by Asa Salas
Are you satisfied? Are you happy with all aspects of your riding? Lance Armstrong isn't. Alison Dunlap isn't. Likely, you aren't either. So what would you like to improve? Climbing? Climbing is the #1 perceived weakness among my riding buddies. Descending was actually a close #2 among the girls, but one issue at a time!
Climbing is hard. Even the most VO2-max-gifted freak endures the same eye-popping pain that you do; she just gets it over with quicker! On the bright side, climbing can be one of the most rewarding aspects of cycling. You see, getting to the top first is satisfying. Getting to the top for the first time is sublime. Cyclists at every level of fitness take pride in conquering a difficult climb. I'd like to offer some tricks and techniques that I have acquired over the years to help you reach the top.
Does your bike fit properly? Saddle height and cockpit length have significant effects on your body's mechanics. I recommend a professional bike fit if possible. If not, find a cyclist you trust, and ask him or her to watch you on your bike. An experienced cyclist should at least be able to spot a gross bike/body mismatch. I see lots of ladies riding their boyfriend's hand-me-down bikes, which are often too large. Sometimes a few part swaps can help, but not always. Ladies, indulge yourselves! Consider buying your own bike!
When talking about body mechanics, it helps me to think of one's body as a machine. We burn fuel to fire our muscles in a sequence that propels our wheels forward. We are the engine, and we are only as efficient as our individual components. Weaknesses hinder the whole machine, and spotting them is a key to better climbing. Luckily, spotting weakness is also relatively easy.
Next time you ascend your favorite vertical challenge, pay attention to your body. Is your breathing shallow and ragged? Try breathing deliberately (and downshift!). Utilize your entire lung capacity by rolling your shoulders out and flattening your back. Breath from your abs - let your stomach rise and fall like a baby's. Feel how much more air you can bring into your lungs when your chest cavity is maximized. Breathe through your mouth - your mouth will get more oxygen to the furnace during hard efforts.
Now that your breathing is under control, take control of the rest your body. Have you noticed that Lance always looks so calm and collected when he climbs? That cold, intimidating stare is not just for show. He is conserving energy by using only the specific muscles he needs. You can do this too, and it will improve your climbing the first time you try it.
While seated, keep your upper body quiet and relaxed. Bobbing torsos, clenched fists and facial grimaces waste precious energy. Strengthening your abs and back in the gym will help with keeping a quiet upper body by giving the legs something substantial to push against.
Start at the top. Wipe the pain off your face by relaxing your facial muscles. Use only the muscles you need to stabilize your head, even close your eyes for a couple of pedal strokes, but only if it is safe! Now roll your shoulders a couple of times. Many riders tend to pinch their shoulder blades together while climbing, which wastes energy and creates stress on the neck muscles. We have all had that stabbing pain in the back of the neck just above the shoulder blades, learning to relax these muscles helps to prevent this, as do "girl" pushups (from the knees instead of toes) with the hands bar width apart. I recommend knee pushups for everyone since they emphasize endurance over bulk. Now relax your arms and hands, shake them out and return them to the bars. Hold the bars with just enough force to stabilize your torso. NO CLENCHING!!!
You can also rest muscle groups in the legs by skooching forward or backward on the saddle. Feel how different saddle positions emphasize different muscles in your legs and booty. Deliberate breathing, position shifts and relaxation of non-essential muscles will noticeably increase your efficiency.
Another component of an efficient machine involves symmetry. Tune into your pedal stroke. Does one side feel stronger than the other? This is a common weakness among humans in general. On a flat section of your ride, unclip one of your feet and pedal with the other foot for one minute. Keep your stroke and cadence as even as possible and try to make perfect circles. Now try the other foot. Was it harder? Easier? Did one foot "spin" better than the other? Now with both feet on the pedals, try to mimic the single foot pedal stroke with both legs working together. Do not let one leg compensate for the other. This type of exercise will help you identify leg strength discrepancies, expose dead spots in your pedal stroke and pump your efficiency to the next level. I also recommend weight training for power and symmetry.
So far my focus has been seated climbing, which is by far the most efficient way to ascend. However, standing has its place, and many of the same techniques apply when the hill gets steep and it is time to get up and go.
Standing for saddle relief. Like saddle skooching, standing relieves pressure on certain muscle groups and has the added benefit of allowing the nether regions a brief respite. (Men may complain about numbness, but they do not actually sit on their most sensitive bits!) For best results, upshift to a slightly harder gear (one click), put your hands on the brake hoods or bar ends and try to maintain your seated cadence and effort level. Keep in mind the object is to relieve saddle stress and stretch out a bit, not increase your effort. Not yet anyway. Don't forget your breathing and relaxation techniques!
Standing for power and speed. Sometimes the hill is just too steep to sit. Sometimes you need a burst of speed to keep up with the group. Sometimes it just feels good! It is during hard standing efforts when form becomes all-important, and also when most people lose it entirely. As in seated climbing, flailing, clenching, and grimacing equal wasted energy. Before you come out of the saddle this time, take a few deep, deliberate breaths. Now, as you upshift and come smoothly out of the saddle, keep in mind symmetry, breathing and relaxation. Tick the bike back and fourth just a bit, using your arms and torso to counter the pedaling forces, but don't clench the bars in a death grip. As your speed increases and you spin out your gear, upshift one cog at a time, easing off your pedal stroke momentarily to facilitate the shift. I find that shifting just at the bottom of my pedal stroke (when one foot is at 6 o'clock) puts the least amount of stress on my drive train. Finally, downshift when you can no longer maintain form, and return to the saddle before you are completely out of breath. When the time comes to sit back down, don't forget to downshift right away before you lose momentum!
When climbing, the harder the effort, the more the urge to tense up increases. Pain creates tension, and tension fuels pain. To counter these energy robbers, I find positive imagery to be my secret weapon. Every cyclist I know has experienced an endorphin rush; that wonderful feeling of euphoria that seems to come out of the blue, eliminating all pain, stress and tension. I have found that it is possible to induce this state during hard efforts with happy thoughts and powerful images. For me, visualizing myself edging out my nemesis in a sprint finish, or imagining my body as a tireless, titanium and kevlar machine, often bring on that endorphin wave. Of course, you must find your own thoughts to make you fly. My husband, for example, will tell himself out loud how much he likes to climb. At a recent event, a young man who was climbing beside him was scoffing at his verbal climbing mantra, until it began to rub off on him. They both began passing other racers and the doubter became a believer. You will too.
Well, that is about all I have to share about climbing in general. These are the tricks that have worked for me and I certainly hope you will find them useful as well. In fact, I am interested to know what works for you, whether they are tips from this article, or techniques you have picked up in your experiences. I'm still looking to improve my climbing too! One final tip: don't get discouraged. It takes years to realize your potential. Oh, and when in doubt, smile. It makes it hard to grimace, and it is intimidating as heck! (I know, that was two tips, but I never said I could count.)
Asa Salas is an expert-ranked cross country and DH mountain bike racer. Her sponsors include Independent Fabrication, Truvativ, Suga Clothing, Velocity Gear and Cycle Path. She is also an avid road cyclist. Asa has worked as a mechanic at "The Bike Shop" in Fair Oaks, California for six years, and has been training and riding competitively for eight.