Having started road cycling in the UK seven years ago and pretty much doing all my cycling here, I knew nothing about climbing up mountains on my bike. Sure, I’d gone up the Surrey hills, the North and South Downs, and the very challenging hill on Richmond Park going counter clockwise, but never up real mountains where you’re heading above the clouds and there are hairpins every hundred meters. I was not familiar with the way that 20km becomes an eternal battle on 7% gradients or how quickly it all ends when you’re going back down. Or how cold it gets when you’re flying down at 60kph even if the temperature is over 30 degrees, or how pedalling above 2000 meters is a whole new ball game, affecting your body in strange ways. It’s all pretty cool.
So when I went to Mallorca and the Pyrenees this summer, there was a lot to learn. For those of you who have not experienced climbing before, or those of you who have but want to try some new techniques, here is a list of tips that can help you become a queen or king of the mountains.
If you are familiar with yoga or meditation, this will be a no brainer to you. For me the breath is the single key element in conquering climbs. Often it is not your body that is tired, it is your brain telling you that you’re tired. But you’re not tired. You have to overcome your brain’s desire to stop by reminding yourself that this is a trick. When you focus on your breath, you clear your mind and there is less chance for these negative thoughts to creep in. It’s is essentially meditation. Keep doing mental checks that your face is relaxed, back straight, and shoulders are rolled back and away from your ears. Kind of like doing a downward dog. It is common sometimes to hold your breath when you’re exerting yourself, but this has a highly counterproductive effect because your muscles desperately need oxygen to work. So BREATHE.
2. Find your own pace and get your groove on
This is linked to the breath. You can find the natural climbing rhythm of your body and link your breath to it. For example, two pedal strokes one breath in, two pedal strokes one breath out. One thing I love to do, again if the road is not so busy with traffic, is to put my earphones on and blast some beats. I get into the rhythm of the music and sometimes even do a little dance on my bike as I’m climbing. It’s a much more fun version of spinning class.
3. Find your gaze
I don’t like to look at the massive, steep mountain in front of me. It freaks me out. So I keep my haze about a meter in front of my bike. Head down, concentrated, and focused on the breath. That’s how I do my climbs.
4. Sit and stand
After climbing for half an hour, your body starts to cramp. A good way to give groups of muscles a break is to alternate between the sitting and standing positions. Pedaling in the standing position will also give more power output to make you go faster, but it is tiring and you have to balance your effort so as not to exhaust yourself beyond the point of no return. When standing up, go a couple of gears higher and make sure to change gears one at a time.
5. Helmet or no helmet
This applies to the way up only, and some people may disagree about riding sans helmet, but for me wearing a helmet when it is hot on a climb feels as if I have a heavy rock on my head. I take mine off provided it is not horribly busy as I am going at a very slow pace, sometimes even walking pace, so the risk of crashing is very low. I wrap it around the handlebars and stem.
6. Approach uphill hairpins like a pro
Stick to the outer edge of the curve for a softer gradient, whereas going tight in on the curve means a higher gradient but less distance. Weigh the options depending on how energetic you feel and how fast you want to go.
7. Fly down like a bird
Weigh in how confident you feel on the bike, and listen to your gut. Don’t try to go faster than you are comfortable with because chances are if you’re nervous you do not have control of the bike. ALWAYS have control of the bike. As you approach the hairpin, go as far out away from the curve as you can and then approach tightly so that you go from one extreme of the road to the other extreme and back out. This picture shows it nicely.
Always keep your gaze on the road ahead, even if it means your head is fully turned to the side, rather than looking straight in front of you. Basically you will go where your eyes look so make sure you are looking at the road ahead and not the precipice below! As you prepare to turn, swing your body towards the curve and bring up the foot on the side of the curve so the pedal doesn’t touch the floor. You can do the fancy knee out thing if you like, it helps. Push your weight down on the opposite foot as this will stabilise you. Only brake before the turn, not whilst you are turning because this can make you skid. Use both brakes and do not lock the brakes, rather brake and release repeatedly in short intervals.
Obviously make sure you are always aware of traffic around you if you are using the opposite side of the road and if your visibility is limited, do this technique within your lane as opposed to both lanes and bring the speed down.
8. Gel up and water up
It may be a good idea to take a gel 30 minutes before you begin to climb and around every half hour after that. This is a little power boost and every little counts. Water intake should be very regular and don’t let yourself get to the point where you’re thirsty, because this probably means that you are already dehydrated.
9. Don’t judge yourself
If you need to stop, do so. You do not have to prove anything to anyone, including yourself. Sometimes we are our biggest critic, I know, but be kind to yourself. It simply makes no sense to push your body too far beyond its limit and risk injury or even worse, and accident. I know cycling can sometimes be very egoistic but make your personal cycling a kind one.
10. Finally something we often forget
You’ve probably traveled far to climb up mountains. Probably had to lug a heavy bike bag around airports. Paid all that money. So don’t forget to enjoy the view!!!