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How to Be a Happy Climber
By Staff
Date: 12/12/2003
How to Be a Happy Climber

By Bill Oetinger
Courtesy Bill Oetinger and

Letís get one thing straight right at the start here: the title of this essay is, ďHow to be a Happy Climber.Ē It is not, ďHow to be a Fast Climber.Ē ďHappy ClimberĒ and ďFast ClimberĒ are not mutually exclusive notions, but neither are they absolutely synonymous, all of the time. If youíre looking for advice on how to win hill primes, polkadot jerseys, and uphill time trials, youíd better look elsewhere.

Bill Oetinger
On the other hand, happy climbers--as I define the term--are efficient climbers, and efficient climbers can sometimes get up the mountains reasonably quickly. So while the goal here is not speed, some speed may be found here as a collateral benefit to riding efficiently...and happily.

This is intended to be a brief survival guide for the average cyclist...a plan for tackling the steepest, stoutest pitches and making it to the top with dignity intact. Who am I to be doling out this sage advice on climbing? I am that average cyclist, and the only thing that differentiates me from all of you other average cyclists is that I get to write this column and you donít. Well, that and the fact that I have been riding for a long time and have been writing about riding for almost as long. I am certainly not a brilliant climber, but I do like to climb, and I do a lot of it, living in a region that is rarely flat. Iíve managed to complete all the hardest, hilliest doubles, usually with times good enough to place me mid-pack or even closer to the front than the back. In most cases Iíve finished the rides comfortably (meaning: not terminally miserable).

At any rate, I hope you judge my advice on its merits and not on my resumť. Read on.... Here, in no particular order, are some of my hot tips on going up....

1. The hill is not your enemy. Relax! Stop fighting it. I used to cycle with a guy who turned every climb into an emotional war. He was new to cycling and was still figuring out a lot of least I hope he was figuring them out. At the time, he was mostly just suffering. But a good deal of the suffering was self-imposed in the sense that he played head games with himself that only served to make himself miserable. When it came to climbing, he would grunt and groan, pule and whine, and generally be a big crybaby. He seemed to think the hill had it in for him; that this was some sort of punishment directed at him personally. It did no good to tell him to take it easy and just enjoy the scenery. He was determined to have an adversarial relationship with every climb. I lost track of the guy eventually. I think he pretty much gave up on riding. For him, it was no fun, and never mind that the no-fun factor was almost entirely his own psyche job on himself.

We do tend to personalize tough climbs by calling them ďbrutalĒ or ďwicked-sickĒ or ďa beast,Ē but for most of us, those are just colorful descriptors... figures of speech. If we stop and think about it, we know the uphill road is just there. Itís not mean or cruel and it doesnít rub its hands in demented glee when it sees a hapless little rider approaching. The mountain doesnít care. So get over it!

And unless youíre a serious racer, get over the notion that being first up every hill is important. If you want to, and if you have the chops for it, you can play that half-wheel-hell game with your buddies on club rides. But you average riders: just let that go! All you can do is your best, and wherever that leaves you in the file of riders strung out up the mountain, thatís where you are, and thatís just fine. Itís your ego telling you that youíre a pantywaist because you got gapped on the climb. Tell your ego to take a hike. There are always faster riders out there. If you do manage to win a hill prime now and then, you know itís only because all the faster riders were on some other ride that day. Stop taking all that crap so seriously and just get up the hill in whatever way makes you feel good....and stop tormenting yourself about whether youíre first, second, 20th, or dead-ass last.

Instead of berating yourself for not being faster, look around and enjoy the scenery. Youíre in the hills: itís probably beautiful! Do whatever it takes to take your mind off that troubled path of anger and recrimination, blame and shame. I know itís corny to talk about the power of positive thinking, but there is probably no better circumstance for employing it than when climbing a hill on a bicycle. Revel in the wild world around you. Turn your turning cranks into a yoga...a meditation. Think about all that oxygen and prana being turbocharged through your blood stream and how healthy itís making you. Dream about your old girlfriends. Work out quadratic equations. Take the letters of your name and anagram them into a new name. Whatever! Do anything but piss and moan about how miserable you are.

