rider faster

Ride Faster Everywhere: Cycling Tips for Uphill, Downhill, Flat and Rolling Terrain


By Chris Carmichael,
CTS Founder and Chief Endurance Officer

All riders have individual strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes they become apparent on specific types of terrain. Maybe you’re great on long and steady climbs, but you struggle on short and punchy ones. Or perhaps you thrive on the on-off nature of riding hills but struggle with the constant pedaling on long flat rides. To help you prepare for your next challenge, here is a guide to the best ways to ride faster, everywhere.

Ride Faster Uphill

This is the area people often focus on the most, but you have to be careful. Focusing too much on climbing can take away from your ability to ride well on the flats and rollers. Training for climbing is a huge subject, and you can find plenty of Trainright resources here. For cyclists who have already been training and doing climbing workouts, here are ways to get the best performance from your fitness.

Don’t start too fast

Many riders charge the bottom of a hill or sustained climb and then fade badly before reaching the summit. The goal is to meter your effort so you have power for the top third of the ascent, because cracking near the top will cost you more time than you can gain at the bottom. This becomes crucial when you’re in a group because you want to go over the top with other riders so you can draft and work together after the descent.

Find a rhythm

Especially for longer climbs, settle into an intensity level, breathing rate and cadence you can maintain. If you’re panting uncontrollably you’re riding at an unsustainable level. For prolonged climbs your breathing will be deep and labored when you’re near your maximum sustainable power, and you should able to speak in short phrases.

Pedal faster

Mashing too big a gear fatigues your leg muscles quickly, and spinning a ridiculously light gear is inefficient, has a higher oxygen cost, and spikes your heart rate. For most riders, the balance point between these extremes falls somewhere around 80-90rpm.

Best Workout: 5x3min PowerClimb

Long climbing repeats and other lactate threshold intervals are the cornerstones of climbing workouts. A great workout to add to your repertoire is a 5x 3minute PowerClimb workout, which pushes you above lactate threshold and closer to VO2 max. Each interval should be at about 120-125% of lactate threshold power, and you should take 5 minutes of easy spinning recovery between efforts. The idea is to pace your three-minute climb so your power output and pace start fading in the final 20-30 seconds. This means you don’t want to start out at full gas, crack at 60 seconds, and then ride the rest at an aerobic power output. You want to be above threshold the whole time. These efforts help build power and tolerance for short accelerations and changes in pitch on hills.

Ride Faster Downhill

Whether you’re coming down a mountain pass, pacing yourself during a gran fondo, or pushing the pace at the local group ride, descents are free speed. Don’t give up time you worked hard to gain on the preceding climb.

Get in the drops

Descend with your hands in the drops for better aerodynamics and weight distribution, but forget the super tuck. You want a low position, but don’t sit on the top tube. That position was banned by the UCI for a reason, and those riders were skilled than you. Not only are the risks reasonably high, but is also takes more energy to hold those positions than to keep your rear on the saddle and lower your shoulders. If your bike fit doesn’t enable you to comfortably descend in the drops, which is a problem we see frequently, then you need your fit adjusted.

Don’t ride the brakes

You shouldn’t ride descents with reckless abandon, but many riders make the mistake of riding the brakes too much on downhills. If you’re uncomfortable with speed, seek instruction to improve your skills and body position. Keep your gaze far forward to smooth out your line (like walking a balance beam) and take the time to learn how powerful your brakes are. Disc brakes, for instance, enable riders to brake later before turns, and from higher speeds. Always adjust your speed before a corner, rather than in the middle of it.

Weight outside foot and inside hand

The basics of cornering at speed are to look through the corner to where you want to exit (as opposed to looking at the apex of the corner), extend your outside leg and focus your weight through your outside pedal, and push your inside arm into the turn. With your pressure centered on the outside pedal and inside handlebar, your body will stay more upright while the bike leans more into the corner. This keeps your center of gravity closer to the line of your tires, which helps enhance traction. To tighten the line of your turn, apply more pressure with your inside hand. Read more on descending safely and confidently.

Ride Faster on Flat Ground

Even if you’re a great climber, you still need to be able to cover the ground between climbs at a good pace. And if climbing isn’t your strength, then the flats are where you can excel.

If you’re alone, don’t fight the wind

For the sake of your overall speed, don’t get in a fight with a climb or the wind. They’ll win. If you dig too deep before the climb is over, you’ll slow to a crawl. If you struggle against the wind on a long ride, you’ll just run out of energy sooner. Now, if you’re racing a time trial, digging deep into the wind is important because you can make up the most time during the hardest parts of the course. But if you’re on a long endurance ride, especially solo, gauge your effort on the power output or intensity level you can sustain, rather than the speed you want to go. It may feel painfully slow at times, but in the long run it’s faster than exhausting yourself and then crawling along at half power.

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Stay on a wheel

During big multi-day rides at CTS Camps and Bucket List Events, we remind athletes to stay in the draft any time they drift too far to the side or open a gap. It’s not that the immediate cost is that high, but that small wasted efforts add up to a lot of wasted power and energy. Be diligent. Watch the wind and put yourself in the best position to stay in the draft. Read more about drafting and cycling in the wind.

Find the right group

In events like gran fondos, gravel races, century rides, or multiday tours, you want to be neither the strongest nor the weakest rider in your group. If you latch on to a group that’s way too strong, you’re likely to dig too deep too early and get dropped. If you’re too conservative you’ll end up in a slower group. When you’re the strongest rider in a slower group, it is hard for the other riders to help share the work. Ideally, you’re right in the middle so you can benefit from the stronger riders and also contribute your fair share.

