cycling tips for climbing

7 Cycling Tips to Climb Any Hill (or Mountain) Faster

By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Head Coach of CTS

Climbing is the most intimidating aspect of many cycling events. When events or tours post their route details (or even virtual routes these days) a lot of people get hung up on the vertical gain. In many cases, they’re more concerned about the amount of climbing than about the stage distances or the hours on the bike. Rides with a lot of climbing – even 10,000+ feet in a day – don’t have to be intimidating. Here are the cycling tips for climbing that I share with riders.

Don’t Start Climbing Too Hard

A lot of people ride away from me at the bottom of a climb, but I often catch up to them within a few minutes. Whether it’s an hour-long grind up a mountain pass or a big rolling hill, going harder at the bottom is rarely the fastest way to get to the top. Attacking the bottom of a climb may be necessary and a good tactic in a race, but in non-competitive events or timed-segment racing, a more gradual start will likely allow you to maintain a steadier, more comfortable, and typically faster pace.

Don’t Rely Too Heavily On Your Power Meter

Many of us ride with power meters and they are great training tools. They can be great pacing tools, as well, as long as you take other information into consideration. Riders get themselves in trouble when they have a rigid mindset about power outputs. Your sustainable climbing power might be 285 watts according to the training software you use, but on Day 3, riding into a headwind at 10,000 feet above sea level, your sustainable power might be 20 watts lower – or more.

At every event I went to over the past several years I saw cyclists ride themselves into the ground by trusting the numbers they’re “supposed” to be able to maintain over the feedback their bodies were sending them. This is even more prevalent in multi-day events because most cyclists have less experience dealing with the stress of back-to-back big days on the bike. In 2020, with events cancelled and people spending more time on indoor trainers, we are seeing similar disconnects between the power riders can sustain on virtual climbs and outdoor climb. Many times you can produce more power outdoors than indoors, but it can also be harder to adapt to changes in pitch and environment outdoors.

Prioritize Perceived Exertion and Breathing Rate

Effective climbing is a matter of finding the right balance between exertion and comfort, and that balance can change in the middle of ride or even the middle of a climb. To climb at a sustainable pace, your breathing will be labored but it should be deep and rhythmic. If it’s shallow and rapid, you’re above a sustainable effort level. Your perceived exertion should be 7-8 out of 10, perhaps starting at 6-7 on long mountain passes.

What trips people up is that both RPE and breathing rate can gradually increase as a long climb progresses. You get focused on the challenge and start creeping your intensity level up. Before you know it, your RPE is 9+ and you’re gasping for breath. Pretty soon after that, you’re stopped or reduced to a crawling pace because you blew up. To avoid this, check in on your breathing and RPE every few minutes and evaluate whether it’s still where it should be based on your goals for the climb.

Get Your Feet Moving

There isn’t one specific cadence that works best for all cyclists. Pedaling too slowly puts a lot of stress on leg muscles, but pedaling too fast reduces economy and drives up heart and respiratory rates. Regardless of the starting cadence, during long climbs many cyclists gradually slow their pedaling. Many end up grinding along in a bigger gear just because they didn’t realize their cadence had gradually gotten slower and slower. As with breathing rate and RPE, check in on your cadence. If your legs are getting tired, shift down a gear to get your feet moving a little faster.

Get the Right Equipment

Back in 1985, I think I rode the Giro d’Italia with my lowest gear combination being a 42-tooth chainring and a 23 – or maybe 25 – tooth cog for the mountain stages. Drivetrains have come a long way in 35 years and it’s important to get the components that match the intersection of your fitness and the demands of the event. For long events with a lot of climbing, I recommend cassettes with closer ratios at the low end (smaller jumps between the number of teeth) and bigger ratios at the high end. It’s more important to be able to fine-tune your cadence and effort level than it is to have more high-speed gear options for the downhill.