2. Take what the hill will give you. This is my personal mantra. I repeat it to myself on almost every climb I least the big ones. Once youíve made peace with the hill--have stopped fighting with it and turning yourself into an emotional basket case over it--you might be surprised to find you can come to an accommodation with the climb.

I donít want to get too mystical about this, but I think this is akin to the old wisdom of primitive hunting societies, where they honor their prey animals and humbly request that the animals give themselves up for the hunt. They donít so much conquer their prey as they gratefully accept an offering from the herd. Something like that. In the case of the climb, you don't try to beat it; you just try to meet it halfway. When you really see the climb, you can tailor your exertions to the conditions of the moment, metering out your energy as efficiently as possible in the context of what the hill is giving you at any particular moment.

Hereís a way to visualize this: think of hilly roads--uphill or down--as gravity rivers flowing down the mountain. A cyclist should be able to read the gravity river just as a kayaker must read the flow of the water in a mountain stream. Donít assume the flow is the same all the way down the hill. Just as there are eddies and cataracts in a stream, there are discrete, often minute shifts in the gradient on a climb. The hillier the climb, the more curves there will be and the more opportunities for little variations in the terrain...little flat spots where you can catch a breather; wide spots or driveways where you can traverse across the road and reduce the pitch for a bit. And this neednít always be about taking a breather: if youíre feeling it, you can read those little variations and use them to put the hammer down, maybe just for a few yards or maybe as a launch for a frisky run all the way to the summit.

There are also bad spots to be avoided on climbs; places where the road engineers and terrain have conspired to make things harder than they really need to be. Case in point are spots I call camber cups. On uphill right-hand corners the engineers will have tipped the camber of the pavement to its most extreme slant. If you ride through a corner like this glued to the right hand edge of the pavement, youíll have to climb up out of the cup made by the camber, and it will be like climbing up the banking at a velodrome. Assuming traffic permits, you should take a wide line around these black holes. When I have the road to myself and can choose my line, I can see the Path of Least Resistance through each corner like a glowing neon yellow line painted on the asphalt.

If you watch the pros climbing in the Alps, you will only see them take this circuitous approach to uphill corners in the most extreme (steep) cases. On most climbs, they just snap back and forth along the shortest line, clipping one apex after another. But then, these guys are pros and weíre not, and theyíre racing and weíre least weíre not racing officially.... Just in case you think I have no competitive instincts at all, let me note that a cagey rider can use those camber cups to his advantage, even while heís husbanding his own resources. Say youíre climbing with your pal there....not hammering, but just moving it on up the hill at a decent tempo. Youíre just being sociable, right? Right! Sure you are. Only here comes one of those steeply pitched right-handers. You, you sneaky weasel, position yourself to the left of your good friend there, and while you take the wider, easier line, you keep him pinched down there in the camber cup, where heíll have to get out of the saddle to get out of the hole. If youíre really subtle with this, chatting amiably all the time, you can nail him to the wall, corner after corner, until his legs are like lead. Then, with the summit in sight, you can just casually drop him like a nasty habit. Done properly, your pal will never realize heís been played like a fish on a line.

So...ride smart and read the hill. Take advantage of whatever the conditions are offering. Itís all about getting the maximum forward (and upward) mobility out of the least amount of energy other words, efficiency.

3. Have the right tools for the job. In a climbing context, this will primarily be about your gearing. Hereís another case where you want to check your ego at the door when youíre putting your bike together. Be honest with yourself about your own capabilities, and consider where you do most of your riding. Just because the clerk in the bike store rides a bike with an itty bitty corncob cluster at the back is no reason why you should let him sell you that same stack of cogs. Heís probably 19 years old, pours testosterone over his Grape Nuts in the morning, and never does anything hillier than a criterium. Insist that they build the bike with real gearing for real world conditions...those conditions including: the hills you ride; your strength as a climber; your agenda as a cyclist.