Best workout: Tempo

Tempo intervals are best way to use shorter workouts to prepare for long flat rides. The intensity is below Functional Threshold Power (FTP) but harder than your cruising endurance pace. Aim to ride an uninterrupted interval of 30-45 minutes in a gear that brings your cadence down to about 70-75 rpm. This scenario helps you develop the aerobic power and neuromuscular adaptation to maintain inertia rolling along flat roads at moderate power output.

Ride Faster in Rolling Hills

Some of the hardest days I’ve ever spent on the bike were in rolling hills. Big mountain stages have long climbs, but they also have long descents. An endless succession of rolling hills can crush you if you underestimate the total amount of climbing you’re doing and use your energy unwisely.

Don’t charge the early hills

When the hill is only 30 seconds or a minute long it’s tempting to just charge up it with brute force. That might work for the first hour, but you’re burning through matches you’re going to need hours later. Stay seated and use your lower gears and higher cadence on the early hills so you have some brute force left for hills later in the day.

Pedal on the downhills

If you ride up the hills at a sustainable intensity instead of charging up them, then you have the ability to accelerate over the tops and keep applying power to pick up speed on the downhill. You end up with less of an “on-off” power profile and lessen the amplitude between the peak power on the hill and no power on the descent. Pushing even a moderate intensity on the descents helps you get further up the next roller before having to shift down and start spinning.

Keep your group together

Keeping a group together on rolling hills can be a challenge. Stronger riders can rip the group apart by setting an uphill pace that’s good for them but too hard for others. Over the top, the riders in the front of the group have to keep pedaling so the riders in the draft aren’t on the brakes all the way down the other side. Communication is key, and the people in the middle of the group should call the shots. They can tell if people in the back are starting to struggle on the uphill and are the first to start riding into the backs of those in front of them if the pace is too slow on the downhill.

Riding just a little bit faster – or a bit more economically ­– everywhere means you may not have to dig really deep anywhere. The bigger an individual effort the more it takes out of you, and the less you have in the tank for later. One of the big reasons we have coaches on the road with athlete during CTS Camps and Bucket List events is to help athletes manage their efforts and optimize their speed. As a result, athletes who may start out doubting their ability to ride big miles day after day reach the final finish line with smiles on their faces and an unparalleled sense of accomplishment.

Success in cycling isn’t just about how strong you are. It’s about how wisely you use your strength.


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Comments 22

  1. Chris,
    CTS Coach philosophy at camps is the BEST! Having coaches with you on “camp rides”, is the reason I go to CTS Camps. Numerous times, I’ve drafted behind a coach to “catch up” back to the Peloton. You are NEVER by yourself at a CTS camp, they’ll even have two coaches give you a “ push” from behind to help you up, a climb. Staying with the group, and completing the total ride IS THE BEST at a CTS Camp!

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  5. unless it’s a very short hill, tempo is king. some of my most fun moments are passing my fellow club members half way up a hill they charged at the bottom. 🙂

  6. Thanks for the useful sharing. What gear should I use when going uphill to control speed, maintain balance and ensure an efficient ride.

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  8. Interesting, this is the first time I’ve seen the recommendation to ride at 70-75 RPM for tempo rides. I’ve always done what I thought were tempo rides, but at my normal comfortable cadence which is about 83-87 RPM.

    I would like to hear more about the reasons and science behind the 70-75 RPM recommendation for tempo rides!

  9. I just read an article in Road Bike Rider on how you should go up hills at 100 rpm, or higher. Now, I’m really confused.

  10. Most of us, including me, believe in the higher cadence theory for climbing, but it would be good to see some comparative data on this. The noted copyright authority, Bill Patry, is also a serious cyclist, and wrote about the need to bring data to bear on copyright questions by using his climbing data as an analogy: https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/copyright-law-in-an-age-of-limitations-and-exceptions/few-observations-about-the-state-of-copyright-law/0BA5F89865BA55F2E5B9F4C2DFFE28D0. Bill writes that he finds that he’s consistently faster mashing a big gear at a much lower cadence. Of course there are many variables (the hill, the rider, etc.) but I suspect Bill is right that it’s time to enrich our understanding of climbing performance with data. (PS. Sorry the book chapter is behind a paywall!)

    1. Yes I would be the same as Bill…When I try high cadence hill climbing my energy/stamina quickly evaporates…

  11. No matter how hard I try, I cannot raise my cadence above 80 and remain steady. I know I don’t train enough, but it’s hard to find people with the same schedule, and I’m scared to death to ride on the road alone – I’ve been hit before. I have a trainer (which is boring), but open road in the wind training is completely different.

    1. hi Sharon – try getting your cadence up on the trainer. then it will feel easier on the road. see you out there.

    2. I’m with you on the road riding, I hear of to many accidents. The Charlotte NC area is not very rider friendly, IMO.

  12. Want to ride faster everywhere? Loose weight. I don’t care how skinny you think you are, the loss of real pounds will have a very dramatic impact on speed and sustainable power output.

  13. Great article, Chris. Appreciate the workouts to go with the advise. One question … why such a low cadence on the Tempo workout? I can see how being slightly lower might help but 70-75 is really, really low…

    1. Having done tempo workouts, I can tell you that the answer is to improve strength as well as neuromuscular adaptation: you recruit more muscle fibers to keep the pedals turning in such a heavy gear, which trains your body to keep those muscle fibers recruited even when you are pedaling in a normal gear, which makes it feel that much easier.

      Tempo workouts made the difference for me between getting dropped and finishing with the pack in local crits.

    2. Really, Really slow is only relevant to the age and fitness level of the rider. Telling a 65 year old rider that 70-75 is really, really slow, reminds me of the 20 something year old that made the comment, “who’s only riding the 35 mile route”!

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