keeping the bike from rocking by resisting the leg forces with the appropriate arm.) You can think of resting on the front leg as the recovery motion that is propelling you, and lifting with the back leg as the primary driving force! Don't forget to keep the bike perfectly straight!

Aside: This ability to use your body weight to get up hills is the biggest advantage of the standard bicycle over the recumbent. Recumbents not only climb slowly, but the leg press motion of the rider is bad for the lower back, especially if the rider is overgeared. I suffered from severe low back pain until I stopped doing squats and leg presses. Now my lower back feels much better!

Now, two more refinements: Your hands must be on the brake hoods; get your body as far forward as it can go. Be aware of your hip position and arm position. If your hip is too far forward, your arms are too straight. If your arms are too bent, your hips are too far back. Most cycling writers who haven't thought much about climbing only say "make sure it's easy to breathe." Well, OK. But back to cross-country skiing. The strongest position for your arms is when they are at a 90-degree angle. When you are using the poles, you keep your arms bent at 90-degrees until the final push/snap and release. You want pretty much to do the same on the bike, because your upper body must be a firm, stiff extension of the bicycle. In a sprint, the arms, shoulders, and back have got to be rock-solid in support of the driving legs. The same applies in a climb.

Everything has to line up. As the hill gets steeper, you need to bring the hip more forward, which means you need to straighten the arms a little while maintaining somewhat of a right angle in them. The brake levers need to be mounted such that the wrist is straight when grasping them from above. The back of the hands must line up with the wrist and forearm, the way a boxer holds the hands in punching - obviously an extremely strong position. With every small refinement, the body position becomes stronger, and the climbing gets more efficient and easier.

As with trying to learn classic ski technique, it's not possible to think of everything at one time. You have to focus on one action at a time, get it to be second nature, then focus on the next. Before long, things start to become fluid.

Another hint, this one psychological: climbing is easier when you are sitting on someone's wheel. For some reason, it's easier to get up a climb if you are focusing on the wheel ahead (as long as it is not riding away from you!). This is why the top climbers in The Tour usually have a teammate pacing them until it's time to attack. You focus on the wheel ahead, and you're not thinking about how tough the climb is, or how lousy you're feeling. I think this is a psychological holdover from sitting on a wheel on the flat. Since you know you're not going to get dropped on the flat, you carry this over as you climb, at least to a point.

There's a lot that can be said about conditioning the nervous system - how by spinning in a 70" gear at 90 rpm's in training, it then feels quite natural to spin a 95" gear in a race at the same 90 rpm's. But that's another article. Try developing the climbing techniques I have described, and see if the climbing doesn't become a little easier, a little more enjoyable.

Some notes on climbing on a fixed gear: For the Ryder Lake 300, I used my usual 42x16. The first section of climbing along Promontory was slow, but not difficult. However, my hamstrings did cramp up as it got much steeper just past Extrom, and things became difficult when it got really steep - my body weight alone was no longer moving the bike, so I had to really pull up with the back leg and with the arms. 42x16 was at the extreme limit for this climb, one of the steepest in the lower mainland. Sometimes you just have to tough it out.

May 6, 2009