Get Out of the Saddle Sometimes

You’re going to spend most of your time seated during long climbs, but it is good to get out of the saddle sometimes. Standing on the pedals lets you take full advantage of your body weight, but you can’t stand all the time because your legs and upper body muscles fatigue relatively quickly when your weight isn’t being supported by your saddle. There is no set rule for how often you should stand, or for how long, but many riders self-select to standing for about 30 seconds every few minutes. The terrain can also dictate where it’s best to get out of the saddle. When the pitch of a hill gets steeper, standing up and using your bodyweight over the pedals helps to maintain momentum in the face of increased resistance. Surges and accelerations are also a good time to stand up. In order to take full advantage of your bodyweight, and to avoid a loss of momentum in the case your cadence slows when you stand up, shift up one or two gears as you rise out of the saddle. Just remember to shift back into an easier gear when you sit down.

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Get the Right Mindset

Whether it’s the Alps, Rockies, or Watopia, the big climbs are going to take a while. They’re going to be challenging, and there’s going to be some pain. Embrace and accept the discomfort and the fact it’s going to last a while. Look around instead of staring down at the road. If it’s a mass-start race or timed-segment race, then tune in to your competitive drive. If it’s a non-competitive event, be nice to yourself and try not to compare yourself to others (like that super-skinny dude who just flew by you) or to a younger/thinner/fitter version of yourself (“Why is this climb so hard this year?”).

After all these years as a cyclist and a coach, “I love my bike” is the affirmation that works best to get me back to the right mindset when I’m struggling. I picked it up from NBA Hall of Fame basketball player Bill Walton. That’s his response if you ask him how he’s doing on Mile 1 or Mile 101, no matter whether it’s hot or cold or raining or windy, or whether he’s going fast or slow. When I say it, the phrase reminds me I’m doing what I love to do and I’m where I’m supposed to be, even if it’s a hard place to be at that moment.


Don’t let the numbers discourage or intimidate you. It’s just a hill (or mountain). You can train to get faster, but don’t underestimate your current abilities. Getting to the top is more about how you ride and how you think than how much power you have.

Have a Great Ride!

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Comments 32

  1. Pingback: Hill Climbing for Road Cyclists: Conquer the Heights with Pedal Power - Life-Fitness-Bike

  2. Pingback: Bike Climbing Skills For Challenging Hills And Mountains

  3. If you’re in a race go to the front to start the climb, ride your tempo, and you’ll be surprised how many people follow and not attack! P.S. Chris, I remember, begging for a 23! Lol

  4. Along the same lines as ‘I love my bike’, ‘keep the pressure on’ and ‘it’s just a hill, get over it’ 🙂

  5. Aca todos tienen la razón porque hablan desde sus experiencias. Lo mismo hace el entrenador. Recibir consejos es bueno y es bueno experimentar lo que otros sienten pero si ese no es tu ritmo, tu potencia, tu peso, tu ftp o tu cadencia, sencillamente rueda y experimenta en que lugar de todos estos factores te sientes bien y disfrutalo tratando siempre de superar esos numeros pero en forma lenta y no forzando tu cuerpo y no olvides lo mas importante, descansa para las etapas duras porque ese es el mejor entrenamiento que se complementa con hidratacion y buena alimetacion.

  6. Totally agree to ignore the power meter and listen to your breathing and know your RPE. The meter doesn’t know how you’re feeling and it doesn’t know about the sun or heat or altitude either…

  7. Unfortunately sometimes the best way to get better at climbing is like it is with other things: if you want to get better at it, do it more. But I found that during a race or a set of repeats with a rider who’s stronger than you, it helps to look at their back wheel if you’re behind them, remembering to look ahead every so often of course.

  8. When I get settled into a long climb and look for ways to improve my sustainability, I “push my tush” toward the rear of my saddle. It changes the angle over my pedals into a more extensive reach, allowing me to push more as if bench pressing.

    Thanks for a great article. I, too, ‘love my bike’.

  9. I’ve discovered that the consistency of cadence and (yes I am late on this) lifting the pedals and doing a full circular motion with my legs is better than just putting out power when the the pedals are going down is helpful. Also, I don’t look very far ahead, I keep my eyes on the pavement I’m front of me.

  10. After finally getting to complete a mountain road ride for the first time, I learned that you also don’t want to try and keep pace with riders you don’t know. I was visiting from lower altitude and many of the riders were from high altitude and more adapted to it. Even though I might be able to hang with them in my normal conditions, I could not keep the same pace in the mountains. Power was fine, breathing was another story. Ended up riding more solo on the climbs and then hoping in with groups on the flatter sections. Bonus was I met more riders.