Donít be averse to considering a triple chainring set-up either. Macho men used to say that triples were for sissies, and that no one could really go fast with a granny gear. But that thinking has gone the way of fixed gears and high wheelers. This year the California Triple Crown Stage Race was won by Rupert Brauch, a racer from the South Bay. He finished first on the Devil Mountain Double (setting a course record), first on the Central Coast Double, and third on the Terrible Two...the three hilliest, nastiest doubles in the state. And he did it all with a triple on the front. Hell, the great climber Roberto Heras fitted a triple to his bike to win the insanely steep climb up Angliru on this yearís Vuelta a EspaŮa, and heís probably one of the two or three best climbers in the world.

I donít run a triple, but I have a low gear of 39x28. I think of that 28 as my ace in the hole. I donít use it too often, but when I need it, Iím really, really glad to have it. It has saved my ass many a time, and when Iíve fitted my bike with only a 26, Iíve always regretted it. Things may be different where you live, but around here, we have dozens and dozens of double-digit climbs (that is, over 10%). Having gearing appropriate for these conditions isnít wimping out. Itís being smart and efficient.

Weight is the other big bogey when it comes to climbing. Many riders obsess about saving grams off their rigs with all sorts of stupid-light components. (Stupid-light is defined as having the partís structural integrity compromised for the sake of weight savings.) I build my bike up for durability and stability and donít worry too much about its weight. Frankly, I think itís a lot easier (and cheaper) to take five pounds off my own frame than it is to take it off my bikeís frame.

But hereís one little weight savings trick thatís easy: do you really need to carry two full water bottles up that hill? A full water bottle weighs two pounds. Consider where the next source of water stop, fountain, whatever. If the resupply point is not too distant, maybe you can get along with just one bottle or half a bottle from down here to up there. This is just another way of riding smart and efficiently...using your brain a little to keep from using your legs a lot.

4. Play to your strengths. Just as you take what the hill will give you, you should also take what your own body will give you. Every rider is different. Each of us has strengths and weaknesses inherent in our bodies. Some riders who are considered good climbers really only have one asset: the fact that they weigh less than most other people. The steeper the grade, the faster the gravity river runs downhill, and the bigger their advantage. But they may have no real power in their legs, and they may not have much in the way of technique either. (Of course there are those who have it all: low weight, great power, sharp skills, and a killer attitude. To them we just wave bye bye and hope theyíll wait for us at the summit.)

Other riders may weigh more, but pack more muscle onto that bigger frame, and maybe pull more air into larger lungs. They may fall behind on the steeper pitches, but let the grade drop below 5% and watch out! Here they come, chugging up the grade like a freight train.

I have learned over the years the sorts of hills where I will do the best, and conversely the ones where I will mostly be doing damage control. I know where it makes more sense for me to sit down, sit back, drop my heels and spin smooth circles in a little gear. I know where I can put it in the big ring--avec le grand plateau, as the French would say--get out of the saddle and stomp my way up the mountain. These are not absolutes...the same for all riders all the time. Theyíre not even the same for me from one day to the next. You have to pay attention to your own body and understand what it wants to do...what feels comfortable and efficient right now. Not yesterday, not 50 miles from now, and definitely not whatever the other guy is doing.

These days the pro riders and their staffs of trainers and doctors know precisely--by exact quantitative measures--how to most efficiently get up a grade. Sports physiologists can quote you numbers until your eyes glaze over. Heart rate. VOmax. Watts. Caloric burn. Glycogen. On and on. Iím sure all that is valuable if youíre trying to win races, but for the average rider, my guess is an intuitive, seat-of-the-pants analysis will suffice to help you choose your moments for higher output or softer pedaling. When to stand and stomp; when to sit and spin.

Iím not a trainer or coach for racers. Iím far from expert in the ďscienceĒ of energy output vis a vis climbing. Iím just a veteran recreational rider who has climbed a lot of hills and has thought about that climbing quite a bit. I probably havenít told you anything you donít already know here, but perhaps Iíve made you think about it all from a new angle or two. I hope so.

Climbing is probably the hardest aspect of cycling for most people, and yet it takes us up into the beautiful mountain scenery and it delivers us to the tops of all those delightful descents. It certainly can be hard work overcoming the drag of gravity, but it neednít be a punishment or a personal purgatory. With the right attitude, the right tools for the job, and efficient application of good techniques, it can actually be turned into one of the best parts of any ride.

T-Mobile International 2003. By Scott Schaffrick.

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