By Bill Oetinger
Courtesy Bill Oetinger and BikeCal.com.
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
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
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
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 things...at 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 do...at 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
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 not...at 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
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 expended...in 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
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 is...rest 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
T-Mobile International 2003. By