  11. After flying trips to Maui weekly, I learned pacing going up Haleakala a couple times a month, which is 36.0 miles sustained climb average 5.6 grade. First few times I blistered the first 20 only to die the next 16 miles. Pacing pacing pacing
    Great article Chris

  12. Just did an 8 mile sustained climb with 4,000 feet of elevation. It was not as hard as I thought but at 40 miles my thighs were on fire. I need to drop 15 pounds and continue logging miles. There were 14 of us riding and I came in ninth. I was not trying to be competitive you notice those things. I’m 68 years old and we had one rider who was 82 years old. I wish I had started riding at an earlier age.

    1. I love to climb. I’m 76 and always include a good climb or 2 (3-4 miles) on my daily ride of 45+ miles. My most significant improvement comes with doing interval training a couple times a week, I.e., 1 minute 90 – 95% effort x 12 with 30 seconds rest between intervals.

    2. Oh my, I started riding at 56. I say the same thing, “ why didn’t I start riding at an earlier age.” But in all honest I love all the climbs. I’m still to this day amazed at what I’ve accomplished in three years of cycling. Funniest sport ever!!

  13. Great advice, I’m only cycling 3 years have done a few miles and always looking for better ways to improve my climbing. Losing weight is 1 and reading good articles like that will help a lot. 👍

  14. Pacing, pacing, pacing.

    Get into a sustainable rhythm.

    There are few things better than passing someone who rocketed by you at the bottom of a hill. 🙂

  15. Excellent article, the only thing I’d add is, look around. Don’t focus only on the front wheel and how hard you are working. Look to the side often and focus on your progress up the mountain. Your on a mountain why not enjoy the view.

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  17. Chris, at 62 I’ve done lots of miles racing, touring, and lot of climbing, and your tips are right on. Good on ya.

  18. Another tip is have elevation on your display and use it to monitor progress, giving yourself a little reward every 100m or so climbed. This can be motivating when you hit hard sections since it may be harder but the elevation numbers go up quicker

    1. When going down hill I look far ahead but do the opposite when climbing long hills and giving myself a sort of reward climbing well in the moment.

    2. Martin, that is an excellent point. When I climbed Vonteux from the Malaucene side they had stone markers in white and yellow showing distance and elevation. It really helped and made it even more exciting as you got closer and closer to the top. I also show pitch/grade on bike computer because sometimes when it feels really hard and you think it is you, you look down and see the pitch went from 6 to 9 and then you say, oh yeah, that’s why! If you know the route it also helps you hang in there on the really steep pitches because you know the easier pitch is coming, or vice versa if you know you need to save yourself for the steeper pitch ahead. And yes, look around! Nature and it’s wonder is an amazingly helpful distraction when suffering up the long slog.

  19. I agree with the weight loss suggestions. Huge factor. My question addressed choices on race day.
    1. aero versus weight in wheels
    2. Gearing in a 8500 foot elevation race to save legs for run
    3. tri bike vs. road bike in this environment
    4. Power meter (weight of unit and chasing power) vs PLE

  20. I am 6-7 pounds too heavy but like craft beer too much. Losing pounds is cheaper than high priced wheels. Good advice for climbing hills, Chris.

  21. Lose weight! Most of us need to lose a little weight, especially as we get older. You can get by on the flats or the downhills when you are over weight, but not when the road goes up! Being at the right weight makes a world of difference.

  22. Chris,
    Very helpful information. I would like your feedback concerning a 70 year old ironman athlete with a FTP of 230 watts doing a IM race with 8500 feet of elevation.
    1. Aero versus weight. In order to save legs I’m considering riding a road bike with clip on aero bars versus my Cervelo TT bike, and using light wheels vs. my Zipp 808″s. If I rode a triple in front, I could put a rear cassette on like you have described in article. Leaving my power meter at home would save some more weight. On long climbing rides I play the mental game of guessing my power and then looking at power meter to see how accurate I know my body, PLE, etc. Realistically, I’m going to ride at 15-16 mph for 7 hours. Not sure aero components will make much difference at that low of a pace.

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