How to Climb Like a Pro Cyclist (Bikeradar)

By Chris Baldwin

Watching the best riders in the world mow down the Alps and Pyrenees in the Tour de France inspired me to write about a very popular objective among my athletes: How to improve their climbing.

This is second to none when it comes to desired areas of improvement. And while those superhumans in the Tour make all but the steepest ascents look flat, anyone can make quantum strides in climbing ability with the right strategy.

The road to climbing greatness can be simplified into two aspects – power output and weight – but there are some nuances involving technique which can accelerate progress and are fun to work on! These are my favourites.

Use appropriate gearing

Compact cranks and 28+ tooth cogs have become commonplace on the pros’ bikes, and for good reason. Being overgeared is a quick way to explode, forcing you to slow down or even stop. Cadence is like footsteps up a mountain; breaking the work into smaller ‘steps’ shifts the stress to the cardiovascular system, saving your legs for the next climb or effort. Be wary of your cadence (revolutions per minute) dropping below 80 and shoot for 85 to 90rpm on moderate grades. Pedalling fast requires rewiring your brain to fire your muscles more rapidly.

Try this workout:

Two sets of 10 minutes on a moderate climb, alternating between an exaggerated cadence of 100rpm-plus two minutes, then recovering at a comfortable pace and cadence for 30 seconds. Focus on relaxing your legs as much as possible, while pedalling smooth circles. The effort should be ‘tempo’, meaning your breathing is in a hard rhythm but no gasping and your legs should not be binding up or becoming ‘heavy’. Recover completely, then repeat for another 10-minute set.

Chris climbing during Stage 4 of the 2013 Amgen Tour of California

Standing for extended periods

While climbing seated is the best way to maximise efficiency, standing can be a great ‘turbo’ for attacks or conquering steep pitches. I’ve found athletes naturally gravitate towards a harder pace every time they stand but this doesn’t need to be the case. If you self-monitor and stay within your limits while standing, it can be a great way to tap into fresh muscle groups, use your upper body and provide a much needed stretch and change of rhythm. The best way to work on this is to just do it – long sets of standing teach you to moderate your pace and strengthen new muscle groups needed in this position.

Try this workout:

On a steep climb, rise smoothly from the saddle and stand on the pedals. Start with four to five minutes and build to 10 or more as you get comfortable. Repeat up to three or four times. Choose a gear that allows your cadence to drop to 60 to 70rpm. Focus on activating your core for stability and use your arms to sway your bike slightly from side to side, pulling against the pedal stroke. The key here is to slow down and feel how to incorporate core, glutes, calves and other muscles into your pedaling.

Use those back muscles, but not too much!

Cyclists really span the gamut on this one. Some riders thrash their heads side to side reminiscent of bobbing for apples, wasting energy. Others look like statues, with their upper bodies perfectly still, their legs doing all the work when back muscles could be chipping in. While effective form can be very personal, the ideal is usually a two- to four-degree swaying motion, with your nose aiming towards one brake hood, then the other. The downward component should be coordinated with the downstroke. Stay relaxed, but use the muscles around the spine and core to stabilise and contribute to your momentum.

Try this workout:

On your favourite climb, execute two or three sets of eight minutes, alternating 30 seconds at your maximum controlled effort with 30 seconds of very easy recovery. Stay seated throughout. The trick here is to accelerate at the beginning of each repetition with your own perfect seated pedalling form. It’s only 30 seconds – so perfect form!

Pace yourself and anticipate

Time and time again, I climb with athletes who drill it on one steep section but overextend themselves, costing them big energy and forcing them to pay the price down the road. Your breathing is the best power meter in the world – as your respiration gets laboured, you’re on borrowed time. Stay within yourself, with steady manageable breathing. This is especially important if there are challenging sections coming up – you’ll need that energy there. A lot of the time, you can make up any lost ground from slowing down a bit, as you’ll still have some juice left when the gradient eases.

Try this workout:

Choose a nice long climb and complete your own personal time trial of 15 to 20 minutes. Incorporate all the components above, staying ‘on top’ of the pedals, standing on steeper sections and using your back muscles. Practice staying just under your limit, ‘listening’ to your body’s signals closely. Again, no gasping or binding in the legs. Slow down a tad and learn how great technique and form can pay off for your climbing!

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